Once upon a time, there was a girl who moved to Brussels. She devoted her very first week to visiting all popular landmarks in the city, and she thought that she had seen everything. Of course, the city proved her wrong in good time because it takes years for a person to get to know even the smallest town intimately. Brussels has in fact so much to share, for it is full of hidden gems only locals can show you.
One of the things that impressed me the most was the rich street art tradition, and in particular, the artful graffiti paintings decorating the walls of many buildings. At first, I thought they were just beautiful images created by talented artists. It turned out that all of them, hundreds and hundreds, make part of different popular stories, novels, comics, movies or important moments of human history. I have spent days and weeks, walking around the city and researching them. The best thing is, no matter which direction you chose, you will certainly pass by a large number of works of urban graffiti art.
What better way to start the day than having your breakfast on a green meadow among trees, enjoying the view of a small lake. Such an oasis exists in the heart of the Saint-Gilles neighborhood, and it is called Park Pierre Paulus. It is a quiet place, well hidden from the outside world, and features a small lake in the middle. I want to ask you to be nice to the geese and the ducks when you visit. They are friendly and curious, and their only intent is to help you with your breakfast.
In the same area, only five minutes from the park, rises the Halle Gate, a remnant from the 14th century and local pride. The medieval gate, part of an old citadel, is now turned into a museum. I advise you to use the audio-guide inside, because the story of the Halle Gate and behind every single object hosted in the museum is not to be missed. It is a stunning piece of history, and the view from the roof will take your breath away.
Another fascinating part of the city is Place Fernand Cocq and the area around it. The square is entirely pedestrianized, and the town hall that stands in the middle is one of Brussels' most beautiful municipal buildings. It used to be the villa of an opera singer, and nowadays often hosts concerts or exhibitions.
It is a very underestimated place if you ask me, but a favorite location of the locals for a little walk or a drink in the evening in one of the numerous attractive bars and restaurants around. Another advantage is proximity to the major shopping area, Avenue Louise and Place Flagey, one of Brussels' party epicenters.
The center for Fine Arts BOZAR is another of Brussels' somewhat underestimated showplaces, despite its central location in the tourist area. BOZAR is a masterpiece of the architect Victor Horta, which opened its doors in 1928, and since then it hosted many ambitious, prestigious and innovative projects from all the spheres of culture. The massive façade, a symbiosis of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, hides a tender, exquisite and artistic heart inside.
Right across the street, another architectural wonder is hidden in plain view. This is the gorgeous Galerie Ravenstein. The gallery is shopping and office center, built between 1954 and 1958 and a product of the architects Alex and Phillipe Dumont. The gallery is also a pedestrian connection between uptown and downtown Brussels.
The Garden of Sculptures is certainly one of the most charming, yet inconspicuous little havens of the city center. Quiet and peaceful, the mini-park is perfect for a respite against the background of greenery and art. Each one of the statues has its own charisma, soul and story. Jardin des Sculptures is an alluring place for connoisseurs of art and beauty. It is not uncommon to meet here young artists sketching the statues. And, if you are not stingy with compliments, it is quite possible to leave with a sketch as a gift.
The next logical destination on our way is the Petit Sablon Square. Be prepared to spend more than an hour here, since there is much to see.
For starters, the little park with the statues, Parc du Place du Petit Sablon, will enchant you with its splendid and majestic iron fencing, and most notably, the sculptures. They represent the richness of the crafts and Belgium's artisanship from the Middle Ages to the present day.
The Church of Our Lady of Victories at the Sablon (Église Notre-Dame de Victoires au Sablon) dates back to the 14th century when Brussels' wealthy citizens patronized it. It features a lavish decoration and unique stained glass and offers outstanding views from both in - and outside. If you have the chance, do not miss participating in one of the traditional masses, usually accompanied by the three organists who play together and the angelic voices of the choristers.
The church is surrounded by a small but very charming square with antiquaries and luxury shops. If you do not find them affordable, even window shopping will offer a degree of blessing, since the window dressing of every single shop looks like a masterpiece.
A somewhat bizarre destination, but the Sewer Museum (Musée des Égouts) is worth the time if you, of course, know how to find it. Its entrance is situated in the middle of the boulevard, between the two lanes. I remember myself staring at the main entrance for 15 minutes, wondering if it was a metro entrance.
Inside, the Musée des Égouts is all about the sewage system of Brussels, including the typical sewer smell or the occasional interaction with a pet rat in the underground corridor.
The Sewer Museum is one of the most unexpected and intriguing museums you will visit. The atmosphere is unique, a bit post-apocalyptic and mysterious. You can feel the river all around you and hear the streetcar moving meters above your head. Definitely a very different perspective of the city!
At the risk of sounding immodest, Villa Empain is the icing of the cake of this stroll to me. It is beautiful, and it is singular.
In 1930, Louise Empain, the 22-year-old son of a wealthy businessman, started constructing his own luxurious villa in one of the most prestigious boulevards in Brussels today - Avenue des Nations. The creator of this project was Michel Polak, who constructed the villa in typical Art Deco style, combined with simple and symmetric lines.
Villa Empain has a long and interesting history, and it has been through difficult times during the Second World War, and later on when it was partially destroyed. Luckily, in 2006, the Boghossian Foundation acquired Villa Empain and after four years of hard work, managed to restore it to its present brilliance.
Today, Villa Empain is a cultural and social center, hosting various exhibitions, events, gatherings and pool parties. Do not miss to visit and enjoy its charm and pure beauty.
It is as if only a moment has passed, but we managed to enjoy together many of the hidden gems of Brussels. Often, the most precious places are hidden from the eye of the casual tourist. Brussels is a city well known for its famous landmarks and yet hides many secret spots that only locals can show you.
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