The city of Brussels, which the famous Belgian cartoon character Tintin roamed as an intrepid reporter, has plenty on offer for any inquisitive mind. And the Belgian capital is making it easier for tourists. It is planning to make more of its center a no-go area for cars, opening up more medieval and 19th century streets for carefree strolling and biking. Enough of the city’s attractions are free to fill the best part of two vacation days.
Don’t let your jaw drop when you start out at the very center of the old town. The world may have other stunning city squares – Venice’s St. Mark’s Square comes to mind – but count Brussels’ Grand Place among the best. Stand on the gleaming cobblestones, look any which direction and a great piece of architecture will stand out. The 15th century City Hall is Gothic art at its most elegant. And if its beauty doesn’t fully move you, try figuring out why the white spire doesn’t rise from the middle of the building. Legend has it the architect threw himself from the tower to his death when he realized it was off-center, but it’s likely that various construction issues led to the asymmetry. Guilds, which are professional associations from various crafts and industries, occupy many of Baroque buildings surrounding the square, including one for Belgium’s beer brewers.
Galerie de la Reine/Du Roi
A block from the Grand Place is the exquisite Galerie de la Reine/du Roi, a 19th century jewel of hallowed halls with glass ceilings, apartments lining the upper floors and loads of luxury boutiques and chocolate shops laid out along a magnificent quarter-mile. Chocoholics have Marcolini, Neuhaus, Mary and Corne within smelling distance. The list also includes Godiva, a Belgian brand that’s become ubiquitous in the United States. Gaze left, right, front and back amid the chocolatiers and you realize what it must have been like for Charlie in Roald Dahl’s “Chocolate Factory.” Of course you’ll have to pay to indulge in a taste, but smells and sights are free. Some of the shops look like museums, with pralines exhibited liked prized possessions behind glass.
Stroll past painter Pieter Breughel’s old haunts in the Marolles district and go up in a glass elevator to come face to face with Brussels’ humongous, super-eclectic Justice Palace. If ever the “Assassin’s Creed” video game needs a 19th century setting for its hero to climb into and up and over, this is it: columns, marble and statues galore, and, for good measure, so much renovation scaffolding that has been there so long, it is in need of renovation too. Court cases from terror trials to petty theft are still held there on weekdays.
Considering Brussels’ often rainy weather, it’s good to have indoor sightseeing options, and another great one is the Army Museum in the Cinquantenaire Park. It is one of the few big museums where entry is free, and its collection of planes, parked on the ground or suspended from the ceiling, leaves kids in awe. With the centennial of World War I in full flow, military history is at the center of attention again. Note that the permanent collection is free, not the special exhibits.
The 1950s look brand-new again now that Brussels’s best-known monument, the Atomium, has been renovated and turned into a gleaming symbol of the city. There is a fee to enter, but the best views are from outside where it costs nothing to behold the 102-meter (335-foot) monument with nine giant balls depicting an iron crystal.
The structure was meant to symbolize the power of atomic science and the quest for a better future when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair in 1958. In 2014, it just looks like one of the strangest buildings around. Still, it is a must-see in Brussels and it is surrounded by a scenic park that leads to the royal palace.