The Best of Brussels Architecture

Brussels is known for its Art Nouveau architecture, and many stunning examples still dot the city. But other eras are represented, and—if you’re willing to walk—you can spend a whole day admiring the best examples of Brussels architecture from throughout the ages.

Rue de la Loi 200, 1049 Bruxelles, Belgium
Although Brussels is most famous for its Art Nouveau architecture, is has some notable modern buildings as well. One of the most recognisable is the love-it-or-hate-it Berlaymont Building, at the Schumann metro stop. Known by its detractors as the “Berlamonster,” this huge glass and metal lopsided X-shaped structure is home to the European Commission. Whatever your feelings about the Berlaymont, its imposing stature is impressive. EU flags representing the EU member states, line the back of the building. Wander through the EU district at lunchtime and see the Eurocrats in their ‘natural habitat’ in the surrounding restaurants and cafes.
Rue Montagne de la Cour 2, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
My favourite building in Brussels is the Old England on Mont des Arts, just around the corner from Place Royal. It’s a striking concoction of steel and glass in the Art Nouveau style Brussels is so famous for. But what’s on the inside is just as good as the beautiful exterior. Once a department store, the Old England building now houses the Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM. This fascinating collection of more than 8000 instruments is internationally renowned. Rather than just looking at the exhibits, you actually get to experience them. An audio-guide is included in the cost of admission, but this is no stuffy commentary. As you approach particular exhibits in the MIM, your guide begins to play the music of the instrument you are looking at. It’s a wonderfully interactive approach to learning. I have one more reason to love the Old England building and that is the cafe on the top floor. The food is good, but the selling point of this particular restaurant is the view – one of the best in the city centre. In nice weather, you can even dine on the roof terrace. You don’t have to visit the museum to enjoy the restaurant (although you should). Just tell the door attendant you want to go to the cafe and he’ll load you into the period glass and steel elevator and take you to the top floor.
1000 Brussels, Belgium
The Grand Place in Brussels is the magnificent main square in Brussels. The square is the main tourist attraction in Brussels and is surrounded by numerous cafes and shops. Most of the buildings were constructed in the late 17th century, although market activity in the square dates back to the 12th Century. It’s a great place to hang out, grab a coffee or a liege waffle, and people watch.
Carrefour de l'Europe 3, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Everyone is familiar with the breathtaking Flower Carpet, which takes place in Brussels’ UNESCO-listed Grand Place. Sadly, it only happens for one week, every other year. In an effort to curb the disappointment of tourists who visit during the odd-numbered years, the designers of the Flower Carpet have teamed up with a popular flower exhibition, based in Ghent, to bring us Floralïentime. Floralïentime lets dozens of Belgium’s top floral designers loose inside the dramatic city hall building. There, they create floral displays of all shapes and sizes. The Grand Place itself is transformed into a pretty park area, making the stunning square even more beautiful than normal. Best of all, for the cost of a 5 EUR ticket, Floralïentime offers visitors a look inside Brussels’ stunning city hall building, normally closed to the public. For more information and plenty of photos:
4 Avenue Palmerston
Belgium is famous for its Art Nouveau architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While many architects were experimenting with this new style, Victor Horta is Brussels’ undisputed father of Art Nouveau. Many of his stunning creations are still in use around the city, like the Hôtel van Eetvelde on Place Ambiorix, added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2000. While the Hôtel van Eetvelde is only open to the public during special ‘open heritage’ days in Brussels, it’s well worth walking through the neighbourhood, rich in dramatic architecture. To see inside one of Horta’s creations, visit the Horta House Museum, in the St. Gilles neighbourhood. This was Victor Horta’s home and studio and he designed every last detail, inside and out. It is also a UNESCO listed building. Guided Art Nouveau walks are provided by many tour companies, including the Brussels Greeters volunteer network. You can also download a self-guided tour map from the Visit Brussels website.
Place Poelaert 1, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Visiting a country’s Supreme Court may not rank high on your list of things to do, particularly when the building in question has been covered in scaffolding for almost 10 years. Brussels’ Palace of Justice (Palais du Justice) has been mired in controversy from day one. It was the largest building constructed in the 19th century and, at 160 by 150 meters, is even larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Constructing this monster of a building required leveling an entire section of Brussels. It just happened to be a working-class area. The wealthy landlords received pockets full of cash, while the residents ended up out in the cold. These days the Palace of Justice is controversial because of the on-going battle to remove the scaffolding, left behind by the now bankrupt renovation company. Peek behind the scaffolding however and you may be surprised to find sweeping staircases, marble statues and a grand reading-room. It is free and open to the public year-round, unless a sensitive trail is taking place.
11 Square Ambiorix
For an exceptional look at one of Brussels’ finest Art Nouveau buildings, head to the Maison St. Cyr. This ornate, narrow house was designed by Belgian architect, Gustave Strauven, who worked for the father of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta, from the age of 18. The house was built between 1901-03 as the residence of Georges de Saint-Cyr. The building has been recently restored, however, as it is up for sale, it is not possible to visit inside. While in the neighbourhood, wander through the lovely Square Ambiorix, where you will find many other beautiful houses circling a vibrant city park.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks