The Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium
The Grand Place is one of the most important sites in Brussels – but how much do you know about its history and the best things to do in the Grand Place, Brussels?
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!
To understand why, you need to go back more than a thousand years to the point when Brussels was officially founded.
History of the Grand Place, Brussels
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!
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.
How do I get to the Grand Place in Brussels?
The Grand Place is right in the centre of the historic part of Brussels and is very easy to access as a visitor. You can walk to the Grand Place from most of the other historic sights in the city centre, and it is just a few minutes walk from the Central station of Brussels, easily connecting it to other parts of the city (and Europe).
Visiting the Grand Place, Brussels
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.
Having said that, doing a tour is an excellent way to learn more about why the Grand Place is so important and see some other parts of Brussels. I would recommend this walking tour of Brussels to get a good overview.
There are also some other good options to choose from here:
But even without a tour, it’s worth coming to have a look at what you can see at the Grand Place.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 some days in different languages. It’s worth doing – but be warned that they can be popular in the summer tourist months.
Tours of the Town Hall are available at the following times:
Every Wednesday: 1 pm in French, 2 pm in English, 3 pm in Dutch
Every Sunday: 10 am in Dutch, 11 am in English, 12 pm in French, 2 pm in French, 3 pm in English, 4 pm in English.
The tour costs €7 for an adult. For seniors and students, it is €5.
Admission is free for children under 12 years old.
Tickets go on sale at 9:00 on the day of the tour only.
The tour starts at the reception of the Town Hall through the courtyard. The tour lasts 55 min.
For more information on guided tours, check out the official website.
Please don’t think that the Grand Place Brussels 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!
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!
2 thoughts on “The grand marketplace of Brussels”
Amazing Architecture! The Grand Place is a beautiful establishment. It’s pretty interesting seeing a historical building with a Starbucks and other modern shops. Thanks for sharing these great photos!
Very good observation concerning the absence of churches on Brussels Main Square!
This is actually a characteristics shared with many cities in Belgium and Northern France (Lille, Douai, Arras, Brugges, etc…): The power of this cities during Middle Age was not symbolized by a castle (Nobility) or a church/cathedral (clergy), but by a Belfry, usually attached to the city hall, the stock exchange or the market, to symbolize the economic power of the city.
Belfries from Northern France and Belgium are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List: One thing you can check next time you are in this area 😉