I’m going to be perfectly honest here, I had no idea what the Atomium was before visiting Brussels. Sure, I’d seen pictures of it, and had seen it faultlessly listed as an unmissable attraction to visit while in the Belgian capital but, not unlike the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, I visited the Atomium blind to its history and purpose. Which is fine, as the bottom sphere of the structure holds a permanent exhibition that does a pretty good job of filling you in.
Originally constructed as the main pavilion and icon for the 1958 Brussels World Expo in order to represent the focus on scientific progress that was prevalent at the time, the building depicts nine iron atoms magnified 165 billion times. Out of the nine spheres, six of them are accessible to the public, and the central tube contains what was the fastest elevator of its time, running at 5 meters per second (20 feet per second), and which allows people to reach the summit in 23 seconds. The oblique tubes have escalators, the largest being 35 meters (100 feet) long.
The building was not originally intended to live past the 1958 World Expo, but its success turned it into a symbol of Brussels, and thus it eventually became a permanent staple in the cityscape. Which is not to say that it was well-maintained during that time, as the building had sunk into heavy disrepair by the turn of the millennium. Renovation on the building began in 2004, however, and was finished in 2006, during which the faded aluminum sheets that covered the spheres were replaced with stainless steel. As I mentioned before, the bottom sphere interior now holds a space reserved for a permanent exhibition dedicated to the 1950s, the 1958 World Expo, and the history of the Atomium itself.
The top sphere holds a restaurant, as well as a lookout point with panoramic views over its surroundings.
The remaining spheres hold spaces for temporary exhibitions, meeting rooms, conference halls, as well as a space known as the “Children’s Ball,” which allows groups of schoolchildren to visit the Atomium and spend the night.
Keep in mind that the Atomium is not anywhere near the Brussels city center, but it is easily accessible by metro.
Musée des instruments de musique / Muziekinstrumentenmuseum
Yet another museum I did not go into, the Museum of Musical Instruments of Brussels is located in what was formerly the Old England Department Store, designed by Paul Saintenoy with the engineer E. Wyhovski. Together they were able to design a structure that served its use as a department store while adapting itself to the sloping street in which it sits and making use of the Art Nouveau style that was currently in-fashion, becoming a perfect example of its industrial variation.
The building was bought by the Belgian government in 1978 after Old England vacated it in 1972. After fifteen years of restoration and renovation work, the Museum of Musical Instruments moved in between 1989 and 1994 to open anew in the year 2000.
Mont des Arts / Kunstberg
The Mont des Arts is basically a square, though its name translates to “Hill of the Arts,” as it’s surrounded by a number of museums and monuments, including the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, the Royal Palace, and the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.
Carillon of the Mont des Arts
Sitting beside the aforementioned Mont des Arts, the Carillon is a star-shaped clock designed by Jules Ghobert. The clock takes turns, every other day, playing bits of folk tunes in Walloon and Flemish on the strike of the hour.
Grand Place / Grote Markt
A UNESCO Heritage Site since 1998, the Grand Place is considered to be a central landmark of Brussels, as well as one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe.
Historically, the square has been an important center of commerce, but it has also borne witness to darker events, such as the burning of the first Protestant martyrs Henri voes and Jean Van Eschen by the Inquisition in 1523, and the beheading of the counts Egmont and Horn, who had spoken out against King Philip II, an act which also happened to trigger an armed rebellion against Spanish rule.
An attack by the French in the late 17th century saw the whole of the square, with the exception of the outer shell of the Town Hall (ironically, the attack’s primary target), destroyed. During WWI, the Town Hall served as a makeshift hospital, as the Grand Place was flooded by refugees.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert / Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen
Located near the Grand Place, the Saint-Hubert Royal Galleries is an ensemble of shopping arcades designed by Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer in 1846-47. It takes inspiration from Vasari’s narrow courtyard in the Uffizi in Florence, and separates each shopfront with pilasters and two upperfloors, making reference to the Italian Cinquecento.
The Gallery is also home to what has to be the prettiest bookshop I’ve ever been in.