Brussels has a history going back more than 1000 years and is the capital of Europe as well as of Belgium. It is a bilingual city, with both French and Dutch as official languages. Street names and traffic sings are always given in both languages, and the city is divided into French and Flemish communities. It is also a cosmopolitan city where many different cultures live together and where languages from all over the world are heard. As the European capital, the city has an important role in EU affairs, and is home to the European Commission and to the Council of ministers of the European Union.
The city’s international flair is reflected in its appearance and traditions in many ways, such as in the variety of different architectural styles that are present. Brussels used to be the capital of the medieval Duchy of Brabant, and there are some beautiful buildings from this period. Gothic cathedrals and churches stand next to gracious classical facades like the buildings around the Royal Square (Place Royale - Koningsplein), as well as striking art nouveau and art deco houses.
The heart of Brussels is the Grand Place or Grote Markt, and this is one of the best places to start to get to know the city. It is a historic market square, surrounded by splendid guild houses and the impressive Gothic Town Hall. Many consider it to be one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe.
Brussels has a temperature climate, with warm summers and mild winters. Summer temperatures in Brussels typically range from 18 - 27º C (65 - 80º), and the warmest months are from June - mid September. Winter temperatures rarely fall under 3º C (37º F), and are usually between 4- 9º C (39- 48º F). Snow accumulation is rare, but snow does occasionally fall. Rain may be expected at any time of the year.
Brussels is a bilingual city, with both French and Dutch as official languages, though the majority of the population speaks French. The French spoken here differs slightly from that spoken in France, and has been influenced by Dutch words and phrase structures. The Dutch spoken in Belgium is also known as Flemish.
The main religion in Belgium is Roman-Catholicism, and there is a large number of Catholic churches in Brussels. The city also includes many other religions, including Jews, Muslims, Protestants and Greek Orthodox worshippers.
The currency used in Belgium is the Euro. Notes come in denominations of €100, €50, €20, €10 and €5 and the coins in use are €2, €1, € 0.50, € 0.20, € 0.10, € 0.05, € 0.02 and € 0.01.
Service charges are included in the prices you pay in pubs and restaurants, as well as for taxis. It is not required to tip in a restaurant, but it is common to round up the prices. Even for very good service, a tip of € 1 or 2 is sufficient. Porters, waiters and taxi drivers do not require a tip unless you receive particularly outstanding service. Tips for taxis also tend to be only a couple of euros, not a percentage the way it is done in some countries. Restroom attendants often to expect a small tip (a few cents), and doormen in clubs will often try to get you to give them a small tip on the way out.
Sales tax is always included in store prices. Visitors from outside of the EU can get this tax refunded in some cases, when they spend € 125 or more in the same store. In order to receive this refund, the goods must be shown to a customs official when departing the country, along with some paperwork that you receive from the store. These items must leave the country within three months to qualify for the refund.
Public telephones in Belgium accept both coins and phone cards. If a phone has stickers showing different flags, they can be used to make international calls by using operator assistance. Phone cards are available in post offices, train stations, book stores, newspaper stands, supermarkets and phone shops. The “Belgacom Phone Pass” can be used from all types of phones: pay phones, landlines and mobile phones.
To phone a Belgian number from outside the country, dial 00 32 and then 02 for Brussels, leaving off the first zero. For international phone information when you are in Belgium, dial 1304.
Brussels has a very large number of internet cafes, well distributed throughout the city. Most of them are operated by the same business and called simply Internet Café. You can also make long distance calls from these shops. Internet access is fairly cheap, costing between € 1- 2 per hour.
The general emergency number for Brussels is 100. Once you call this number, you will be transfered to either the nearest medical emergency service or the fire department. Other numbers that may be of use in emergencies are:
International emergency number: 112
Red Cross: 105
Child Helpline: 102 (French), 103 (Dutch)
Suicide prevention: 0800 32 123
Anti Poison Centre: 070 245 245
Shops in Brussels tend to be open Mon - Sat from 10 am - 6 pm, though of course it varies a bit from store to store. Almost all shops close on Sunday, but those in the Gallerie St. Hubert and near the Grand Place are open. There are also some Sunday markets, and the other big market days are Friday and Saturday.
Banks are open Mon - Fri from 9 am - 4 pm, but some close for an hour during lunchtime. The post office hours are Mon - Fri from 9 am - 12 pm and 2 pm - 5 pm.
On the following days, most shops, banks and museums will be closed, and public transport is likely to be more limited.
1 January, New Year’s Day
5 April, Maundy Thursday
6 April, Good Friday
9 April, Easter Monday
1 May, Labour Day
17 May, Ascension Day
28 May, Whit Monday
15 August, Assumption Day
1 November, All Saints Day
11 November, Armistice Day
24 December, Christmas Eve
25 December, Christmas Day
Brussles is in general a very safe city, but street crimes do occur, and visitors should be careful about pickpockets, especially at train stations and on public transport. Muggings happen occasionally, but if you avoid the rougher neighbourhoods after dark and stay aware of your surroundings, the chances of you becoming a target are slim.
Brussels is a pleasant city in which to sightsee and has lots of interesting places to explore. The Grand-Place and its surrounding streets are the most crowded area of the city, but other areas are relatively crowd-free. The signs pointing out monuments and museums have recently been improved for both drivers and pedestrians, making it much easier to find your way around the city. Brussels is renowned for its architecture, and simply strolling around some of the old streets is a great way to get to know the city and encounter a variety of fascinating buildings and churches. One good location to do so is in the area around St. Gilles, famous for Victor Horta’s art nouveau architecture. Brussels also has a large number of parks and gardens, creating many pleasant green spaces within the urban setting. Many English tourist leaflets are available at newspaper stands and tourist centres, and labelling at museums and other attractions usually includes English as well as French and Dutch.
Grand Place/ Grote Markt
This is acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, and is located right in the centre of Brussels, surrounded by some of the oldest streets in the city. The square is lined with grand, tall houses and buildings in the gabled Flemish style, mostly dating from the Renaissance. These were mainly merchant guild houses and are ornamented with beautiful stone carvings and statues. There is also the gothic city hall, build in the 15th century, and well-known because of its impressive 96 metre tower, supporting a statue of St. Michael. Many of the guild houses around the square are open to the public and display artworks and artifacts such as paintings, tapestries, and murals showing scenes from the city’s history.
On Sundays the Grand Place houses a bird and flower market. In summer there is a nightly light show here, and many concerts and festivals use this as a base throughout the year. The square is also home to many good restaurants and cafés.
Gallerie St. Hubert (Gallerie
This is a historic arcade full of shops, theatres and cafés. Located in the centre of Brussels, it is only a few steps away from the Grand Place and a favourite stop for tourists because of its antique charm and the many traditional Belgian items for sale. The shops and other buildings have recently been repainted and restored to their former glory. The arcade has two sections, with the first called the Gallerie du Roi and the second, the Gallerie de la Reine. They are located on either side of a narrow street known as the “fish street,” full of quaint old buildings and nooks and crannies. Shops here sell chocolate, lace, tapestries, books and souvenirs, and there are also a number of traditional cafés.
This little statue of a peeing boy has become one of Brussels’ most famous monuments. The original statue was made in 1619 by Jerome Duquesnoy, cast in bronze. It was destroyed, however, as were several of its replacements, by French and English members of the city. Eventually, the remaining fragments of the statues were cast together in one mould, forming the Manneken Pis that now graces the Rue de L’Etuve. Tourists from all over the world make a point of stopping here to view this little boy, who has become one of the national symbols of Belgium. There is even a person whose job it is to polish him daily and dress him in ceremonial costumes. Kings, presidents and celebrities from many different countries have donated costumes to the Manneken Pis, and there are now over 250 of them, many of which can be seen at the Musee Communal.
Palais de la Nation/Paleis der
This building is located in the government quarter, near to the Warandepark. An impressive neoclassical structure, it was built in 1779 to honour Maria-Theresia’s accession. It has housed the Belgian parliament meetings since 1831. The parliament is made up of the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives of the People. There are two semicircular meeting rooms where most of the action takes place. The red one is home to the Senate, the green one to the Chamber of Representatives. Guided tours are offered, but are only given by appointment and when no meetings are in session.
This unique interactive display contains the most famous highlights of Europe in miniature form. Located outdoors in a park, everything is to scale, including the trees and other plants in-between the exhibits. There is Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the leaning tower of Pisa, Mount Vesuviu, and many other important sights and monuments of Europe. Visitors can watch and take part in historical events (the eruption of Vesuvius, dismantling the Berlin Wall, etc.) On weekends during the summer months, Mini-Europe stays open late at night and puts on a musical fireworks display.
Opening times: Mar - Jun, Sep: 9.30 am - 5 pm, Jul - Aug: 9.30 am - 7 pm, Oct - Dec: 10 am - 5 pm
Entrance prices: between € 8.50 - € 20 depending on the kind of ticket/options purchased
Palais des Beaux-Arts/Paleis v
This palace of the arts combines almost every conceivable art form in one place, including music, dance, theatre, the visual arts and literature. There are also a variety of temporary exhibits at any given time. The building was built in 1928 by Victor Horta, and includes the world famous Henri Le Boeuf concert hall. It is a wonderful place to hear music, known for its excellent acoustics. There is also a theatre devoted to dance, a library, and some art galleries. The basement of the building contains a film museum, part of a film organization active in many important festivals, such as the Festival of Flanders and the Europalia Society. There is always a rich and varied program of events to choose from here.
Opening times: Tues - Sun 10 am - 6 pm
The Atomium is perhaps Brussels’ most famous modern monument, and has become one of the symbols of the city. It is a giant sculpture of metal-covered spheres, representing an iron molecule magnified 165 billion times. It was built in 1958 for the World Fair, and rises an impressive 102 metres into the air. It is possible to ascend the Atomium in a high speed elevator and walk around inside the spheres. There is a viewing deck on the highest sphere that presents a stunning aerial view of the city.
Entrance prices: € 5.50 for adults, € 4 for children under 13, free for children shorter than 1.2 m
Basiliek van Koekelberg
This is the largest church in Brussels, and the fourth largest church anywhere in the world. It can be seen from almost any point in the city. Originally called the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart, it was designed by Albert van Huffel (1877 - 1935), and constructed over a period of 75 years. It is the largest art deco building ever built, and reaches a height of 89 metres. It is also very long and has an unusually wide dome. You can take an elevator to the top of the dome, where you are treated to a beautiful view of the city.
Opening times: Summer: 9 am - 5.15 pm, Winter: 10 am - 4.15 pm
Entrance price: € 5 to climb the dome
Eglise Saint Jean Baptiste/Ker
This church was designed by Luc Fayd’herbe, a student of Rubens. It is located in a quiet section of Brussels, and is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. The church is a fine example of the Flemish Baroque style and has an ornate and well-proportioned interior, decorated with a number of 17th century paintings, many of which are by Van Loon. There used to be a convent located here, with over 1000 nuns, but it was disbanded in the 19th century. Services take place in French at 5 pm on Saturday and in Dutch at 10 am on Sunday. The church’s hours on the weekends are irregular, but you can phone to find out the additional times when it is open.
Opening times: Wed- Fri and Tues 9 am- 5 pm, open only some Saturdays and Sundays
Sint Michiels en Sint Goedelek
This gothic cathedral is only a short walk away from the Grand Place, but not everyone notices it because it is surrounded by modern buildings, and located between the Lower and Upper sections of the city. It is named after the two patron saints of Brussels, and is the location used for royal weddings and funerals. Construction of the cathedral began in the 13th century and was finished 200 years later. Several chapels were added on later, mostly during the 16th and 17th centuries. It has two impressive towers and breathtakingly beautiful stained glass windows.
Opening times: Daily 8 am- 6 pm
Entrance prices: € 1 for the crypt
Église St Nicholas
This is a small church located behind the Bourse, almost dwarfed by the grand houses nearby. Architecturally, the church is a mingling of the Romanesque and Gothic styles. The original Romanesque construction was begun in the 11th century, but is mostly concealed by the Gothic facade. Two famous paintings that hand in the church are Rubens’ Virgin and Child and the Vladimir Icon, painted by an anonymous artist from Constantinople in 1131.
The Royal Park and Royal Palac
The Royal Park is found right in front of the Royal Palace, about a 15 minute walk from the Grand Place. It is a wide expanse of green lawns with fountains and is a lovely place to walk or hang out and relax in the warmer months. The park and palace are located where the medieval court of Brabant used to be, and date from the 11th century. The park used to be more like a forest, and included hills, valleys and wild game. The Austrian empress Maria-Theresia was the one to turn it into a more civilized park in the classical style, for the aristocratic people of Brussels to spend free time in.
Parc du Cinquentenaire/Jubelpa
This park was comissioned for the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence in 1880 by King Leopold II. There are two museums within the park, Autoworld and the Jubelpark Museum, as well as large green spaces. The park also contains a magnificent triumphal arch, also celebrating the country’s independence.
Parc de Bruxelles
This park used to be a special hunting ground for the dukes of Brabant, and is located between the parliament building and the Royal Palace. The park was landscaped in the 18th century and made into a garden, becoming a fashionable place for the elite to walk and be seen. Nowadays the park is rather small, but is one of the more attractive ones in the city. It has sculpted borders as well as many varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers. The park was renovated in 2001 to restore it as close as possible to the way it appeared in the 18th century. There are a number of statues, and the paths combined with the fountain in the centre form Masonic symbols.
Bois de la Cambre
Located in the south of Brussels, this large park has a variety of footpaths and includes a small lake with an island. This can be reached by riding in an electrically-operated pontoon. The park is a very popular place to hang out on warm days, and is connected to the peaceful grounds of the Abbaye de la Cambre. This abbey was founded in 1201 and is now is home to a geographical intitute.