It’s not easy to fall in love with Brussels at first sight. It takes time to discover the identity of this complicated European city. You have to spend time walking the streets, sitting on trams and listening to the sounds of the city. In a recent HSBC survey of expats living in 38 countries, Belgium was ranked in 30th position. It was a disappointing score, especially as Brussels is one of the world’s most international cities. How could it be that expats are unhappy in such a multicultural place?
On her blog Wear Sunscreen, the Belgian historian Mirella Marini reflected on the results. She suggested that expats might feel more comfortable in Belgium if they had a better knowledge of the country’s history. “I am convinced that with a better understanding of history, people’s wellbeing would improve,” she blogged. “And I equally believe that if we take better care of people’s cultural wellbeing, their general happiness will improve as well.”
We have followed her advice here and suggested some ways that you might get a better understanding of the history and culture of Brussels. Not just by visiting the city’s museums (although that’s a good start), but by wandering through urban markets, taking tips from local tour guides and listening to people who have a story to tell.
Can you learn to love this city in just 24 hours? With a Brussels card in your pocket, you might just manage. The card allows you to visit 30 museums in the city, ranging from the magnificent Museum of Fine Art to the little Museum of the Belgian Brewers on Grand Place. As part of the deal, you get a city map and discount vouchers for shops and bars in the city.
This summer, the Brussels Card also includes a 48-hour pass for the Brussels transport network, which gets you out to some spectacular sights such as the Atomium and the Horta Museum. The card is sold at Visit Brussels tourist offices on Grand Place and Place Royale. You can also buy it online at the Visit Brussels website.
Find out from the experts how Brussels became a centre of Art Nouveau architecture. The urban action group Arau has been running tours of Brussels architecture since 1969. They do several themed walking tours and a three-hour bus tour that takes a close look at Art Nouveau buildings from the period 1893-1914. Sometimes you even get to step inside private houses to see their extraordinary hidden interiors.
Confused about the complicated history of this little country? The BELvue museum next to the royal palace tries to make sense of it all. The museum used to focus on the Belgian royal family, but it has just completed a radical transformation to make it more interesting to children. A team of 20 young people (nicknamed The BELvue Gang) was recruited to come up with ideas for the new museum, which will now focus on big social themes like migration, languages and Europe. “We feel it is important that a museum about Belgium reflects the society in which we live,” explained BELvue manager An Lavens. The public can see the results when the museum reopens on National Day, July 21.
How about a tour of Brussels for the price of a tram ticket? You can board tram 92 at the Botanique stop and take it in the direction of Fort-Jaco. On the way, you pass some major sights including the Brussels Park, Place Royale, the Sablon Church and the Palais de Justice. There you can change to tram 94 towards Herrmann Debroux. You can get off at the Legrand stop for lunch at Chalet Robinson in the Bois de la Cambre, or sit on the tram and enjoy the scenery all the way to the terminus at Herrmann Debroux.
“Real life happens at night in cafés,” claims Brussels café expert Edmond Cocquyt. He has walked the streets of the city to create a detailed map that pinpoints all 1,251 cafés in the city. The drinking spots range from local dives where you find yourself squeezed next to an Elvis fan with a big dog, to hipster bars in the Dansaert district. The free map can be found lying around in most cafés, unless the dog has eaten it.
The alternative travel organisation Use-It has been making cool city maps for young tourists for the past ten years. Their Brussels map lists some of the alternative spots in the city, from frites stands to backpacker hostels. You can pick up a free copy at the Use It office in the Galerie Ravenstein, next to Central Station. The friendly staff can answer almost any question you might have, whether it’s the best place in town to eat stoemp or the café with the longest list of beers.