Overview

Brussels is best described by one word: cosmopolitan. Nearly one in four city residents is an expatriate drawn there, typically by business or government ties. Brussels is not just the capital of Belgium, but also the capital of the far-reaching European Union. So when you're sipping hot chocolate at a sidewalk cafe (a delectable treat at any time of the year), you are eyeing one of the world's most diverse populations; and it is one of the wealthiest, too. At restaurants near the main square, you may be presented with at least six copies of the menu—each in a different language.

The word cosmopolitan also suggests a certain level of sophistication, something Brussels has in abundance. Visitors can delight in fine museums and Michelin-starred restaurants (the city claims more per capita than Paris), as well as some of the best classical music and opera in Europe. There are plenty of things to see, but your time is best spent soaking up the atmosphere. After you leave, one of your fondest impressions may be of how wonderfully livable this capital of Belgium is.

Geography

The heart of Belgium's capital is a pentagon enclosed by large boulevards called the Petit Ring. At the center of that pentagon is the main square, or Grand Place. Also within the ring are the Sablon district and most of the historical and cultural sites of interest. The major thoroughfare, Avenue Louise, runs out from the ring to the southeast, where the Bois de la Cambre and the Foret de Soignes are located.

Brussels is divided into 19 communes, each with its own post code. For example, central Brussels is known as Bruxelles Mille or Duizend Brussel—Brussels 1000. These postal codes are commonly used as indicators of place, and they will sometimes help a taxi driver, hotel concierge or Brussels native recognize a destination and give you directions. If you can provide the name of the community (for example, 1050 Ixelles or 1060 St. Gilles), even better.

History

Brussels was founded in AD 979, but it was overshadowed during the Middle Ages by Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, trading towns that were famous for their textiles. Brussels' influence began to grow when it was made an administrative center in the mid-1400s. But then it came under Spanish control, followed by Austrian and then French rule in 1794.

It wasn't until the second half of the 18th century, under the Austrians, that Brussels came into its own. This new set of distant rulers stimulated the development of the city, constructing the classical buildings around Place Royale and planting the smooth beech trees that still make up most of the Foret de Soignes southeast of the city.

In 1830, Brussels became the capital of the newly established state of Belgium, winning its independence from the Netherlands. The country turned itself into the world's second industrial nation (behind England). The profits of empire (notably the Belgian Congo, surreptitiously acquired as personal property by King Leopold II in 1885) financed fashionable promenades, and art-nouveau architecture flourished.

During the first half of the 20th century, Brussels was twice occupied by German forces. Physical damage was relatively limited, but the economic and psychological effects, including investigations of post-World War II collaboration, were harder to shake off.

During the past several decades, the city has opened itself to the outside world. Immigration from eastern Europe, northern and southern Africa, and the European Union has given it the most international population of any European city. Brussels is the seat of NATO and the main EU institutions, and it boasts around 160 embassies. It is also home to more than 120 international governmental organizations and approximately 1,400 international nongovernmental organizations.

Sightseeing

You'll need a minimum of three days in Brussels to get a feel for the city. It's an easy destination to explore on foot, and the best place to begin is at the ornate Grand Place, one of the most perfectly preserved of all market squares in Europe. A short walk southwest on the Rue de l'Etuve, you'll see the famous Manneken-Pis fountain, regarded by Belgians with reverence and a healthy dose of humor. Continue to the Sablon, an old aristocratic district famous for its markets, Gothic church and picturesque little park. After you've had your fill of the Grand and Petit Sablons, head up Rue de la Regence to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts—well worth a few hours, especially if you're interested in early Flemish art or works by Belgian painters.

You could easily spend another day in the Mont des Arts, the area around Rue de la Regence. The Royal Palace is there (go inside if you're there in late summer, when it's open), as well as the Musical Instruments Museum (a treat any time of year). The view over the city is also beautiful. Brussels Park is a mere stone's throw away, across the Place des Palais. It's good for a stroll or a rest if you're a bit tired of walking. A few blocks northwest of the park is the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudule, notable for its centuries-old stained glass and elaborately carved wooden pulpit. And thanks to Belgium's long history in comic-strip art, you can finish your day of sightseeing at the Comic Strip Centre (a few blocks north of the cathedral).

A number of other attractions are a bit farther afield. If you're a fan of art-nouveau architecture, plan to see the Horta Museum in St.-Gilles (southwest of the Petit Ring). Head to Anderlecht to visit the Gueuze Museum: It's a great place to learn about a distinctive type of Belgian beer. The beautiful Erasmus House is in Anderlecht, too. In the suburb of Izelle, you'll find the Constantin Meunier Museum. If you've grown tired of museums or just want to spend some time outdoors, the huge National Botanical Garden is in the northern suburb of Meise.

Note: The Brussels Card, available from Tourist Information Brussels and participating museums, offers one, two or three days' admission to more than 30 museums, as well as a public transport ticket for the selected period. You will also receive a color booklet that contains information about the museums, directions to them and other benefits. http://www.brusselscard.be.

Nightlife

Brussels nightlife has a deserved reputation as being accessible to the initiated only: It may seem that everyone but you knows where to go. Your best bet is to try to get a recommendation from a resident, or visit http://www.netevents.be. Whether you want a relaxing drink or a steamy disco inferno, there's plenty going on, and even more with the recent influx of foreign residents.

To a Belgian, a cafe is where you go to sit for hours nursing a strong Belgian beer or a cup of espresso. In summer, the sidewalk cafes around the Sablon are crowded late into the night. You'll often see street performers. Other lively areas in Brussels are around the Rue du Marche au Charbon, Rue du Lombard and, of course, the Grand Place. The trendier side of Brussels' nightlife can be sampled around Place St. Gery and Rue Antoine Dansaert.

Generally nightclubs open late (10 or 11 pm) and remain open until the early-morning hours. Opening hours for bars can be haphazard and may well depend on the number of patrons at any one time. Bars in the city center are likely to be open most of the day.

Dining

Belgian food is ranked among Europe's finest and has distinctive regional characteristics. Most of Brussels' best restaurants serve French-style cuisine. (Even the French will admit that it's easy to find excellent French dishes in Brussels.)

Traditional Belgian foods include gaufres (the famous waffles that Belgians eat as an afternoon delicacy—try one with chocolate sauce) and waterzooi (a chicken or fish dish with a cream-based sauce and finely sliced vegetables), as well as Ardennes ham, endive, mussels and frites (french fries). Wild game cooked with Belgian beer or red wine is a treat. (Belgian beer, especially gueuze or lembic, is a treat by itself: It is produced by a unique process using wild yeast, low brewing temperatures and careful blending.) If you order filet Americain, keep in mind that what you'll get will be chopped, uncooked beef mixed with egg yolk and spices.

When choosing a restaurant, do avoid some obvious tourist traps, such as those along the Rue des Bouchers and surrounding the Grand Place. The restaurants in those areas that we recommend are authentic and high-quality. For an inexpensive, quick meal, cafes all around Brussels serve sandwiches, salads and omelettes. Along Petite Rue de Bouchers, Rue des Dominicains and Rue du Marche aux Fromages, you'll find inexpensive restaurants serving Greek and Asian cuisine, as well as pizza and seafood. Tables line the busy streets, and the area has a great atmosphere.

Brussels has restaurants suitable for all budgets, with a good price-to-quality ratio. You can eat very well on a low budget, but you can also pay more for a truly memorable meal.

Dining times are generally 7-10 am for breakfast, noon-2 pm for lunch and 7-11 pm for dinner. Many restaurants, however, are open from noon until late. A lot of restaurants close for three or four weeks during July or August. In Belgian restaurants, tax and service charges are included in the bill, although it's customary to leave a tip (2%-5% of the bill), especially if the service has been good.

Smoking is prohibited in all restaurants and in pubs and bars that serve food.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, excluding drinks: $ = less than 25 euros; $$ = 25 euros-35 euros; $$$ = 36 euros-60 euros; and $$$$ = more than 60 euros.

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