- Mediaeval meets modernist
- City life
- Franco-Flemish heart of Europe
As the de facto capital of Europe, Brussels has a lot to live up to, but it steps into the role of Euro-culture melting pot with architectural, gastronomic and cosmopolitan élan.
For all the ‘heart of the EU’ brouhaha, the capital of Flanders, Belgium, and Europe is surprisingly small. Home to a relatively teeny 1.3 million people – less than half of them Belgian – it’s nevertheless a thriving metropolis, where French and Flemish culture meet, greet, and try to sit down to a long lunch together without arguing. Despite the bilingual identity crisis (trilingual if you count the ubiquitous English-speakers), Brussels rewards the wanderer – there’s something interesting down every winding alley or cul-de-sac, and the magnificent (and magnificently busy) mediaeval Grand Place is as impressive as any town square in Prague, Warsaw or Siena. Wide boulevards link landmark to landmark with a Parisian swagger, and, as with Berlin, you need to deviate from the tourist trail to get to know Brussels on its own cosmopolitan terms.
It’s probably a little unfair to say that the complexities of Belgian humour can be symbolised by an underwhelming statue of a urinating boy, but the Manneken Pis (‘little man pee’) in rue de l’Etuve has become the semi-official symbol of the city, even inspiring a group of local fans to create a wardrobe of thousands of costumes, changed with ceremonious regularity.
- You can flag down taxis in the street – if you can find them – and ranks are rare too. Book a cab at your hotel, or try Taxi Verts on +32 (0)2 349 4949; it also runs a limo service.
- Tipping culture
- Service charges are included in almost all bills, from taxis to trattoria, and you’re not expected to leave any extra. If you feel compelled to leak change, round the bill up to the nearest €5.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Business-wise, Brussels is a decidedly 9–5 culture, with the bars filling up moments after the working day ends, and reaching their busiest around midnight. Most restaurant kitchens cool their waffle irons come 10pm.
- Packing tips
- An appetite, first of all: quality is second to quantity in the majority of Belgian eateries. Look in any Belgian handbag and you’ll find an umbrella – an essential item in this notoriously moist climate. Leave some space in your case: you can’t visit Belgian without loading up on beer and chocolate.
- Recommended reads
- Charlotte Bronte’s experiences in Brussels inspired Lucy Snowe’s adventures in Villette. Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn jumps between Paris and Brussels in its bittersweet tale of a historic tapestry artist. Also looking back to the city’s past, Dorothy Dunnett’s lush and labyrinthine Niccoló Rising is a richly detailed and addictive read.
- By and large, Belgian food is simple, hearty and, quite often, deep-fried. Belgium has a strong but unproven claim to having invented the chip, and it’s hard to avoid a trip to Brussels without dining on moules frites at least once, or picking up a cone of mayonnaise-enhanced fries from a street-side frituur. In addition to potato-based goodies, beer, chocolate and waffles make up the country’s contribution to global cuisine – and Brussels is replete with opportunities to try all of them. Look out also for steak tartare – or filet américain – the finely seasoned raw beef delight, often enjoyed with –surprise – French fries.
- Time zone
- GMT +1 hour.
- Dialling codes
- Country code for Belgium: +32; Brussels: (0)2.
- Do go/don't go
- Brussels’ climate is mild and maritime, meaning that while the summers are warm and the winters are gentle, rain can come tumbling down at any time. It’s hardly monsoon weather, though, and the city can make a rewarding visit at any time of year.
Don't go home without...
…tasting chocolate. The streets of Brussels are dotted with chocalatiers and only the most savoury-toothed cocoa-hater could make it through the stay without sampling some of the sweet ticky stuff. Try Pierre Marcolini’s ( on Rue des Minimes (+ 32 (0)2 514 1206), which launches its confectionary in seasonal ‘collections’ and has free tastings on offer upstairs. Chocolate not your thing? Sample the speculoos (spicy shortbread biscuits) at Dandoy (+33 (0)2 511 0326) on rue au Beurre – they’ve been practising the recipe for nearly 200 years.