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Brussels

Brussels Itineraries

Brussels – The Offbeat and the Tourist Traps

Brussels Must-See Sights

The Perfect Day Out in Brussels

If Brussels is boring, why do so many people come here?

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Since the 1950s, Brussels has had a reputation for being a rather dull corner of a nondescript country in Europe – at least, it has among Europeans. This is wildly inaccurate at best. The reason may have been the consolidation of the EU member states in what is now known as the EU Quarter. However, if you come to Brussels just to see the EU Quarter, you will either be here on business, or need to seriously reconsider your choice of travel agency.


Brussels Entertains

Brussels has worked hard in the background to not only promote the rich heritage and culture it possesses but to augment the visitor’s experience of the city with art, a vibrant music scene and an extremely competitive and contemporary gastronomic sector. It’s one of Europe’s worst-kept secrets – a couple of hours from London and Paris, yet a million miles from the hustle and bustle of the big cities. OK, there’s the perpetual traffic jam but a conversation on car zoning is not a fight you want to pick with a Belgian, Trust me on this one.


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Cosmopolitan Brussels

Made up of 19 communes (administrative districts) Brussels has the feel of a collection of small towns, each with its own special flavour. From the colourful, vibrant and sometimes odd Matongé (the African Quarter) in the commune of Ixelles to the sleepy, leafy suburbs out in Uccle with chateaux and expensive restaurants, Brussels has something for everyone. The bars are open ridiculously late if you’re a night owl, or take your pick from hundreds of parks and other green spaces and take a serene bike ride or a walk.


Always something happening

Although the Grand Place is well worth a visit (as you will see in my guide) it’s only a small part of what Brussels has to offer. With its burgeoning arts scene, you could come to Brussels 20 times a year and see something new here every time – and that’s not including all the ‘usual suspects’. The more you come to Brussels, the more you start to understand why it’s the home of around ten per cent of the population of Belgium – and why about half of that number were born outside Belgium.

Come to Brussels – grab a cone of Belgian Fries (we invented them, not the French) drown them in mayonnaise, drink a Belgian Trappist beer and act like a local. We’ll probably think you are one if we don’t see a map or a camera.


When To Go

Brussels is great for any time of the year. Christmas markets, sunny days in the many parks and, being practical people, the people of Brussels always manage to find you something to do to shelter from the rain, which is a frequent and surprising as you may have heard.

How Much Time To Spend

Spend a whole day doing the Grand place and its environs, then branch out and see what else there is to do. A week in Brussels may seem like a long time but once you realize just how much there is to do and see, you may well come back. Many do.

High and Low Season

As with many countries towards the north of Europe, Belgium is a green and pleasant land, which is a poetic way of saying that it can rain a fair bit. It’s mostly mild in climate though, and you’ll only need really warm clothing about two months of every year in January/February. High season is strange, as although it’s centred on August, many Belgians decamp to France and a lot of shops and restaurants could be closed. July or September are better.

Weather and Climate

It’s a temperate climate and it can rain a fair bit, even when you may not think it will. Bring an umbrella. Belgians like to make the best of the tiniest chink of sunlight and as soon as it breaks the clouds, out come the restaurant tables.

Events and Holidays

Belgium’s main days off are based on the Christian religious calendar, so follow the majority of European countries, with a few exceptions. A national holiday is usually accompanied by lots of things to do, often involving beer, wine and food. So yes, some of the shops may be closed, and certainly all public services except the emergency ones but you will certainly neither starve nor dehydrate. Apart from Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, the main holidays observed are:

Easter Monday (Monday after Easter, date varies)
Labour Day (May 1)
Ascension (39 days after Easter, date varies)
Pentecost Monday (Monday after Pentecost, date varies)
Belgian National Day (July 21)
Assumption of Mary (August 15)
All Saints’ Day (November 1)
Armistice Day (November 11)
Christmas Day (December 25)

The Belgians have a perverse love affair with the rain and on National Day, they have a special word for it – la drache nationale – a particularly heavy downpour that often seems to accompany the celebrations.

On May 8 (or more specifically, the closest weekend to it) in Brussels only, there is Iris Day (Irisfeest or Fête de l’Iris), a celebration of all things Brussels.The Iris is a flower local to the area and is on the flag of the Brussels Capital region. The festival has been going for 27 years at time of writing and is extremely popular, with lots to do and several free concerts around the town. There will be huge crowds.

May 9 is particular to the European institutions, as they celebrate Robert Schuman Day. Schuman was the founder of what became the European Union and is seen by many as the ‘Father of the EU’. The institutions are all technically closed on this day but open to the public, so everyone gets a chance to look inside – something not usually afforded to the general public.

November 2 is the Day of the Dead. Not a likely candidate for cheer and joviality, American readers are doubtless with the tradition of Dia de los Muertos, observed on the same day (All Souls’) by Mexican families. If you happen to be in town, go to a graveyard and see the tributes and candles left by people, it really is quite moving.

December 6 is St Nicholas (Sinterklaas or Saint-Nicolas). This is technically the Belgian Christmas – the day on which gifts are exchanged. Belgian kids are a canny breed, however and with the creeping multi-nationalism in Brussels particularly, they have cottoned on to the idea of two sets of seasonal gifts. The shopkeepers don’t seem to mind this break with tradition either.

Time Zone

CEST (Central European Summer Time) or CET (Central European Time)

GMT 1 or UTC 1 with one hour of daylight saving time.

What To Pack and Wear

For the majority of the time, the required wardrobe should be based around sunglasses and an umbrella. The only thing more surprising than a rainstorm from nowhere is a sudden burst of sun. Technically, the average temperatures can range from 3 °C in January and February to 19 °C in July and August. However, it can often be quite a bit colder and quite a bit hotter.

What it Costs

Costs vary wildly in Brussels. You can live on a shoestring or like a prince, depending on how much cash you have at your disposal. There’s plenty to do for those on a limited budget, however. A bag of frites at Maison Antoine and a beer at a nearby bar is about as Belgian as you can get and will not break the bank, even if you’re feeding four people. Food generally tends to be reasonable but with 18 restaurants in town holding Michelin stars, the sky’s the limit.

A lot of the attractions are free or very low priced and a great deal of the museums are free on at least one day a month. There are many, so have a look before you go and see what’s available. The majority of sites have English pages.

Public transport is very cheap, with many options available to tourists. The best idea is a Mobib card. These can be bought from a special shop in some Metro stations (called Bootik) or from the numerous ticket machines at bus, Metro and tram stops. These work in a similar way to most mass-transport cards around the world. just beep your card at a red card-reader machine on a bus, a tram or in a Metro station, and you’re good for a whole hour on any of the aforementioned transport modes.

Taxis, on the other hand, represent the bourgeois stylings of the rich and famous and are accordingly expensive. Most Brussels residents either have a car or take the bus. Taxis are definitely not at the budget end of the price spectrum.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in €.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
€ => Tickets less than €15 per person
€€ => Tickets €15- €30 per person
€€€ => Tickets €30 per person

Sleep — Out of town/rural

€ => Rooms less than €60 for a double
€€ => Rooms €60 – €100 for a double
€€€ => Rooms €100 for a double

Sleep — Large Cities
€ => Rooms less than €100 for a double
€€ => Rooms €100 – €150 for a double
€€€ => Rooms €150 for a double

Eat
€=> €5- €10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€ => €10 – €25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€€ => €25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
€ => Tickets less than €25 per person
€€ => Tickets €25 – €50 per person
€€€ => Tickets €50 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Airfares from Brussels to the rest of Europe tend to be very competitive indeed. There’s a lot of competition and a number of budget airlines flying out of Brussels’ international airport, Zaventem. Other low-cost airlines fly from Charleroi Airport, which is around an hour by coach from Brussels and is often called (by travel agents and others) by the somewhat misleading name of “Brussels South”. Still, the fares are rock bottom, so there’s little to complain about.

Be sure to check Brussels Airlines for the latest deals. There’s often a sale on the site in which you can buy a return anywhere in Europe for a low fixed price. Obviously, this requires some forward planning as these tickets go quickly and for a limited time.

Car rental can be reasonably priced, depending on your taste and preference. Shopping around is the key, as usual. there are few surprises in Brussels and as you might expect, the ‘usual suspects’ are at the main points of entry, the airport and the Gare du Midi. There are smaller hire companies that can be found online but they are not usually that much cheaper than the big names.

Exchange Rates and Currency

The currency in Belgium is the Euro, as used in the majority of the EU, except for (at time of writing) Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania,Sweden, and the United Kingdom. the remainder will join when they meet the financial criteria, except for the UK and Denmark who have clearly expressed a desire not to do so. If you have Euro notes and coins from one country, they will be accepted in any other EU country that uses the currency. Most EU airports will take the Euro as a currency, however.

Money exchange: Don’t, basically. There is a vast network of cash machines in Brussels and the Bureaux de Change are not all reliable – and expensive if they are reliable. Speak to your bank before you leave and see how the exchange rate adds up from ATMs.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is not common anywhere in Belgium. Most bar staff and waiters will receive a decent living wage without the need to top up with tips. That said, most will welcome the extra 30 cents on a beer or a few euros on a dinner bill. While they are well paid, it’s not exactly a king’s ransom.

You will find that if you go to a bar more than once, you may find that the odd bit of spare change from the drinks bill will go a long way to ensuring you get served when all around are thirsty.

Transportation

Brussels is extremely well connected, as you might imagine the Capital of Europe to be. Rail and air links are frequent and for the most part reliable. The Belgians make a national sport out of going on strike – sometimes you can sympathize, others all you can do is a trademark Gallic shrug and hope they sort it out soon. On the whole, it’s a pretty fair and reliable concern.

Getting There

Fly, drive, arrive by rail or be adventurous and come in via Zeebrugge or Ostend on a ferry. The city is very easy to get to.

Getting Around

Don’t drive unless you have some sort of death wish. While the drivers in Belgium as a whole are no worse than the rest of Europe, the car user in Brussels is a very special entity indeed. Forget all you know about any highway code you may follow, particularly regarding pedestrian crossings, watch out for motorists doing seemingly insane things and if you’re a pedestrian, watch out for the cyclists, who believe (wrongly) that they have a right of way anywhere.

Take the numerous and regular trams, buses and Metro trains for a better experience. You’ll see more and stand a statistically smaller chance of being hit by a car. Public transport has an excellent safety record.

Transportation Hubs

Brussels Airport is actually situated a 20-minute bus ride from the town in a small village called Zaventem. The two terms are used interchangeably by locals to refer to the airport itself. It’s an extremely busy travel hub with good connections for the US, Europe and the Middle- and Far-East.

International trains arrive at the South Station (Gare du Midi or Zuidstation). Trains come in from Holland and France (Thalys), Germany (ICE) and the UK (Eurostar). Transport links are good from the South Station both into town and out to the rest of Belgium.

Discounts and Passes

If you’re in town for a while, the best bet for the average tourist is a ‘Jump’ card. You can buy these from the usual outlets and they come in the form of a credit-card sized plastic ticket called a Mobib. Simply load this Mobib with trips and you’re good to go. All you need to do is beep your card against one of the red Mobib machines every time you change transport.

The price of a Jump ticket varies, depending on the duration. Currently, the rates are:

24h: €7,50
48h: €14,00 
72h: €18,00

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the best value if you’re visiting for a few days. 6 euros a day for unlimited travel is one of the best deals in Europe. Unlimited really means unlimited, too. You can use the card without restriction on any bus, tram or Metro for as long as the card is valid. Withing the Brussels transport zone, you may also use it on the TEC bus (Walloon buses), De Lijn (Flanders buses) and even on main line trains between Brussels rail stations.

Tickets

When you need a ticket for public transport, the STIB or MIVB (it’s the same thing in different languages) is your one-stop shop. Most of the larger stops have ticket vending machines, called ‘Go’, which take cards and coins (some take notes, some don’t). The cash limit is €50 but you’re usually better off using a bank or credit card, which are universally accepted.

If you can’t find a Go machine, you may be in the vicinity of a large rail or metro station. Some of these have ticket shops (Bootik). The majority of the staff will speak English if pushed and if not, the usual pointing and gesturing will almost certainly get you what you need.

Background

History

Originally one of the tribes of Gaul, the Belgae  as they were known, were something of a pain in the neck for Julius Caesar. Rather than the old attack-and-negotiate peace tactic the Romans so loved, the Belgae would fight to the last man, woman and child and would never surrender. The Franks finally subdued the Belgae and kicked out the Romans. Following the success of Charlemagne in reuniting Gaul and indeed Europe, it all fell apart after his demise and Belgium (or Belgae Gallica) was split between France and Germany.

Flanders became prosperous and powerful and in keeping with Mediaeval times, everyone wanted a slice of the action. France tried to exert control over Flanders with varying degrees of success. Following the Hundred Years’ War, the control of Flanders passed to Burgundy, then an ally of the English, in the late 1300s.

All was reasonably quiet, or at least as quiet as things got in those days until the mid-16th century. Protestantism was spreading from The Netherlands and the Catholic kings of Spain were keen to stop it. Of course, this meant the Belgians revolting against being told what to do, as they are rightly famous for. The Netherlands was granted independence under the Treaty of Munster and another hundred years of Belgian ping-pong began.

The territorial squabbling between the French, The Hapsburg Dynasty and various other players continued right up to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, The winning sides decided at the Congress of Vienna to merge Belgium back in with The Netherlands again. Unsurprisingly, the Belgians lodged another revolution and finally gained their complete independence on 20th January 1831.

Culture

Belgian culture is pretty much what you might expect. Comics are a huge cultural phenomenon and food and drink are highly regarded. Naturally, Belgium should not be visited without tasting one of the thousands of beers available. Food ranges from street food trucks and frites (fries or chips) to high-end fine dining. The multicultural and multinational status of the city means that there is a very wide range of foods from any country imaginable. Ethiopian, Turkish, Kurdish, Slovenian, Congolese and North African cuisines are all available within spitting distance of each other. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list.

Belgian cinema is held in high regard the world over, with French- and Flemish-speaking cinema producing some very high quality output. If you know your cinema, you’ll know that Belgian Night, an annual feature of the Cannes Film Festival is one of the highlights of the week.

Musically, the Belgians have contributed a fair bit to the cadre of classical music but their pop and rock output doesn’t really seem to translate internationally. In the world of Jazz, the names Toots Thielmans, Adolphe Sax and  Django Reinhardt stand out, alongside the more contemporary Soulwax, Hooverphonic and Front 242.

Etiquette

Every country has their etiquette and social niceties and Belgium is no exception. Possibly the biggest social gaffe you can make is to assume what language someone speaks. Being an independent country doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all one big happy family and you really don’t want to insult a Fleming by speaking French to him, or indeed vice-versa. See the language section for a little more detail. Speak English and everyone will know you’re a foreigner and welcome you as the Belgians do – with sincerity and a guarded openness.

If you’re in town on business, bring hundreds of business cards. They hand the things out like confetti and you’ll be expected to be able to reciprocate. It couldn’t hurt, after all. On meeting shake hands firmly and state your name. Don’t try to kiss anyone until they offer you their cheek. They’re pretty quick to do so after a few meetings but don’t feel it’s a cultural must-do.

As in France, if invited to dinner, take flowers for the home. Don’t take chrysanthemums, however, as they symbolize death Do not take wine. There will be plenty of wine to go around, have no fear. Taking wine could be seen as suggesting that the host’s offering might be inferior or not to your taste.

Don’t bring up the linguistic or political divisions as a topic of conversation. It might suddenly get lively in a way you probably wouldn’t enjoy. It’s their fight, leave them to it.

Cuisine

Think of Brussels and you’ll probably think “Mussels, French Fries & Beer”. This is good. They are excellent and you really need to try what has become the holy trinity of Belgian gastronomy. But while you’re here, try some of the other stuff too, there’s a burgeoning and vibrant gastronomy scene in Brussels – and nearly every dinner has a beer or wine to match.

What have the immigrants ever done for us? Well, there’s so any enclaves of non-Belgians that nearly every cuisine is represented. The Italians came in part due to reparation for the damage in WWII, they stayed and now we are blessed with wonderful, authentic Italian food. The Moroccans and other assorted North Africans came, mainly because the majority already spoke French, so we have everything from Brik to Cous Cous and beyond.

The Portuguese are well represented, as are various Asian nations such as Thai, Chinese, Mongolian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and all others around and between. Simply put, if you can imagine a country, it’s a good bet there’s a restaurant serving their food.

It’s not all international. Belgium has a wonderful heritage due to its proximity to France, Germany and The Netherlands. Often hearty and always satisfying, there’s very little for those who insist on dieting. If you have a food allergy, however, there are a growing number of places who will serve ‘free from’ foods. Vegetarians don’t tend to fare so well, unfortunately. Belgian cuisine is old-fashioned at heart and there’s not a lot without meat.

For an authentic Belgian dinner try to find somewhere serving Carbonnades à la Flammande, Stoemp Saucisse, Waterzooi or Jambonneau. You will not walk away hungry.

Language

Language. The big one. Language is one of the things that will divide any conversation, plan, topic or bar-room. The language a Belgian speaks often belies his or her allegiance to their community or region. Of course, in a bilingual place like Brussels, many speak both.

It’s safe to say that not all Belgians get along and play nicely. Years and years of political, geographical, linguistic and federal division has left the country fighting over the scraps of what they see are the last vestiges of their heritage. When you know that the Flemings speak Flemish, the Walloons speak French and then you discover that Brussels is technically a French-speaking enclave in Flanders, you’ll have barely even scratched the surface of what simmers beneath the quiet exterior of Belgium.

If in doubt, speak English.

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