The little hidden secrets of the Sainte-Catherine and Béguinage neighbourhoods

16 November 2022
Place Sainte-Catherine et église, (c) Jean-Paul Rémy,

The Béguinage and Saint-Catherine neighbourhoods are just a stone's throw from the Bourse. Lively and trendy, they are renowned for their concept stores and their gastronomic offer. But how well do you know their little secrets, both old and new?

The Sainte-Catherine and Béguinage neighbourhoods are among the most vibrant places in the city. There is always something going on. Although very popular with tourists, they still retain a genuine neighbourhood feel. The locals are strongly attached to them and enjoy telling the historical anecdotes that shape their identity. An identity imbued with symbolism and belief. Below you’ll find some of this trendy area’s hidden gems: Rue de la Cigogne, the church of Saint John the Baptist at the Béguinage, the gardens of the Pacheco Institute, the Masonic temple and the urinals of the Sainte Catherine church.

If you would like to explore the neighbourhood in more detail, you can visit the numerous addresses that mark out the route.

Rue de la Cigogne

Accessible from Rue Rempart des Moines (access from Rue de Flandre is closed by a gate), Rue de la Cigogne is a charming oasis of calm in the heart of the capital. The best time to venture into the Rue de la Cigogne? Between April and June, without a doubt! During that period, wisterias take over this narrow street and add a touch of poetry. One of its entrances, surmounted by an arch, has a niche with a statuette of Saint Roch dating back to the 18th century. Saint Roch is one of a group of saints known as plague saints. Many niches of this type can be found in the historic streets of the capital. These "potales", as they are called, were dug out by the inhabitants in order to place a patron saint or the Virgin Mary. The dwellings on the street date from at least the 17th century and have, for the most part, been restored. The paving stones and guard stones are also original. Everything has been listed since 1984.

La rue de la Cigogne, ©



Church of Saint John the Baptist at the Béguinage

There are many Catholic churches in Brussels. One of the most outstanding architectural and social features is without a doubt the church of Saint John the Baptist at the Béguinage. The Baroque style building was constructed in the 17th century in the heart of an important beguinage which included 1084 houses spread over 7 hectares. Today, the entire district is highly prized by film-makers for its historical atmosphere. Numerous films have been shot here: the English series "Les Misérables" by the BBC, Rupert Everett’s film "The Happy Prince" about Oscar Wilde, "Le Tout Nouveau Testament" by Jaco Van Dormael and "A Promise" by Patrice Leconte. The church also has highly commendable social commitments. For years it has been working to help migrants and undocumented migrants find a little comfort and a roof if necessary. The church’s motto is: "Treat others as you would have them treat you”.

Eglise du Béguinage, ©



The Gardens of the Pacheco Institute

This large neoclassical complex was inaugurated in 1827 on the site of the infirmary of the former Grand Beguinage of Brussels. Currently undergoing renovation into flats, catering and student accommodation, the Pacheco Institute was once a place dedicated to the care of the "incurably ill, infirm and elderly". In addition to the remarkable architectural ensemble, the building contains two magnificent listed interior gardens. Here you’ll find landscaped flower beds and the largest Japanese chestnut tree in the region (with a 303cm circumference trunk and over 20m high). Did you know, that in the entrance of the institute you’ll find a commemorative plaque which is one of the best-known fakes in Brussels? It states that the Institute was opened in 1835, during the reign of Leopold I, the first king of the Belgians. However, the complex was actually built between 1824 and 1827, during the reign of William I of Orange, when Belgium was part of the Netherlands. A cheeky way for young Belgium to sneakily take credit for a beautiful Dutch building! The complex is currently not accessible to the public due to conversion work.

Jardins du Grand Hospice, © visit.brusssels



The Masonic temples

The neo-classical facade of number 79 Rue de Laeken hides a little secret. This is the location of a historical society that values discretion above all else: the Masonic Lodge of the True Friends of Union and Progress. Founded in 1854, this lodge is part of the Grand Orient of Belgium. It is one of the oldest and most important ones in Belgium. Several big names from the political and cultural elite of Brussels have met here to debate philosophical issues. Only accessible during the Heritage Days, very few people were able to enter these four temples as visitors. If you are one of the lucky ones, you’ll notice that their decoration features Egyptian imagery. The largest temple is surmounted by an impressive vault. If you are intrigued by the history of freemasonry, stop by the Belgian Museum of Freemasonry, located just a stone's throw away, at number 73, Rue de Laeken.


The urinals of the Sainte Catherine church, high meeting places

The first public urinals appeared at the beginning of the 19th century. These quickly became meeting places for the gay community, which was persecuted at the time. Men wishing to meet other men would thus discreetly meet at the urinals. What better alibi than a pressing call of nature? These furtive little meetings have sometimes given rise to real love stories. Fortunately, the LGBT community can meet freely in Belgium today. Only the urinals of Sainte Catherine's church, dating from 1873, remain from this period, to the great displeasure of the church’s faithful flock, who look down unfavourably on the passers-by who are relieving themselves on the facade of their place of worship.