History of Brussels

Brussels is a city full of museums, with more than a hundred. It is also famous for its high quality chocolate and its beer. Come and discover its Gothic monuments, its comic strips and its modernist façades. Enjoy its open-mindedness and its unique atmosphere. 

Brussels is the capital and the largest city of Belgium, with a population of about one million inhabitants and 32 km2. It hosts most of the European Institutions, the headquarters of NATO and other international organisations. Due to its geographical location and its neutrality in World War II, Brussels is considered the capital of Europe. 

Come and discover with our Brussels Free Tour the charm of the Belgian capital, with our visit on foot to Brussels you will get to know the heart of the city. Delight in the charm of the Grand Place, discover the legends of the Manneken Pis, the history of the Grand Sablon neighbourhood, the Royal Palace, the Cathedral of St. Michel and St. Gudula and the monumental Palace of Justice among other place. 


Historians set the date of the founding of Brussels in 979, although there are no historic sources to corroborate this date. Archaeological excavations in this area revealed that Brussels had Neolithic, Roman and Merovingian settlements.  However, the official founding of Brussels dates to 979, when the first permanent fortification was built.

In the middle of the 11th century, city walls were erected and for much of the Middle Ages, Brussels thrived, thanks to its strategic location along the Bruges-Ghent-Cologne trade route. However, in 1695, Brussels was attacked by the French king Louis XIV and more than 4,000 houses, including the Grand' Place, were destroyed. 

It is believed that Saint Géry, bishop of Cambrai, erected a chapel in the current central location of Brussels, in honour of St. Michael the Archangel in the late seventh century. In 977, Charles of France became Duke of Lower Lorraine and, two years later, he ordered to build a castle with a chapel dedicated to Saint Gilles, although documentary evidence about this fact say that this happened in the thirteenth century. The place was called "Broucsella" "Marsh Chapel." 


The Counts of Leuven gave a big boost to the city with the construction, in the second half of the eleventh century, of a castle and collegiate church dedicated to St. Gudula. In the early twelfth century, the Counts of Leuven became the Dukes of Brabant and the city became a delimited territory where a wall was built to protect it. 

In 1335, Duke John III, Duke of Brabant died without an heir, a situation exploited by the Duke of Flanders to attack its neighbour. The victory of the Flemish will be brief: two months later they were defeated by a hundred men led by the famous Everard 't Serclaes.

After the extinction of the House of Brabant, there were three different Burgundies at the head of the dukedom over a quarter of a century marked by civil and dynastic struggles. In 1430, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, took possession of Brabant, and from that moment Brussels replaced Dijon as the capital of the Grand Duke of the West. The city experienced a great growth and became the official seat of the Court, to which the most significant artists and craftsmen of that moment used to come. Charles the Bold succeeded his father as Duke of Burgundy and his daughter Mary of Burgundy married Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor. When she died in 1482, the government of Brussels was handed over to the Habsburgs. 

Charles V was born in 1500 in Ghent. He was the heir of the Netherlands from his father and the heir of Spain, Naples and Sicily from his mother. He was also the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as he was the heir of his grandfather Maximilian I. Charles V settled in Brussels, making his abode in the Palace of Coudenberg. The city experienced a period of growth and splendour under the rule of the Emperor. After Charles's death, his empire was divided between his brother Ferdinand and his son Philip. The provinces of the Netherlands became the domain of Spain under the rule of Philip II, and since then they were called the Spanish Netherlands. 

The northern Netherlands rebelled during the reign of Philip II, achieving their independence. The territories which later will make up Belgium and some other southern provinces of the Netherlands were still Spanish possessions until the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, when Belgium became part of the Austrian Empire. After a period of growth, the popular discontent with the reforms of Joseph II of Austria led to a revolt in 1789, called the Brabançonne. This episode is very important in the Belgian historical memory. The national anthem is based on it. 

In 1794, the French army invaded the Belgian provinces, forcing the Habsburgs to give way to Napoleon's France. This situation continued until the famous battle of Waterloo took place in 1815, where Napoleon's troops were defeated. Initially Belgium was annexed to the Netherlands, but the discontent of the population ended up in a series of uprisings that forced other European powers to give Belgium the independence in 1830. Join our Free Tour Brussels and we will show you where Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned in Brussels.


In the early nineteenth century, Brussels took on the characteristics of a city, train stations were built, the university was founded in 1834 and the city expanded. The long nineteenth century saw profound cultural and economic changes in Belgium. The Industrial Revolution which began to take effect in Belgium during the period of French rule, transformed the region's economy over the course of the period. By 1914, Belgium was acknowledged as one of the most densely industrialized countries in Europe, with notable coal mining and manufacturing industries. The period saw the gradual decline of the various dialects spoken in the country and the establishment of two distinct language groups, French in Wallonia and Dutch in Flanders. French, traditionally spoken by the elite, was given legal predominance across the country. During the nineteenth century, both linguistic groups witnessed a cultural resurgence and developed separate traditions in literature and culture. By the end of the period, the Flemish Movement seeking legal equality for Dutch language and even regional independence, had emerged in Flanders  and a similar movement developed in Wallonia.

By the late 1950's Brussels became the capital of an expanding Europe, Brussels is an international city like no other. Thirty percent of the population is of foreign origin, and this creates a unique atmosphere in which cultures mix and mingle easily together. There is a plethora of organisations, associations, clubs and societies designed for expatriates. There are also many public bodies set up for newcomers.

Historically, as an international city located at the crossroads of the Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Germanic cultures, Brussels has been a centre of trade and culture for centuries.

 Compared to other international capitals, Brussels is a city with multiple overlapping capital functions and unique characteristics. As the headquarters of regional, national and international institutions, Brussels represents various geographic territories. Among those roles, the most notable is that of capital of the European Union. Join our Free Tour Brussels and European Neighbourhood Free Tour if you want to know further detail of this magic and international city.