The heart of Brussels, Belgium, and the perfect starting point for exploring the city is Grand Place. This historic square lined with ornate guild houses is one of Europe’s finest. While the square itself dates to the 15th century, most of the structures surrounding the broad pedestrian expanse are only about 300 years old. That’s because an army of French gunners led by France’s Louis XIV destroyed much of the medieval square in 1695 when they set their sights on the spire of Hotel de Ville (also known as Town Hall, this building is home to the local tourist information office). Ironically, the spire wasn’t damaged, but the surrounding structures didn’t fare as well. Not to be deterred, residents of Brussels rebuilt the square in the same grand manner, albeit it in a more contemporary Flemish Renaissance style.
Heading out of Grand Place, follow Rue Charles Buls. Passing under the arch as you exit the square, you’re promised good luck (some say the promise is that you’ll find your true love) if you pause to rub the bas-relief of Everard ’t Serclaes, the 14th century hero who freed the city from the rule of the Count of Flanders. Continue straight along Rue Charles Buls (passing by countless souvenir and lace shops) to the corner of the Rue de l’Etuve and the Rue du Chene, where you’ll likely run into a crowd surrounding the fountain of Manneken-Pis. The statue of a naked little boy urinating has been a beloved figure in Brussels for centuries. Through the years, dignitaries and commoners alike have donated hundreds of colorful costumes to clothe the statue. The collective wardrobe is housed in the Museum of the City of Brussels in Grand Place.
From this point, it’s a short walk to Place du Grand-Sablon with its
abundance of sidewalk cafes, chocolate shops and bakeries. At the head of the square, Notre-Dame au Sablon, a 15 century Gothic church, presides over the comings and goings. On weekend mornings, merchants from surrounding antiques shops spread their wares flea market-style, creating a not-to-be-missing shopping experience. To the left of the church as you’re looking at it, just across Rue de la Regence, Place du Petit Sablon is a miniature oasis in the bustling city with 48 bronze statues, representing Brussels’ medieval guilds, centered around an ornamental garden with a fountain and a pool.
Continue north along Rue de la Regence to Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, which comprises the Musée d’Art Ancien and the Musée d’Art Moderne. Featuring a vast collection, including works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Dali, Renoir and Chagall, the museum is also home to a fine collection of Flemish art by the likes of van der Weyden, Van Dyck and van der Goes.
From the museum, make your way back to Grand Place (it’s just a few blocks) to take in the scenery and reflect on the day while sipping a hearty Belgian ale at one of the many cafes on the square.
For additional information, visit www.visitbelgium.com.
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