I think the majority of people traveling through Belgium have maybe only heard of one city before arriving; the capital city of Brussels. I know, at least, that was the case for me. Although I had a majority of my friend connections in Ghent and spent most of my time there (read that guide here), I made the 30-minute train journey to Brussels on more than one occasion. However, I certainly suggest going to Brussels before Brugge or Ghent, because after seeing Brugge and Ghent, you will get your expectations up far too high for Brussels. Nevertheless, whether it was to meet up with friends who lived there or see a concert in the Belgian famous, AB Club, I made sure I spent enough time in the capital city.
A little about Brussels for those that aren’t familiar…
The city is in central Belgium and is neighbors a part of what I see as the triangle of the three major cities in Belgium. As I mentioned already twice before, Brussels is the country capital and has roughly 1.2 million people living inside its city limits. Brussels is the French-speaking quarters of Belgium. Despite being only twenty minutes away from the Dutch-speaking territory, inside Brussels city limits is strongly French. Although you could get around by speaking Dutch, it is much more difficult to make your way with English than it is in the Flemish areas of Belgium. If you’ve read my guides to other Belgian cities, you will already know that the national currency is Euros, so there should be no problem there.
My first experience in Brussels was a little rough. I accidentally got off the train a stop too early and ended up wandering around South Brussels for half of the day trying to find city center. So let this be a warning if traveling from Ghent by train, Brussel’s Central Station is the SECOND stop in Brussels.
However, it was a nice mistake because I got to experience a part of Brussels that many tourists will never see. Although it is not near as glamorous as the city center, there are parts of Brussels that are less crowded, cleaner, and much less expensive than in the tourist hub of the capital.
At some points, it was difficult to find an English-speaker to give directions or ask various questions. Regardless, I found the folks that I did ask for directions, whether their English struggled or not, to be very friendly and as helpful as they could be. It is much more difficult to find your way around without a sense of a plan or direction for the day in the bigger city compared to the smaller neighboring cities.
When I finally made it near to city center, I saw prices rise, but it was still possible to find a Bicky Burger (a Belgian favorite) and French fries for under $5. Being a relatively expensive city, the number of second-hand shops was surprising. If you are moving to Brussels, don’t mind moving everything you own because cheap replacements can almost certainly be found at the numerous thrift stores for cheaper than moving it.
My biggest issue as I was trying to find my way was the lack of Wi-Fi in Brussels. Previously, in Brugge, Ghent, and Antwerp I had no problem finding a restaurant or shop to sit outside of whose open and free Wi-Fi I could easily pick up. This was not the case, and besides the public Wi-Fi in Grand Place, I wasn’t able to track down any Wi-Fi the rest of the day.
Once I got near to city center, I used the technique that I had been using for the duration of my stay in Belgium: When in doubt, look to the sky. It is much easier to find your destination when you have a giant, towering medieval church to lead you to every city’s center.
As for other prices to use for comparison; the train from almost all neighboring cities to Brussels will cost between $6-$11 for a one-way ticket, and a bus or tram ticket will cost you about $3.50 for a one-hour duration. A hamburger entrée around Grand Place will ring you about $17-$19. A 700ml bottle of Smirnoff Vodka will cost you about $16-$17, and a couple of happy hour Stella Artois brews inside Place du Luxembourg will cost you about $5. A hostel around city center will cost you around $20-$25 a night, but Couchsurfing is always 100% free!
Other recommended attractions, restaurants, and bars in Brussels:
- Delirium (Bar with over 1000 beer options)
- SANDEMAN’s FREE walking tour of Brussels
- AB Club (concert venue)
- Grote Markt
- Manneken-Pis (“Pissing Boy” monument)
All in all, after getting expectations fairly high for the nation’s capital, it kind of let me down. I know I’ll be back one day because there’s still so much of the city to see, but the first initial impression gave me no special feelings. I’ve still got room for impressions, however, and it was by no means a bad experience. Feel free to ask me any questions about the city if you have them!