The Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium
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 in Brussels. The most famous square in the Belgian capital is all about business!
To understand why, you need to go back more than a thousand years to the point when Brussels was officially founded. 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 aren’t too different these days – it is still clearly the place to be… for tourists. 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. I get there at about 9 o’clock in the morning and 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, getting in the way of my photos.
The square also doesn’t look too different from 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.
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. I don’t think it’s the most exciting place but it does give you the opportunity to see the inside the building and learn some interesting facts about Brussels.
The most important site at the Grand Place is still the Town Hall and it’s impossible to miss it. It’s is almost 100 metres tall and has a cool 5 metre statue at top of Saint Michael killing a demon. You can’t just wander in and have a look yourself unfortunately, but there are guided tours each day in different languages. It’s worth doing – but we warned that they can be popular in the summer tourist months.
Don’t think that the Grand Place is going to be like other market squares in Europe. Even if you’ve seen a few 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!
For accommodation, you could try this apartment in the Grand Place!