Brussels provides the backdrop for the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, but this is no dull city. Brussels is a cosmopolitan capital, a melting pot, where its residents refer to themselves as Zinneke (mongrel), with a mix of origins - Flemish, Walloon, Italian, Spanish, English, German etc. There is even a bi-annual parade (the Zinneke Parade) of community groups and artists and schools that celebrates their multi-culturalness.
Cheap flights to Brussels are readily available with the low-cost airlines such as easyJet, Flybe and the national carrier Brussels Airlines.
Top sights include Grand Place, considered one of the most beautiful town squares; the Musées Royaux Des Beaux-Arts, with its priceless collection of Flemish and Belgian art; the Cantillon Brewery, a family brewery where Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek beers are made; and the Atomium, a huge silver structure, representing an iron crystal, magnified more than 160 billion times.
The Manneken Pis may very well be the best-known attraction in Belgium. This statue of a little boy urinating has a wardrobe of more than 700 costumes including Father Christmas and Elvis Presley suits.
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Brussels has a maritime temperate climate, with warm summers and mild winters. Early summer and early autumn are typically warm and mild. Summer temperatures can reach the high-20s (Celsius), and winter temperatures range from about zero up to 10 degrees or so. Snow is possible in winter, but is not a common occurrence. Brussels has a high average annual rainfall; January is usually the wettest month, but expect rain any time of year. Winter days are short, but the sun does not set until 9pm or 10pm in summer.
When to fly to Brussels
May and September have the best weather and the most visitors. These months can be downright crowded and cheap Brussels flights and hotel rooms hard to come by.
November to March is wet and cold with few tourists and quiet museums and markets.
Many Belgians take their holidays in July and August, making Brussels quieter to visit. You may also get a discounted hotel rate, especially over a weekend, but many restaurants and shops will be closed.
Getting around Brussels
When you’re in central Brussels, it’s easiest to see the sights on foot. If you’re going across town or to outlying areas, you’ll be better off taking public transport. The Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles (STIB) offers cheap and easy transport around town with buses, trams and metro lines. The STIB runs from 5am to midnight, and a night bus operates after that. Most of the metro stations are a sight to visit in themselves, with decorations from leading Belgian modern artists. Avoid rush hour, both in the morning and at night, and don’t bother trying to drive. Aggressive drivers, heavy traffic and nightmare-ish parking make public transport even more appealing. Biking isn't much different, but the city’s outskirts have some lovely bike lanes. Avoid taking a taxi too – they're expensive.
Brussels insider information
- Brussels is a small city and can easily be walked. Take a tour from the Grand Place to Manneken Pis and then on to the Musee des Beaux Arts and you will see much of the old city centre.
- The Musee Royeaux des Beaux Arts is one of the finest galleries in Europe. If you want to see all it has to offer, make sure you arrive in the morning: you can easily spend an entire day here, just looking at its most famous paintings. The room with Bruegel’s works is the setting for W. H. Auden’s poem of the same name.
- The city is surrounded by parks – one of the most impressive is the Cinquantenaire park designed to commemorate 50 years of Independence in 1880. Its entrance from the city is a huge arch.
- Autoworld is a museum situated in the Cinquantenaire park dedicated entirely to cars. The museum has exhibits from the first-ever cars, through to the “golden age in Europe”.
- The giant Atomium monument from the World Fair of 1958 has become as much of a symbol of Brussels as the Grand Place. The surrounding area is a nice park to visit, and includes “mini Europe” – small replicas of all the most important buildings of the European Union, including the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben. The Atomium and Mini-Europe are at the edge of the city in the Heysel area. Get here by Metro, alighting at the Heysel stop.
- To enjoy a spot of culture and shopping at the same time, visit the Galleries Royales Saint-Hubert. Completed in 1847, this was the world's first ever shopping mall. An ornate glass ceiling covers the row of boutique balustraded shops. The motto, displayed on the entrance, is Omnibus Omnia (“something for everyone”) which still holds true today as the gallery houses everything from designer shops to grocers. There are also a few cafés, where you can sit and watch the world go by.