Getting under the skin of Brussels
First impressions, you might wonder what all the fuss is about Brussels. As one of the central hubs of government in Europe, you might not have Brussels particularly high on your destination wish-list.
But there’s a lot to discover and explore in Brussels, and it’s one of the proudly queer cities that you’ll find in Europe.
You get the sense that Brussels is a place where worlds come together – sometimes they collide, but mostly there’s an easy co-existence of cultures and communities.
This isn’t a new thing. Established as a fortress town in the 10th century, through the ages, Brussels and its surrounding regions were caught up in various power struggles between Austria, France, and The Netherlands - becoming the capital of the newly-independent Belgium in 1830.
Today, with a population of just over one million people, the city is officially bilingual – historically Dutch speaking, these days French is equally prevalent. English is also widely-spoken.
With the gravitational pull of the European Union, there’s a fluidity about the population of Brussels. People come, people go – there’s always new faces, a fresh perspective. There seems to be a very international perspective on life, it’s easy to meet people, to start a conversation, to share experiences.
The rainbow village
The LGBTQ community of Brussels is vibrant and visible. Most of the action is centred around Rue du Marché au Charbon in the Downtown precinct – the bars and businesses of this precinct proudly adopting the collective identity of the Rainbow Village.
There’s a laid-back and friendly vibe to this neighbourhood. The bars are small, everyone drinks outside. It’s good fun.
The bathhouse or sauna is called Macho – it’s busy, especially on weekends.
In terms of local media, newly launched magazine Ket is a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about Brussels. Ket – which is a term that refers to a guy from Brussels – is published quarterly.
La Demence is a party that takes place in Brussels once a month. It attracts a diverse European crowd – lots of people travel to Brussels specifically to be at La Demence, and it’s worth the trip. There’s no specific dress code, but it’s a shirts-off kind of night with a sexual edge.
Pride celebrations in Brussels generally take place in mid-May.
In 2020, the main weekend has been announced as being that of 23 May.
Pride in Brussels is an event that’s embraced by the city. If the weather is good, the streets of the Rainbow Village become rammed with people and the pumping music turns it into an all-day outdoor party.
As you would expect, you will find a lot of chocolate, pomme frites, beer, moules frites, and waffles in Brussels. These are all delicious and worth enjoying, but there’s a lot more to the food scene in this city.
Eating out is part of daily life in Brussels, whether that’s stopping for a substantial lunch during the day, or getting together with friends for dinner in one of the cities numerous top-quality restaurants – there’s a huge range of choice and cuisines on offer.
Some of my recent favourites include:
- Gramm on Rue de Flandre
- Poseidon on Chaussée de Louvain
- Selecto on Rue de Flandre
- Brasserie Georges on Avenue WInston Churchill
- On Wednesday evenings the main square in the Châtelain district is taken over by a food market. The area becomes packed with a young, after-work crowd, all out on the street, drinking. There’s a great range of bars and restaurants. This is the kind of neighbourhood where you’d want to live.
- If you’re looking for vintage treasures, the flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle is a popular destination. There’s been a market on this square since 1873. Surrounding the market are a number of vintage stores that are also worth exploring.
- The old indoor market of Les Halles Saint-Géry has been transformed into a going-out destination. Once a month, they hold a market for vintage clothes.
If you’re looking for a few Instagram-worthy moments, Brussels won’t let you down.
- The Grand Place – with its imposing Gothic town hall , this is the postcard-worthy tourist hub of the city.
- The Mannekin Pis – the famous fountain of a small bronze boy happily urinating into the water below. A surprising but popular choice as a symbol of the city.
- Place Royale and the Coudenberg Palace – The palace of the dukes of Brabant is an impressive reminder of the history of this part of the world, and how to build with an eye for grandeur.
- Place du Grand Sablon – this is chocolate central , you’ll find shops by Pierre Marcolini, Leonidas, Godiva, Neuhaus, Maison Dandoy, Frederic Blondeel, and Wittamer. While you’re here, the Eglise Notre-Dame au Sablon has an enormous carved wooden pulpit that’s worth a look.
- Parc de Bruxelles Warandepark is the ideal spot to watch the energetic joggers pounding out the miles.
- The Atomium – this futuristic construction was built in 1958 . It was designed as the Belgian pavilion when the World Expo came to Brussels that year. Today the Atomium is the most visited attraction in Brussels and, thanks to a recent renovation, it still feels as otherworldly and cutting edge as ever .
- Villa Empain – an art deco masterpiece.
- Alice Gallery – specialist in contemporary art
- Centrale – contemporary art museum at Place Sainte-Catherine
- MIMA – contemporary art museum in Molenbeek
Where to stay
- NH Stéphanie – the NH group has a number of properties across Brussels, and they’re always a reliable option. The NH Stéphanie has a good Uptown location – it’s comfortable and modern.
- Penta Hotel – with an ideal Uptown location, this is an easy base from which to explore the city.
- Sandton Pillows – close to the Grand Place, this Downtown hotel puts you close to the action.
- 9 Hotel Sablon – a great location and a simple and stylish hotel.
- Thon Residence Parnasse – ideal if you’re in town on business, these are simple but modern apartments in a good Uptown location.