The Sonian Forest to the southeast of Brussels is a vast area of pristine nature dominated by beech and oak trees. It is a paradise for outdoor activities, and a much-needed leisure area where citizens of the crowded city can relax and regain breath. The forest hides numerous attractions worth discovering, including some of the oldest archaeological remains of Belgium, and is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To the northwest, the forest stretches into the city as the Ter Kameren Park, much of which is of artificial nature.
The Ter Kameren Park is easily reachable from the centre of the city through the Louise Avenue public transport corridor, and the northern part of the Sonian Forest is fairly easily accessible by tram . The areas close to Watermaal-Bosvoorde give the best impression of what the authentic Sonian Forest looks like.
To the south and west, the Sonian Forest borders Flanders, and there are no public transport stations that provide an entry point from within Brussels. If you want to penetrate the heart of the Sonian Forest from the south rather than take the tourist approach from Ter Kameren Park or the north, consider Tervuren, Overijse, or Hoeilaart.
The Ter Kameren Park to the north-east is served by 2 railway stations, the 1 Bosvoorde Station and the 2 Boondael Station. Alternatively, station 3 Diesdelle on the same line as Boondael Station allows entry into Ter Kameren Park from the west. All stations are serviced by S-train and Boondael is also a stop for IC trains.
The Ter Kameren Park can be reached by trams 4 . The noth side of the Sonian Forest and its neighboring parks in Bosvoorde can be reached by tram (get off at Bosvoorde Station or 5 ). The east side of the Sonian Forest is better accessible through Tervuren, take tram and get off at 6 .and to the north-west, and tram to the west with terminus station
Bus line 7 .serves Ter Kameren Bos to the northwest, and line traverses it at
Most of the Sonian Forest is not accessible by motorized vehicles, and renting a mountain bike would be a good idea if you plan to explore some of the off-the-beaten-track parts to the south of the Forest, near the border with Flanders. Most of the forest is quite hilly, so expect occasional steep climbs!
Walking is a good alternative to cycling, but it will only allow you to explore small parts of the forest. Most paths are unpaved but covered with dolomite, making them suitable for walking even when it's raining. Proper walking shoes are nonetheless recommendable. In the Ter Kameren Park, there is a 3 public shelter where you can take cover if you're caught by surprise by Belgium's unpredictable weather.
The forest has ample facilities for horse riding, making exploration of the forest by horse very feasible. The 4 hippodrome would be a good starting point to get yourself equipped.
The most obvious attraction is the forest itself of course, with many idyllic locations to discover.
- 1 Ernest Solvay Monument, Franklin Rooseveltlaan ( ). 24/7. Statue of Ernest Solvay, inventor of the Solvay process and in later years important political figure who lived in a residence in Brussels/Woluwe. The monument consists of a marble statue of a thinking Solvay on a granite pedestal with the inscription "Ernest Solvay, 1832-1922, Stichter van het Nationaal Comité" (English: Founder of the National Committee). Free.
- 2 Ter Kameren Gate, Louizalaan ( ). 24/7. Gate to the Ter Kameren Park, flanked by 2 pavillions in a neoclassical style. The pavillions can not be visited, but their monumental appeal is worth a look when entering the Ter Kameren Park from the city centre through the Louise Avenue. Free.
- 3 The Englishmen's Lawn (Pelouse des Anglais) ( ). 24/7. In 1815, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, English soldiers played a cricket match in this area, which has been called Pelouse des Anglais by the French ever since although only few are aware of its name. The British Ambassador in Belgium planted an oak tree and unveiled a bronze plaque to commemorate the 150th anniversary of this historical event in 1965. Free.
- 4 Hippodrome (Renbaan van Bosvoorde), Terhulpsesteenweg 85 ( ), ☏ . The hippodrome is the largest in Brussels, and was 1.9 km long when it opened in 1880. With a width of 17 m, it was one of the largest hippodromes of its time in Belgium. It was constructed on the initiative of King Leopold II who was a fan of horse racing, a hobby he shared with much of the Brussels bourgeoisie. The king desired that a hippodrome be constructed in Brussels after the example of the hippodrome of Oostende, and proposed the current site in 1875 in the Belgian parliament. Construction was assigned to Edouard Keilig, who designed the Ter Kameren Park, and construction started 2 years later with the clear cut of an adequate portion of the Sonian Forest. At the same time, stands and viewing galleries for spectators where also constructed. The hippodrome was inaugurated in 1880 by the king, and horse races where organized regularly by the Society for the Promotion of Horse Races and the Development of Race Tracks in Belgium. It became a popular place of leisure, where ordinary citizens could view the races from the inner grass field, and the rich could show off the newest fashion on the elevated viewing galleries. Gambling on the outcome of the races was one of their preferred activities. Due to its popularity, the race track was expanded in 1907, and an additional section of the Sonian Forest was cut down to enlarge the race track. The buildings were renovated from 1942 until 1951 by architect Paul Brydel, who added a few modernist features to the architecture. After the Second World War, the popularity of horse racing declined sharply and with it, the frequency of horse racing diminished as well. Lack of maintenance caused the buildings to lose much of their appeal, and racing seized completely in 1987. The buildings were subsequently rented out to a restaurant and a disco, and the large grass field in the centre of the race track was converted into a golf course. After expiration of the rental contracts, the restaurants disappeared again, and much of the infrastructure decayed until the point that demolishing them was being considered. After protest of the local community, the Brussels government acquired the race track and its buildings and started a renovation in 2013, which was completed in 2016. The venue is now vacant, and awaiting a new purpose.
- 5 Foresters Monument (Monument voor de Boswachters), Grasdellepad. 24/7. A monument consisting of 11 menhirs, dedicated to the foresters who gave their lives protecting the Sonian Forest during the First World War. The monument was designed by Richard Viandier who drew inspiration from Celtic funeral rituals. The stones are massive blocks of pudding stone, a natural mix of sand, quartz, silex, and cobblestones. They were excavated and shaped in a quarry at Wéris in the Belgian province Luxemburg. Inscribed on the smaller menhirs are the names of the 11 foresters, and their village of origin. The central menhir carries the inscription "Aux forestiers morts pour la patrie 1914-1918" ("To the foresters killed for the fatherland 1914-1918"). Free.
- 6 Lienard Oak (Lienard Eik), Eikendalvoetpad. 24/7. A tree called Chêne Liénard Eik ("Lienard Eik Oak"), dedicated to G. Lienard, a forest engineer at the Arboretum of Tervuren from 1955 to 1990. The legacy of Lienard includes the famous catalogue of 1986 which is still a reference for species registration in the arboretum today. It is one of the larger trees in the area, surrounded by beech trees up to 40 m high. In 2011, the tree had a girth of 3.26 m and a height of 35 m. For reference, this is about a third of the height of the Atomium! Free.
- 7 Archaeological Reserve Boitfort Lakes, Twee Bergenweg, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. 24/7. With an area of 90,000 m² the largest archaeological site in the Sonian Forest, dating back 6,300 years which makes it one of the earliest preserved mid-neolithic sites in Belgium. Because the area has always been a forest, the site has been exceptionally well preserved. It was only discovered in 1888 when local children discovered spear and arrow points in silex very close to the surface. It took until the end of the First World War until the first excavations were started, and immediately indicated a valuable archaeological site. The finds included flint artifacts, knife points, pottery, and many other relics that pointed towards a neolithic civilization. It was only during the second series of excavations from 1969 to 1978 that the sheer size of the size was uncovered, as well as its function as a fortification dating back 6,300 - 5,500 years and are attributed to the Michelsberg civilization which originated in the German state Baden-Wurttemberg. Strangely enough, no living areas could be found within the fortifications. This civilization was known to craft tools from flint found in the mines of Spiennes, for which they were protected as UNESCO World Heritage Site. They engaged in agriculture (wheat, peas) and likely also kept pigs, goats and sheep for which they cleared a large section of the forest. For reasons unknown, the site was then abandoned, and gradually nature took over to restore it to a forest. The site remained untouched for thousands of years, preserving it. Today, the site is protected and preserved by keeping vegetation small (as tall trees would damage the remains when they fall over), but no plans for new excavations exist. Free.
- 8 Arts Center Red Monastery (Kunstcentrum Rood-Klooster), Rokloosterstraat 4 ( ). W F 14:00-17:00, Sa Su 14:00-18:00. Located in the old priory at the edge of the Sonian Forest, the arts center explores the synergy between literature and fine arts with expositions of Belgian and international artists. Given the Belgian context, there is a particular attention to childrens books and comics, aiming for the recognition of Belgian artists. It promotes contemporary art, hosting the competition Le Prix Découverte ("The Discovery Prize"), and collaborates with Europalia to exchange expertise.
- 9 Jean Massart Botanical Garden (Parktuin Jean Massart), Waversesteenweg 1850A ( ). With an area of 50,000 m² the largest botanical garden in the Brussels Capital Region, now under care of the Brussels University ULB. An initiative of Belgian botanist Jean Massart in 1922, the garden and park is converted agricultural land near the Red Monastery, and cultivates over 2,000 different plants. It hosts a collection of 300 plants with a medical and aromatic function, making it the richest collection in the country. It also includes a variety of wild and domesticated species, ranging from flowers such as magnolia up to complete orchards with varieties of apple, pear, plum, peach and cherry. Conifers are another focus of the garden, and can be found in the extensive arboretum. The biotope of the garden is so rich that in 2015 over 1,000 species of insects were observed in the park, of which 25 had not yet been observed in Belgium.
- 1 Ter Kamerenbos (Bois de la Cambre), Floralaan. The largest and best known park of Brussels, on the edge of the Sonian Forest towards the south, with an area of 1.23 km². The park features an artificial lake with an island, called Robinson's island. The Chalet Robinson, a wooden cottage, was built on the island in 1877 but destroyed by a fire in 1991, then rebuilt in 2006. The park was laid out in 1861 by German architect Edouard Keilig, together with the Louise Avenue that links it to the Brussels inner city. In its original design it hosted a dairy, a velodrome, theatre, and a race course, and quickly became a popular recreation area for locals. The horsemans' battle bronze group at the entrance of the park is a work of sculptor Jackues de Lalaing. The roads traversing the park are closed to traffic, and safe for cycling and walking.
- 2 Theatre de Poche, Gymnasiumweg 1A ( ), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Theatre specializing in contemporary plays of local Brussels artists. Its location in the Ter Kameren Park makes it easily accessible by public transport, on a walking distance from Longchamp and the Louise avenue.
There are no shops in the Ter Kameren Park or the Sonian Forest, so you'll need to bring all food and drinks with you. A decent backpack is highly recommended to carry adequate protection against the weather as well — a waterproof rain coat in particular.
- 1 Chalet Robinson, Steigerweg 1 ( ), ☏ . M-Sa 12:00-23:00, Su 11:00-23:00. Restaurant in a wooden cottage on Robinson Island (Dutch: Robinsoneiland), was built on the island in 1877 but destroyed by a fire in 1991, then rebuilt in 2006. Probably one of the most unique localities to dine in the evening, it is the perfect location for a romantic dinner. The restaurant can only be reached by ferry, which is available on request.
- 2 Les Jeux d'Hiver, Kroketweg 1 ( ), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant and bar in the middle of the Ter Kameren Park.
- 3 Le Relais Forestier, Rokloosterstraat 2 ( ). W-F 11:00-17:00, Sa Su 14:00-18:00. Small restaurant at the Red Monastery abbey, renovated in 2016 and now a charming small tavern. It is managed by a non profit organization called "The garden of the monks" whose objective is the privilege of contact between nature and humans, which translates in an interior with LED lighting and recycled timber. Don't count on Wi-Fi, electronic payments or microwave ovens here: everything is local, fresh, and prepared according to ancient recipes.
Camping is not allowed anywhere in the Ter Kameren Park or the Sonian Forest, and you risk getting fined if you set up a tent. Although the rule is pretty strictly enforced in the Ter Kameren Park due to its popularity, it is usually not enforced deeper in the Sonian Forest where patrols are few and far between. As long as you break up your tent in the morning, do not make fire and leave no trace, it is unlikely you'll run into trouble camping in the Sonian Forest.
The last bears and wolves were shot long ago, so there are no large animals left that could pose any threat. Wild boars can be aggressive, particularly when protecting their offspring, but encounters are extremely rare.
The forest is larger than it looks though, and stretches out quite far to the south into Flanders. Without a map and compass, it is easy to get lost and accidentally venture outside the borders of Brussels. Always take a map and compass along!
When storms are announced, the forest is off-limits due to the risk of falling branches and trees.
The Sonian Forest is scarred by the N275, R0 and E411 highways, brutally breaking through the pristine landscape. These highways are among the busiest around the city, particularly around rush hour, and should not be crossed under any condition. There are several pedestrian tunnels that enable crossing from one side to the other.
There are no internet cafés or snail mail facilities in the Ter Kameren Park or the Sonian Forest, so don't count on finding or sending postcards.
There is good mobile coverage in most of the Sonian Forest (GPRS) and the Ter Kameren Park even enjoys WCDMA connectivity which allows mobile data connections. In general though it's best to not count on internet availability, and download the OpenStreetMap dataset for the district in advance before venturing into the Forest. Exploring the Sonian Forest with an offline map such as OpenStreetMap will make the experience a lot more pleasant.