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It was at the time when Brussels dreamed,
It was at the time of the silent cinema.
It was at the time when Brussels was singing,
It was at the time when Brussels was blazing.
This is the translation of Jacques Brel's song Bruxelles that he sang in the early 1960s. But why 'at the time'? Is Brussels no longer singing? Is it no longer blazing? Yes it is, although we have to admit that you have to look for it. When Brussels became the capital of the new country Belgium, a large part of the historic center was demolished to make way for administrative buildings, schools and palaces. The arrival of the European Union has not really contributed to the improvement of the cityscape either. The city's historic core has been reduced to the Grand Place and surrounding streets. But does that make Brussels a boring city of merely offices? Absolutely not. Take a city trip to Brussels and discover how pleasant and lively Belgium's capital is.
The Grand Place doesn't require any searching. Historic buildings and guildhalls surround this stunning heart of Brussels. On sunny days, the square is filled with outdoor cafés. These may take away some of the views of the houses, but walk around and discover the nice decorations on the façades of the guildhalls. The Brewers' Museum is housed in the Brewers' House; here you can not only see how Belgian beer was and is brewed, but of course you can also sample a delicious Belgian beer.
Not far from the square, on the corner of the Stoofstraat/Rue de l'Étuve and the Eikstraat/Rue de Chênes, you'll find the city's most famous statue: Manneken Pis (Little man Pee). Sometimes the little man is dressed; there are hundreds of costumes in the size of the peeing little fellow.
For a large part, Brussels' monumental buildings and avenues were commissioned by King Leopold II. The money obtained from his personal colony of Congo, allowed the King to realize for example the Royal Palace of Brussels, the Royal Palace of Laeken, the Koekelberg Basilica, the Church of Our Lady of Laeken and the Jubilee Park. You can only visit the Royal Palace of Brussels during summer months. The greenhouses that are part of the complex and which contain a collection of extremely rare plants, are only open for the public for three weeks in the spring.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts are also one of King Leopold II's projects. The Museum of Ancient Art showcases work by Flemish Primitives and great masters such as Bruegel and Rubens. The museum is connected by a hallway with the Museum of Modern Art. Here you can see work by for example Rodin, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, de Smet, Magritte, Miro, Matisse and Picasso. The exhibition ends with modern art.
To brighten up boring walls, Brussels has decorated some of those walls with paintings from famous comics. The Tourist Office on the Grand Place has free itineraries and maps available. True comic strip fans can also visit the Comic Strip Center on the Zandstraat in Brussels.
The Marollen is a working-class neighborhood, situated between the Palace of Justice and the Brussels-South railway station. There is a daily flea market on the Vossenplein. If you can't find what you are looking for here, you can always go to the various junk shops on the Blaesstraat. Right next to the Marollen, lies the much more fashionable neighborhood De Zavel. Here you will find luxury shops, including a large number of antique shops, expensive fashion shops and trendy cafés and restaurants. The magnificent Gothic Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon forms the eye-catcher. During weekends an antiques market is held on the square in front of the church.
Thirty kilometers east of Brussels lies the university city of Louvain. The attractive historic center forms a beautiful background for the many outdoor cafés, especially on the Old Market and Grand Place squares. You should also visit the St Peter's Church and the fifteenth century Town Hall. A little bit further out, but still easily accessible by rental car, is Bruges, west of Brussels. Walk around the charming, narrow streets of this medieval town, make a boat trip on the canal or take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage!
In Tervuren, fourteen kilometers east of Brussels, you can find the Royal Museum for Central Africa. The museum has a huge collection of Congolese objects: from African masks and sculptures to jewelry and utensils, such as a large canoe.
Brussels offers an abundance of accommodations ranging from cheap guesthouses and hostels to luxurious hotels. As Brussels is a typical city of diplomats and civil servants, there are also many business hotels. During summer and over the weekend, luxury hotels often have attractive offers.
Finding a parking space in Brussels is extremely difficult and in addition rates are rather high. The center houses over twenty parking garages. Electronic signage indicates garages with availability. Street parking is difficult, as the City Council has assigned many parking spaces to residents. Alternatively, you can park your car on the Heizel (for free) and continue your journey to the center by public transportation.
Brussels Airport is located northeast of the city. You can easily reach Brussels Airport (also still often called Zaventem, its former name) by rental car. The airport lies right along the R0 beltway and exits to the airport are clearly signposted. Low-cost airlines use Brussels South Charleroi airport, fifty kilometers south of the city. In a rental car it takes about one hour from this airport to the center of Brussels.