Belgium, a small country sandwiched between France and the Netherlands, has a unique character and a mix of French and Flemish cultures. While it is small in size, it’s a highlight for many tourists – to be honest, it was not a highlight of mine because the country is overshadowed by its surrounding nations from France, the Netherlands, the UK, and Germany. I was on my way from Amsterdam to Paris, and it was until I explored Brussels as a detour of my route, I found out that I was actually wrong about Belgium.
Although my trip to Brussels was brief, I had a taste of Belgium: From the “surprisingly small” Manneken pis statue to Belgian fine chocolate and waffles, French Fries (Yes! THIS worldwide dish was basically invented in Belgium), Antwerp diamonds, classical artists Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Van Eyck, Audrey Hepburn (Yes! She was born in Belgium!), the headquarters of the European Union and NATO… and now I have also learned about Tintin, and his adventures are the most valuable comic book in the world.
Now I know I would definitely want to come back for more. Brussels has a wide variety of heritage sites, parks, cinemas, and museums. Apart from Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, I have heard amazing things about historic Bruges and modern Antwerp; Anyway, for the very first time, I walked the comic book route while I was visiting some of the highlights in Brussels on foot.
The Brussels Comic Book Route
Yeah, Belgium plays a major role in the European comic scene and many well-known cartoonists were founded here, including Herge (The Adventures of Tintin), Peyo (The Smurfs), Franquin, and Willy Vandersteen, Morris, Edgar P Jacobs, Marc Sleen (Nero), and more. These comic books have a distinct place in comic history and Belgium is still home to some of the most important European comics magazines and publishers. The city of Brussels celebrates its comic book heritage and pays tribute to various characters and authors by painting the comics on the strip walls all around the city center since the early 90s. Now, more and more new murals are painted and the comic book route is expanding. The paintings only made my walk through the city much more interesting and fulfilling; I admire the city’s effort to support its own comic culture and beautify the community with distinctive characters.
For the complete (and long) list of artwork, you may visit the Brussels Comic Book Route website for the names and maps. The entire walk takes about 6 kilometers long and it takes about 3 to 4 hours to complete.
Some of the most famous comic works (Smurfs, Tintin, Nero, Spirou, or those I have seen and I loved), are:
- Broussaille: Rue du Marché au Charbon (This is the very first comic strip mural in July 1991!)
- Tintin’s The Calculus Affair: Rue de l’Etuve
- Titeuf: Boulevard Emile Bockstael
- Olivier Rameau and Colombe Tiredaile
- Victor Sackville: Rue du Marché au Charbon
- Le Scorpion: Treurenberg
- Smurfs: Putterie
- Néron: Place Saint-Géry
- Spirou: Rue Notre-Dame de Grâces
So, I had good coverage of a route to admire these comic murals, I filled my walk with some famous and iconic sites in between.
A recommended walking tour in Brussels’ city center:
Starting off at the Manneken Pis in the morning, and then stop by the Grand Place and soak in the majesty of the most beautiful square in Europe. Next, head to Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and have lunch at one of the many restaurants for a delicious local cuisine – mussels would be my top choice.
Then, check out the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula near the central train station. If you have time, or if you a comic book fan, enter the Belgian Comic Strip Center and then walk up to the mont des arts. Enjoy a glorious view of the city and pop into the Musical Instrument Museum.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts is a treat to art buffs – head out for a cup of coffee, ice cream, or a truly “royal” chocolate drink to refresh your palate at one of the cafes in Grand Sablon Square. In the evening, take a subway ride to Place Ste. Catherine – this is a famous seafood district where you can find high-quality lobster or seafood platter at a very reasonable price – pair with a Belgian beer from a local brewery.
The most beautiful square in Europe
The square is not big, seriously. The place is hidden among buildings and alleys near the Bruxelles Central train station, I always failed to find it on Google Map. Yet it is named the most beautiful square in Europe, and the most well-known and memorable landmark in Brussels. Victor Hugo called it “the loveliest square”, and Jean Cocteau called it “the rich theatre”.
The Place began in the early 11th century and it was the central market for the locals. Today, it still has a flower market and a bird market in the area. At night, the Place is lit with lighting that creates a dreamy environment for the visitors. Sadly most of the original buildings were destroyed during the war against Louis XVI and most of the buildings that we see today are rebuilt after 1695. The Grand Place is occupied on each side by a number of guild houses, in addition to a few private houses (around 40 buildings are there actually), like the Brussels Town Hall, King’s House, Houses of the Grand Place, the Corporation of Bakers, Greasers, Carpenters, Boatmen, and Haberdashers… and so on. Each of these buildings, while mainly in Baroque style, is extravagantly adorned with gold embellishments, intricate emboss, and large windows. It is also a great starting point since it’s so close to the train station, and a gathering point for many guided tours and experiences.
Buildings around Grand Place:
- Maison des Boulangers ou le Roi d’Espagne
- La Brouette
- Le Sac
- La Louvre
- Le Cornet
- Le Renard
- Le Cygne
- L’Arbre d’Or
- Residence of the Dukes of Brabant
- La Chaloupe d’Or ou la Maison des Tailleurs
- Le Pigeon
- La Chambrette de l’Amman
- La Maison du Roi
- Le heaume
- Le Paon
Nearby, don’t forget to walk through the Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. It is claimed to be the oldest shopping gallery in the world!
Belgian’s sense of humor and independence of mind
Another symbol that is known to the world would probably be the Manneken Pis, the little pisser. 🙂 “Manneken” means “man” in Dutch, in fact, “een Menneke” means “little man” in a Brussels dialect; and now, “Manneken Waffles” is also the name for a popular Belgium waffler chain all over the world. The tiny bronze sculpture is merely 61cm tall, and like the Mona Lisa, the first reaction to most visitors who see the real work is “oh~ it’s small”. The statue was erected in 1610, and it embodies the Belgian’s sense of humor, and independence of mind.
There are quite a few fables and legends about the origin of the statue, but I suppose the most memorable one was about “Petit Julien”, a Dutch boy who put out a lighting fuse which led to hidden gunpowder by peeing on it and saved the city from exploding at wars.
Another origin was Godfrey III when the place was under attack by Grimbergen in 1142. The army hung the 2-year-old Duke on the tree in the branches. The duke pissed at the enemy’s territory and raised the morale of the army, eventually leading to a win in the war.
Usually, the statue is on display naked; and he would be dressed on special occasions – I was told that he has over 700 outfits in his “wardrobe”. The statue was stolen up to seven times, and the current “authentic” statue is safely kept City museum of Brussels. The functioning statue that is currently located on Rue du Chene is a replica.
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula:
The main cathedral of Belgium
The cathedral may not be as impressive as many other cathedrals in Europe, it is the largest in the city. Most tourists come to Brussels by train and the main station is located right in the heart of Brussels’ old city center, connecting to a number of main sights from Brussels Park to Grand Place. The Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula is probably the first landmark in the city that you see as the Roman Catholic Church, which stood for over 500 years in Brussels, is right next to Central Station.
Built in 1519, the medieval cathedral is dedicated to two patron saints: St. Michael, the advocate of the Jews, and St. Gudula, a venerated figure in Belgium. The church was built in the Gothic architectural style, having a striking resemblance to the Notre dame in Paris, or the York Minster in the UK.
It is one of the most important monuments and landmarks in Brussels because of its status and architectural beauty. First, the church is given its status as the main Catholic church in Belgium, it serves as a venue for many national Catholic events, including funerals, baptisms, and weddings of Saints and Royalties through hundreds of years. Secondly, the church is one of the finest examples of Brabantian Gothic architecture – with a strong influence from the French and the Netherlands, the church features two 114 meters tall towers that contain a 49-bell carillon by the Royal Eijsbouts bell foundry. Don’t forget to view the two stunningly beautiful stained-glass windows on the northern and southern transepts, which are after the drawings of Bernard van Orley and created by Jean Haeck from Antwerp in 1537.
Mont des Arts:
An urban complex in the center of Brussels
Behind the central train station of Brussels is the Mont des Arts – “Hill of the arts”. The modern art and historic complex is the center of Brussels, and it’s surrounded by important buildings such as the Royal Library of Belgium, the National Archives of Belgium, and the Square. The public garden in the center of the complex is the pathway that leads to the historic cluster of the old Brussels. Many historic buildings and monuments are scattered in the area.
Once I passed the Wervelend Oor, the monument, the Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg Church was the first thing I saw standing on the Brussels Place Royale. On the left of the Place Royale are the Royal Palace of Brussels and the Brussels Park. Brussels Park is the largest urban public park in the city center, and it was created early in the late 18th century. The park was beautifully designed in Neoclassical style and it’s filled with flower beds, historic statues, and fountains. The quiet environment was great for me to take a short break after walking in the city center for a day. The Royal Palace, on the other hand, started its construction around the same time as the park but was only officially completed until 1934. The palace is not the royal residence of the king’s family, it is rather a venue for civil services, official visits, or other important events. The palace is also opened to the public while visitors may check out many of the building’s rooms.
Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon
On the right, through the Rue de la Regence, I stopped by another important church, Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon, on my way to the end of the courthouse where I found the Monument a la Gloire de L’infanterie Belge. There I returned to the north side of the city center, in search of some good chocolate and waffles.
The Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon, or Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon, is a glorious Gothic building built in the 14th century. The interior has beautiful marble sculptures and stained glasses: King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth praying to Our lady of the Sablo. This venue has also gained fame after a local devout woman named Beatrijs Soetkens had a vision in which the Virgin Mary instructed her to steal the miraculous statue of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw op ‘t Stocxken (“Our Lady on the little stick”) in Antwerp, bring it to Brussels, and place it in the chapel of the Crossbowmen’s Guild. The building was then renovated for over a century, and reopened at the end of the 19th century – this is what you see today.
Parc de Bruxelles
The park is a wonderful natural environment in Brussels’ city center which retained an 18th-century look on the south of the Palais de la Nation. This French-style park celebrates symmetry, with fountains, sculptures, and walking trails with well-trimmed trees added in 1770.
Theatre Royal du Parc is nearby, and it’s a popular hangout location for the locals (and visitors) during summer.
Chocolate, Fries, and Waffles
In Brussels, waffles are sold as a kind of street food and they are basically available everywhere around town. Personally, I love the classic Brussels waffle – the light yet chewy waffle tasted so great and comforting with melted cheese, butter, or syrup on top! For some incredible waffle experience, visit the acclaimed Maison Dandoy, which is located right next to the city Town Hall at Grand Place.
From Godiva to Leonidas, Cote d’Or to Neuhaus, Belgium is an indulgence that even though I tried to stop myself, I couldn’t say no to occasionally. It’s almost an insult if I didn’t buy any chocolates for my dear friends and families when they knew I was in Brussels! I was trying to avoid those worldwide retail brands (as they are basically available anywhere in the world… well yeah, maybe they taste better in Brussels, but I was looking for something different), and so I headed to Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the Gallery is an upscale shoppe comprised of a line of historic buildings and an elegant glass ceiling. There you may find some nice designer stores and chocolatiers, like Mary Chocolatier. But of course, Leonidas, Pierre Marcolini, and Neuhaus are there, too.
On the other end of the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, end your day of walk visiting the Nova Cinema. It is an art-house movie theatre with a café bar and it’s opened in 1997. The theatre is openly supported by a non-profit organization and they featured classic cinema to the audience. It could be a special experience for those who enjoy old movies!