The little secrets of the Heysel district

02 November 2022
Vue sur le site du Heysel depuis l'Atomium, (c) Jean-Paul Rémy,

Known in Belgium and even abroad as a rallying point for major sporting and cultural events, the Heysel district is also without question an inviting place to escape. Whether it is to visit the unparalleled Atomium, to attend an event — a football match, a sporting event, an exhibition, a fair or a trade show, etc. — or simply to get away from highly urbanised areas for a while, there is no shortage of reasons to get to know this district better. But do you know its little secrets from the past and the present? 

Would you like to learn more about this plateau in the north of Brussels? We would like to highlight five sites on the Heysel plain: the open-air theatre, the King Baudouin Stadium, the Grand Palais, the Planetarium and the United States Pavilion.

The open-air theatre in Osseghem Park

Osseghem Park, which is next to the Atomium, is the green space par excellence where people spontaneously go after visiting the Atomium. Osseghem Park was built for the 1935 World Fair and is located between the Atomium and the vast Laeken Park. At that time, the Heysel was a vast area consolidated by Léopold II — who amassed it through various purchases and expropriations — and had a low level of urbanisation. When the site was chosen to host the international event, everything accelerated and its appearance radically changed. 

For the occasion, it was decided to establish a small forest park, which would take advantage of the numerous beech trees planted on the site. The rest of the park included English-style gardens, a pond fed by a nearby spring, and an open-air theatre with seating for 3,000 people. This open-air theatre was the setting for a series of one-off festive events that integrated the exhibition programme, such as parades, theatre, concerts, a variety of entertainment and sporting competitions, etc. 

Today, the site still hosts major events such as the Brosella Festival, a jazz and folk music festival.

Le théâtre de verdure lors d'un événement, © Shamrockraver Photography



Before the King Baudouin Stadium: the "Centenary Stadium"

Today, everyone knows the King Baudouin stadium, a special venue for organising national and international sporting events, and sometimes cultural events such as major concerts. 

Did you know that the current King Baudouin Stadium was originally called the "Centenary Stadium"? This stadium, the first building on the Heysel site, was built in 1930. It was even inaugurated with a football match between Belgium and the Netherlands — we don't hold grudges in Belgium — in September 1930. It was initially agreed that the 1930 World Fair would be held in Brussels, to celebrate the centenary of Belgian independence. In the end, this did not happen and the exhibition was held in Brussels five years later.



The Grand Palais or the "Atomium" of 1935

The morphology of the site would never be the same without the Heysel "Palais", the enormous buildings where large events such as fairs, trade shows and exhibitions, often of a spectacular nature, were regularly held. 

The Grand Palais, flanked by 11 other "palais" — of these 11, only 5 remain today — was built to house the 1935 World Fair. Like the Atomium at the 1958 Fair, the Grand Palais was the emblematic building of the 1935 Fair, which appeared on most of the posters promoting the event. These two symbolic buildings began a conflictual relationship during the construction of the Atomium, which was sited halfway along the Boulevard du Centenaire, interrupting the view towards the high façade of the Grand Palais.

Le Grand Palais au Heysel, (c) Jean-Paul Rémy,



Science in 1935

Heysel is truly THE site of the Brussels World Fairs... In order to present the Planetarium to you, it is necessary to refer again to the 1935 World Fair, since the current organisation is the successor of the planetarium and more generally of the Palais de la Science built at the time of the 1935 fair. Demolished in 1968, the Belgian State built a new building a few years later, attaching the institution to the Royal Observatory of Belgium, of which the Planetarium became the educational showcase and museum. The vault is a reproduction of that of the 1935 building and the 1935 projection apparatus is still in use today! The information and projections are captivating, and you will not be disappointed!

L'intérieur du Planétarium, ©


The United States Pavilion

The United States, absent from the 1935 edition, was keen to make an appearance at the 1958 edition. Their circular pavilion, called the "American Theatre", is impressive; indeed, it was originally the size of the Colosseum in Rome! It was accompanied by two other smaller buildings: a theatre and the Circarama: a cinema with a 360-degree screen. Demonstrating faith in the future of this highly dynamic country, this huge circular space included performance halls and recording rooms for radio and colour television — which was still in its infancy at the time! The site, which has been partially preserved, will be occupied by the Flemish public radio and television station BRT (now VRT). 

Did you know that the statue that has adorned the Mont des Arts since 2000, The Whirling Ear by Alexander Calder, originally decorated the esplanade in front of the American Pavilion?