Brussels

Short history

Brussels’ history is long and complex, beginning as a small Duchy in the 10th century. Through periods such as the Middle Ages, it became an important commercial point thanks to its location on the river Senne and its membership in the Hanseatic League. The city witnessed considerable growth during the Burgundian and Habsburg reigns, establishing it as a center for the arts and politics.

The 16th century brought religious wars and a brief capture by France, yet Brussels emerged as the capital of the newly independent Belgium in 1830

The 20th century further solidified its role on the international stage, especially after World War II, when it became the de facto capital of the European Union. This designation as the signifies that, while not officially declared, Brussels hosts a number of the principal EU institutions, including the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and sessions of the European Parliament, effectively making it the center of EU administration and policy-making.

Geography

Brussels is the capital city of Belgium. It’s located at the heart of the country, lying at the junction of the Flemish plain and the rolling hills of the Walloon region. 

The landscape of the city combines the flat grounds typical of the Flemish plain with the contrasting, wavy terrains stretching southward towards the Ardennes.

The urban layout of Brussels is defined by a concentric design, with the historic center characterized by its medieval streets, gradually expanding into more modern districts. This evolution is evident especially within the European Quarter.

Brussels experiences a temperate maritime climate, with mild winters and cool summers. The coldest months typically span from December to February, while July and August are the warmest. Rainfall is distributed fairly evenly throughout the year.

Within the administrative and political division of Belgium, Brussels holds a unique status as a region unto itself, reflecting its importance as the nation’s capital and as an international city.

Population

As of recent data, the city’s population surpasses 1.2 million residents. A significant proportion of the population is composed of expatriates and immigrants. These individuals hail from various parts of the world, including EU member states, Morocco, Turkey, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Culturally, Brussels is divided into French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities, with French being the predominant language due to the city’s history and demographics. This linguistic dualism reflects Belgium’s broader societal structure, in which the French and Flemish languages represent two of the country’s three official languages, alongside a smaller German-speaking community, leading to a uniquely multilingual urban environment.

Regarding religion, Brussels is a pluralistic city, accommodating Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and secular ideologies, mirroring the city’s inclusive ethos.

Main sights

  • Grand Place: A UNESCO World Heritage site, this central square is known for its ornate baroque and gothic guildhalls, as well as the Town Hall and the Museum of the City of Brussels. 
  • Atomium: A symbol of Brussels, the Atomium is a unique atom-shaped structure built for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. It houses exhibitions related to science, design, and society.
  • Manneken Pis: This small but famous bronze sculpture depicts a little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. It has become an emblem of the city’s irreverent spirit, with the statue often dressed in costumes for various occasions.
  • Royal Palace of Brussels: The official palace of the King and Queen of the Belgians, this building is open to the public during the summer months. Visitors can explore its rooms and learn about the history of the Belgian monarchy.
  • Parc du Cinquantenaire: A public park featuring gardens, museums, and impressive arches built to commemorate fifty years of Belgian independence. It’s a popular spot for picnics, jogs, and cultural exploration.
  • Saint-Michel Cathedral (Cathédrale Saints-Michel-et-Gudule): An example of Gothic architecture, this cathedral is famous for its beautiful stained-glass windows, towering spires, and the carillon concerts held within its walls.
  • Belgian Comic Strip Center: Celebrating Belgium’s rich history in comic art, this museum presents the country’s love for comics through permanent and temporary exhibitions featuring characters like Tintin and The Smurfs.

Food

  • Moules-Frites: A typical Belgian dish, consisting of mussels steamed in white wine, butter, shallots, parsley, and served with a side of crisp fries. 
  • Stoofvlees/Frites: Also known as Belgian beef stew, this dish is made with beef slow-cooked in beer until tender, often accompanied by a serving of fries. 
  • Waffles: There are two main types: the Brussels waffle, which is light and airy with deep pockets, and the Liège waffle, which is denser, sweeter, and adorned with caramelized sugar.
  • Carbonnade flamande: Similar to stoofvlees, this Flemish stew uses beer for a tangy taste and a hint of sweetness.
  • Chicon gratin: A traditional Belgian dish of endives wrapped in ham, covered with béchamel sauce and cheese, then baked.
  • Belgian Chocolate: Renowned worldwide, Belgian chocolate in Brussels ranges from pralines to artisan bars, showing the city’s long-standing tradition of fine chocolate making.

Fun facts

  • Brussels is home to the Atomium, a unique building and museum shaped like a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
  • The city is famous for its comic strip culture, with numerous walls throughout Brussels adorned with murals of famous comic book characters. It’s often called the Comic Strip Capital.
  • The city is the birthplace of the praline, a type of chocolate casing with a soft center, introduced by Neuhaus in 1912.
  • Every two years, the Grand Place, Brussels’ central square, is covered with a flower carpet composed of about 600,000 flowers, specifically begonias, creating a visual spectacle.