Look beyond Brussels’ picture-book central square and you’ll find swirly Art Nouveau facades, elegant 19th century arcades and cozy cafes around every corner. Despite an unassuming air, the bilingual Belgian capital—the one place in Belgium where Flemish and French are both official languages—has a key role in European geopolitics as the de facto capital of the European Union. You can feel this worldly air in the glass- and steel-lined streets of the E.U. quarter, but old Brussels really captures the imagination, whether you’re wandering the open-air Jeu de Balle flea market, gazing up at the gables of the medieval Grand Place or enjoying a half-and-half (still and sparkling wines mixed) under the gleaming brass and mirrors of 1880s café Le Cirio. Brussels is also a city of immigration, with a vibrant Congolese district, Matongé, and an abundance of Moroccan cafes. Regardless of how you spend your visit, this guide covers the essentials of the lively, eccentric city.
When to go
Take an umbrella and warm clothing for the unpredictable weather. The Brussels Jazz Marathon takes over the city during the last weekend of May.
Warm summer days find the city heading outdoors to the parks and gardens. It’s peak tourism season, with a range of festivals and events.
Prime time for exhibitions and the indoor concert scene.
Although snow is not a big feature in Brussels, the city maxes out on seasonal charm, with brightly lit cozy cafes and Christmas stalls cheering up the short winter days.
Brussels is a walkable city, but with excellent public transportation. The network of buses, trams and metros is run by STIB/MIVB. For short hops use Villo! bikes, with automated stands located throughout Brussels.
- Exploring the city with a Brussels Greeter can give you deep insight into different aspects and areas of the city. Plus, the service is free—just put in a request a couple of weeks in advance.
- Historically, there has been tension between Belgium’s French and Flemish speakers. The safe option is to speak English, as addressing a Flemish speaker in French can cause offense.
- Most museums and sites close on Mondays. Many are free on the first Sunday of the month.
- Look out for decrottoirs (dung scrapers), cast-iron contraptions embedded into walls at pavement level, which enabled swift boot cleaning in the 19th century.