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Facts about Brussels, Belgium

Updated on April 24, 2014
Brussels
Brussels | Source

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is situated in central Belgium on the Senne River. The French form of the name is Bruxelles; the Dutch form, Brussel. Brussels is also the unofficial capital of the European Union (EU), housing the offices of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Council, as well as a second seat of the European Parliament. A modern governmental and commercial center that throbs with activity, the city also possesses historical treasures. Among the latter are the magnificent Grand-Place, dominated by the pointed Gothic tower of the 15th-century town hall.

Although Brussels is located approximately 20 miles (30 km) within the Dutch linguistic zone of Belgium, the language of the city is primarily French. This was not always so. It was historically a Flemish (Dutch-speaking) city. In the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more French-speakers moved to the capital, whose native Dutch-speakers were more or less forced to become bilingual. The outer suburbs, however, remained Dutch-speaking.

Brussels Floral Carpet
Brussels Floral Carpet | Source
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The city administration is required by law to be bilingual, and street signs and municipal documents are printed in both languages. This arrangement has made Brussels acceptable as a national capital to both Flemish and Walloon (French-speaking) nationalists. In 1989 Brussels was separated from the province of Brabant (later, Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant) and granted autonomy as the capital region, governed by an elected regional council.

The center of the city is divided into two sections, the lower town and the upper town. By the 11th century two clusters of population had developed, one in the valley of the Senne River (the name "Brussels" is derived from words meaning "marsh" and "settlement") and the other on the hill of Coudenberg overlooking the Senne. Though the two were united by the 13th century, some distinction remains between the lower and upper towns.

The Lower Town

The lower town is still the main commercial area of the city, incorporating the stock exchange, the Grand-Place (which is flanked by the Guildhouses, dating mostly from the late 17th century, as well as by the town hall), many large department stores, and also traditional small shops. The sections of the central commercial boulevard are successively named Boulevard Maurice-Lemonnier, Boulevard Anspach, and Boulevard Adolphe-Max. Running parallel to this is another main street, successively called Avenue de Stalingrad, Rue du Midi, Rue des Fripiers, and Rue Neuve. Many streets of the lower town are the narrow alleys of earlier centuries. Along some of them are several of the best restaurants in Europe; both the quality and quantity of Brussels cuisine are renowned.

Gare du Midi
Gare du Midi | Source

The southern section of the lower city, near the large railway station, the Gare du Midi, is a working-class district dominated by the freight yards. It does contain the current chief municipal building and the great Porte de Hal, the last remnant of the fortified wall of the 14th century that has since been replaced by brightly lit and crowded boulevards. To the north are another railway station, the Gare du Nord; the canals that constitute Brussels' port; and the botanical garden. The Senne has long since been covered over.

The Upper Town

The counts of Brabant first settled on the Coudenberg. It was there that William I constructed his great palace during the short life of the United Netherlands (1815–1830). That palace is still the office of the Belgian kings, although they now reside at Laeken. Opposite the palace, across the Park of Brussels, in which the key battles of the Belgian Revolution of 1830 were fought, stands the Palais de la Nation. It houses the legislative chambers. Several other parks add to the openness of the upper town; among these are the Place du Petit Sablon and the promenade near the large, new Royal Library. The library possesses an extensive collection, and the neighboring Royal Archives have valuable holdings of medieval documents. In the same general area are the tomb of the unknown soldier; the Gothic-style Church of St. Michael and St. Gudule (12th–15th centuries); and the Palais de Justice, a 19th-century monument, with its great dome above heavy pillars, looming over the city from its hillside location.

Church of St. Michael
Church of St. Michael | Source

Outer Brussels

The city's growth in the 20th century was to the east, across the boulevard that rings central Brussels. The Rue de la Loi leads to the fine residential quarter known as the Léopold District, which contains the Parc and Palais du Cinquantenaire, constructed for the celebration in 1880 of the 50th anniversary of the Belgian Revolution. The wings of the Palais contain the Museum of the Army and the Royal Art and History Museums, the latter possessing an especially fine collection of antiquities.

The Avenue Louise, after leaving the newly developed shopping area of the Porte Namur, progresses southeastward to the Bois de la Cambre, a magnificently kept wood of 310 acres (125 ha). A favorite strolling spot, it is surrounded by fine residences. Nearby is the main campus of the francophone Free University of Brussels (Université Libre de Bruxelles), which was founded in 1834 as a counter to the Roman Catholic University of Louvain. Since 1969 there has been a separate Dutch-speaking Free University (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), which is located in the same neighborhood. Farther to the east the great beeches of the Soignes forest extend almost to Waterloo. The park of Tervuren includes part of the forest; however, it is better known for the Congo Museum built by Leopold II (reigned 1865–1909). It contains what is perhaps the world's best collection of Central African objects.

Rue de la Loi
Rue de la Loi | Source

Just to the west of the Parc du Cinquantenaire, along the Rue de la Loi and centered on Place Schuman, are the offices of the European Union. The Espace Léopold complex is the Brussels site of the European Parliament. (Its official home is in Strasbourg, France, but it conducts much of its business here.) The offices of the European Commission and the Council of the European Union are nearby.

To the north of the inner city is the park of Laeken with the royal residence. Visitors are attracted to the Chinese and Japanese pavilions and the site of the 1958 world's fair. Though almost all the fair buildings have been razed, the Atomium still towers as a symbol of modern Brussels and the fair.

Way of Life

The pace of life in Brussels is one of the most rapid of the cities of Europe; both the standard and cost of living are higher than in most regions of Belgium. Traditional small shops still coexist with the huge department stores that are becoming increasingly numerous; supermarkets are also gaining acceptance. Open-air markets, such as the Sunday flower market in the Grand-Place and the flea market in the Place du Jeu de Balle, continue to exist but are fewer in number.

Beer drinking is a favorite relaxation, and mussels a favorite dish. The large number of cinemas and the widespread discussion of films reflect the citizens' interest in this form of entertainment. Symphony concerts are given at the arts complex on the Coudenberg, and theater, ballet, and chamber concerts further add to the rich cultural fare. The museums of antique and modern art display many excellent works; particularly noteworthy are the paintings by the Flemish masters and the Belgian impressionists. Several smaller museums are of interest. Among them are those devoted to the sculptor and painter Constantin Meunier (1831–1905), the great 16th-century humanist Desiderius Erasmus, and the surrealist painter René Magritte (1898–1967).

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