Brussels is one of the world’s best cities for Art Nouveau, one of my favourite styles of architecture and design. I adore its decorative, floral curves and stylish swirls.
For art lovers, an Art Nouveau tour of Brussels is a fabulous experience with hundreds of impressive buildings to discover.
The city was home to two of the superstars of Art Nouveau in the late 19th Century– Victor Horta and Paul Hankar. It also lays claim to being home to the world’s first Art Nouveau buildings – the Hotel Tassel and Hankar’s House.
Travellers are in for a treat if they’re prepared to get away from the hustle and bustle of the main city centre and take a detour down its back streets.
With more than 1,000 Art Nouveau buildings to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start so here are my top tips for discovering Brussels’ treasure trove of architectural gems.
The Horta House
The beautiful, flowing style and gorgeous decoration of Art Nouveau is everywhere in the Saint-Gilles district where a walking tour reveals a series of stunning buildings.
The star attraction is the gorgeous Horta House where the famous architect and designer lived with his family and worked in his studio.
This is one of my dream homes with sensational interiors and breathtaking visual style. Built between 1898 and 1901, the interior decoration represents the very best of Art Nouveau’s golden age.
Gorgeous mosaics, stained glass, and wall decorations create a harmonious and elegant whole – set off by dazzling golds and sumptuous furnishings.
The devil is in the detail at the Horta House right down to the specially designed door handles designed to complement the architecture!
If you’re a fan of gilded decoration, you’ve come to the right place because the interiors are palatial, without being tasteless and tacky. It’s a beautiful house which has many surprises and modern touches, far ahead of its time.
Tour of St Gilles
To see more Art Nouveau treasures, leave the Horta House and take a walking tour of the Bailli quarter on a circular route starting on Rue Defacqz.
The Ciamberlani House is a good place to begin with its beautiful façade designed by Art Nouveau genius, Paul Hankar.
Don’t forget to raise your eyes to the upper floors with their artistically decorated panels. Look out for the ‘sgraffiti’, striking designs which were created on wet plaster which burst with colour.
This arty house was designed for the Symbolist painter, Albert Ciamberlani, and boasts many typical Art Nouveau features including flowing decoration with echoes of nature, trees and flowers.
As you walk on down the street, look out for the home of architect Paul Hankar on Rue Defacqz, another brilliant example of Art Nouveau style.
Not far away is the House of Rene Jansens and two more striking Art Nouveau buildings on Rue Faider (numbers 83 and 85).
Art Nouveau was characterised by its twisted metalwork, sinuous decoration, curvy lines, floral embellishments and stained glass. Its style is reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England.
Some of the buildings in Brussels have seen better times and look slightly down-at-heel but others have been lovingly restored. One of these is the Hotel Tassel at 6, Rue Paul-Emile Jansonstraat. Designed as a town house by Victor Horta, at first it looks fairly conventional with its brick and natural stone exterior.
But look closely and you’ll see many Art Nouveau design features. Architect Victor Horta designed every last detail from the woodwork and windows to the door handles, floors and furnishings.
If you could go inside, you’d see an impressive steel structure with a glass roof which connects the different parts of the house and bathes it in natural light.
Sadly, the Hotel Tassels’ interior is not accessible to the public – a heritage crime. It is used as an office by the European Food Information Council but it’s still fun to play heritage detectives as you look at the Art Nouveau features on the outside of the building.
By now, it’s probably time for some lunch so why not enjoy an extended break at La Porteuse d’Eau restaurant on Avenue Jon Volders in St Gilles where you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the Belle Époque whilst admiring the Art Nouveau designs.
‘Golden age’ of Art Nouveau
The golden age of Art Nouveau in Brussels lasted from the 1890s to 1920, but by the 1920s this style was on the wane and another rival movement became fashionable – Art Deco.
It’s fascinating to to discover what life was like at the height of Art Nouveau’s golden age so why not take a trip to the Fin de Siecle Museum.
It boasts an outstanding collection of paintings, decorative arts and photography from the end of the century.
Well-presented displays shed fresh light on life during this Belle Époque period with photographs, archive images and historical information.
Don’t miss the stunning design exhibition with furniture, glassware and interiors created by well-known Art Nouveau designers.
I love the elaborate Art Nouveau decorative style with its bold colours and flowery lines but my partner, Tony, calls them ‘ugly’ and over-fussy. He’s a man of simpler tastes.
The Fin de Siecle paintings were more to his taste with works by famous Belgian artists such as Fernand Khnopff and James Ensor.
When you leave the museum, take a short walk around the corner to look at another ornate Art Nouveau building.
Bizarrely its name was originally “Old England”and was designed by another Art Nouveau whizz-kid, Paul Saintenoy, in the 1890s.
This former department store is a complex lattice of glass and steel with twisted metal turrets. Today it’s home to the Museum of Musical Instruments.
This strikingly beautiful building combines the architectural styles of Neo-Classic and Art Nouveau.
Housed in the museum is a collection of more than 7,000 instruments of varying kinds. But the star attraction is the top floor cafe which provides visitors with a magnificent 360° view of Brussels.
Take a bus to the Cartoon Museum where there’s a great collection of Tintin and Belgian graphic art housed in the former Waucquez Warehouse, another masterpiece of Art Nouveau.
It’s a great example of how Art Nouveau fused new industrial materials such as cast-iron pillars and stained glass with traditional organic and botanical forms.
The glass roof makes this like a greenhouse in summer and I almost fainted with the heat, but it was worth this minor discomfort to see the splendid turn-of-the-century architecture.
Out of Town
Take a trip out of Brussels city centre and check out the Hotel Solvay, an early Horta building, designed for a wealthy Brussels family.
The cast-iron facade and decorative front door are great examples of Art Nouveau at its peak.
If you’re in the area for a few days, take a trip to Antwerp just 25 minutes away which has a great selection of Art Nouveau buildings including many by design genius, Henry van de Velde.
My favourite is the Five Continents House, designed by F. Smet-Verhas, which was commissioned by a ship owner.
You can’t miss the surreal wooden ship’s bow which juts out dramatically from the house’s first floor balcony.
It’s the height of flamboyant Art Nouveau. Nearby, check out Antwerp’s impressive Art Nouveau mansions which date from the end of the 19th Century.
I love Art Nouveau because it represents everything glamorous and stylish about the belle époque era. This was a golden age – so why not discover its treasures and enjoy a visual feast.
Tammy’s Travel Tips – Art Nouveau in Brussels
There are 1,000 Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels including houses, shops, cafes, schools and hotels. The Visit Brussels website list some of the best places to visit and has a self-guided walk itinerary.
Good districts to see examples of Art Nouveau are Bailli, St Gilles, Chatelain, and Ixelles Ponds. Don’t forget to take a map or website plan of the Art Nouveau walk.
My main criticism is that the self-guided online maps of Art Nouveau in Brussels lack detail and interactivity. They are too small and fiddly to use. It’s also hard to find printed leaflets of the walking tours, if you can’t access mobile wifi and the online maps.
There’s also a lack of directions when you’re on the main Art Nouveau streets – this is really poor given the international importance of these buildings.
The Horta House is the most spectacular of the Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels. It’s located at 25, Rue Américaine in St Gilles - take a tram number 81, 91, 92 or 97.
The Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 14.00-17.30. Mornings are reserved for pre-booked group visits. Admission charge.
The Fin de Siecle Museum is part of the main Brussels Museum complex near Place Royale. It is open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-17:00. Entrance fee.
Look out for Art Nouveau coach tours in English organised by Voir et Dire Bruxelles including a three-hour trip exploring the buildings of Victor Horta, the leading Belgian Art Nouveau architect.
The tour itinerary takes in a luxury townhouse (van Eetvelde house), a primary school (Saint-Ghislain kindergarten) and a former wholesale drapery shop (the Waucquez store).
There are also Brussels tourist tours on foot and by bike including a cycle trip around the St Gilles quarter.
The Ciamberlani House is a privately owned townhouse but its main rooms can be visited by appointment.
Look inside the Palace of Fine Arts concert hall (BOZAR) where Victor Horta designed the spectacular ceiling in the auditorium.
In Antwerp, there are great examples of Art Nouveau mansions in the district of Zurenborg (Berchem) which boasts the “golden triangle” along three streets – Cogels Osylei, Waterloostraat and Transvaalstraat.