How to visit the European Parliament in Brussels and the EU Quarter

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! 

325F993D-9688-46E4-A33D-CB51E93F7B2C
Outside the EU Parliament

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.

0DA9E647-256E-4FA8-BEC5-6AFF705596C8
The Future is Europe – street art in Brussels

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.

1144665C-7909-47E3-A2CA-30A1CAE0A914
European Union

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.

DD9973E3-E63F-4653-86A1-160C1408B893

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. 

9C52117F-0E34-4200-AFE7-FA71C75D15BB

Parliamentarium 

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.

6D181AC8-5F6F-40F8-B8B4-48E164BCD3C6

There are many displays about the history of the EU, and the numerous projects it has been involved with. 

5A138EEE-FFCA-4746-A73D-6057E4A0C728.jpeg

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. 

27F10CD6-3338-4227-8608-393136E20551.jpeg
Station Europe 

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?

Berlaymont Building 

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. 

DCEB70A6-5CD6-4106-8AFD-3A150CFB05DF.jpeg

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 Park05584B21-E70C-4E56-B5A5-7D3FF76A89DF.jpeg

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. 

30BE9A7E-8FCF-4F97-9E1D-AC8C4F2E9045

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. 

041DBF3B-B51A-46A3-81FC-B194F37C1733.jpeg

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. 

The Hills are alive with the Sound of Music – a few of my favourite things.

Salzburg was one of my favourite things on this adventure. Exploring the streets and landscape made me feel like I am sixteen, going on seventeen. Rising out into the scenery beyond the town made us want to climb every mountain, ford every stream… You may even find a lonely goatherd.  I have confidence that you will want to come and visit the beautiful Salzburg.  Ok, before I make you say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night I will stop with the lyrics. I hope you sang along!

1CC1D724-B3D9-4313-9967-C2272A334711

We are big musical fans in our house, one of Miss 11 greatest loves is Sound of Music. No better place than to head on a Sound of Music tour. There are a number of companies offering it, but after some research we settled on Panorama tour. I’m glad we did, it was spectacular.

The Sound of Music Story 

First it’s a true story, like actually fully real and learning the extra bits made it even more wonderful. If you have been living under a rock, and don’t know the movie, it is based on the unusual and exciting story of Baron Georg von Trapp, an Austrian aristocrat who married his governess in 1927.  Maria the governess ( a former Nun), came to look after the 7 children following the death of their mother. Untold in the film, the von Trapps went on to have another 3 children, bringing the total to 10. A priest (not Uncle Max) gave the family music lessons, and they went on to win first place in a choir contest during the famous Salzburg Festival and subsequent contests became their financial rescue.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 the family immigrated to the USA, unable to reconcile their principles with those of the Nazis. Rather than climb over the mountains to Switzerland they took a train to Italy, then travelled to France, England and then the USA. They went on to build a Salzburg- inspired chalet in Vermont USA in 1941 and have lived there ever since. They went on to continue to tour as singers.

The Tour

The tour lasts around 4 hours and covers many of the main sights from the film.  You are bused from location to location. During the travelling time, the guide will fill you in on all the fascinating history of the story, the time period and of course there is some opportunities to watch clips from the movie and sing along.  We visited:

Mirabell Gardens – Best known as the location where Do-Re-Mi’ is sung with Maria and the children. This is a luscious garden with statues and fountains throughout, it is a wonderful place to spend some time. You’ll remember the scene where Maria and the children are singing “Do-Rei-Mi” on the steps. You’ll also see the vine-covered tunnel and the fortress that appears in the scene in the background.

1C268DD3-9736-4B9C-8867-9A8FC28C8FF3

The Gazebo – The place where Rolf and Liesl sung ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’, one of Miss 11’s favourite songs. No longer can you enter inside as the local mayor closed it following an 82 year old fan getting too excited and as she jumped off the benches. She went first head first through the glass. She recovered, but apparently when the Mayor considered the madness of Sound of Music fans he decided it was safer that they watched from the outside only!

6EDA8315-CADF-4281-A0A9-FBA932AA4929

Frohnburg Palace – You drive past this palace which provided the facade, courtyard and garden gate of the von Trapp villa in the film.

A7AA4158-242F-4B7C-AE7E-31F00B0DC79B

Palace of Leopoldskron – this lake was frozen when we were there, but it is the place where the kids and Maris fall from the boat into the lake. The outside of the palace was used as the back of the house. Incredible Austrian views from here! It would be beautiful in any season.

Nonnberg Abbey and the Fortress – This is where Maria was a nun in the movie, but it’s also where the real wedding in 1927 between Maria and the Baron was held.  The fortress  is the real backdrop of the abbey, not the rolling hills from the movie.

2DA8BFCA-17EE-4F95-AD94-A715EAF5EC0E

St Gilden/Lake Wolfgang – This spectacular vista is seen in the opening credits of the film. It’s even more impressive in real life!

624F0559-3A07-4CD0-959C-43401AC75A26

Church of Mondsee – The location of the movie wedding of Maria and the Baron.  There was time to enjoy this picturesque little village, for a walk around their Christmas market and the important apple strudel (which was delicious).

The disappointing reality bit – shockingly the Sound of Music is not a well known movie in Austria, there is no hills alive with music ready to burst into song, nor eating Schnitzel with noddles! The tourism industry however of course are experts. Our tour guide told us he rarely has locals on the tour, just if they are bringing America, British or Chinese friends – all these countries love a bit of Sound of Music.

51951E33-8905-4CB7-B613-60A5DC6A54D1

It was a highlight to our European Christmas adventure, especially if you enjoy the Sound of Music movie. There are incredible views all around the Austrian countryside, and the guides were full of interesting factors. We would strongly recommend it!

Giant balls of steel, and a European Odyssey – review of the Atomium and Mini Europe in Brussels

 

As we prepared for our Brussels visit I kept coming across images of this massive strange looking giant atom structure. At 102m tall, this atom is magnified to 165 billion times the size of an iron crystal. Constructed out of 24,000 tonnes of steel, the nine spheres house a range of different functions. The Atomium is an imposing and intriguing structure on the outskirts of Brussels. 

298550C0-030D-4643-8D69-CA4CFE96AA14
Atomium in Brussels

Not quite as high as our summer visit to the Burj Khalifa,  but with specular views nonetheless across the city of Brussels and wider Belgian countryside. We took the lift (once the fastest lift in Europe) straight to the top to see the 360 degree view. Hard to believe that this time last year Miss 11 was pretty terrified of heights. The ‘exposure therapy’ at the top of the Empire State Building last Halloween has worked its magic, as without a blink she looked out at the beautiful views across the area. It felt surreal to gaze below at these balls of steel with the sun reflecting off them. 

A number of the spheres house an interactive museum on the history of the creation. Initially built for the 1958 World Expo, the first one after the World War,  but so loved by the Belgian people that it has become a permanent feature in the Brussels landscape the Atomium feels a bit like a national treasure.

Connecting each sphere is a total of twenty tubes, some with light filled elevators that make you feel you are blasting off to the moon on a futuristic space trip.

43DD3163-F4D6-4D81-AF59-2F2BDBAA58DE

 

Other spheres host temporary art galleries and we were invited to the opening weekend of the Bruegel- a poetic experience. This immersive and interactive exhibition celebrates the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel, the famous Renaissance painter.  We enjoyed exploring his paintings feeling like we were part of the oversized images. The temporary exhibition is open until September 2020, check it out if you are in the area. 

 

Miss 11’s favourite ball was the mini spheres within a sphere that allow school groups to come and stay for a night in the little sleeping pods.  She loved that idea, and thought it a good one for a school trip.

 

An unusual afternoon, but one that is worth a visit if you are visiting Brussels, it is incredible to see the scale and size of the Atomium. 

 

E2AACBBD-7EDE-4C9C-BCD7-984231039B30.jpeg

 

Next door, is Mini Europe, an opportunity to travel around all of Europe in a few hours.  What more could a wanderlust like me and Miss 11 want? Spending our time reflecting on the adventures we have taken, and where next to explore in Europe. 

Mini Europe is a miniature homage to the 27 countries that make up the European Union at a scale of 1/25 the size of buildings. We loved it, if you like the miniland in Legoland this will be a perfect location.  It is educational as well as entertaining, and the adults seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children, sometimes more so with the miniature trains, planes, and automobiles. A family attraction in many ways. 

It opened in 1989, and has been added to over the years as the EU has expanded, now with 350 models. There is something to represent every country, no matter how small. We travelled through Belgium, explored the Brussels we had seen in our walking tour the day previous in miniature form, visited Denmark, Sweden, and checked out where we had recently been in Amsterdam.

3D533394-5CDA-48A8-B9FE-6D0825E417F7.jpeg

Crossing over water, we arrived at the United Kingdom, visiting the Houses of Parliament complete with placard waving Brexiters, both for and against!

A brief visit to Ireland, and we continued on through France, Spain and Portugal. As we wandered through Italy, Miss 11 began to plan future holidays, before experiencing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on a vibrating platform. We made our way to Eastern Europe, and I remembered that Athens is high on my bucket list! 

 

At the end of the visit, the indoor ‘Spirit of Europe’ exhibition provides interactive quizzes where you can test your European knowledge (vastly growing in this trip with our visit to the EU headquarters),  learn more about the history of the European Union and take part in the big screen movement game. It is an educational and fun visit for all the family.

Both locations are situated right beside each other at the Bruparck area of Brussels,  just beside line 6 on the metro at Heysel/ Heizel, our Brussels card (kindly gifted) took us right there. We were invited by Atomium, but paid for tickets with Mini Europe ourselves. There are options to buy a combined ticket for both locations and save yourself a few Euro. There’s a nice park right beside, a waterpark, and cinemas – a perfect location to spend a day. 

 

We were kindly hosted by the Atomium to visit, and were gifted a Brussels Card for museum and transport access during our weekend trip. 

A Chocolate Trail – walking tour of Brussels

The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the praline was invented here over 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people, that’s a good ratio in my mind. The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world, but they will be the first to tell you it is about quality not quantity.

DB8BADB2-B057-4137-8FB3-F22ECB023703

Over recent years, I’ve become a big fan of the city walking tour experience, especially if we only have a small window of time in a city. It’s a great way to get your bearings, and make markers of the places you want to spend more time. Gaining insight from a local is priceless too and I feel we get some great tips and suggestions so try to do them quickly after we arrive. I do however have not so pleasant memories when I was marched around Prague with my family in my teenage years for about 5 hours without a break, with my sugar levels dropping I was a shaky mess. (A situation the lovely siblings reminded me of for many a year). The promise of chocolate meant that no such a disaster would befall us. Home to fantastic beer, waffles, fries and famously chocolate you are never more than a few steps from some wonderful sustenance within Brussels. 

43D266A0-A2EF-4A84-939D-65CD5ADA3053
Ready for some serious chocolate tasting

The Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tours promised great things to me and Miss 11 who was celebrating her birthday with a weekend furlong to the Belgian city. Up early and ready to walk, we meet our charming guide, Karla, in the UNESCO protected square, the stunning Grand Place, or Grote Markt. Outside the world’s first Godiva chocolate store we were ready for a taste, sight and sound adventure across the city gaining great insights into Brussels life. 

D1CAE2C1-A54F-4F59-8591-10A63F515003
Brussels Town Hall

We didn’t linger long — there was chocolate to be eaten, after all. As the only two guests on this morning adventure we were ready to go. 

Some history of the Grand Place to begin, we saw all the stallholders setting hope for the Festival of Folklore that would run all weekend. It was a busy hive of activity. We learnt the legend that the architect of the magnificent town hall was so disturbed when it was pointed out to him that the left and right side were not equal that he threw himself from the top. Legends abounding, under the eye, of St Michael with the slain dragon at his feet we headed off to explore Brussels chocolately goodness. 

Our first stop was at Corné, a pastissier turned chocolatier in one of Brussels’ grandest shopping arcades, of Royal standard nonetheless. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is an exquisite shopping mall, full of cafes, chocolate shops and much more, with many windows to peruse. Eyeing up the range of chocolates, we were told of the differences between white, milk and dark and begin to learn about the amazing cocoa bean. We commenced with a delectable white chocolate Manon blanc- packed full of vanilla cream and hazelnut on top. Delicious, apparently we were starting at the lower end and the quality would rise as the tour went on. Hard to believe! 

A few more steps down the exquisite shopping gallery, we came to Neuhaus, a pharmacist turned chocolatier. Apparently, Jean Neuhaus covered his medicines with a fine layer of chocolate, the early design of a praline . We learnt how pharmacies all have something sweet still across the city. I guess it helps the medicine go down – Mary Poppins had it right after all. 

Feeling a bit like Willy Wonka, we perused the range of chocolates in a variety of shops, tasting a range of samples as we went. Chocopolis, didn’t quite have the grand names of many other shops, but it was home to delicious mango flavoured chocolate. Here began our education into the production of chocolate, seeing the cocoa beans in action, and watching a short video on the production process- a world wide affair, with beans picked in South America, making there way to Amsterdam for roasting before coming to Belgium.

Another spike in the sugar levels, and on we walked, past a few bouncer manned doors, with the beats still pumping people were going to the party at 10am! I don’t think I would have ever managed that in my more youthful days. As we walked there was plenty of time to ask Karla all about the history of Belgium, we learnt about the two main languages – Flemish Dutch and French and the development and history of these. We learnt all about the painting and art on walls, and a range of museums as we went (some notes made for our further plans over the days ahead). 

 

Miss 11’s legs were starting to tire slightly, but we were ready for a pause of the choco-botique browsing for a immersive hands on chocolate making workshop. We arrived at the tour headquarters, took our seats at a long table covered in many goodies – chocolate, fruit, nuts, spices, and more, ready to be given a lesson in chocolate making. Welcoming the coffee, and the delicious hot chocolate , we listened intently as Karla began to introduce us to a range of different chocolates.

Next was over to us, we began to craft our own chocolate buttons and decorate them with a range of toppings. We met Mia, a chocolate expert, who demonstrated how to make pralines, and then we were able to create some wonders too. It was tricker than the experts made it look.

Mia created a spectacular chocolate birthday surprise (and didn’t forget the other two little adventurers back in Ireland who were delighted with the bags of chocolate!) and Miss 11 followed the Belgian custom of standing on a chair to have happy birthday sang to her. A birthday to remember indeed! 

 

And soon we were back on the streets, pounding the pavement in search of the most irresistible chocolate Belgium has to offer. I found it hard to believe that we were likely to top the morning so far, but onwards we continued. Unsurprisingly, we passed the Manneken Pis, and he was clothed in a Spanish number to celebrate the Folkore festival ongoing in the centre.

The next location really was a wonder, home to naturally pink chocolate. Yes, you’ve read that right, not artificially induced, but a product of the pink cocoa bean- ruby chocolate. A lighter taste, slightly berry like, ruby chocolate tasted sweet yet sour. The new fourth chocolate type apparently after dark, white and chocolate. Also home to delicious macaroons, our sugar high was certainly high as we continued on from BS40 on Butter Street (even the street names are food related!)

Onward exploring the streets of central Brussels, gaining many a recommendation for museum, restaurant and bar visits. We had a brief stop at an old bar and learn about the Monks beers (more of that in a separate post!) We arrived at Elisabeths, a flower covered  boutique shop full of more delectable chocolates (some even in the questionable style of our friend Manneken Pis). Priding themselves in promoting the artisan chocolates, Elisabeth will have chocolatiers featured every week, we enjoyed some rose and raspberry infused delicacies.

All too soon, we ended back were we started in the Grand Place at Mary’s. Mary’s is a delectable high end shop, home of the Royal Belgian chocolates. These pralines are made daily, so you are getting the freshest of the freshest. I feasted on a champagne filled wonder , while Miss 11 enjoyed the chocolate truffle.

Delicious and a perfect end to our morning with the wonderful Karla. Not only had my taste buds been on a sensory journey, our minds and bodies too as we took in the sights, sounds and learnt the history of Brussels and wider Belgium. Karla and I found some commonality in our study and work areas which provided wonderful conversation. I’d strongly recommend a Chocolate Walking Tour with Brussels Walking Tour. It’s the perfect way to experience all Brussels has to offer, and leaves you equipped for how to spend the rest of your time there, along with tasting and learning about the chocolate history.  They also offer a range of other tours  including  beer and food, culinarily, myths and legends, and sightseeing. If the chocolate one is anything to go by, they will be a wonderful, unique and special occasion. Go for it!

8DCD39C3-D513-4761-94FE-87DE0308557C

Thank you to Brussels Walking Tour for the complimentary tour. We had a wonderful time, a perfect birthday treat for little miss.