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A Belgian Revelation – Brussels‘ Architecture

Brussels came to me as a shock. Why is that? Because I didn’t expect anything. Certainly not anything outstandingly beautiful. But boy, was I wrong! I must admit that this part of Central Western Europe is a bit of a mystery to me. Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are blind spots on my map so far. Brussels thus had all the more of a chance to sweep me off my feet, and it took it.

Panoramic View, Brussels, Belgium

View from Parking 58 in Brussels. An amazing 360 degrees round view completely for free!

Being in town for work, I didn’t have an infinite amount of time on my hands; but it was more than I have had in a while. Not only did I discover an unknown place, I also spent some much needed quality me-time. I didn’t have an agenda, but I just walked through the streets lined with beautiful buildings and took in what I came across. It did help that my first night in town I met up with friends who had couchsurfed with me in Berlin a while back and who gave me much appreciated insiders‘ advice.

Apart from the food (the waffles, the chocolate, the fries and the geuze beer were seriously amazing!), it was most definitely the architecture that had me quietly rejoice on my walks through the city. The first place I went to was Grand Place, or Grote Markt in Dutch, and I swear, my heart skipped a beat as I emerged from one of the small alleyways around it to find myself surrounded by sublimity.

Town Hall, Brussels, Belgium

The Brussels Town Hall – so delicate with its ornaments, and can you believe it is around 600 years old?

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Grand Place doesn’t just have the big and memorable buildings, but every single small house in it is amazing! No wonder it’s a UNESCO world heritage sight!

Unfortunately, my first day in Brussels was so cold that I couldn’t spend as much time in Grand Place as I would have liked. Instead I went for some hot chocolate and a waffle (heaven!) before I made my way to the Cathedral. I don’t know France very well, but I felt that the Cathedral was proof of closer proximity to it. I spent about an hour inside marvelling at the glass stained windows and watching art students draw the pillars and ornamental details – and again, if it wasn’t for the cold, I would have lingered much longer at the square in front of it that so majestically led up to the church.

Cathedral, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels Cathedral

After the cool stillness and the white of the cathedral, the houses that could be found in any random street were all the more so colourful and enchanting! Be they combining white and red brick stone to an elegant whole or be they keeping their rough exterior resembling granaries, with jutties, counterforts and beautiful doors and windows. I could not get enough of it.

Brussels, Belgium Brussels, BelgiumOne of the most interesting corners was in the Marollen quarter where there are five tiny streets lined with social housing that are architecturally remarkable. I wish they built stuff like this in Berlin instead of lining up the gazillionth house full of lofts that no normal person can pay rent for. The flats had large balconies and the small streets they were lining were quiet and peaceful.

Marollen, Brussels, BelgiumWhat I like most, however, is the sheer infinite number of beautiful small buildings in the streets outside of the city center. Very often they are in Art Nouveau style and display pretty little ornament or an unexpected glass stained window in their staircase. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere, not just in the touristy streets around Grand Place where the crowds gather and take fries to go. As I stroll through those residential areas that are filled with these absolute gems, it is easy to imagine living here. Granted the areas that have them feel quite gentrified, but what can I say, I am not immune to hipsterdom.

Brussels, Belgium

As is the case so often, places are easiest to like when you don’t expect to find anything amazing in them. Brussels was unexpectedly easy on the eyes. I think it may be the most underrated city I have visited in Western Europe.

Have you been to Brussels? What did you think when you first saw it? What is your favourite architectural gem you discovered there?

16 Comments

  1. I haven’t been to Brussels yet, but I rode past it on the way to Bruges this summer. Honestly, Brussels looked horribly ugly and industrial from the train. But apparently that perception was all wrong — the architecture looks stunning there! (Also, you should really plan a trip to Bruges next. You’ll fall in love with Belgium even more!)

    • All of Belgians cities look ugly & grey from the train 😉
      Glad to see you liked Brussels so much. It’s a bit unknown to me, except from the highlights (Grand Place, Cathedral, Marollen, musea in the center, Ancienne Belgique concert hall).
      If you ever pop over to Gent, give us a call. You’d be more than welcome to surf at our place & we’ll gladly show you around 🙂

      • bridgekeeper

        Dezember 13, 2013 at 7:13 pm

        Aw, Annick, thank you so much!! I feel like Belgium is calling for me loudly 🙂 Bruged and Gent are noted down for more exploration in your country. Also, I want more waffles and fries 😀

    • bridgekeeper

      Dezember 13, 2013 at 7:11 pm

      I had been through Bruxelles Midi on a train to London and was not impressed – but well, then there came the surprises! 🙂 Bruges is absolutely on my list – actually since I saw the film „In Bruges“ 😀 and your posts about it just reaffirmed my wish to see that cute little town. I think it has a nice bridge or two as well 🙂

  2. I remember finding Grand Place by „accident“ — took a turn pass some small alleys, and there it was. I’m pretty sure I stood there gasping for at least a minute 😀

    • bridgekeeper

      Dezember 13, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      That sounds like you had the same reaction I did 😀 I discovered the leaning tower of Pisa the same way – accidentally! It is a great way to come across something 🙂

  3. I was so lucky as to spend 3 months in Brussels, back in 2006. I lived next to the Basilika, a huge concrete church in the middle of a park. I already knew the Grote Plats, but I also knew the really badly fucked-up houses you see when you cross Belgium by bus. You wake up in the night, look outside to get an idea where you are, you see a torn-down house (that has obviously been torn down a few years ago) – you know you’re in Belgium.
    Here’s a nice anecdote:
    An old French professor of mine wanted to go abroad when he was a student. He had to choose from three categories: 1 Asia, 2 South America (could have been Africa, too), 3 any underdeveloped country elsewhere. He chose no. 3 and ended up in … Belgium.

    • bridgekeeper

      Dezember 13, 2013 at 7:14 pm

      Haha, that is awesome! I could see that. My follow-up post will be on how there is a lot of stuff in Brussels that is a bit weird and random. I think it is one of the reasons I liked the city so much!

  4. I had the exact same reaction to Brussels. Expected nothing but ended up being overwhelmed by its beauty! I visited in the winter so I’ll have to go again in the summer one day.

  5. If you like the craziness of Brussels, you’ll certainly be interested to watch a documentary made by the British architectural critic Jonathan Meades for the BBC, available on YouTube here: http://youtu.be/bYygyyD5s-0

    I’ve lived here 30 years and never stop discovering new stuff. I made a Pinterest board solely for the different styles of house numbers I was seeing as I walked around the streets: http://www.pinterest.com/alanhope/house-numbers/

    Hope you get the chance to explore further, and more deeply.

    • bridgekeeper

      Januar 29, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      Hey Alan, thanks for stopping by – I love the Pinterest board, such a cool idea! Thank you also for the video, I hope I will get a chance to watch it sometime soon, things have been a bit crazy my end 🙂 do come back to my blog if you liked it!

      • Thanks. I’m now following you regularly. If you make it back to Brussels let me know and I’ll point you to a couple of great sites.

  6. Hi! We are planning to have a 20 day Euro trip with Belgium as one of our stops. What is the is tthe ideal number of days to spend in Brussels for us to see the sights? How about Bruges?

    Would also like your suggestions as to how we will be spending the rest of our days in Europe. We are planning to go to London, Prague and Vienna but not yet sure where else. Any itinerary suggestions will do.

    Thanks!

    • bridgekeeper

      April 17, 2014 at 8:18 pm

      Hi Dino – I am sorry it took me this long to get back to you and I don’t know if you still want or need my advice. I think two to three days for Brussels is plenty. I haven’t been to Bruges, but many say you could just do a day trip there. Generally where you want to go really depends on your interests – cities or landscapes, parties or culture, history or modernity… Please feel free to send me an email via my contact page and I’ll dish out more advice. Generally I’d advice to not skip Eastern Europe and to not only stick to the big cities. Europe is so much more than just the capitals!

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