Brussels Historical Churches Walking Tour, Brussels

Brussels Historical Churches Walking Tour (Self Guided), Brussels

As well as being Belgium’s political and cultural capital, Brussels is the spiritual home of its most significant churches. Historically, the city has been predominantly Roman Catholic, especially since the expulsion of Protestants in the 16th century. The pre-eminent Catholic temple here, located just a couple of minutes from the Grand-Place, is the Brabantine Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which sports a striking twin-towered, white stone facade. Begun in 1215, and 300 years in the making, it remains a prominent feature in the skyline of downtown Brussels.

Another gorgeous church, this time down near the Royal Museums area, the medieval Notre-Dame du Sablon has impressive exteriors with ornate decorations and designs. Inside there are some fascinating things to see, such as the sculptures and the altar, but most of your time will be spent looking at the glorious stained glass windows, reminiscent of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. After your visit, feel free to spend some time at the antique stalls and shops in the nearby Place Sablon!

Among other highlights in the area are the Saint Nicolas Church, dating back over 1,000 years, and surrounded by similarly old-looking houses, or the Baroque church of Saint Jean Baptiste – the only building left from the Béguine convent founded on the site in the 13th century, whose facade is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Belgium.

Neglecting such treasures is like leaving Brussels without having waffles, so take our self-guided walking tour to catch a glimpse of some exquisite places of worship.
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Brussels Historical Churches Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Brussels Historical Churches Walking Tour
Guide Location: Belgium » Brussels (See other walking tours in Brussels)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 4.4 Km or 2.7 Miles
Author: audrey
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle (Chapel Church)
  • Eglise Saints-Jean-et-Etienne-aux-Minimes (St. John and St. Stephen Church)
  • Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon (Church of Our Lady of the Sablon)
  • Chapelle de la Madeleine (Mary Magdalene Chapel)
  • Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule (St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral)
  • Eglise Notre-Dame de Bon Secours (Church of Our Lady of Assistance)
  • Eglise Saint-Nicolas (St. Nicholas Church)
  • Eglise Notre-Dame du Finistere (Church of Our Lady of Finistere)
  • Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste-au-Beguinage (Church of St. John the Baptist)
1
Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle (Chapel Church)

1) Eglise Notre-Dame-de-la-Chapelle (Chapel Church)

Standing at the northern end of the Marolles district, with its distinctive black roof easily visible from various parts of the city, the Chapel Church showcases a harmonious fusion of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Believed to have originated in the 12th century as a Benedictine abbey, it became a central feature of medieval Brussels as the surrounding neighborhood thrived. Following a devastating partial fire in the 15th century, it was reconstructed in the Gothic style, now featuring a Baroque bell tower dating from the 18th century.

Notably, the church is renowned for being the final resting place of Francois Anneessens, a historic figure from Brussels who paid the ultimate price for advocating civil rights. Additionally, there is a small memorial near the confessional dedicated to Pieter Bruegel the Elder's memory. Often referred to as the "Peasant Bruegel", he was a Flemish painter and printmaker celebrated for his captivating landscape and scenes of peasant life. Interestingly, he earned the nickname "Peasant Bruegel" because he would disguise himself as a peasant to gain access to lower-class weddings and festivities, drawing inspiration for his future artworks.

Today, the Chapel Church serves as a Polish Catholic parish, welcoming both local worshipers and visitors year-round.
2
Eglise Saints-Jean-et-Etienne-aux-Minimes (St. John and St. Stephen Church)

2) Eglise Saints-Jean-et-Etienne-aux-Minimes (St. John and St. Stephen Church)

Often referred to simply as the Church of Minimes, it occupies a bustling intersection, conveniently situated between two neighborhoods: the upscale Sablon and the working-class Marolles, attracting a diverse congregation. Believed to have been part of a larger monastery, which has since been sold and razed, the church itself was constructed in the late 18th century, marking the twilight of the Baroque era that emerged in response to the Protestant Reformation in 1517.

In an effort to retain their congregations amidst the Protestant exodus from the Catholic Church, Catholics embarked on a mission to build churches of dramatic grandeur, essentially saying, "You're free to join Martin Luther, but before you do, know that those Protestant churches are small, plain, and dull. Stick with us, and we'll provide a spectacular and flashy show!" This Counter-Reformation aimed to be as lavish and flamboyant as possible, aimed at creating a visually stunning and opulent religious experience.

Inside, you'll find notable works of art worth exploring, including paintings by Jan Cosiers, a 15th-century Christ depiction, and an ornate pulpit. If you happen to visit on a Sunday at 11:30 AM, you can attend Mass, where the ribbed cupola's acoustics are particularly impressive, and Mass features either Gregorian chants or Bach cantatas.
3
Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon (Church of Our Lady of the Sablon)

3) Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon (Church of Our Lady of the Sablon) (must see)

The name "Sablon" originates from the sandy marshland that once occupied the area until the 17th century. The Place du Grand Sablon serves as a hub for antiques and houses leading chocolate makers such as Wittamer and Pierre Marcolini; it's also a great spot for a satisfying lunch. In contrast, the Place du Petit Sablon park is adorned with statues representing the medieval guilds of Brussels. Between the two areas stands this 15th-century church of the Guild of Crossbowmen (or archers), a splendid example of Brabantine Gothic architecture, complete with a lofty nave and chapels embellished with sculptures by some of the most celebrated 17th-century artists.

The structure initially served as a place of worship for the guild members in the 1300s; however, a century later, it had to undergo significant enlargement to accommodate the influx of pilgrims drawn by the purported healing powers of its Madonna statue. The statue was acquired in 1348 through a daring theft from a church in Antwerp, reportedly carried out by a husband-and-wife team motivated by a vision, using a rowing boat. Although it's no longer present, a boat behind the pulpit commemorates this curious event.

Traditionally frequented by Brussels' elite, the church also served as a burial ground for affluent community members until the late 1700s.

Why You Should Visit:
To be awed by the grandeur, yet simultaneously feel the intimacy that sets this church apart from more conventional ones. The structure is exceptionally well-lit thanks to its numerous and striking stained-glass windows – some of the most memorable you'll ever encounter!

Tip:
Visit early on a Sunday to explore the antique market outside the church, adding to the overall experience.
4
Chapelle de la Madeleine (Mary Magdalene Chapel)

4) Chapelle de la Madeleine (Mary Magdalene Chapel)

Just a short stroll from Brussels Park and not far from the bustling Grand Square, the exquisite Madeleine stands as one of the city' most splendid religious structures and one of its oldest. It is renowned for its architectural style characterized by the typical 13th-century red brickwork, along with its commanding grey stone nave and Gothic arches that gracefully surround the altar, creating a striking contrast with the modern lines of its 1950s stained glass windows. Despite undergoing several renovations, it retains its exceptional uniqueness.

The structure endured significant damage during the 1695 French bombardment, depicted in an engraving that portrays it amidst a scene of completely ravaged street buildings; however, thanks to a generous donation from the baker's guild, it was promptly reconstructed. Subsequently, it underwent restoration in the 1840s, and following the Second World War, it appeared destined for demolition. Yet, to everyone's astonishment, it was rescued once more in 1957, with the façade of the old Saint Anne chapel in the Brabant Baroque style, dating to 1665, being added. The façade's Baroque portal, dating to 1637, features representations of Christ, Mary Magdalene, and angels. The interior, now quite unassuming, no longer houses antique furnishings, but still warrants a visit.

Tip:
On the same street, at No. 55, you'll find Galerie Bortier, a beautiful neo-Renaissance building with a baroque facade that is now home to a collection of antique bookstores, where you may also discover English books if you take the time to explore the shelves.
5
Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule (St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral)

5) Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule (St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral) (must see)

This dramatic cathedral on Treurenberg Hill has graced the landscape since the early 11th century. In 1047, Lambert II, the Duke of Brabant, brought the relics of Saint Gudula to this location, leading to the construction of a Romanesque-style edifice. However, a late 15th-century renovation completely transformed the western facade into a stunning Gothic masterpiece, with glimpses of the original 11th-century church now visible only through strategically placed viewing glass spots in the floor.

Approaching the cathedral through a grand staircase leading to its three entrances, visitors are welcomed into an interior dominated by twelve majestic pillars and intricate stained-glass windows that beautifully exemplify the Gothic style. In the evening, the window at the nave's base, depicting The Last Judgment, is illuminated from within, creating a captivating spectacle. Another standout attraction is the dramatic Baroque-style pulpit, adorned with ornate details and featuring 'Adam and Eve Banished from Paradise', crafted by Hendrik Verbruggen in 1699. Moreover, a relatively recent organ was positioned high above, designed to optimize the acoustics.

Numerous renovations have taken place throughout the 20th century, culminating in their completion in December 1999, just in time for the wedding of Belgian Crown Prince Philippe to Princess Mathilda. The southern tower houses a carillon comprising 49 bells, often played during Sunday concerts. You might even notice a few falcons that have chosen to make their nests within the towers.

Tips:
Upon entering, be sure to pick up a leaflet providing information about the cathedral's history and details. Access is free, but a small fee is charged for access to the archaeological site beneath the existing floors inside the building.
6
Eglise Notre-Dame de Bon Secours (Church of Our Lady of Assistance)

6) Eglise Notre-Dame de Bon Secours (Church of Our Lady of Assistance)

This 12th-century chapel underwent a carefully planned and thoughtfully executed renovation in 1669, resulting in a blend of Baroque-Flemish and Italian architectural styles on its exterior. The renovation project also included the demolition of surrounding walls and an expansion of the chapel's space to its present configuration. Notably, the façade proudly displays the coat of arms of Charles of Lorraine, an enlightened governor of the Austrian Netherlands in the 18th century.

However, the most striking aspect of this chapel lies within its unique interior, characterized by a soaring hexagonal choir that reaches up to a domed ceiling. In addition to the primary altar, there are two others dedicated to Saint Joseph and Saint James. One particularly remarkable feature is a dramatic hammered copper piece depicting the resurrected Christ.

The chapel remains an active place of worship for parishioners, and visitors have the opportunity to appreciate its distinctive design and religious art objects. Adjacent to one side, there is a charming pedestrian street lined with outdoor cafes, providing a delightful setting to savor a cup of coffee while admiring the structure's exterior at leisure.

Why You Should Visit:
Conveniently located close to the Grand Place, making it easily accessible in just a few minutes, yet far enough to offer a peaceful and serene escape from the crowds. This chapel is a hidden architectural gem in the heart of Brussels, humble but very pleasant and tranquil.
7
Eglise Saint-Nicolas (St. Nicholas Church)

7) Eglise Saint-Nicolas (St. Nicholas Church)

Dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari, the patron saint of sailors (famously known as Santa Claus), this church has a history dating back to the 12th century but has undergone significant restoration efforts on several occasions – most notably in the 1950s when portions of its exterior were reconstructed in a simple Gothic style. One distinctive feature is the deliberate orientation of its three broad nave aisles, which were built at an angle to the chancel to accommodate a nearby stream. An intriguing relic of the past is the cannonball embedded high up in the third pillar on the left side of the nave, a remnant from the French bombardment of 1695.

Inside the church, you can find valuable artworks such as 'The Virgin and Child' painting by Rubens and the Vladimir Icon from Constantinople, dating back to 1131. Among other art pieces, there's also a splendid gilded copper reliquary shrine in the right-hand aisle, crafted in Germany during the 19th century to honor a group of Catholics martyred by Protestants in Gorinchem, Netherlands, in 1572.

In recent years, there were discussions about demolishing this historic church to make way for vehicular traffic. Fortunately, none of these plans came to fruition, and it remains preserved, much like the charming ancient architecture that surrounds it.
8
Eglise Notre-Dame du Finistere (Church of Our Lady of Finistere)

8) Eglise Notre-Dame du Finistere (Church of Our Lady of Finistere)

Combining elements of both Baroque and Neoclassical styles, this church was erected in the early 18th century to replace an earlier structure from the early 17th century, driven by the need to house a miraculous statuette of the Virgin Mary.

The site was previously occupied by a small chapel known as "des Potagers," which was historically situated at the outermost boundary, referred to as "finis terrae", of the Brussels territory, and it's this historical connection that led to the dedication of the new chapel to Notre-Dame du Finistère. During the French Revolution, it was temporarily closed but was later reopened for worship in 1804.

In 1852, an additional chapel was constructed to house the statuette of Notre-Dame du Bon Succès. This revered artifact was brought to the church from Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1625 and had previously been housed in the Augustinian church in Brussels; however, it was relocated to the Finistère in 1814 when the Augustinian church underwent a transformation into a Protestant temple.

Concealed behind the sandstone frontage, the interior houses notable wooden craftsmanship, including a remarkable "pulpit of truth" meticulously sculpted by Duray in 1758. Adorning the side aisles, one can admire wainscoting, elaborately adorned internal access doors with wooden draperies, and records of confraternities, as well as the stucco work within the choir, adding to the overall charm. As for the organ, initially crafted by organ builder Hippolyte Loret in 1856, it underwent multiple modifications and fell silent due to water damage inflicted during a fire in the bell tower in 1970. A restoration project ensued, successfully reinstating it to its original composition.
9
Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste-au-Beguinage (Church of St. John the Baptist)

9) Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste-au-Beguinage (Church of St. John the Baptist)

Just east of the Quai aux Bois à Brûler, you'll find the Place du Béguinage, a semicircular square dominated by the graceful and undulating structure of Saint John the Baptist, dating from the latter half of the 17th century. This exquisite church stands as the sole surviving structure from the 13th-century Béguine convent originally established here. In the past, the convent tightly enclosed the church, and it wasn't until its demolition and the creation of the star-shaped square in 1855 that the exterior could be appreciated with ease.

The architecture exudes a sense of movement and dynamism in every detail, culminating in three symmetrical gables, with the upper section of the central tower adorned with pinnacles that mirror those on the Town Hall ("Hôtel de Ville"). Inside the church, a bright and airy space welcomes visitors with lavish decor. White stone columns and arches are interspersed with solemn cherubs, serving as a reminder of human mortality, while the wide nave and aisles provide unobstructed views of the grand high altar. A monumental wooden pulpit stands out, featuring Saint Dominic preaching against heresy while symbolically trampling a heretic underfoot.

Tip:
On the rear side of the church, a brief stroll down rue de l'Infirmerie leads to a slender, tree-lined square reminiscent of provincial France. It is framed by the stern Neoclassical architecture of the Hospice Pacheco, constructed in the 1820s to provide for the destitute. Today, it's a tranquil space, but the imposing wall that surrounds the complex serves as a reminder of a time when the hospice resembled a prison more than a refuge, enforcing harsh rules with unforgiving severity.

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