Getting high in Brussels

For some, the easiest way to measure a city is by viewing it from an elevated position.

Some views are panoramic, some are quirky, some are unexpected. Some are free, others demand an entrance fee or a drink or a meal. Some depend on whom you know, some require persistence and luck, turning them into a treasure hunt to find the person with the key.

These are the sky views of Brussels. They are the high points from which to survey the city. They are scattered around the capital, from atop office blocks to churches, and from hills to monuments. And they give the viewer a unique panorama of the streets, blocks, parks and life spread out before them.

So, which are the best of Brussels? Here’s our list of the sights from on high.

The obvious ones

Dinner in the Sky is a Belgian concept that has travelled around the world and comes back to Brussels periodically, each time high above a different iconic spot in the city. Of course, it’s a great way to enjoy a panoramic view of the city, but it is not always in session, and the next one is set for June 2023 in Heysel.

The Atomium, André Waterkeyn’s brilliant concept, offers a plethora of sights. You have those from the different visitable spheres, the fleeting glimpses through the portholes in the tubes as the escalators whisk you by, and the crowning scenes from the top sphere. Bonus for visitors: the restaurant, where you can dine by a window and eat, basking in the view.

Place Poelaert, that wide plaza at the top of the hill is only a 180° view but is a very deep view. You can see the Atomium and the Koekelberg National Basilica to the north, the Marolles at your feet and in the distance the undeveloped countryside around the city. The view has now been augmented by a big Ferris wheel, which, we are told, will be a permanent addition, currently on a six-year contract.

On top of the Cinquantenaire Arch

The Cinquantenaire Arch was built on the crest of a hill so even though it’s not that tall, it provides splendid views of the Avenue Tervuren and the Forêt de Soignes to the east and the European Quarter to the west. Access is provided through the Armed Forces Museum.

Once inside the entrance, you go left past the suits of armour until you reach a small lift that you take to the top floor. There you have a choice between two staircases to take you out on the roof.

Because of the way the arch was designed, with the personification of Brabant dramatically driving her chariot pulled by four powerful steeds, the two halves of the viewing rooftop are separated – you need to use both staircases to enjoy both sights. Often the choice is made for you by the museum which closes one or the other.

Downtown

There are many rooftop views downtown, each substantially different due to its elevation or location. There was Jardin, a temporary takeover of the rooftop of the former Actiris building (currently being renovated and will include an Eataly) across the Place de la Bourse from the stock exchange building. Now closed due to the renovation, a new rooftop experience is promised in some form when the renovation is complete.

The view from Parking 58/City Administrative Building is gone for the moment but will be back shortly. The parking structure, built for the 1958 World’s Fair, had a roof level which was open to the sky. Over the last couple of decades, it became known among the local hip that there was an easily accessible, remarkable view in the centre of downtown. Photographers did shoots up there and impromptu gatherings took place in the evenings and on weekends.

When the structure was closed to cars ahead of its demolition, the rooftop was transformed with plants and patio furniture and a bar and proved quite popular. Now the construction of the city’s new administrative centre is well underway and the finished building will boast a permanent park on its roof open to the public.

Just down the boulevard, the Viage Casino has a rooftop with a northern exposure where they serve drinks. And a little further up the boulevard, the Hotel NH Collection has an expansive rooftop terrace which serves breakfast in the mornings and during the summer has live music in the evenings.

Warwick Hotel rooftop view

One of the more interesting views is available on the rooftop terrace of the Warwick Hotel, just south of the Grand Place, which gives a surprising view of the Hôtel de Ville. Finally, it’s not there yet (scheduled to open in July 2023), but the transformation of the stock exchange building into Belgian Beer World includes a hop plantation and a roof terrace.

Up the hill, along the ridge

Near the top of the Rue de l’Ecuyer is the modernist Vandenborcht building, once a department store and now an exhibition venue. There is a long terrace which provides a unique, unexpected view to the west including the rooftops of the Royal Galleries, the church of Saint Nicolas and the Grand Place. It is unexpected because the street is a narrow medieval street and from the ground one expects the whole building to be hemmed in.

To the west along the ridge that separates uptown from downtown, one comes to the Mont des Arts which offers a quartet of different panoramas in close succession. First, we have the rooftop terrace of the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), which offers an intimate view to the south and west and a very broad view to the north.

The Musical Instrument Museum restaurant. Credit: MIM and Visit Brussels

Just slightly down the hill from the MIM is a view at ground level that has been maintained over the centuries, never obstructed by construction. It’s one of Brussels’ most iconic views framed by the Royal Library and the buildings of Square, with the René Péchère gardens below and the view of Brussels from the spire of city hall to the National Basilica in Koekelberg.

And speaking of the Royal Library, as part of its transformation from just a library to a destination, KBR, as it’s now called, has taken what once was the cafeteria with a terrace almost exclusively used by employees and turned it into a public restaurant with a remarkable view through the north wall which is almost entirely glass. And, if you can figure out a way to gain access (it’s not generally open to the public) the very aptly named Panorama Room at the top of the highest building in the Square complex has a stunning view to the north.

Credit: KBR

Further along the ridge, we reach Crosly Bowling, a 1960s building incongruously sited next to one of the prominent remaining pieces of the first ramparts. Access is free and if one makes one’s way to the top floor there is a terrace with another unexpected view to the west. Called Play Label Rooftop, it’s on Big 7 Travel’s list of the 50 best rooftop bars in Europe for 2022. Sometimes it’s calm and one can enjoy a drink and quietly watch the sunset, at other times there’s live music and a party atmosphere.

Further west, we come to the Porte de Hal, the last existing portion of the second ramparts, which owed its survival to the fact that it was a prison. It is now a museum. The chemin de ronde is open to the visitor and affords a splendid view of the hillside of Saint-Gilles to the south, the boulevard parks to the east and west and the Marolles to the north.

Credit: JAM Hotel

Finally, up the hill and to the southeast the extremely trendy Jam Hotel takes advantage of its position at the top of the ridge to offer a rooftop bar with a wide view and a swimming pool.

Churches

The Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula was built with a classic medieval orientation which means that the front of the church is exactly due west. If you sign up for a guided tour, you will get to climb one of the towers and look west for a wide view and east for a view of the church roofs.

In Schaerbeek’s Helmet neighbourhood, the Holy Family Church is built on a high point so that the view from its tall tower is a 360° affair. The church was partly built in the 1890s and finished in the 1930s so the tower is Neo-Byzantine Art Deco. Half the church has been desacralised and is being used as a school. Access to the tower is a bit iffy at the moment: you need to find the person in charge and convince them to let you visit.

On the other side of town in Forest, the Art Deco Saint Augustine Church is one of the first reinforced concrete churches built. It is blessed by being at the top of Altitude Cent (the elevation of the hill is 100 metres) which most Brussels natives will tell you is the highest point in the city. In fact, the actual highest point is in the Forêt de Soignes. But Altitude Cent is still very high and to the west, the elevation falls dramatically to the Senne valley so the view is expansive. The problem is access. The church is open Sundays from 9am to noon and on Wednesdays and Fridays from 4pm to 7pm, and again you need to find someone willing to give you access to the tower.

Koekelberg, Credit: Visit Brussels

Finally, we have the National Basilica in Koekelberg. The largest Art Deco building in the world and one of the largest churches, sited on a hill, the observation platform around the cupola offers not only one of the most panoramic 360° views with not only extensive views of the city, but also of the Pajottenland to the west and the countryside to the north and south. Access to the platform is available by stairs and a lift. On your way up you will come across a permanent exhibition on the construction of the church, and there is also a quirky Museum of Modern Religious Art. If you only can do one view, this is the one not to miss.

Once and future view

An iconic view that for the moment is no longer accessible is that from the top of the spire of City Hall. One used to go to the main desk and ask to visit the tower. After five Belgian francs were paid per person, a city employee, brandishing an enormous antique key, would lead the visitor to a small door at the base of the tower, unlock it and usher them in. He would then close the door and leave them alone, having let them know that the door would close itself when they left.

The Grand Place from atop

After a long, upward climb during which one could enjoy different views at different stages, eventually one ended up at the top of the narrowing spire just below the golden statue of Saint Michael. Needless to say, the views in every direction, including straight down, were stupendous. Maybe if a petition is started, the city could reopen this.

Edge of town

One of the best views of the city, but it will cost you. Now called the IT Tower, the skyscraper at the end of Avenue Louise was controversial when it was built because of its location. It is 25 storeys high and towers over the gardens of the Abbaye of La Cambre among other neighbourhoods. It was in the news recently when its exterior walls were covered with the largest public mural in Europe. The views are wonderful. The only problem is that the top floor with the floor-to-ceiling windows is the restaurant Villa in the Sky where the least expensive option is the Avenue lunch at €90 and they don’t seem to encourage just popping up for drinks. But if you can swing it, the view is outstanding.

Soko rooftop bar. Credit: Soko

In Kraainem, close by the ring, and on the very rim of the Brussels Region, the Soko restaurant is basically all rooftop terrace. Its 11th-floor western view gives the impression of an endless Forêt de Soignes and the sunsets are particularly stunning. Weekend brunches are, understandably, fast booked up.

Along the canal

Built in 1902, the COOP Building on the canal in Anderlecht is a former four mill that in its heyday, a century ago, operated 24 hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week. The only time the furnaces shut down was on Sunday morning. It produced 80 tonnes of flour per day and even had its own railway spur that entered the back of the building to deliver the raw materials. It also had tall cranes along its frontage with the canal to fill waiting barges with all that flour. As part of the Canal Plan, the building was imaginatively restored six years ago and is now an SME hub with a wide mixture of businesses.

To enjoy the view, one just takes the lift to the top where, using the original flat roof as a floor, a café/restaurant was added. The roof of the café is a two-level observation deck called the Panorama. Entrance is free but this is a great place for lunch since the café provides tasty inexpensive dishes with a short but excellent selection of beers. Both café levels have large windows for sweeping views, while the outdoor area features a historic photo exhibition of the canal area. There is also the Panorama: two levels of terrace with a 360° view including a view along the canal as it goes north and a view across the canal towards the tree-covered hills of Forest.

Brussels Shot Tower

On the western edge of the Pentagon, just steps away from the Ninove Gate and the canal’s Molenbeek Lock, in a quiet neighbourhood of 19th-century houses, is the enigmatic profile of the Brussels Shot Tower. Invented by William Watts of Bristol in 1782, the shot tower was a simple and elegant solution to producing lead shot. Lead was heated until molten, then dropped through a copper sieve high in the tower. Surface tension turned the liquid lead into tiny balls which solidified as they fell. The partially cooled spheres landed in a water-filled basin which completed the cooling process.

The Brussels Shot Tower, the last in Belgium, is 46 meters tall and operated from 1895 to 1962. Landmarked in 1984, the tower is now a sports and cultural neighbourhood centre. It is well worth a visit for the industrial era architecture and the various concerts, art exhibitions, performances and lectures, not to mention the striking tower. It may be difficult to experience the views: for the time being, they are using the entrance level of the tower to warehouse objects (though the stairs are still accessible). But the neighbourhood centre is a non-profit, so they might welcome a donation in exchange for a tower visit.

In terms of breadth, variety and wow factor, the Up-Site Tower is hands down the best sky view of Brussels. It’s not one but four distinct views as the orientation of the tower means that each side has a particular, different perspective. The 42-storey building, built along the canal across from Tour & Taxis, is 140m high which makes it the tallest residential building in Belgium and one of the tallest in Europe. How do we get to the skydeck to enjoy these peerless views? The most expensive way would be to buy an apartment (many hundreds of thousands of euros) or rent one fully furnished (€1,250 to €2.500). Or eat a meal in the restaurant on the ground floor, since patrons have the right to visit the skydeck. A free (but possibly ethically challenged) option would be to schedule a visit to see an available apartment and take in the views from the top floor as part of the tour.


More from Belgium Unlocked

Copyright © 2021 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.