World fairs and expositions began as a means to showcase the best in technology and culture from around the world. It only makes sense, then, that host nations pull out all of the stops when it comes to creating new and exciting venues and experiences — and that their creations live on past the end of the event and become symbols of their home cities.
One such example is Brussels’ Atomium. Like Montreal’s Biosphere and New York’s Unisphere, the Atomium was originally constructed to serve as the centerpiece of the World’s Fair, but has since become one of the Belgian city’s most visited — and unique — attractions, as well as the symbol of Brussels. Built for the 1958 World Expo, architect André Waterkeyn designed the 335-foot structure to resemble a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times: Eight 59-foot-wide spheres, which house exhibit space, are connected via tubes in the basic shape of a cube suspended in midair. Covered in shiny aluminum, the overall effect is both stunning and confounding. In fact, CNN once called Atomium “one of Europe’s most bizarre buildings.”
A Major Tourist Attraction
While Atomium is worth a visit simply for the chance to view one of the most interesting examples of mid-20th century architecture, the site is actually a multi-purpose, well-visited tourist attraction. Of the over 3 million tourists who visit Brussels each year, many of them make the trip to the Atomium, making it one of Europe’s top attractions. While in the area around the Atomium, visitors can also try a meal at one of the city’s outstanding bistros or go for a walk through Parc d’Osseghem and Parc de Laeken, which are located across the street.
Five of the eight spheres are open to the public, accessible via escalators in the connecting tubes. The most popular sphere is the eighth one, at the structure’s top. From this vantage point, 300 feet in the air, you can take in panoramic views of Brussels and the surrounding area (on a clear day you can see all the way to Antwerp). You can also see some of the other famous attractions in Brussels, such as the Grand Palace and the Sonian Forest, from the eighth sphere, as long as you know where to look.
The sixth sphere offers another view — a unique vantage point that includes five of the Atomium’s spheres with the Brussels skyline in the background. Sphere one, at the structure’s base, is a permanent exhibit devoted to the 1950s, particularly the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. For those interested in the design and structure of the Atomium itself, the fifth sphere is another permanent exhibit about the site’s history, design and renovation.
The remaining publicly accessible spheres offer an ever-changing series of exhibits, ranging from explorations of seemingly mundane topics like water and concrete to a showcase of avant-garde fashion design. Each of these topics holds cultural importance to Belgium.
Beyond the Spheres
While fascinating, a visit to the Atomium most likely won’t fill your entire day, but it’s conveniently located near another popular — and by some accounts, equally as odd — attraction. At the base of the Atomium, the Mini-Europe park is full of replicas of Europe’s major monuments — more than 350 buildings from 80 cities. In a few hours, you can tour all of Europe in 1:25 scale, seeing everything from Big Ben to the canals of Venice. Most visitors purchase a combination ticket for Atomium and Mini-Europe; other options include admission to the Planetarium and other Brussels’ museums as well as the nearby Océade indoor/outdoor waterpark.
While the spheres and exhibits of the Atomium close each day at 6 p.m., try to score a reservation at Belgium Taste, the panoramic restaurant in the uppermost sphere. You can enjoy a gourmet meal while taking in the city skyline. Also, in the evening, the entire structure is lit with thousands of LED lights, creating a unique show and a new perspective of the structure.
Atomium is located on the northern edge of Brussels and easily accessible via metro, car or sightseeing bus. When you’re searching for hotels , the closest locations to the Atomium are those in the Expo area. However, because Brussels is relatively small, easily navigable and public transportation is abundant, a hotel in any neighborhood will allow easy access to this attraction.
The Atomium defies description. It’s part sculpture, part building; it’s a cube, a pyramid and sphere. Models and replicas of this structure can be found throughout Europe, but if you’re in Brussels, visit the original and truly one-of-a-kind Atomium.
About the Author: Louise Vinciguerra is a fantastic joke teller, has a million and one hobbies, and enjoys matching her fonts with her moods. This Brooklyn native dirties her hands in content on weekdays and as a devout nature lover, dirties them in soil on the weekends. When she’s not on Facebook, WordPress or Twitter, she’s traveling in search of fun food, dabbling in urban farming or planning nature trips from her resident city of Rome. When she’s not doing any of the above, she sleeps.