Ascending the Atomium in Brussels, Belgium

The Atomium is one of the more unusual structures to see in Brussels, Belgium. It’s essentially an architectural marvel, and quite a futuristic-looking one at that. The structure consists of nine huge stainless steel-covered spheres interconnected by long, narrow tubes. It looks a little something like this:

Atomium

The Atomium was constructed back in 1958 as the main pavilion for the World Fair (aka Expo ’58). It’s 102 meters high and represents an elementary iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It was never actually intended to be a permanent structure, but its popularity won out and it remains standing to this day.

Atomium entrance

The concept for the Atomium came from an engineer by the name of André Waterkeyn, but the spheres were designed by architects André and Jean Polak. If you’re into weird and wacky facts, there’s a great plaque stating statistics and numbers regarding the 1958 World Fair:

The spheres are 18 meters each in diameter and are large enough to walk around in. Some of the spheres currently house various exhibits. The Atomium’s permanent exhibition is entitled: Atomium. From symbol to icon, while the other spheres hold temporary exhibits on various themes such as the environment, society, art, design, etc. When we visited, the exhibit on display was Water for All, covering such topics as pollution, lack of clean drinking water in developing countries, and conservation.

But the exhibits pale in comparison to the structure itself, especially the escalators that run inside the tubes:

Atomium escalator

The tunnels are a little bit claustrophobic though! The light show inside one of the tubes added an unexpected futuristic touch. It definitely gave me a bit of a “Battlestar: Galactica” vibe:

 

 

Atomium escalator light show Brussels Belgium

Atomium escalator light show Brussels Belgium

Not all of the spheres are accessible to the public though. Three of the top spheres lack vertical support so they aren’t safe for the public to access.

The windows inside the spheres offer fabulous views of the city, including Mini Europe, which is just next door. You can purchase combination tickets that include entry to both the Atomium and Mini Europe from either venue. It’s worth getting, since there’s more than enough time to easily do both in the course of a day.

View of Mini Europe from Atomium

The Atomium also has an elevator in the central vertical tube. By some reports it is considered to be the fastest elevator in all of Europe. While this is a pretty steep claim, it could very well be the fastest elevator in Belgium, at least.

Atomium elevator shaft

Atomium’s elevator shaft

A few words of warning about getting there (and we speak from experience!). Although the Hop On Hop Off bus does stop at the Atomium, be mindful of its hours of operation. During high season (April, May, June – mid July, September, October) the latest bus runs until 6:00pm on Saturdays. On Sundays it only operates until 5:00pm, and Monday-Friday the bus stops running at 4:00pm.

When we went, it was a Monday in May, and we arrived at the Atomium around 3pm. After visiting the Atomium we went to Mini Europe, both of which took a few hours to explore. We planned to take the sightseeing bus back towards Central Station, which was within walking distance of our hotel.

Unfortunately, we realized their operating schedule too late. Although the Atomium and Mini Europe were open until 6:00pm, the Hop On Hop Off bus stopped running at 4:00pm. In short, we were stranded! So, with little idea as to how the public transportation worked, we hoofed it back to our hotel on foot, which was quite a long journey. So if you do plan on using the Hop On Hop Off bus as a means of transportation, be cautious of the times they run so you aren’t left without a way of getting back!

Brussels Hop On Hop Off bus

As a side note, to be perfectly frank, this was also one of the least interesting Hop On Hop Off bus tours we’ve ever taken.

First of all, the Atomium bus route (or Blue Route) experiences a long gap where there’s very little to see of any historical or cultural significance. This is because the Atomium and neighbouring attraction, Mini Europe, are actually quite far out from central Brussels. In fact, they are the farthest attractions from central Brussels on the tour. But instead of filling this long drive with anecdotes or interesting facts about Brussels, our earbuds were bombarded with long stretches of tinny elevator music. Jet lag and elevator music do not mix, and my husband and I both struggled to stay awake. I’d like to think that the Europe bus route (Red Route) was more engaging because it remained more central, but sadly, we only took the tour bus one way. If anyone has taken the Red Route, please let me know what your experience was!

 

 

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