It's been my honor and pleasure to call Brussels home for many years – the Belgian capital is a vibrant European hub that welcomes millions of visitors every year with open arms.
However, there are some insider tips about Belgian culture, and Brussels in particular, that will make your trip go a little more smoothly. Before you throw yourself gleefully into the chocolate and beer, let me share some of my favorite local advice for new visitors to Brussels.
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1. There are two Brussels and yes, it's confusing
Brussels is a city but also a region. There’s the city of Brussels proper and then 18 other towns (such as Ixelles, Anderlecht, Schaerbeek, Saint-Gilles or Molenbeek) that form the Brussels Capital Region, a component of the Belgium federal state. Each has its own mayor and regulations. Locals will use the term “Brussels” indiscriminately when talking about either the city or the region – if you're at all confused, just ask them to clarify.
2. Double check your airport
Two airports bear the name of Brussels: Brussels Airport and Brussels South Charleroi. Brussels Airport is the older and larger one. Located in Zaventem, it’s about 20 minutes away from the city center by train. Brussels South is in Charleroi, about an hour's drive from Brussels, and it’s Belgium’s major hub for low-cost carriers.
It's pretty common for travelers to mix up the two airports, taking a train or a shuttle to the wrong one and missing their flight. When in doubt, check your booking: the IATA code for Brussels Airport is BRU and CRL is for Brussels South.
3. Ditch the car
Though the advent of remote working improved things a little, traffic is still a nightmare in Brussels – the city is in the top 15 of the most congested urban areas in Europe. Locals frequently bemoan the lack of parking spaces and the cost of garages (€22 for 1 day).
Brussels is also a Low Emission Zone, which means older vehicles are not allowed in. Getting a pass to enter the LEZ is mandatory and free. If you have to bring your vehicle, you can check if you can use it and register it on the LEZ Brussels Website.
However, the city center is very walkable and the public transport system is efficient. If you have to travel by car, a good compromise is to leave your car at a Park and Ride location. Parking is free and they are all next to a metro station – you’ll be at the Grand Place in no time!
4. Use the metro, trams and buses to explore the city
The STIB/MIVB runs almost all of the public transport in Brussels and it’s easy to get across the city, although the further from the center you go, the more difficult it gets. You’ll find ticket vending machines in the metro and main tram or bus stations. If you only need a single-ride ticket, contactless payment is available. Look for the gray validator as you enter a station or a vehicle, tap your card or your smartphone, and you’re on your way.
Most of the tourist attractions (except the Atomium) are within a small area and can be explored on foot, so you won't really need a day pass unless you decide to visit different neighborhoods on the same day.
5. The train is a great option for getting around
One of Brussels’ best-hidden secrets is using the overground train to get around the city. With 35 train stations, it can often be faster than taking the tram or bus, especially to remote corners. However, you'll need to purchase a ticket before you board. Interestingly, the STIB/MIVB route planner doesn't account for this alternative very well, so it's best to rely on Google Maps instead.
6. Don’t plan a museum trip or fancy dinner on a Monday
Monday is a day off for many professionals (hairdressers, bakers...) and that's also the case for museums and restaurants (the latter may also be closed on Tuesdays). A few will be open but if your travel plans are focused on culture and/or gastronomy, it is better to be in Brussels during the second half of the week to have more options.
7. Everything is bilingual in Brussels
As the capital of Belgium, Brussels is officially bilingual. Everything, from road signs to advertisements, train announcements, street names and information boards is in French and Dutch, Belgium’s two main national languages (German is the third). It can be confusing if you’re not used to it. For instance, the station of Bruxelles-Midi (in French) is Brussel-Zuid (in Dutch).
My tip is: pick a language you’re more comfortable with and stick to it. Just bear in mind the two denominations for the most important places such as train stations – I’ve seen too many visitors missing their stops because of that!
On the plus side, Brussels is a multicultural city, and you should get by easily speaking English during your daily activities. It's unlikely anyone will get offended if you use it rather than one of the national languages.
8. Keep some change for the toilets
“Madame/Monsieur Pipi” as they are known locally, are a fixture of fast-food restaurants, stations, clubs, malls and even cinemas. They are the toilet attendants and hold the essential job of cleaning before and after you use the facilities.
You’ll find them chatting with customers, reading, knitting and doing crosswords in between rounds of cleaning. Their service is not paid for by the establishment, so you'll need to pay a small fee to use the bathroom. About 0.50 to €1 is customary, so keep some loose change in your wallet as they almost exclusively take cash. A smile and a thank you are also appreciated.
9. Always carry an umbrella or a raincoat
You’ve checked the forecast and it seems like the weather’s going to be fine during your stay in Brussels...don’t trust it. The weather here is particularly fickle and if Belgium is known for anything (apart from beer, chocolate and fries), it's rain, from an annoying little drizzle to a heavy downpour.
No Belgian would be caught dead without a retractable umbrella or raincoat in their bag “just in case”. Follow their lead and feel suitably smug when that unexpected shower begins to fall.
10. Kiss, handshake or hug?
Ah, that awkward moment! You’re in a foreign country and introductions are made. What do you do? In Brussels, where French-speaking culture is dominant, you’ll see many people kissing each other hello on the cheek, even if they’re not acquainted. COVID-19 changed that a bit but la bise is making a comeback.
Flemish culture, on the other hand, is more reserved and they'll simply shake hands or just say “Hi” to acknowledge your presence. Go with a handshake if you're at all unsure.
11. Babies, children and dogs are often welcome in bars
This is baffling to many foreigners. In the afternoon, especially at the weekend, it’s not uncommon to see whole families at a bar, with the adults enjoying their beers while the baby is asleep in a stroller and the older kids are sipping on their soft drinks and playing games.
Cafés, pubs and bars are places to socialize and for Belgians, children should not be excluded from the experience, especially since smoking is not allowed indoors. Dogs are also part of the family and are welcome too – they’ll probably get a bowl of water.