It takes me a little while to work out what’s odd about this city square.
In many ways, it is similar to most of the main squares in major European cities.
So what is it? What is not quite right?
Then it hits me. There’s no church here!
Go to any major city in Europe, go to the main city or market square, and I bet that in almost every case there’s a church of some denomination there.
But not here at the Grand Place Brussels. The most famous square in the Belgian capital is all about business!
What is the Grand Place in Brussels?
The Grand Place is the central square of Brussels and is lined with beautiful historic buildings, some of which are shops and restaurants, and some of which are museums that you can visit.
It’s one of the main tourist sights in Brussels.
When was the Grand Place in Brussels built?
The buildings around the Grand Place were all built at slightly different times, but most of the public buildings you’ll see are from the 15th century, while the others mainly show the Baroque architecture of the late 17th century.
Why is the Grand Place in Brussels a World Heritage Site?
The Grand Place in Brussels is a World Heritage Site partly because of the excellent authentic architecture that has been preserved here, but also because of how the square symbolises the importance of the commercial organisations of Brussels, compared to the religious organisations that had power in other countries.
The Grand Place is one of the most popular places to visit in Brussels, an incredible collection of historic buildings and decorated facades that tell you much about the history of the city.
And that’s why, to understand why there is no church on the square, you need to go back more than a thousand years to the point when Brussels was officially founded.
A brief history of the Grand Place
The year was approximately 979 and a man called Charles, who was the Duke of Lower Lorraine, built a fort on Saint-Gery Island, effectively establishing the new city.
The reason he chose this spot is because it was the furthest inland that the Senne river was still navigable by boat. And, whether this was the original intention of Charles or not, what happened was it became an important European trading town.
Goods coming in by boat would not be able to go any further, goods come from the land would be brought here to be taken further away.
You can see how a lot of money traded hands at this new little settlement.
You can also probably imagine how this all grew over the centuries and the markets expanded in size and importance. They were all based around the area that is today’s Grand Place.
By the 13th century, there were three indoor markets on the northern edge – selling meat, bread and cloth. In the 14th century, a much larger building for a cloth market was on the southern edge.
But this all came about quite haphazardly and it was in the 15th century that the local authorities took control of the planning.
They demolished some of the market structures, gave the Grand Place formal boundaries, and constructed the Brussels City Hall on the southern side.
Less than a century later, the Duke of Brabant built his own civic building across from the City Hall to show his own power.
It was at this point that the main commercial guilds decided to make their own headquarters around the square – it was clearly the place to be in the 16th century!
Things to see at the Grand Place Brussels
When you visit today (and a lot of people do), there are lots of things to see in the Grand Place just by standing in the square, although I think it helps if you have a guide to give it all some context.
If you would like a guide, this affordable small-group tour is a great way to see the Grand Place, as well as some other Brussels sights.
But even without a tour, you’ll be able to appreciate the ornate decorations on the facades of the buildings, and the beautiful architecture that surrounds you in every direction.
The square doesn’t look too different from the way it did in the 16th century.
Sure, there’s a Starbucks in the lower level of one of the old guild buildings, but the overall architecture hasn’t changed.
You can see the designs on the walls that would project out the power of the establishments to the traders in the square.
To really make the most of your visit to the Grand Place Brussels, I would recommend going beyond the facades – and luckily a few of the buildings here are open to visitors.
The Town Hall
The most important site at the Grand Place is still the Town Hall and it’s impossible to miss it. It’s almost 100 metres tall and has a cool 5 metre statue at the top of Saint Michael killing a demon.
You can’t just wander in and have a look yourself unfortunately, but there are guided tours in different languages. The tours will take you through the various rooms and galleries, and point out some of the building’s interesting quirks.
It’s worth doing – and a fascinating way to see inside the building that’s been the centre of political and administrative life for more than 600 years
Tours of the Town Hall are available in English at the following times:
Monday: 13:00, 15:00, and 17:00
Wednesday: 14:00 and 17:00
Friday: 16:00 and 19:00
Saturday: 16:00 and 19:00
Sunday: 10:00, 12:00, 14:00, and 17:00
(Check the website for tours in French, Dutch, or Spanish)
The tour costs €15 for an adult and €6 for concession.
A family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) is €40.
Admission is free for children under 7 years old.
For more information and to book a guided tour, check out the official website.
Museum of the City of Brussels
The Duke’s building is now the Museum of the City of Brussels and has interesting exhibitions inside about the history and geography of the city.
As well as being able to learn a bit about Brussels, this is also a great way to see inside one of these majestic buildings, to appreciate the architecture and interior design.
There’s information about the Grand Place; older artefacts like porcelain, pewter and tapestries; and a section about the modern city, including a tribute to the Mannekin Pis statue.
The museum is included for free with the Brussels City Card, which will save you a lot of money if you’re planning to see the sights.
The Museum of the City of Brussels is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 to 17:00. It is closed on Mondays.
The museum is also closed on these holidays: January 1st, May 1st, November 1st, November 11th, December 25th.
An admission ticket for the museum is €8.
For seniors, it is €6 and for students it is €4.
Admission is free for those under 18 years old.
The Brussels city museum is housed in a historical building that has no lift and the upper floors are accessible only by stairs. Therefore people with disabilities might have trouble accessing them.
For more information, have a look at the museum’s official website.
As you know, Belgium is famous for its beer, and you can explore some of that story at the Beer Museum on the Grand Place.
The museum is in the basement of the historic guild house of the brewers. There’s a collection of old ceramic brewing equipment, as well as some modern examples of metal vats and pipes.
The interior feels like a medieval tavern, with dark lighting and large wooden barrels – a perfect place to try some local beer and learn more about Belgium’s brewing history.
The Beer Museum is open from Wednesday to Saturday, from 10:00 – 17:00.
Entry is €5 and includes a beer at the bar.
The Beer Museum is included for free with the Brussels Card.
Grand Place 5
On the ground floor of Grand Place 5, a gallery space often hosts show-stopping temporary exhibitions.
Recently, there’s been a large exhibition of Banky’s works called Banksy Genius or Vandal, as well as one that uses Lego pieces to create homages to famous artistic masterpieces.
If you’re going to visit Brussels, have a look to see if there is anything special planned for the dates that you’ll be there.
Visiting the Grand Place in Brussels
The Grand Place is one of the most important sites in Brussels and almost every visitor and tour comes through at some point during the day.
When I arrive at about 9 o’clock in the morning, I almost have the place to myself. But the crowd grows steadily and by 10 o’clock there are a lot of tour groups standing around.
Although you can of course visit independently (which makes sense if you just want to have a coffee or a meal at one of the restaurants and watch life go by), I would recommend this walking tour to learn more about the Grand Place.
There are also some other good options here of Brussels tours that include the Grand Place.
The Grand Place is right in the centre of the historic part of Brussels and is very easy to access as a visitor. It’s just a few minutes walk from the Central station of Brussels, easily connecting it to other parts of the city (and Europe).
Even if you’ve seen a few city squares on your European travels, it’s worth visiting this one. If for nothing else, so you can see one without a church – it’s rather novel!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BRUSSELS
Brussels is not known as a cheap city but there are actually some lovely affordable places if you look beyond the obvious business districts.
For a backpacker option, I would recommend the Sleep Well Youth Hostel.
If you’re looking for a budget hotel, First Euroflat Hotel has nice comfortable rooms.
A great hotel with leisure and country club on site is Aspria Royal La Rasante Hotel & Spa.
And for an absolutely spectacular luxury experience, you can’t go past the Rocco Forte Hotel!