Molenbeek and neighboring quarters in Brussels have a bit of a shoddy reputation, in part due to overhyped media reports and in part due to genuine issues. However, if you can look part the media brouhaha, a surprisingly vibrant, diverse and interesting part of Brussels that isn't visited much by international tourists awaits.
Molenbeek (Dutch: Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, French: Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, named for patron saint John the Baptist and the Dutch phrase for "mill creek", molen beek) is one of 19 municipalities in the Brussels capital region. In the 9th century, Molenbeek was a small rural village with a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. From the late 1700s to the early 20th century, Molenbeek was an industrial centre in suburban Brussels; since then it has gone into steep decline. However, its dense late 19th century housing stock and its close proximity to Brussel South railway station are good preconditions for future gentrification in a similar vein as Berlin-Kreuzberg or other neighborhoods once making headlines as "places where not even police dare enter" in scaremongering media outlets.
Anderlecht dates back to 1047, and was a centre of culture in the 15th - 18th centuries. Today it is often best known for its association football team R.S.C. Anderlecht.
Forest is home to the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, several car factories, and Forest National, one of the most popular concert halls in Belgium.
Saint-Gilles has some Art Nouveau houses, and the major railway station Gare du Midi/Zuidstation (Eurostar terminal).
- 1 Bruxelles-Midi / Brussel-Zuid, 47B Avenue Fonsny. Daily 04.00 - 01.00. This station is where the high-speed trains stop. A large station with 12 platforms and 22 tracks. The station is linked to a metro station.
- 1 Vaartkapoen, Saincteletteplaats ( ), ✉ email@example.com. 24/7. A sculpture by Flemish artist Tom Frantzen, known from Het Zinneke in Brussels and the Bandundu Water Jazz Band in Tervuren. Its name literally means channel rascal (from vaart meaning canal and kapoen meaning rascal in Dutch. Vaartkapoen is also the name given to people born in the Molenbeek suburb in the first half of the 20th century; the bronze sculpture was erected in 1985. Tom Frantzen stages a scene on 2 levels: the sewers (which used to be discharged into the canal), and the level of the pavement represented by the lamp post, the cobblestones, and the manhole cover. De Vaartkapoen, a young rebel reminiscent of a jack-in-the-box, topples over a policeman, symbolically overthrowing his authority. It is a reference to Belgian comic Tintin by Hergé, who portrays police officers in the same graphical style.
- 2 Cantillon Brewery, Rue Gheude - Gheudestraat 56, ☏ . M-F 08:30-17:00; Sa 10:00-17:00; closed on Sundays and public holidays. The last traditional gueuze/lambic brewery in Brussels, Cantillon still uses natural yeast fermentation (not injected like almost every other beer). The lambics and gueuzes are made in original style with no sweeteners or syrups added. Only 100% bio (organic) and natural fruits are used creating a distinctly sour drink. This museum-esque atmosphere is still a functioning brewery. The tour includes two small glasses of lambic and gueuze, and if you've never had a natural beer before, then you will be (pleasantly) surprised by the taste. An absolute must for beer lovers, save room in your luggage to take bottles back with you! Tour with tasting €10, tasting alone €2.
- 3 Church of Saint-Gilles (Sint-Gilliskerk), Sint-Gilliskerkstraat ( ). A 19th century church in eclectic style, inspired by Romanesque and Gothic architecture elements, and very popular at the time. The church is a design of civil engineer Victor Besme, who led construction from 1878 until its consecration in 1880. Interestingly, the church is the third place of worship for St. Gillis, originally a small suburb outside the Brussels city walls. The first one was destroyed in 1578 by local inhabitants to prevent it from being used by Spanish troops during their siege of Brussels, but subsequently reconstructed in 1595 at the same spot. It was destroyed again a century later during the 1695 bombardment of Brussels, after which it was renovated and a new tower added in 1823.
- 4 Belgica, Belgicalaan 59 ( direction Koning Boudewijn), ☏ . 06:00-00:30. Opened in 1982, this metro station has since 2009 housed a permanent exhibition on climate, centred around the Belgian Antarctic research ship Belgica. A steel sculpture, designed by Camiel Van Breedam, decorates the entrances of the station. The information panels, stretching out over the entire length of both platforms are in 3 languages (Dutch, English and French). €2.10.
Museums and galleries
- 5 MIMA (Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art), Henegouwenkaai 39-41 ( ), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. W-Su 10:00-18:00. Museum for contemporary art on the west bank of the Brussels-Charleroi canal, opened in 2016. The museum gives a new purpose to the former Belle Vue brewery building. It has a permanent collection of some 40 pieces donated to the museum, and organizes a variety of temporary exhibitions. Spread over 4 floors, the museum offers a shop, a restaurant and 2 panoramic view points over the Brussels-Charleroi canal. The main focus is art from the 21st century under the slogan Culture 2.0, with a strong link to music: rock, electro, hiphop, and folk. Other interests include tattoos, urban street art, graffiti, and sports such as skateboarding and surfing. With over 36 000 visitors in 2016, the museum is quickly rising in popularity. The founder, Alice van den Abeele, was voted one of the 28 most influential people in Europe by Politico Europe in 2017. Adults €9.5, students and seniors €7.5, children free.
- 6 Brussels Museum for Industry and Labour (La Fonderie), Ransfortstraat 27 ( ), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Tu-F 10:00-17:00, Sa Su 14:00-17:00. Museum dedicated to the Industrial Revolution in Brussels, with a collection of machines, objects, documents and history on the city's industrial past. It is near the canal, in the lathe room of a former bronze foundry which operated under the name La Comagnie des Bronzes from 1854 to 1979. The museum focusses on four key industries that were the most important for the city's industrial development and wealth during the Industrial Revolution: the metal industry, woodworking, textile manufacturing, and food processing. Each of the 4 sectors is presented as showcase machines demonstrating the technology and the factories that made and used them, as well as the working conditions in these factories. Aside from the 300 m² exhibition hall, there are temporary exhibitions on the upper floors on various industry sectors. An English manual is available with translations of the captions of the exhibits.
- 7 National Museum of the Resistance (Nationaal Verzetmuseum), Van Lintstraat 14 ( ), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. M-F 9:00-17:00. Military museum honouring the Belgian Resistance against German occupation of Brussels during the Second World War. It highlights the key components of the Resistance: underground press, sabotage, armed insurgence, contraband, civil resistance, intelligence networks, escape lines, and protection of civilians. The museum features thematic panels on the history of the First and Second World War: the First World War and its consequences, the Spanish Civil War as precursor to the Second World War, the interbellum (1920s–1940s), the Resistance in Belgium, the various military campaigns, etc. It is settled in the historic Lauwers printing and photoengraving workshop, which served as a Resistance headquarters during the war. Resistance groups, partisans and former political prisoners during the Second World War considered it a duty of posterity to leave testimonials and authentic documents used by the resistance against the Nazi occupation, many of which are on display in the museum. The collection features numerous Resistance weapons, helmets, flags, badges, emblems, armbands, uniforms, funeral urns, photographs, newspapers and leaflets. One of its goals is to raise awareness and sensitise citizens to the dangers of undemocratic systems, whatever their forms are, and the risk of escalation of these threats into devastating conflicts. Since 1972, the civic purpose of the museum is to continue transmission of the ideals and spirits embodied by the Resistance, as to warn young generations to the present dangers of extremism of any kind. Due to the topics addressed in this museum (including the horrors of Nazi concentration camps), it is unsuitable for kids.
- 8 Erasmus House (Erasmushuis), Kapittelstraat 31 ( ), ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. Tu-Su 10:00-18:00. The Erasmus House, previously chapter house De Swaene, served as the residence of Dutch priest, theologist, philosopher, writer and humanist Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus gained fame as a defender of tolerance and free will, and is known for his work "De Lof der Zotheid", a center piece of Dutch language literature. The house was constructed in 1468 for a Brussels banker, making it one of the oldest gothic houses in Brussels. It was inhabited by Pieter Wijchmans in 1515 who also expanded it. As a friend of Erasmus, he offered Erasmus a place to stay and sleep between May and October 1521, hence Erasmus only stayed in this house for about half a year. After the French Revolution, the Erasmus House was used as a civilian house until it was acquired by the city council in 1931 and turned into a museum. The museum is dedicated to the life and work of Desiderius Erasmus, including an important collection of writings, and several paintings of Holbein de Jonge and Jheronnimus Bosch. It aims to offer a unique insight in the intellectual setting during the Reformation. Its collection also features several sculptures, Gothic and renaissance furniture, and temporary exhibitions for cultural events. A guided tour of the museum takes about 1 hour, and is available in French, Dutch, English, German, Italian and Spanish. €1.25.
- 9 Philosophical Garden (Filosofische tuin), Bruinstraat 3, ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Tu-Su 10:00-18:00. The Erasmus House is surrounded by a garden, and one of its most notable features. The garden consists of 2 parts, a geometrical garden and a philosophical garden. The geometrical garden, closest to the house, was designed by garden architect René Pechère in 1988 and features around 100 plants and herbs that were used in the 16th century (when Erasmus lived) for their medical properties. It gave the geometrical garden the name garden of diseases ("tuin der ziekten"). Erasmus had complained in many of his letters about his health issues. The second part of the garden is the actual philosophical garden, designed by landscape architect Benoit Fondu in 2000. It is decorated with artworks from Catherine Beaugrand, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, and Bob Verschueren. The design is based on "Het religieus banket”, a work Erasmus wrote after his stay in Anderlecht in 1521, featuring a cartographic report of Erasmus' many travels, which made him one of the first true Europeans. The garden features many plants and flowers Erasmus likely encountered during his journeys. The garden can be visited free of charge.
- 10 Beguinage Museum (Begijnhofmuseum), Kapelaansstraat 8 ( ), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Tu-Su 10:00-12:00, 14:00-17:00. In 1252 a small beguinage was founded with a financial donation of one of the canons. Only in the 14th century, the Gothic St. Peter and St. Guido church was erected next to it, named after the holy Saint Guido who was buried here in the 11th century and after whom the nearby metro station is named. The beguinage, the smallest in Belgium with a population of only 8 beguines, was set up as a museum in 1930. It consists of two buildings, one from the 16th century and the other from the 18th century, constructed around an inner courtyard with a great view on the church. The museum introduces visitors to the significance of the religious institutions at the time, and the importance of the beguinage for society. Its collection consists of objects of archaeological interest, religious art, and a local history collection documenting a millennium of history of Anderlecht, the suburb in which the beguinage is located. €1.25.
- 11 [dead link] Museum of China (Chinamuseum), Ninoofsesteenweg 548 ( ), ☏ , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. M-F 14:30-17:00. Museum dedicated to Chinese culture and heritage, founded by missionaries with an interest in ethnology who brought back oriental art and artefacts in 1862, and housed in the Scheut mission of the monastery of Anderlecht. The initial purpose of the museum was to make young missionaries acquainted with the Chinese culture. It has exhibit on Chinese language and its script, an impressive collection of Chinese coins, and many other items related to Chinese folklore from the 17th to the 19th century. It also features a section with a general overview of Chinese and Mongolian daily life. Throughout the museum there is a distinct focus on popular beliefs in China and Mongolia, as well as different religions including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Lamaism. this highlights the evangelization of China and the four major contract periods with Christianity. A peculiar part of the museum is its gallery with a collection of 3,000 portraits of missionaries from around the world.
- 12 Wiels, Avenue Van Volxem 354, ☏ . Tu-Su 11:00-28:00. Art exhibition centre in a former brewery. On the ground floor the industrial heritage remained well kept. There also is a viewing platform on the roof. €12 for a normal ticket, €10 for 60+ and €5 for students.
- Watch football ie soccer at RSC Anderlecht, who play in First Division A, the top tier of Belgian football. Their home ground is Constant Vanden Stock stadium, capacity 21,000, two km west of city centre.
- 1 Sunday Market (Zuidmarkt), Europaesplanade ( ). Su 07:00-13:00. The Sunday Market or South Market of Brussels is the largest in Belgium and the 3rd largest in Europe. Ignoring the weather, it gives you the same experience as a market in southern Europe or north Africa. It offers fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, cheese, fish, and many other foods from domestic suppliers but also foreign produce. Other items include plants, household items, textiles, make-up and jewelry, and a variety of other convenience products. Although you'll likely strike the best deals if you buy in large quantities (per kg), most vendors will also be happy to sell you smaller quantities. Prices drop dead cheap towards the end of the market. Note: the area around the South station has a deserved poor reputation. Don't go alone, keep your belongings close, and watch your back!
- 1 La Friterie de la Barrière, Rue du Parc-Parkstraat (just off the Barrière de St-Gilles/Bareel van Sint-Gillis). Golden and crispy frites just the way they should be. This exterior of this fritkot also serves as mini-museum with several tracts, articles and other literature on the fronts and sides of the shack on the good ol' Belgian frite.
- 2 Mamma Roma, Sint-Gillisvoorplein 31 ( ), ☏ . 12:00-22:00. Small franchise pizzeria for eat-in (bar-style seating) or takeaway, sold by weight. Delicious crunchy base and some unusual toppings (one was spicy with walnuts). Long queues but speedy service, deals available for pizza + drinks.
- 3 Snack Pizzeria Porte de Halle, Henri Jasparlaan 134 ( ), ☏ . 11:00-23:00. The gentlemen running the place speak a little bit of English and serve the best donar kebap and pizza in the neighborhood. The #39-Pizza Porte De Halle is probably their best pizza. Free delivery on orders over €10.
- 1 Chez Moeder Lambic, Rue Savoiestraat 68 (behind Saint Gilles-Sint-Gillis city hall), ☏ . M-F 11:00-01:00; Sa Su 11:00-02:00. Has a huge list of different beers, with several hundred obscure beers not likely found anywhere else. This cafe is one of the last remaining old-fashioned brown cafes in Brussels. Beer: 25cl: €4.
- 2 Brasserie De l'Union, 55 Parvis De Saint-Gilles - Sint-Gillisvoorplein. This is a place with a true "atmosphere", wooden chairs and tables, big old wooden bar, a crowd that reflects the diversity of Saint-Gilles. Everybody is welcome and come as you are. This is a bar that just oozes human warmth and a comfortable ambiance. When the sunny days are coming, the terrace is one of the best in Saint-Gilles.
- 3 Brasserie Le Verschueren, Parvis de St-Gilles-Sint-Gillisvoorplein 11-13, ☏ . Something of an institution in hip Saint-Gilles. Under the watchful eye of the portly, bearded deep-voiced owner, hipsters, starving artists and local poodle-brandishing ladies mingle and drink endless beers and coffees. A beautiful woodwork football tableau shows the scores of some long lost second and third division teams from yesteryear.
- 1 Génération Europe Youth Hostel, Rue de l'Eléphant-Olifantstraat 4 (Molenbeek-Saint-Jean), ☏ , fax: . Offers beds for budget traveling. A bit farther from city centre, not as safe area. €22.50+.
- 2 Citadines Toison d'Or Brussels, 61-63, avenue de la Toison d'Or, ☏ , fax: , ✉ email@example.com. The residence offers two types of stay: a rented flat or the prestige option. Each studio and apartment in the self-catering accommodation houses a bathroom with a separate toilet, a fully-equipped separate kitchen area
- 3 Pullman Brussels Midi, Place Victor Horta 1, ☏ , fax: . Opened in 2013, the Pullman is an upscale business-oriented hotel right opposite the Brussels-Midi / Brussel-Zuid railway station
Thieves and muggers are reported to operate around the Gare du Midi/Zuidstation (Eurostar terminal) in Saint-Gilles.
Molenbeek and its surroundings are relatively unsafe, compared with various other parts of Brussels. Going here alone can be risky, and it is advisable to avoid the area entirely after dark. The rate of armed robberies in Molenbeek is higher than that of several other neighborhoods in Brussels, and tourists are often targeted because they are assumed to carry valuables. That said, the crime rate is still far below that of many U.S. cities - including some that don't have a reputation for crime.
While the community has gained notoriety internationally as the hideout of the terrorists responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris (Jan 2015) and bombing the Brussels metro and airport (Mar 2016), of greater concern to the voyager is the relatively high incidence of theft, robbery and other low-level street crime.
While the terrorist attacks seem to have acted as a wake up call of sorts (policing has been increased, with a corresponding marked decrease in the crime rate) it will likely be a long time before anything approaching gentrification sets in here. Nonetheless, it would appear the worst of the worst has passed.