In the heart of Europe lies Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. It’s a confluence of cultures: Natives speak French, Flemish or both, and nearly 30% of the population came from another country. The city is a crossroads of art and architecture—art nouveau and surrealism thrived here. And café culture is alive and well. Settling down for a coffee and watching the world go by is one of the best ways to experience Brussels.
The main institutions for the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are based in the city. The workforce is well educated and mainly works in service-oriented jobs, which account for 88% of employment. Manufacturing and information and communication technology also drive the economy.
Getting to and from the airport
Brussels airport is located 11 kilometers (7 miles) northeast of the city center. The airport train station is on Level 1 of the terminal. The trip to downtown Brussels takes 17 minutes. The full schedule is on the Belgian Railways website. You’ll find taxis at a stand in front of the arrivals hall. A trip downtown costs approximately €45 (US$56.82 using the exchange rate US$1 to €0.79). Some hotels near the airport provide free shuttle buses.
Getting around Brussels
If you’re staying in central Brussels, you can reach most tourist areas on foot. To go farther, use the city’s efficient public transportation system. A single trip costs €2 (US$2.53), and a one-day pass for unlimited travel is €7 (US$8.84). Validate your ticket before travel using machines in metro stations, buses and trams. Most public transport runs from 6 a.m. to midnight, after you’ll have to catch a night bus.
Taxis are available, but they’re expensive. You’ll find taxi stands throughout the city and at airports, train stations and many hotels. The Brussels Taxi website gives a full listing of the city’s taxi operators.
Where to stay
For luxury and upscale accommodation, try the Sofitel Brussels Europe (Place Jordan 1, Brussels 1040; Ph: +32-2-235-5100), Steigenberger Grandhotel Brussels (Avenue Louise 71, Brussels 1050, Belgium; Ph: +32-2-542-4242), Radisson Blu EU Hotel Brussels (Rue D’idalie 35, Brussels 1050, Belgium; Ph: +32-2-626-8111) NH Brussels City Centre (Chaussee De Charleroi 17, Brussels 1060; Ph: +32-2-539-0160), Holiday Inn Brussels Schuman (Rue Breydel 20, Brussels 1040; Ph: + 32-2-28040), Courtyard Brussels (Avenue Des Olympiades 6, Brussels 1140; Ph: + 32-2-337-0808).
Midscale and economy options include Mercure Brussels Center Louise (Chaussee De Clarleroi 38, Brussels 1060; Ph: +32-2-533-6666), Adagio Access Brussels Europe (12 Rue De L’Industrie Brussels 1000; Ph: 32-2-274-1780), and Ibis Brussels Expo-Atomium (Romeinse Steenweg 572, Brussels 1853; Ph: +32-2-461-0021).
Things to see and do
The Grand Place easily tops any Brussels itinerary. Considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site is lined with ornate guild halls that date to the 17th century. Jazz and classical music concerts, accompanied by twinkling colored lights, transform the square after sunset from April to September.
Museums abound in Belgium’s capital city. The centrally located Royal Museums of Fine Arts boast an excellent Flemish primitive collection. The affiliated Magritte Museum is ideal for those who appreciate the surreal, displaying works of the artist for which it’s named. Access to all museums is €13 (US$16.42). Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Mondays. Lesser-known museums are also worth a visit—from the child-friendly Musical Instrument Museum and Comic Strip Museum (Belgium is home to Tintin, the Smurfs, Lucky Luke and Gaston Lagaffe) to the quirky Underwear Museum, which features undergarments worn by famous Belgians and non-Belgians alike.
If you’d like to acquire some relics of the past, browse the city’s antique shops, clustered around the Place du Sablon. You’ll find pricey vases, paintings, armoires and more. Bargains are on offer at the daily flea market at the Place du Jeu de Balle. Cafés surround the square; sit and watch the haggling.
The art nouveau movement lives on in the neighborhoods of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles. Architects like Horta, Hankar, Cauchie and Blérot left a striking mark on the area. Explore the neighborhoods on a walking tour led by the non-profit organization Atelier de Recherche et d’Action Urbaine, or go on a self-guided exploration by bicycle. Brussels’ bike-share program offers more than 5,000 bikes for rent at stations across the city.
Where to eat
Kelly Flynn, senior director of Strategic Communications, is based in Brussels and knows her way around the city’s restaurants. She recommends avoiding the tourist traps on the Rue des Bouchers, just off the Grand Place. Instead, she suggests these dining options:
In ‘t Spinnekopke on the Place du Jardin aux Fleurs is housed in a cozy 18th century inn and serves reliable renditions of Belgium’s beer-based cuisine. There’s rabbit in cherry lambic and mussels cooked in wheat ale—both served with a heaping helping of frites (French fries). Find it at 1 Place Jardin aux Fleurs, 1000 Brussels; Ph: +32 2 511 86 95.
If you’d rather drink your beer than eat it, Moeder Lambic offers more than 300 brews from its vast cellar. Sample your way through sour ales, Lambic specialties, Trappist brews and more. Find it at 8 Place Fontainas, 1000 Brussels; Ph: +32 2 503 60 68.
Chocolatier Frederic Blondeel sources his cacao beans from Africa, Madagascar, Ghana, Tanzania, Java and Papua New Guinea, and flavors them with infusions of dill, cardamom, ginger and basil. His boutique on Place Sainte-Catherine is an excellent place for a hot drink and a little something sweet. Find it at Quai aux Briques 24, B-1000 Brussels; Ph: +32 2 502 21 31.
But there’s more to the Brussels food scene than mussels, beer and chocolate. The rapidly gentrifying Place Flagey neighborhood is home to some of the city’s hottest restaurants. You’ll find excellent ramen and gyoza at Umamido (Chaussée de Vleurgat 1, 1050 Ixelles; Ph: +32 2 640 40 57). Pizza that goes far beyond pepperoni—think pumpkin, smoked taleggio and pancetta—is on the menu at Mamma Roma (5 Chaussée de Vleurgat, 1050 Ixelles; Ph: +32 2 640 42 80). And enjoy natural wines with Mediterranean-inspired tapas at Le Petit Canon (91 rue Lesbroussart, 1050 Brussels; Ph: +32 2 640 38 34).