As the unofficial capital of the European Union, many associate Brussels with towering office blocks, bureaucracy and a certain greyness. It comes as a surprise then, that with over 8000 hectares of green space, Brussels is one of the greenest capitals in all of Europe, surpassing even London and Berlin. The city brims with green oases, from well-kept, fenced parks to wild forests. If you’re in need of some fresh air and a dose of nature, Culture Trip knows the best green escapes from the city’s concrete jungle.
One of the city’s biggest and prettiest parks, Bois de la Cambre is a favourite of locals and tourists alike. During the summer season, you’ll find it overflowing with families and students enjoying picnics, and the trail around the pond is a popular running route (equipped with outdoor fitness machines) all year long. The park’s standout feature is a small island housing the charming Chalet Robinson, a cosy restaurant only reachable by ferry. If you want to explore the lake itself there are rowboats and pedalos for rent, while back on dry land the brand new Kiosque café offers cool refreshments in summer, with tasty mulled wine and raclette being served up in the winter.
Josaphat Park, the lungs of Brussels’s Schaerbeek neighbourhood, has evolved into a hipster hotspot, despite (or maybe because of) being slightly off the beaten track. The name goes back to the 16th century, when a pilgrim returning from the Middle East reportedly discovered the Roodebeek Valley’s resemblance to the Valley of Josaphat. Today, it offers a beautiful mixture of luscious open lawns, massive trees and small ponds with swans and ducks. While it’s a great place to just have a walk or sit down with a book, there are also plenty of activities on offer. The park features a petting zoo for children, a mini golf course, and a lively daily summer program ranging from open air cinema to outdoor yoga. While you’re there, stop at Josaphine’s, a recently renovated park kiosk, and rent a ready-made picnic basket complete with delicious food, drinks, and even a waterproof blanket (this is Belgium, after all).
If you’re craving some greenery but want to give your legs a break, this unique tram ride – undoubtedly the most scenic in the city – is a great option. The historic tram route 44, constructed for the Brussels International Exposition in 1897 to connect the two exhibition sites at Park Cinquantenaire and Tervuren, leads right through the Sonian Forest. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch one of the antique vehicles that occasionally still run on this picturesque route. Hop off at the last stop in Tervuren to find the Africa Museum, as well as the Tervuren Arboretum, which features over 450 species of tree.
The Royal Park is the biggest green space in the city centre and Brussels’s very first public park. With broad pathways, symmetrical alignments and pretty fountains it’s a planned and geometrical affair. Since the 19th century, a double row of lime trees has shielded it from the adjacent busy streets, which are home to the Federal Parliament and the Royal Palace. Thanks to this prominent location in the heart of the capital, it not only attracts workers on their lunch breaks and joggers galore, but also people from all over who come for the varied outdoor cultural programme: from concerts on the stunning cast iron stage and Electronic Garden parties, to a puppet theatre for children. The park is also home to super-hip Kiosk Radio, which is based in an old wooden shack. Refreshments are on hand at the trendy Woodpecker park café, which has homemade food and local beer on the menu.
For those who are altogether city-tired, the gigantic Sonian Forest is a much-welcome rescue. Extending over an area of more than 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) at the southeast edge of Brussels, you won’t hear a single car sound, only few humans will cross your path, there are no buildings in sight, and magnificent woodlands as far as the eye can see. With its natural narrow trails, countless beech and oak trees and a mystical lake named after drowned children, the UNESCO world heritage site will make you forget you’re in a city at all. The forest is full of wildlife: here you can spot frogs, foxes, and even the occasional deer. You can even try a spot of forest bathing. Just don’t go without a map or GPS, you might not find your way out again…
Characteristic bench in Park Tenbosch | Courtesy of La Kusman
Once the fancy garden of a private castle, Tenbosch Park is a tiny hidden gem with a magical atmosphere in Brussels’ Ixelles neighbourhood. Created by veritable botany aficionado Jean-Louis Semet, its plant heritage is exceptional, featuring more than 70 different tree species, some of which are unique in Belgium. To keep it beautifully landscaped, the park gates are locked in the evenings. The playground in the centre of the park protected by high-reaching bamboo plants is a favourite with local families. A public pétanque court adds a bit of French savoir-vivre, and sun chairs invite visitors to relax.
After the last horses ran laps in 1995, Brussels’s hippodrome, a remnant from the 19th century, lay abandoned for more than 20 years. Today joggers and dog owners have taken over the large, oval racetrack, which encircles an eco-friendly 9-hole golf course. Historic architectural remains such as the grandstand and the buildings where the horses and jockeys used to be weighed and celebrated, have been beautifully restored. And if you leave the tree-lined oval, you almost immediately end up in the Sonian forest.
With its hilly relief and stunning old beech forest, Duden Park might make you think you’re on a hike in the Belgian Ardennes. The many steep slopes – the park’s eastern side is 35 metres (115 feet) higher than the western part – make it a great sledging spot in winter. Stretching over 24 hectares (60 acres), the park comprises a rather untamed forest where local children build huts from fallen tree branches, as well as more landscaped areas, a photography school in a stunning old castle, and the stadium of legendary football club Union St. Gilloise, famed for its national record of 60 unbeaten matches in a row. Keep an eye out for the local parrot colony during the day and bats at night, and don’t miss the gorgeous view of the Brussels skyline, with the golden shimmer of the Palais de Justice at its centre.