The heart of Belgium's historic district is the breathtaking Grand Place, a cobblestone square surrounded on all sides by elegant Gothic and Baroque buildings -- including the massive 13th-century Hotel de Ville (town hall). With a number of sidewalk cafes, this square is one of Brussels' prime people-watching spots, and during the summer it's colorfully carpeted by a large flower market. Also on the square is the Maison du Roi, a museum that chronicles Brussels' history and even includes a collection of costumes for the Manneken Pis, the city's most famous statue. Just adjacent to Grand Place is Ilot Sacre, a neighborhood of narrow medieval streets whose charm is only partially dimmed by the many cafes and souvenir shops that have taken over the area.
He may be only 22 inches tall, but the Manneken Pis (located on Rue de l'Etuve) has become one of Brussels' most enduring symbols. This bronze statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain dates back to 1619 and can occasionally be seen dressed in costumes made especially for him (the first such outfit was a gift from King Louis XV in 1747). If you like the Manneken Pis, don't miss his female counterpart, Jeanneke Pis (east side of the Impasse de la Fidelite) or his canine counterpart, the Zinneke Pis (Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux-Marche-aux-Grains) -- a bronze statue of a peeing dog about a 15-minute walk away.
Ornate Gothic architecture and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows make the 16th-century Notre Dame du Sablon one of Brussels' most beautiful churches. After your visit, you can sit and relax in the tranquil gardens of Place du Petit Sablon or enjoy coffee at a sidewalk cafe overlooking Place du Grand Sablon; both squares are adjacent to the church.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are a storehouse of artistic treasures. The bulk of the collections can be found in the Museum of Old Masters (holding works from the 15th to the 18th century), the Museum of Modern Art (spanning works from the end of the 18th century to today) and the new Fin-de-Siecle Museum (dedicated to the 1900s). The Royal Museums also encompass three smaller collections devoted to individual Belgian artists: the Rene Magritte Museum, the Antoine Wiertz Museum and the Constantin Meunier Museum.
Construction of the massive Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule was begun in the early 1200's but not completed until some three centuries later. Visitors can wander through the present-day Gothic nave and then head underground to see the remains of the 11th-century Romanesque church over which the current structure is built.
The cure for the art museum fatigue that plagues many visitors to Europe is the unique Musical Instruments Museum. This is a place where the exhibits are not only seen but also heard; included in the cost of admission is a headset that plays a sample from each musical instrument as you step in front of it. You'll hear and see both familiar instruments (violins, harps, guitars) and more foreign ones -- like a gigantic Tibetan mountain horn or a carved wooden fish totem from Vanuatu.
Though Brussels' historic core dates back hundreds of years, the city also has an Art Nouveau quarter where visitors can enjoy the architecture of a more modern era. Victor Horta, one of the leaders of the Art Nouveau movement, once lived and worked in Brussels' St. Gilles neighborhood, and today his house has been transformed into the Horta Museum. Its elegant rooms feature curving lines, stained-glass windows and a dramatic main staircase. There are a number of other Art Nouveau residences in the surrounding neighborhood, so be sure to leave time for a quick stroll after you visit the museum.
On a nice day, join the locals at the Parc de Bruxelles for a stroll through its neatly manicured flower beds -- or for an afternoon nap in the grass. Classical statues, colorful blooms and several lovely fountains make this a serene place to rest after a long day of sightseeing.
Just an hour outside of Brussels by train is the romantic city of Bruges (Brugge in Flemish), with its picturesque canals, colorful flower markets and beautifully preserved historic buildings. Another fun day trip from Brussels is to take a 45-minute train ride to Antwerp to see its gorgeous cathedral and famous Diamond District.
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Getting Around Belgium: Transportation Tips
Brussels City Guide
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