The original palace of Brussels was built on this site, Coudenberg Hill, beside the current Royal Palace in the late 11th century. Having been rebuilt and extended several times, it was occupied by the Dukes of Brabant, then the Dukes of Burgundy, and later Emperor Charles V. For several hundred years it was the regional center of power. Unfortunately it was destroyed by a massive fire in 1731, and never rebuilt. What remained disappeared under a new citywide development in the late 1700s. Rediscovered only in recent decades, the lower walls and foundations from parts of the surrounding town have been excavated, and make for a fascinating underground tour beneath the Place Royale.
Together, the Museum of Historical Art and the Museum of Modern Art comprise the world-class Royal Museum of Art. To orient yourself to its collections, pick up a color-coded, English-language map that's included with admissions. The "ancien" museum features works from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Bruegels are in the blue area, and works by Reubens are in the brown section. The "moderne" museum showcases art from the 19th century through the modern day. Note that the museum's famed collection of René Magrittes is now housed in a dedicated museum next door (additional entrance fee). Although each museum closes for lunch, hours are staggered so that visitors don't have to leave the premises.
Surrealist painter René Magritte was one of Belgium's most famous artists. He and his wife Georgette lived in this suburban house for 24 years, during which time he produced his most famous art. Most people think "bowler hat" when they hear his name, and indeed, the artist's own topper is on display, along with sketches, his very first childhood painting, and the only work he owned by another artist, a photo by Man Ray. The museum does a first-rate job capturing how Magritte lived and painted, but to see his body of work, it's best to visit the Modern Art building of the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts.
More than 1500 instruments from around the world are featured at this museum, which occupies one of the city's most beautiful and historic Art Nouveau buildings. Highlights include an entire 17th-century orchestra, a spinet-harpsichord from 1619 (one of only two in the world), and a variety of creations by Adolphe Sax, the Belgian musician best known for inventing the saxophone. Entry ticket includes headphones, which allow you to hear the sounds of each instrument as you approach the display cases. The basement offers a special hands-on section for kids, and a sixth-floor restaurant serves sandwiches and boasts a panoramic view of Brussels.
This museum, which chronicles the economic, social and political history of the city, first opened in 1887. Located in the "King's House" on the Grand-Place, it tells Brussels' story through old paintings, historic documents, rich tapestries, and a scale reproduction of the city. Although exhibits are not labeled in English, an English-language brochure is available. One exhibit you can't miss is the third floor's collection of several hundred of Manneken Pis's outfits. These costumes, designed for the city's most famous statue, come from foreign heads of state and represent the dignitary's native land. They're typically presented to Brussels during the statesman's first visit.
For Belgium's golden jubilee in 1880, Leopold II built this park to showcase the country's finest arts and crafts. Today, its massive buildings house three city museums: Autoworld, the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History, and the Royal Museum of Art and History. Autoworld displays more than 400 rare and vintage cars, including ones owned by John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Belgian royal family. In the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History, more than 100,000 artifacts chart the past; the facility is one of the largest of its kind. In addition, the history of the Belgian Army is detailed, and an impressive display of military aircraft is presented. The Royal Museum of Art and History is so massive and comprehensive that visitors are encouraged to use an index and a map to chart what they want to see. The museum's most prestigious collections deal with European decorative arts, including spectacular Belgian tapestries and lace.
The most immediately recognizable symbol of all Brussels, the Atomium finally reopened after a much-needed facelift. The once grubby, sad interior of this "giant silver atom," built for the 1958 Expo, has been spruced up, and it's worth heading to the top of the structure for a grand view across the city. Note that there can be long queues for the elevator at weekends. Wondering about the inspiration for the design? It's intended to represent an iron "crystal, magnified 165 billion times." Ticket office closes one hour before closing.
This square, one of Europe's most ornate, is the spiritual heart of Brussels. Even today, most of the city's free concerts, fairs, parades and pageants make use of the Baroque masterpiece. In the 17th century, a bombardment devastated the area, but Brussels' craftsmen leapt to action. Within four years, guild houses were built on the north side of the square, residences filled the south side, and large buildings on the east and west flanks were completed. Today the town hall (and the tourist bureau's main office) are located in Grand-Place, as is the City Museum. Several smaller museums are located in old guild buildings, and shops and cafes fill ground-floor storefronts. A great first stop during your visit to Brussels.
The traditional palace of independent Belgium now houses the king's office, the crown prince's residence, and a small museum with artifacts from the royal dynasty. The palace overlooks Parc du Bruxelles and the parliament building. If the national flag is flying outside the palace, you'll know that the king is in town, despite the fact that he lives in the castle of Laken. During the summer, visitors can tour the building for free and see the impressive Throne Room, with its mosaic parquet floor, and the Music Room, which features an ebony piano inset with copper and semi-precious stones.
Often considered laughter-provoking, comic strips in Belgium are serious business, to the point of being referred to as the "ninth art." Belgium's best-known comic export is Tintin, the boy and his dog created by Herge in 1929. Along with Tintin, the Belgian Comic Strip Center pays homage to Asterix, Thorgal, the Smurfs, and Willy and Wanda, along with Andy Capp, Charlie Brown, and some familiar superheroes. The museum is housed in a renovated Art Nouveau building designed by Brussels' native son, Victor Horta.