A Sense of Brussels: From Magritte to Her Majesty

City skyline of Brussels

Last week I touched down in Belgium’s capital for a few days of much-needed culture, and I found Brussels to be the perfect mix of quirky art, intense architecture and intriguing history.

There’s so much that I took in during my time here that it’s hard to work out where to start, so I’m diving straight in with some of the key sights that I encountered during my visit, armed with a 24 hour Brussels Card to give me free access to a whole host of museums, along with free public transport.

Magritte art posters
Examples of classic Magritte style.

Musée Magritte

My first port of call for the day was one of two museums dedicated to Rene Magritte, the famous surrealist painter. The Musee Magritte is completely immersed in the artist’s world, not only displaying over 200 of his artworks, but also pieces by his contemporaries that inspired him over the years, such as Giorgio de Chirico. Grab an audio guide (€4) for full explanations as you walk through the exhibits – you can even hear the artist’s voice.

Despite experimenting with many different styles, including Impressionism, Magritte had certain recurring motifs that shaped his work, including birds, clouds, and everyday objects such as apples and doors. Taking in the whole exhibition, which travels through his life and inspiration, you can see how these motifs kept cropping up again and again, continuing to intrigue him. Later in life, the artist even produced copies of his more successful pieces, to tempt the American market.

One of the most interesting parts for me was the section devoted to his focus on textual art – this is a topic I covered for my dissertation at university, looking at some of the artists who love to play with words. Magritte was fascinated by the arbitrary labels placed on words and objects, and he sought to change their interpretations through his paintings. Another stand-out part of the museum is a film screening area showing a documentary about his work, including visits to New York and Houston in search of his far-reaching appeal. If you want to continue your Magritte adventure, head to the north of the city and track down the artist’s house, which has become a museum in its own right, at Rue Esseghem.

Fin de Siecle Museum
The newest museum in town focuses on the Fin de Siecle.
Street art with Herge design
The spirit of Tintin lives on with this piece of street art.
Underwear Museum
One of the more zany attractions in the city is the Underwear Museum.

Seen above: snapshots of the city – museums and street art

Brussels St Nicholas Church
St. Nicholas’ Church is hidden behind shops but is worth tracking down.

Eglise St.-Nicholas

Named after the patron saint of traders, this church (Korte Boterstraat 1) is nearly 1,000 years old, though much of the original structure has been obscured due to various adaptations, such as the addition of a Gothic facade in the 14th century, and damage from the French bombardment of 1695. There’s even a cannonball lodged into a pillar from the bombardment – a pretty impressive relic.

I popped in on my way to lunch and, though I’m not religious, I found it was a real oasis of calm in the centre of the city. The church is also home to several artworks, including a painting by Rubens and an icon dating back to the 12th century, and there’s also plenty of stained glass to check out. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area, and comes recommended by Lonely Planet.

View onto the Grand Place
How’s this for a view as you enjoy dinner?

L’Estaminet du Kelderke

Perfectly positioned with views of the historic Town Hall, this restaurant is a great place to people watch, but you’ll also be watching your food with equal enthusiasm. The varied menu will appeal to all palates, but there’s a particular emphasis on great local dishes, such as stoemp, which is a city classic. Stoemp consists of mashed potato flecked with bacon and vegetables, then topped with a range of accompaniments such as fried eggs, horse steak or Flemish carbonnade. I plumped for country sausages with mine and wasn’t disappointed.

One other reason to eat here is to get even more value from your Brussels City Card, which offers a free desert when ordering a lunchtime meal – that’s if you still have room! I just about squeezed in a rich chocolate mousse topped with cream. After fuelling up, I was given plenty of sightseeing recommendations from my waiter, who was really enthusiastic about Flanders and all there is to discover in the area.

Brussels Episode Vintage
Episode is one of the most in-demand vintage shops here.
Brussels Brewers Museum
Along this strip of colourful buildings you’ll find the Belgian Brewers Museum.
Brussels City Museum Windows
Intricate stained glass crests displayed on the stairwell at the Museum of the City of Brussels.

Seen above: snapshots of the city, part 2 – shops and sights

Brussels Queen Paola
The lady with the white hair is none other than Queen Paola.

Queen Paola and King Albert in the Grote Markt

By a sheer stroke of luck, I was able to catch a glimpse of Belgian royalty during my time here, as the old King and Queen of Belgium were visiting a local children’s charity in the Grote Markt, or Grand Place, as part of their royal duties (thanks to the manager of L’Estaminet du Kelderke for the tip-off!). Crowds began to gather at about 2pm, with security teams buzzing around the area to make sure the site was safe. Representatives from the charity, Habbekrats, were also mingling with the public, and a red carpet was even laid out to welcome the visitors.

At 3pm several cars sped onto the cobbles of the Grote Markt, flanked by a police escort, and out stepped Queen Paola, followed by King Albert, to inspect the charity. They then spent more time in the area, watching Parkour displays and listening to a school choir; I saw these parts of the proceedings unfold from inside the Museum of the City of Brussels, which provided a great vantage point as well as plenty of exhibits to look at afterwards. I was really lucky to catch this royal visit and see how another country gets just as excited about its monarchs as we do!

Brussels Poste International
Anyone who’s ever sent post abroad owes this man a favour.

Quick Facts

  • Popular cafe chain Le Pain Quotidien was founded in Brussels back in 1990 and now has branches across the world. If, like me, you’re staying in The Hotel, your nearest branch is just a few minutes’ walk, at Rue de Sablons 11. I’d recommend the raspberry tart.
  • The first international postal service was founded in the city back in 1516, by François de Tassis. There’s a plaque commemorating this achievement, placed in Rue de la Régence, where he lived at the time.
  • Two of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, studied and taught at the city’s Pensionnat Heger, near the Palace Royale. Some of Charlotte’s novels, The Professor and Villette, drew on her time here.

So, what else did I discover in this unique city? You’ll just have to wait and see…

Disclaimer: This trip was planned with the assistance of Visit Flanders and input from Visit Brussels. To find further information about travelling to Brussels, please visit www.visitflanders.co.uk for more details.