Brussels Travel Guide

Brussels is the sumptuous city of choice for Eurocrats, historic and luxuriously cosy. With artistry rich, architecture as graceful as its cuisine and diversity frothier than the beer, Brussels is an heirloom of northern culture at its best.

The city's character largely mirrors that of Belgium: confident but modest, and rarely striving to impress. For visitors, it's full of delights - Grand Place, mussels with chips, pralines, uncrowded museums, intimate hotels, Art Nouveau, Horta, Tintin and unbelievable beers.

It has great seafood in great restaurants, the smell of hot waffles on a cold winter's day, cafes and pubs that never close, the cosmopolitan but neighbourly feel, forests practically on the doorstep, pheasant and truffles in autumn, comic strips, designer shops...

Facts in a glance

Area: 161 sq km
Population: 980,000
Country: Belgium
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Telephone Area Code: 02; incorporated into local numbers


The Brussels area has been inhabited since 2250 BC, when an agrarian Neolithic civilization set up shop in what are now the districts of Schaerbeek, Boitsfort and Uccle.

Romans considered the area a lovely corner of the empire, building villas here during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Brussels continued to grow throughout the millennium. In 843, the Treaty of Verdun split the Frankish Empire along the Schelde (Scheldt) river: this was the first division of Belgian lands into what would become modern-day Wallonia and Vlaanderen (Flanders). Legend has it that St Géry, bishop of Cambrai and Arras, built a chapel on one of the islands in the swampy Senne (Zenne).

It becomes a hub for trade and transportation in the region. In 1229, Henri I, Duke of Brabant, published the first Brussels charter. Craftspeople and traders established businesses, while various princes, dukes and counts announced their ownership of the area with fortifications and castles.

1302: Brussels' businesspeople, led by weavers and fullers, rebelled against the growing and privileged bourgeois class. Though they enjoyed early victories, they were eventually defeated by the army of Jean II, Duke of Brabant, at the Battle of Vilvoorde.

The merchant class continued making money hand over fist while the bourgeoisie fought among themselves.

From 1384 to 1477, Burgundy controlled the region, beginning Brussels' tradition of high fashion and good food, then lost control to the Hapsburgs, who built the 28km/17mi-long Willebroek Canal, spurring even more capital growth in the region.

1555: Charles V of the Hapsburg clan abdicated rule over Brussels to his son, Philip II of Spain. Religious, cultural and class differences between Brussels' cosmopolitan population and the new, distant ruler led to a wave of violent protests known as the Iconoclastic Fury.

Spain managed to hold onto power in the region until the 1713 Treaty of Ultrecht, which settled the War of Spanish Succession by handing the Spanish Netherlands, including Belgium, to the Austrian Hapsburgs.

Hapsburgs managed Brussels' continuing growth with some success until the revolution in neighbouring France gave the locals some ideas. The French marched into town in 1794, before the Belgians had time to get their act together, and claimed the Austrian Netherlands for their own.

1815: When French head of state Napoleon Bonaparte came through, he stopped at a nice spot a few kilometres from Brussels called Waterloo. The bloodbath that followed resulted in the creation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, incorporating modern-day Belgium and Luxembourg.

1831: On July 21, King Léopold became the first ruler of an independent Belgium.

1870-1871: Though Belgium remained neutral during the Franco-Prussian War, tension was already growing between the Flemish and French-speaking peoples of the area, a linguistic division that partitions the country to this day. The following decades would see Léopold build something of a colonial empire with African holdings a whopping 70 times as large as Belgium itself.

During WWI, Germany violated Belgium's neutral status and occupied the country. Naturally enough after such treatment, Belgium signed on with France during the interwar period, and was bombed and occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1944. Though some accused King Léopold III's government of collaborating, many Belgians believe that his early surrender saved the country.

Under pressure from Walloon socialists, Léopold abdicated the throne to his son, Baudouin I, who became one of the most loved leaders in all of Europe. He finally liberated the Congo after some centuries of opression, calmed Franco-Flemish tensions, threw one doozy of a World Fair in 1958 and attracted both NATO and the European Commission to Brussels, where both are now headquartered.

1993: Baudouin's death was mourned by much people, many of whom gathered outside the royal palace in Brussels to show their support for the royal family.

Brussels still struggles with its identity, and language is still a heated topic, but among the new skyscrapers populated by legions of diplomats and businesspeople, the city's ancient heart continues to beat. It continues to grow and thrive as a major centre for international relations, industry and trade.

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