Many inhabitants of Brussels complain that the presence of the numerous EU institutions and NATO headquarters overshadows the true spirit of the Belgian capital, making it look stiff and formal. One stroll down a street in central Brussels is enough to make one believe that the city is anything but boring.
It's estimated that over 20 percent of Brussels' population are foreigners, mostly working for the international institutions and companies. Even the natives of Brussels are divided into speakers of French and Dutch, and all of the places and street names in the city are given in those two languages. A colourful, multicultural crowd fills the streets day and night, giving the city a unique, cosmopolitan feeling.
The earliest records of a settlement in the area come from the late 7th Century, when a chapel was established on a river island. The official date of establishment of the town is 979, when relics of St. Gudula from Moorsel were transferred to the chapel. Permanent fortifications around the settlement were constructed by Charles, the banished son of French King Louis IV. Brussels developed fast thanks to its strategic location on the banks of the Senne, and on a major trade route running from Bruges and Ghent to Cologne. By the Middle Ages, it was no less a cosmopolitan city than it is today.
Throughout its history, Brussels has witnessed a number of important events. The magnificent Palace Coudenberg, the traditional residence of the Belgian rulers, was an important stopover for diplomats from all over the continent. In 1555, the palace saw the abdication of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1731, it was destroyed in a disastrous fire and never rebuilt. An archaeological site is all that remains of it. A great part of Brussels' beautiful Medieval architecture was also destroyed in a French attack in 1695, during which the houses around the Grand Place were set on fire.
Previously a part of the Netherlands, France and the Habsburg Empire, Brussels became capital of Belgium only after the Revolution of 1831. Because of the city's potential and continuous prosperity, it was always a desirable location for major European powers. The city survived World War II largely intact. After the War, Belgium actively participated in the creation of the European Union (then the European Economic Community), and as a result its capital was designated as the administrative core of the organisation.
Brussels celebrates its rich and varied cultural, social and economic history in the more than 100 museums and galleries scattered around the city. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts) displays a magnificent collection of works by Dutch and Flemish masters, including Memling, Bosch, Cranach, Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Frans Hal; paintings by van Gogh, Chagall, Miro, Dali, Matisse can also be found. The Horta Museum is devoted to the life and works of noted Belgian architect Victor Horta, who introduced the Art Nouveau style in the city.
A city as diverse as Brussels has such museums as the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Musée Royaux d'Afrique Centrale, RMCA) and the comics shrine Musée BD sit almost side by side. The former holds a unique collection of African ethnographic artefacts. Experts claim it's the only one of its kind in the world. The latter, located in Europe's earliest shopping mall, Jugendstil Palais, holds a permanent exposition presenting the beginnings and development of comics.
Prominent Brussels landmarks include cultural icons recognisable all over the world. The Grand-Place, also known as the Grote Markt, is a true spectacle at night, when carefully arranged lights illuminate the façades of beautiful old buildings. The legendary figure of the peeing boy, Manneken Pis, is located very nearby. Inhabitants of Brussels believe that the small bronze statue symbolises the 'irreverent spirit' of their city. Manneken Pis has a collection of outfits for all occasion, each with a small hole placed strategically in order to let the water flow.
The Atomium, built for the Expo '58 (then known as the World’s Fair), is a 102-metre-tall construction representing a unit cell of an iron crystal, enlarged 165 billion times. Nine giant spheres are connected with enormous tubes through which passenger lifts move. The top-most sphere provides an absolutely spectacular view of the Belgian capital, making the Atomium the single most popular attraction in the city.
The Belgian capital offers plenty of entertainment options with which to fill your day. The lovely Parc du Cinquantenaire (Jubelpark), in eastern Brussels, is a quiet and peaceful place, a true refuge from the fast-paced centre. A viewing terrace above the Arc de Triomphe (Triomfboog) offers a charming alternative to the view of the city available from the Atomium. A fascinating day out might be an excursion to the Waterloo Battlefield, located around 12 kilometres away from the city centre. Napoleon's final battle against Wellington, which took place there on June 18, 1815, forever changed the face of Europe. Today, the site holds a memorial in the form of a mound upon which stands a statue of lion looking towards France.
Whatever you decide to fill your days in Brussels with, remember to embark upon a delicious tour of the city's famous restaurants, offering the best of what refined Belgian cuisine has to offer. Specialities such as rabbit stewed in beer served with some of the famous kriek will make your stay a memorable experience. While strolling around the city, don't forget to have one of the Gauffre Liègoise (Luikse Wafel), the famous Belgian waffles with caramelised sugar, a true delight on both a sunny afternoon and a chilly evening.