Brussels evolution and development have been closely linked to the launch and deployment of its systems of public transportation. On a personal note, I must say that metros and tramways have been part of my life in Brussels since I arrived in the city as a young undergraduate student. To be honest, for a long time, I saw them only as a means of getting around in town. It is only recently that I realized that public transport in Brussels could be as enjoyable as useful if we only take some time to sit down and admire the artworks hidden in certain stations. And I am sure that thousands of people before me have felt the same. Beware! Some tramway & metro lines are packed at the rush time, so try to avoid the 7 am - 9 am slot, as well as 4 pm - 7 pm.
The first metro line opened in 1976, although pre-metro (the underground tramway) was already operating as early as 1965. Tramway is even older than this, considering that the first horse-drawn system dates back to 1869! It is actually in the 1930s that the tramway system started operating as we know it today. And on top of this, many workers and commuters also take the train to go from one part of the city to another. With locals being increasingly sensitive to pollution issues, cars are being replaced by (electric) bikes and by public transport. So, I would say the future seems definitely bright for public transport!
Today, some metro stations across Brussels are famous for the masterpieces by Belgian artists (modern and contemporary art) that they house, whether they are photographs, frescoes, statues, or iron pieces. I would recommend you to spend some time in Belgica (the “Polar station”), Jardin Botanique, Porte de Hal, Clemenceau, Delacroix, Gare de l’Ouest or Simonis.
In Maelbeek, the Brussels metro station devastated by the terrorist attacks of March 2016, a work inaugurated in July 2016 and created by the artist Benoît Van Innis, depicts an olive tree that symbolizes the tree of peace in many cultures. Seventeen years earlier, the artist had already created portraits in this same station: portraits that now symbolize for us, the victims of the attacks.
Whether they are of major importance or smaller, railway stations also play a crucial role in the lives of the people of Brussels. They are not a field of artistic expression as some metro stations can be, but they are worth the detour.
Bruxelles-Midi, for example, in Anderlecht, is an extraordinary mix of old and new, a place where modern and ancient live side by side. Indeed, a connecting international hub between Paris, London, and Lille, the Bruxelles-Midi station sees every single day thousands of leisure travelers and commuters stepping down from the Thalys and Eurostar trains to work or visit the capital of Europe. Next to the recently upgraded modern part of the station (meant for international traffic), there is the old section for internal Belgian connections, where you will feel like in the 1960s. Another station you just cannot miss is the Central Station. Located at the very heart of the city, a few steps away from the highly touristic Grand-Place on one site, and the cultural Mont des Arts, it is THE hub you will go through. Its art-deco architecture is worth a look, as are its deep underground platforms.
These stations are widely used by locals, whether workers or students, to go from one part of the city to the other. European officials access the European quarter via the Schumann or Luxembourg railway stations. Another example: many ULB or VUB students go to the Solbosch or Plaine campus via the Etterbeek train station.
Brussels would not exist without its tramways. The tram system is one of the largest in the world, taking you to the furthest reaches of the city, running from its center to the outskirts. Some lines are worth remembering because they pass through the top attractions of the city. It is the case of lines 92 and 94 that lead you to the Brussels Park, Royal Palace, Fine Arts Museum, for example. Line 51 leads you to the Heysel, where you can see and visit the Atomium. And finally, line 44 connects the famous Montgomery station with the municipality of Tervueren in Flanders, running along the Woluwé Park and going across the Forêt de Soignes.
Even if it sounds a bit touristic (and it is actually), a nice activity to do, alone or with a family (but not babies), is to take the Brussels touristic tramway at the Museum of Urban Transport in Brussels. You will sit in a tramway dating back to the 1930s. It is a 4-hour journey that will lead you across the most famous art nouveau and art deco spots in the capital.
Another great museum is the Train World, a railway museum. It is situated in the preserved buildings of Schaarbeek railway station and a new shed built to its north. It is really nice and pretty interesting for anyone interested in trains and their history, as well as for curious children. I spent 2 hours there with my family, and you can even stay longer. The place has lots of old trains, some of which you can even “ride” in. The access is convenient (right next to the Schaerbeek station) and the entrance fee affordable.
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