Off the tourist track, Brussels is an amalgam of cultures that have happily added up throughout the years. Not only is it the main point of contact between Wallonia and Flanders, but being the center of the European Union has turned Brussels into a main point of attraction for all sorts of immigrants. Brussels has therefore not only one, but several centers, depending on where you come from or what you do for a living. It makes sense, then, that it has not one, but several alternative tracks to explore. Read below to discover where they are.
The European Parliament, Council and Commission are the three institutions around which the European quarter is built. The atmosphere is vibrant with ambitious eurocrats who are competing to thrive in the so-called ‘Euro Bubble,’ around which hundreds of organizations, companies and international banks gravitate. Place du Luxembourg, in front of the Parliament (also called Plux), is the place where a lot of them, mostly the young stagiaire (intern) crowd, hang out for after-work drinks. It is based on half-a-dozen bars with loud electronic music, and comes to life mostly on Thursday nights. During the summer, the crowd spreads through the small lawn and the atmosphere tends to be more relaxed and less packed.
Place Jourdan is somewhat more sophisticated and presents a broader variety of venues. The 13 degrés is a wine bar with a very complete menu that varies throughout the month, with dishes from several regions of the world. The staff are willing to guide the visitor towards the most adequate flavor. Cosmos, on the other hand, is a bar where a lot of Greeks hang out. It is perfect for a little more movement as it has a small dance floor. Indeed, once you get to know them, the expats are constantly organizing parties, whether they are in bars or in each other’s houses. Be prepared to be scanned (expats love to know what you do and who you work with, because connections are everything in this city) but also to be surprised: you never know which new culture you will learn about, and that can be very fun.
This is known as the artistic center of Brussels, and differs from the tourist center, or from the slightly uptight European quarter. Here, you can see people from all kinds of backgrounds and have the impression that you do whatever you want, as long as it is legal (or not so much).
Saint Gilles was, in the 1800s, a village known for its cabbage cultivation. It has since been reconstructed and nowadays presents an impressive Art Nouveau architectural structure, as well as several other styles. The Horta Museum, for example, is one of the most iconic buildings, and carries the name of one of the famous architects that influenced this city.
The city hall is another hallmark of this zone, built in the French Renaissance style, it is quite a spectacular building. Saint Gilles is actually the biggest immigrant Portuguese neighborhood, and you can hear the language out loud in the several small Portuguese shops and cafés. It hosts the annual festival of this country, but also hosts several other types of events like the Parcours des Artistes.
The Parvis de Saint Gilles is a very relaxed square where a good sample of this neighborhood’s frequenters hang out. It is also where the Maison du Peuple is located. This big café has a young artistic vibe to it, and turns into a club at night, with an eclectic agenda that ranges from electronic music to all kinds of live shows.
The Portuguese are, with over 20,000 people living in the city, one of the biggest immigrant communities in Brussels. It is therefore not so strange that they started to create their own small businesses in order to bring a little of their cultural flavor to the land of beer and rain. Most of the Portuguese commerces are located in Saint Gilles and around Place Flagey. This square even has, in one of its corners, a statue of Fernando Pessoa, one of the greatest Portuguese poets of all times.
Start by taking a bica, a very short and strong espresso, at the Café Caramulo. This place, a famous meeting point of the community, is divided into two rooms. The first one is a café with the unavoidable television that shows Portuguese news and football matches. People, mostly men, stare and periodically shout names at it while drinking their Sagres beer. The other part of Café Caramulo is a restaurant, where you can have some of the traditional plates such as bitoque (fried steak with an egg on top) or the francesinha (heavy northern dish from Porto, constituted of a sandwich of sausage, ham and cheese, all covered in its typical sauce and accompanied with fries).
On the other side of the Flagey square, in the middle of Rue du Malibrant, Nova Primavera is a store that sells some of the best foods, snacks and wines. There is the bacalhau (salted, dried, cod), a considerable selection of charcuterie and cheeses, delicious croquettes and many other goodies. The top floor is exclusively dedicated to wine and the owners will gladly guide you to the one that is most adequate to your taste. In the end, either a bica or a glass of Port wine will normally be offered. Feel free to gossip along with regular guests and the host as you enjoy it.
For a fancier gastronomical experience, try the Coimbra, in Saint Gilles. This beautifully decorated restaurant presents some of the finest dishes with good quality service and some Fado music in the background.
One of the best things about Brussels is the fact that it contains a forest right in the middle of the city. Although Brussels is already famous for possessing a great quantity of parks, there is definitely something special about the Cambre Woods. You can reach it by following the lake of Ixelles, but also by continuing right to the top of Avenue Louise. This is surprising because the avenue is a very busy corporate center with pollution, noise and everything that comes along with it. Having direct access to this place by foot is a blessing.
The entrance is very dense with high trees that make it look like a forest and give it a mysterious aura, but if you walk for a while throughout the pathways you will see a grass valley where there is normally always someone (or a lot of people) playing with a dog. There are secret spots for groups of teenagers, and of course joggers: this is the perfect place for this kind of sport, as long as you don’t get lost. There is a chance of that happening, however, because Cambre Woods are so big and dense. Even so, direct and easy access to the road is constant, so there is no actualy risk.
Cambre also has a big artificial lake with a surrounding lawn that is perfect for a sunbathing and picnics in the summer. Fun fact: the Cambre Woods are actually an extension of the Forest of Soigne and the place of choice for Marie-Henriette (Kind Leopold II’s wife) who loved to go there for a horse ride.
It is true that they are several markets spread across the city that can provide a quite authentic experience, but the Midi is definitely the most important, the biggest and the most intense. Whether you are a fan of organic food or just looking for a nice Sunday stroll, this can be quite an addictive experience. Of course, it is more practical to do your shopping in the local supermarket, but there is something special about walking around hundreds of fruit and vegetable stands and deciding which one has the best deal, while getting lost in a crowd of people from all sorts of backgrounds.
It takes place on Sunday mornings and is located right next to the railway station, which is not optimal, but can be ignored. It is one of the biggest in Europe and has about everything one might need: clothes, fruits, vegetables, cheese, fake jewelry, flashy underwear… Some of the Arab stands sell really good bread mixed with cheese, meat or vegetables. It is common for Belgian stands to have cuberdons (national sweet treat). There is also a fair range of Italian cheeses and hams.
At the end, there is an Arab stand that sells some outstanding crepes filled with honey and vegetables of your choice. Next to it are a couple of tables to relax and enjoy the buzz, with a crepe in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. Great fun!