What do the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids of Giza, the Grand-Place and other exceptional sites in Brussels have in common? They’re all on the UNESCO World Heritage lists.
Brussels is admired for the richness of its heritage, which bears witness to its almost thousand year old history. This attracted the attention of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
To try to preserve the world's heritage, UNESCO has devised two important instruments, using strict selection criteria: the World Heritage List of cultural and natural assets that are “of outstanding universal value”, and the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, including practices, performing arts, expressions, knowledge and practices of a country, region or community.
The Grand-Place was successfully integrated in 1998 and since then, many other Brussels assets have also earned their place on these prestigious lists.
So, let’s go out and discover the Brussels heritage that is on one of the famous UNESCO lists!
Buildings and sites on the World Heritage List
UNESCO sees the Grand Place in Brussels as being "an outstanding example of the eclectic and highly successful blending of architectural and artistic styles that characterizes the culture and society of this region". The square "illustrates in an exceptional way the evolution and achievements of a highly successful mercantile city of northern Europe at the height of its prosperity".
It has been a marketplace since the 12th century (the "Nedermerckt" or "Lower Market"), and it was increasing lined by houses and market halls, which are still mostly built of wood. The Gothic City Hall was built in the 15th century in three stages; it was also in this century that the guilds established themselves in the houses around the Grand-Place. After being bombarded by Louis XIV's troops in 1695, it was almost entirely rebuilt. Significant restoration and modification work was also carried out in the following centuries.
Bronze UNESCO logo plates line the ground along the 7 entrances to the Grand-Place.
Major townhouses by architect Victor Horta
This was how these four buildings by the great Belgian architect Victor Horta were registered on the World Heritage List. These houses are considered by UNESCO to be "outstanding examples of Art Nouveau" architecture and "works of human creative genius, representing the highest expression of the influential Art Nouveau style in art and architecture". This style was seen as being a radically new approach, prefiguring subsequent developments.
This building is considered to be the seminal work of Art Nouveau in Brussels. It is a townhouse designed in 1893 by the architect under a commission from its owner Emile Tassel, a professor at the ULB and a Freemason, like Horta. As a bachelor living with his grandmother, Tassel wanted to be able to invite friends home and pursue his scientific research. The major elements of Art Nouveau can be found here: an exposed metal structure, decoration integrated into the structure, large areas lit by natural light (glass), etc.
This building, designed for the needs of a large 19th-century bourgeois family, was built at the end of the 1890s at the request of the industrialist Armand Solvay. The house is undoubtedly one of Horta's most accomplished works as he had the advantage of almost unlimited funds and a perfect understanding with his client. The elements of the Art Nouveau style are strongly featured: an exposed structure of columns, pillars and metal beams, open spaces, natural light and even a natural climate control system!
Hôtel van Eetvelde
Located close to the European district, the Hôtel van Eetvelde was designed in 1895 for Edmund van Eetvelde, a diplomat and Secretary-General of Congo Free State. The house next door (number 2) was also designed by the same architect on commission again from van Eetvelde and was intended to be a rental property. The main house has, among other elements characteristic of Horta's style, large numbers of exposed metal elements, a winter garden surmounted by a magnificent light shaft, a broad façade with an industrial appearance, etc.
Victor Horta's house and studio
These two houses were built by the architect between 1898 and 1901. Number 23 was his architecture office and sculpture workshop and number 25 his home. White stone façades, structural elements integrated into the ornamentation, high quality ironwork, natural light from bay windows or skylights in the roof... all elements typical of Horta and his artistry can be admired here.
This building was recognised by UNESCO as “an outstanding testimony to the creative genius of the Wiener Werkstätte” or Vienna Secession, a kind of Austrian adaptation of Art Nouveau. "It is a remarkably well conserved symbol of constructive and aesthetic modernity in the west at the start of the 20th century" and "exercised a considerable influence on modernism in architecture and on the birth of Art Deco".
Built on one of Brussels' main avenues between 1905 and 1911, the building was designed by the Austrian Joseph Hoffmann and is his masterpiece. The owner, Adolphe Stoclet, was a banker and art collector. Designed with no financial or aesthetic restrictions, the house and gardens together display clean, geometrical lines, marking a break with Art Nouveau.
The Sonian Forest
Well known to inhabitants of Brussels in search of nature—it is part of the Natura 2000 network—the Soignes forest is an impressive green belt, part of which is in the south of the Brussels region. With an area today of 4,400 ha, it used to be part of the “charcoal forest”, an important source of fuel.
The tall beech forest or “beech cathedral” that characterises this place was introduced at the end of the 18th century as part of its general redevelopment. The forest still covers almost 10,000 ha…!
In fact, only five small areas of the forest are recognised by UNESCO in 2017, a total of some 270 hectares : these five areas include three wilderness areas, areas with no human management where the beech forest grows spontaneously. These few hectares form part of the “Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe”, which stretch over 12 European countries.
When you visit the forest, you will have the opportunity to enjoy some major heritage sites: the site of the former abbey of Rouge-Cloître, the former Boitsfort racecourse, Tournay-Solvay park, the castle of La Hulpe and the AfricaMuseum (of Royal Museum for Central Africa).
Heritage on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
This event of Brussels living heritage event joined the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list with a series of similar events in Belgium and France under the title "Processional giants and dragons in Belgium and France". These events are considered to "encompass an original ensemble of festive popular manifestations and ritual representations". "They represent mythical heroes or animals, contemporary local figures, historical, biblical or legendary characters or trades."
The Meyboom, which consists of planting a tree at a crossroads, is a tradition whose origins date back to the 13th century. It is said that this tradition came about after a dispute between the towns of Brussels and Leuven about collecting taxes on beer. The people of Brussels gained the upper hand and received the privilege of planting a tree every 9th August before 5 pm. without which the privilege would be handed over to its rival Leuven!
The beer culture in Belgium (2016)
The traditions linked with the beer culture, known as “barley wine”, are famous throughout Belgium, which has some 200 breweries and 2,500 varieties of beer. The country is especially famous for its Trappist beers, which were again produced in the abbeys after the country gained its independence in 1830, because the new and very progressive constitution allowed the religious establishments that had been closed at the time of the French revolution to reopen.
Brussels has not been left behind. The Brewers’ Guild has occupied a house on the Grand-Place since the 17th century. And the very same building now houses the headquarters of the Belgian Brewers Federation.
It was also in Brussels that the Cantillon brewery was founded in 1900. This brewery produces a unique beer, Gueuze Lambic, which is made using a spontaneous fermentation process; the Senne valley is the only place in the world where this beer is produced!
UNESCO considers that the beer culture plays an important role in the daily life of the country as well as at festive occasions: this is particularly true in the capital! Brussels hosts numerous festivals centred around beer, and has an ever increasing number of micro-breweries and breweries producing craft and/or experimental beer.
Ommegang (Listed in 2019)
Firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of Brussels inhabitants, the Ommegang is now one of the must-attend events of the capital's summer season. It takes place every year at the end of June or at the very beginning of July and consists of a parade and a show inspired by an ancient event: the Ommegang that the City of Brussels organised in 1549, an opportunity for our sovereign Charles V to present his son and successor Philip (later Philip II).
Ommegang means "tour" in Dutch, and originally refers to a procession of the clergy who went around their parish to show off their relics and other objects of devotion. It later became a social and political procession.
After a decline in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ommegang regained its former splendour on 15 June 1930, mainly on the initiative of Albert Marinus. Since that day, it has been held over two summer evenings every year, offering several magical moments spread over numerous sites: a crossbow shooting competition and a ceremony at the Church of Our Lady of the Sablon; a 2-kilometre procession - the part specifically recognised by UNESCO - accessible free of charge; and a two-hour paid show on the Grand-Place, featuring 1,400 extras and 47 folklore groups. Last but not least, a "Renaissance Village" immerses you, for four days, in the atmosphere of the 16th century!
Heritage on the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices
Carillon in the Brussels-Capital Region
The carillon is centuries old in Brussels, the city having 9 such instruments - a series of bells each emitting their own sound - as early as the 17th century. Today, the Brussels-Capital Region has 5 carillons, two of which are still used from time to time for concerts. The two carillons in question are those housed in the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula and those in the Federal Parliament, which are made up of 49 and 37 bells respectively.
The carillon at the cathedral seems to be the oldest in service in Brussels, dating back to the end of the 15th century. These days, however, the old instruments have disappeared and the carillons that ring out from the Cathedral, the Parliament and the Mont des Arts are recent constructions, dating back to the second half of the 20th century.
Brussels' two other carillons are located in the bell tower of the Town Hall of Woluwé-St-Pierre (18 bells) and in that of the church of Our Lady of Finistère in the city of Brussels (8 bells).