With it being the day of Brexit, it seems as fitting a day as any to share with you our trip to the EU Parliament in Brussels. This year for Miss 11’s birthday, she had the choice of a trip or a party- the little traveller chose a trip, so thanks to cheap flights we headed off to Brussels, home of chocolate, waffles, beer, fries and the European Union headquarters. You can read our full itinerary here. We did have a sneaky day off school, but in the words of Miss 11, by lunch time, she surmised that she had likely learnt more than if she had been at School. I’m not allowed to tell her teacher her thoughts though!
We stayed very near the EU Quarter in Brussels, as when there is nothing on in the Parliament, the hotels are very good value. It is a fascinating and attractive area of Brussels to see, and when researching a little confusing on how to pay a visit to the key buildings and locations so here is how we did it.
The EU or European Quarter, is also known as the Leopold Quarter. It is a compact area to the south-west of Brussels city centre, about 1.5 miles (2km) from the Grand-Place. In the 1800s the Leopold Quarter was one of Brussels’ most prestigious neighbourhoods, and there are lots of beautiful old buildings left over from those days. During the early 20th century, the wealthy residents of the Leopold Quarter moved further outside the city centre to the new suburbs. Office buildings replaced many of the mansions, and in the late 1950s, new European institutions moved in.
Today the area is dominated by politics predominately and business but it’s still surprisingly green and attractive, with many beautiful parks and squares to enjoy a stroll around. It is a nice area to be based in, plenty to see and do, and a little more removed from the central more tourist filled areas. The metro and bus routes are easily accessible, around a 30 minute walk will take you in centrally without any difficulties.
The European Parliament
The most significant attraction in the EU quarter is the European Parliament. To visit the European Parliament and the famous hemicycle debating chamber as an individual, you’ll need to take one of the self-guided tours, which run at set times, Monday to Friday. Do check the website here for the opening hours and timings.
To join a tour, go to the rear entrance of the European Parliament building, just off Rue Wiertz. There are clear signs and arrows to get you to the right place from the front of Espace Léopold and Place du Luxembourg (follow the signs for the Hemicyle), but once at the door there’s not a lot to indicate that it’s ok to go in. Don’t worry; if you’re there at the right time just push open the door.
You cannot pre book (unless you are a bigger party), and must queue and show your passport/ ID before going through airport style security checks. There’s no photographs allowed at Security, but once you are inside you can take as many as you want. The whole process was straight forward, and much quicker and simpler than our visit to the United Nations in NYC. There is a self-guided tour with a headset rather than a fully guided tour. It is available in all EU languages, you can even download it as an app on to your mobile phone if you would prefer. There are free printed guide books to pick up too.
First stop, a photo op with all the flags of the member states of the European Union, then a model building of the EU and some history about it all.
Onwards, up in a lift and into an atrium full of artistic gifts given from the different member states including this large sculpture, everything on the theme of peace and cooperation.
After you leave the atrium, the next stop is the Hemicycle – the main debating chamber of the European Parliament in Brussels. Each EU member country elects representatives in the same way as they would for a national parliament. These Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) meet here and in Strasbourg. Miss 11 was particularly taken with all the translation boxes and learning all about the role of the translators – it is quite the task ensuring that all 24 languages can hear continually.
A great stop for a few hours with children. Miss 11 really enjoyed the informative and interactive style in the Parliamentarium. It is very accessible and free entry. You can collect an information leaflet (in whichever EU approved language you speak) at the entry. You go through security, and are given a free interactive audio tour, which was very good.
The exhibition is made up of several floors (lifts are available) of interactive displays about the work of the EU, and a wonderful 360 degree cinema where you can experience being at the heart of the European Parliament. You might even spot some familiar faces virtually around you. We enjoyed sitting on living room styled sofas and chairs and hearing more about the importance of EU projects from all areas including a few miles down the road for the Peace money given to Belfast to support community work in the Shankill and Falls areas.
There are many displays about the history of the EU, and the numerous projects it has been involved with.
We particularly enjoyed the map room where you could wheel a TV unit over a different place in Europe to find out more about the EU and its impact. We visited quite a few countries. Recommended for a few hours in this part of the city.
The original station buildings of the Brussels-Luxembourg train station now house a welcome centre for the European Quarter. Here you can get your bearings here, pick up a map and plan your visit to the area. There’s also a branch of the official Visit Brussels tourist information centre which is a good place for some more information. There’s a nice public square with chairs set up in circles perhaps facilitating discussions?
While you can’t go inside the Berlaymont Building, it’s an impressive sight and is probably the most iconic building of the European Quarter. The Berlaymont Building is the home of the European Commission, where the day-to-day work of the EU is carried out. We stayed right beside it in the NH Brussels Berlaymont Hotel, which made it very easy to get around the area.
House of European History
For an exploration of Europe’s turbulent history, and the events that led up to the formation of the European Union, visit the House of European History in Léopold Park. It aims not to tell the story of each individual country in Europe, but to draw together the themes that European nations have in common. The permanent exhibition covers Europe as a global force in the 19th century and the two World Wars that shattered the continent, before examining the political divisions of the second half of the 20th century. The exhibitions are free to visit, and a multimedia tour is available in all the EU languages.
Outside you can spend some time in Léopold Park
We especially enjoyed reading all about the history of the zoo in the area and ostrich sculptures marking the spot. It is green, beautiful, and even houses bits of the Berlin Wall with the accompanying historical information.
All the European Union visitor areas are free, which makes for a very budget friendly day spent in the European area of Brussels. It is interesting and informative and gives you good insight into the development of the EU.
Other things to see and do nearby
I’ve also noted some of the other sights and museums in the nearby area that you might want to visit when you are nearby:
Parc du Cinquantenaire – an enormous triumphal arch, reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The arch itself is slightly more recent but the buildings either side were built for the 1880 National Exhibition which celebrated the Belgian nation’s 50th birthday. The park itself is a very pleasant place for a walk, with lots of flowers, trees and lawns, and it’s a popular place for tourists and Brussels residents alike to relax.
Royal Military Museum – occupies the left-hand side of the Cinquantenaire buildings., holding an impressive collection of arms, armour, vehicles and aircraft. There are also two galleries dedicated to the First World War which devastated much of Belgium. For an incredible view of the European Quarter and the surrounding area, take the stairs inside the Military Museum up to the viewing gallery on top of the arches.
Autoworld – On the right-hand side of the Cinquantenaire arch houses a fantastic museum dedicated to cars and driving. Among the gleaming permanent exhibits and fascinating temporary exhibitions you’ll find information about Belgium’s contribution to automotive history.
Arts and History Museum -also on the right hand side of the complex. More informative than an art gallery, more inspiring than a history museum, the unique collection eventually wants to be as well known as the British Museum or the Louvre.
Cauchie House – If you’re interested in architecture, and especially if you’re a lover of Art Nouveau, you can’t miss the Cauchie House. Artist couple Paul and Carolina Cauchie built the house in 1905 and decorated the front as an advertisement for their businesses; graphic design for him, art lessons for her. In the centre of the facade you can read the words “Par Nous, Pour Nous” – “By Us, For Us”. The house is at the top of Rue des Francs, just across the road from Parc du Cinquantenaire.
The Museum of Natural Sciences is also nearby, but you can read more about that in our post over here.