With a powerhouse national art collection, an entire museum dedicated to its most famous artist, more Art Nouveau buildings than anywhere else and a vibrant design industry, Brussels has much to offer visiting culture vultures.
Thanks to King Leopold II, who wanted to surround his palace with beautiful things, visitors will find Brussels’ main museums within a 300-metre radius of the royal palace on the Mont des Arts (Hill of the Arts).
Overseen by the Royal Museums of the Fine Arts of Belgium are the Museum of Ancient Art, with its remarkable collection of paintings and sculptures from the 14th to the 18th centuries, the Magritte Museum, dedicated to the city’s most famous artist, and the Fin de Siècle Museum, chronicling art in Brussels and Belgium between the 19th and 20th centuries. A planned new section dedicated to modern and contemporary art will complete the grand complex.
The Museum of Ancient Art has ground-breaking work by the Flemish Primitives along with works by Flemish masters such as Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck. It also includes one the world’s largest collections of works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder as well as some masters from outside Belgium such as Tintoretto, Bosch and Rembrandt. There is also a modern section, which includes important works by Wouters, Dali, de Chirico, Ernst, Tanguy, Bacon and others. www.fine-arts-museum.be
A giraffe in a wine glass? A limbless torso on a beach? An eagle wearing a jacket? It must be Magritte. The Magritte Museum houses the world’s most extensive collection of works by the Surrealist, René Magritte, the most important Belgian painter of the 20th century who spent most of his life in Brussels. Each of the three floors is dedicated to a period in the artist’s life to form a chronological and themed biography. While most of his best work is in collections elsewhere, this is still the best overview of his work anywhere. www.musee-magritte-museum.be
While Paris was the epicentre of the art world around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Brussels was also a thriving artistic hub. To illustrate the point, the Fin de Siècle Museum (in French, the period is known as the ‘end’ of the century) showcases Belgian artists who are less known internationally because they did not leave ‘provincial’ Brussels to make their name in Paris. These include the symbolism of Fernand Khnopff and Leon Spilliaert, the hyper-realism of Henri de Braekeleer, the social realism of Constantin Meunier and the multi-disciplinary genius of Henry van de Velde and James Ensor. A selection of works by their international contemporaries sets the Belgian scene in a wider context. www.fin-de-siecle-museum.be
A few hundred metres downhill from the Mont des Arts is Bozar (the pronunciation for ‘Beaux Arts’, or Fine Arts). Designed by the Belgian Art Nouveau pioneer, the building itself is a work of art and the expansive exhibition spaces have hosted shows on Jeff Wall, Frida Kahlo, Gilbert and George and many others. www.bozar.be
Brussels is the capital of Art Nouveau, which originated there in the 1890 as a teaction to rampant industrialisation. Taking their motifs from nature, designers and architects left their mark throughout the city. Practically everywhere you look there are ornate facades, sculpted stonework and decorative wrought iron features. You can see how the the father of Art Nouveau lived at the Horta Museum. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Victor Horta’s private house is poetry in architecture and interior design. Three floors merge harmoniously into one another and no detail escapes Horta’s attention (www.hortamuseum.be). If you don’t make the tram ride to the Horta Museum, down the hill from the Magritte Museum is the fantastic Art Nouveau building which houses the Musical Instruments Museum. You may even arrive in Brussels at another of Horta’s creations, Central Station.
For a spot of gallery browsing, head for the historic Sablon district, where you’ll find a cluster of historic streets well populated with specialist independent galleries offering a range of work.
For the best in Belgian design, from fashion to interiors, head for the Dansaert district. The Soho of Brussels, outlets in this modish mecca range from haute couture studios to second hand luxury clothes shops. During Design September venues throughout the city showcase design’s various applications in fashion, furniture, lighting, architecture, graphics and textiles. www.designseptember.be