Grand Place Walking Tour, Brussels

Grand Place Walking Tour (Self Guided), Brussels

World-famous for its imposing Baroque-style buildings, such as the Town Hall, the King's House and the House of Dukes, the Grand Place of Brussels a whole is indisputably a masterpiece of human creative genius, with a special quality of homogeneity and coherency.

The buildings around the Grand Place, all different but built within a very short period, admirably illustrate the Baroque architecture of the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, with special treatment in a local (and therefore unique style) of the gables and ornamentation.

Lining each side of the square is a number of guild-houses and a few private houses which, in their current form, are largely the result of reconstructions after the French bombardment of 1695. During the Middle Ages and later, many cities in Belgium had guilds with a stake in the city's administration. These guilds were very wealthy and held tremendous political power, thus their wealth position was often reflected in ornate and impressive buildings, each bearing their own name and distinguishing features.

Take this self-guided tour to better appreciate the architectural wonder of the Grand Place, which perfectly encapsulates and vividly illustrates the social and cultural quality of this important political and commercial center.
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Grand Place Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Grand Place Walking Tour
Guide Location: Belgium » Brussels (See other walking tours in Brussels)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.3 Km or 0.2 Miles
Author: audrey
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Grand Place (Grand Square)
  • King's House / Brussels City Museum
  • Le Pigeon / La Chaloupe d'Or
  • House of the Dukes of Brabant
  • L'Arbre d'Or / Le Cygne / L'Etoile
  • Hotel de Ville (Town Hall)
  • Le Renard / Le Cornet
  • La Louve / Le Sac / La Brouette
  • Le Roy d'Espagne
Grand Place (Grand Square)

1) Grand Place (Grand Square) (must see)

The Grand Square or "Grand Place", also known as the Grand Market ("Grote Markt" in Dutch), has long been the economic hub of Brussels; a top tourist attraction and by far the most iconic symbol of the Belgian capital. Esteemed as one of Europe's most exquisite squares, if not one of the world's, it has earned World Heritage status for its representation of 17th-century Belgian society and culture.

This square has functioned as a marketplace since the 12th century and has grown in importance alongside Brussels' prosperity, evident in the lavish gold embellishments adorning the grand buildings. Originally guild houses for various Brussels industries, ranging from haberdashery to baking, these buildings now house commercial shops and cafes, with some offering outdoor seating for patrons. Notably, No. 10 remained inhabited by the Belgian beer brewers guild for centuries, now housing the Brewers Museum.

During the Bombardment of Brussels in 1695, when Louis XIV's French troops relentlessly attacked the square for 36 hours, many of its magnificent buildings were destroyed; however, they were painstakingly restored to their former splendor, primarily using stone for longevity. Among the surviving medieval buildings are No. 3, once the guild house for tallow merchants dating back to 1644, and No. 5, which belonged to the archers guild (the Phoenix on the facade symbolizes the square's revival from destruction).

The Grand Square has been the witness to many historic events over the centuries, such as the burning of Protestant martyrs by the Inquisition and the execution of counts in the 16th century. Today, on a more peaceful note, it hosts a variety of festive and cultural events, including the biennial "Flower Carpet", a dazzling display of over 500,000 colorful begonias covering an area of 1,800 square meters in mid-August. Also popular is the Ommegang, a medieval-inspired procession revived in 1930 to celebrate Belgium's centenary as an independent state. Other major events include the annual Christmas tree lighting, the Meyboom procession, and musical concerts.

Why You Should Visit:
Without a doubt, the heart of the city. Here, alongside architectural jewels from the 17th century, you'll discover centuries-old bars tucked away in alleyways, offering authentic Belgian beer; restaurants along the narrow Rue des Bouchers serving steamed mussels; stores selling delicious chocolate, lace, and souvenirs, and so much more.

Visit during the daytime to fully appreciate the intricate details on the facades, and return in the evening to witness the buildings illuminated. If you're fortunate, you might catch a special sound and light show after dark, typically around 10:20 PM.
King's House / Brussels City Museum

2) King's House / Brussels City Museum

The King's House, also known as Maison du Roi, is designed in a Neo-Gothic style incorporating many decorative statues. In Dutch, it continues to be called the Broodhuis ("Bread Hall"), after the medieval bread-market whose place it took when the Duke of Brabant ordered its construction as a symbol of ducal power. Having suffered extensive damage from the bombardment of Brussels by French troops in 1695, the building underwent a series of reconstructions, with the newest masterpiece from the 1870s currently housing the Brussels City Museum.

The museum features pieces of Brussels' heritage including maps of the city from different years, glorious wall tapestries, earthenware, silverware, paintings (including works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens) and architectural relics that speak volumes about the Belgian capital's past. The top floor houses an entire exhibit dedicated to 'Manneken-Pis', which is unmissable, as it not only has the original statue on display but also the hundreds of varied – and often whimsical – costumes donated by overseas countries for the diminutive city mascot to be dressed in.

Why You Should Visit:
Good way to familiarise yourself with the history of the city while on the run.
While the building itself is a sight to behold, its balcony gives a great view of the plaza.

Unless you speak French, consider purchasing the museum's audio tour.
Le Pigeon / La Chaloupe d'Or

3) Le Pigeon / La Chaloupe d'Or

The guild-houses and private mansions running along the north side of Grand Place, just to the right of the King's House, are not quite as well-known as their neighbors, though the "Pigeon House", formerly owned by the painters' guild, is of interest as the place where French writer Victor Hugo spent some time during his exile imposed by the Coup d'Etat of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851. The house also bears four unusual "mascarons" (grotesque masks) in the manner of the green man of Romano-Celtic folklore.

The adjacent Chaloupe d'Or ("Golden Boat") is appealing, too; the old headquarters of the tailors' guild, it is capped by a statue of St. Homobonus of Cremona, their patron saint, and now home to one of the square's bars serving good waffles and fries, and an excellent variety of mussels.
House of the Dukes of Brabant

4) House of the Dukes of Brabant

On the eastern side of Grand Place, you will find the House of the Dukes of Brabant (La Maison des Ducs de Brabant) – a set of seven guild-houses grouped behind the same monumental facade and named after the nineteen busts of dukes of Brabant that grace the facade's pilasters, at ground level. Restored in the 1880s and 1980s, this building, more than any other on the square, has the flavor of the aristocracy – as distinct from the bourgeoisie – and, it goes without saying, was much admired by the city's Habsburg governors. It currently houses as a restaurant as well as the square's only hotel.
L'Arbre d'Or / Le Cygne / L'Etoile

5) L'Arbre d'Or / Le Cygne / L'Etoile

On the south side of Grand Place, beside the Town Hall, L'Arbre d'Or ("Golden Tree") is the only house still owned by a guild – the Brewers'. Look for the equestrian statue of 18th-century aristocrat, Charles of Lorraine on top, but also the gilded emblems of hops and wheat, and the tiny Belgian Brewers Museum (daily: 10am–5pm) on the ground floor.

The Cygne ("Swan") mansion next door takes its name from the swan on its facade and has originally housed the butchers' guild before becoming a tavern where political theorist Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels regularly met during the former's exile in Belgium. Indeed, it was in Brussels, in February 1848, that the two penned "The Communist Manifesto", made up of theories and opinions about the ideal socialist world. Quite appropriately, the Belgian Workers' Party was founded here four decades later, though presently the building shelters one of the city's more exclusive restaurants.

Completing the vista is the Maison de l'Etoile ("The Star") – a 19th-century rebuilding of the city magistrate's medieval home. This house, the smallest on the square, and with the 2nd-narrowest facade, has an arcade gallery in which you'll find a statue of Everard t'Serclaes, depicted in the throes of death, after defending the city from powerful ducal enemies. Many tourists touch (or rather rub) the statue, particularly the arm, as legend has it that it will ensure one's return to Brussels.
Hotel de Ville (Town Hall)

6) Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) (must see)

Considered as one of the world's top architecture beauties to see, the dazzling Hotel de Ville is a perfect example of the so-called Brabantine Gothic (flamboyant yet with some restrained finishing) built over several decades in the 15th century. Many visitors do not immediately notice that its 96-meter (310-ft) tower – whose spire is topped by Archangel Michael, patron saint of Brussels, slaying a devil – is not symmetrically placed in the middle; urban legend has it that even the architect did not initially see this and leaped to his death from the same spire after discovering his error (this is not the case, as the asymmetry was likely an accepted consequence of the scattered construction history and space constraints).

After the bombardment of Brussels in 1695 by a French army, the resulting fire completely gutted the Town Hall, destroying the archives and the art collections. The interior was soon rebuilt, and the addition of two rear wings, in the classical Louis XIV style, transformed the L-shaped building into its present configuration: a quadrilateral with an inner courtyard. The statues you see now on the façade – which represent nobles, saints and allegorical figures from the city's past – are relatively modern, part of a 19th-century refurbishment that also included the interior's replenishment with tapestries, paintings, and sculptures, largely representing subjects of importance in local and regional history.

The regular 45-minute guided tours are confined to a string of lavish official rooms with many different decorative styles, the most dazzling of which is the 16th-century Council Chamber with a superb ceiling by Victor Janssens.

Why You Should Visit:
A most impressive building (particularly spectacular at night), acting as a beacon wherever you are in the heart of Brussels.

Make sure to buy your guided tour tickets in the mornings to view the building from the inside – there are just a few tours each day and they do sell out. Tickets are on sale only the day of the guided tour, starting 9am, at the information desk.

Guided Tours (French/English/Dutch/Spanish):
Mon: 1pm (EN); 2pm (FR); 3pm (SP); 4pm (FR); 5pm (EN);
Wed: 1pm (FR); 2pm (EN); 3pm (NL); 4pm (FR); 5pm (EN);
Fri: 3pm (FR); 5pm (NL); 6pm (FR); 7pm (EN);
Sat: 3pm (FR); 4pm (EN); 5pm (NL); 6pm (FR); 7pm (EN);
Sun: 10am(EN); 11am (FR); 12pm/2pm (EN); 1pm (FR); 3pm (NE,SP); 4 pm (FR); 5pm (EN); 6pm (FR);
CLOSED: Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1, Nov 11, Dec 25
Le Renard / Le Cornet

7) Le Renard / Le Cornet

Le Renard, which translates to "The Fox", served as the guild house of haberdashers since the 15th century and was rebuilt in 1699. It contains animated bas-reliefs playing with haberdashery above the ground floor, while a slender fox squats above the door. A statue of Justice blindfolded proclaims the guild's honorable intentions and is flanked by allegorical sculptures of the four continents known at the time, suggesting the guild's designs on all markets across the world – an aim to which Saint Nicholas, patron saint of merchants, glistening above, unambiguously confers his blessings.

Le Cornet, next door, was the former boatmen's guild-house and features a fanciful Italianate-Flemish facade by Antoine Pastorana, who drew its gable in the shape of a ship stern in the 17th century (some say it looks like a war frigate). Air is blown on the vessel by means of a special horn, the "cornet", an action also symbolized by the four winds visible at the top of the ship's stern, along with representations of sailors and the head of Charles II of Spain in the medallion.
La Louve / Le Sac / La Brouette

8) La Louve / Le Sac / La Brouette

This ensemble of guild-houses on Grand Place is noteworthy for having partly resisted the French bombardment of 1695 when the rest of the square's edifices laid in ruins.

La Louve ("The She-Wolf"), originally home to the influential Oath of Archers, was built in 1690, though only 6 years later, its facade was rebuilt with a horizontal cornice, surmounted by a base where a statue was placed of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, symbol of the reconstruction of the city after the bombardment. The decorated pediment holds a relief of Apollo firing at a python, while below are four statues representing Truth, Falsehood, Peace and Discord. Finally, above the door, a charming bas-relief represents Romulus and Remus suckling the Roman she-wolf.

Le Sac ("The Bag"), was the house of carpenters and coopers whose tools decorate its facade since the 15th century. Built in stone in 1644 and partly spared by the bombardment, it was rebuilt in 1697 by carpenter Antoine Pastorana, who added the upper ornamentation resembling the flashy legs of Baroque furniture. Look out for the frieze above the door, which depicts a man taking something out of a bag ("sac").

La Brouette ("The Wheelbarrow"), was the house of tallow merchants but takes its name from the faint gold wheelbarrows etched into the cartouches above the door. Built in stone in 1644, rebuilt in 1697, and restored in 1912, when the figure of Saint Giles – the guild's patron saint – was placed on top. For now, the ground floor is occupied by a café.
Le Roy d'Espagne

9) Le Roy d'Espagne

After taking pictures of the magnificent Grand Place, stop by the famous Le Roy for a beer with a view. Despite having served as the original house of the bakers' guild, the building draws its name from the bust of Charles II which is incorporated into the 2nd-floor facade. As the ruler of the Spanish Empire, Charles II was the undisputed sovereign of Southern Netherlands, which included present-day Belgium when the building was completed.

Some of the notable features of the King include the statues on the roof and dome, while on the dome's very top is a gilded weathervane symbolizing Fame, which adds to the square's elegance. The six statues on the roof each represent one of the six items needed to make bread; from left to right, when facing the building, they are strength, wheat, wind, fire, water and foresight. Above the door is a gilded bronze bust of Saint Aubert, the patron saint of bakers.

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