Living in Brussels
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A comprehensive guide about living well in Brussels
You may know all the clichés, but life in Brussels isn’t just about beer, waffles, French fries, and comic strips. InterNations GO! provides you with an overview of the Belgian capital and information on language requirements, transportation, childcare, the school system, etc.
Life in Brussels
- Brussels is increasingly multicultural; the first language here is French, followed by Dutch and English.
- The urban architecture is very diverse and there is a wide range of cultural hotspots.
- The airports are well connected and are located in a strategic position. Public transportation offers many efficient options.
- The education facilities are divided between the language communities and offer plenty of activities; additionally, there is a plethora of international schools to choose from.
Among the many foreigners living in Brussels, a considerable number are in some way affiliated with one of the numerous international and intergovernmental organizations based in the city. However, even without major EU and NATO institutions, numerous people of foreign origin still settle down in Brussels.
In fact, the city has been a popular destination for both political refugees and labor migrants since the end of the 18th century. Famous political exiles who spent part of their life in Brussels include Karl Marx, Victor Hugo, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Léon Daudet.
Many people who originally came to Brussels from other countries have decided to stay and have adopted Belgian citizenship. This might account for the strange fact that, although about 70% of the population of Brussels consists of Belgian nationals, the percentage of inhabitants who have either French or Dutch as their first language is actually lower.
The city is officially bilingual, so it is possible to get by with either French or Dutch. However, most residents actually speak both languages. The city has gradually transformed from being a Dutch-speaking region to becoming a predominantly French-language territory, which has caused considerable resentment among the Flemish populace. Due to the many expats living in Brussels, English is increasingly heard on the streets as well.
Due to the large ethnic diversity, in Brussels there is an ample representation of different religions and cultures. Therefore, do not be surprised if during your time here you meet very few people of Belgian origins. Additionally, when talking a walk through the city, you will encounter Christian churches with the same ease as mosques and synagogues.
Arts and Architecture in Brussels: Something for Every Taste
The residents of Brussels are blessed (or cursed) with an urban architecture comprising various styles, from medieval to postmodern. Flemish townhouses stand side by side with impressive Art Nouveau buildings, and postmodern edifices dominate the European Quarter.
There is truly a wide range of different architectural styles to be found here. For the lovers of modern art, the famous Atomium is a must. If you prefer to delve back further in history, the astonishing Royal Palace doesn’t disappoint with its Neoclassical style. Lastly, the Gothic town hall brings you straight to the Middle Ages.
There is no lack of museums either: over 100 museums and large collections of Flemish paintings cater to serious-minded culture enthusiasts. Moreover, the famous Belgium Comic Strip Center ensures that characters such as Lucky Luke, Tintin, Gaston Lagaffe, and the Marsupilami enjoy eternal life in Brussels, their place of birth. You will also spot large frescos of popular cartoon characters on buildings throughout the city.
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Transportation in Brussels
A Central Location and Good Connections
Brussels has two airports: the main Brussels Airport and the smaller Brussels South Charleroi Airport. Both are served by regular bus services from the city center. A bus from the European Quarter takes about 30 minutes to reach Brussels Airport, but you’ll need twice as long for the journey to Charleroi Airport on the dedicated shuttle bus leaving Brussels main station (Bruxelles Midi) every 30 minutes. Brussels Airport also has a train station: a trip between the city center (Bruxelles Central) and the main airport takes 17 minutes. Getting to Charleroi Airport by train involves a 20-minute bus journey between Charleroi Railway Station and the airport terminal.
Due to its central location within Western Europe, Brussels is easily reached both by rail and automobile. Brussels maintains high-speed (up to 300 km/h) train connections with other major European cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne, and Frankfurt. For train connections within Belgium, please check the website of the SNCB/NMBS, the Belgian National Railway Society.
Belgium has a good road network, with Brussels in the center of a fan-like arrangement of old national roads. You can approach the city on highways from all directions, and they all lead to the outer ring road. From there, it is easy to get on the inner ring road and to the city center.
Fast and Efficient: Public Transportation
Public transportation is organized by STIB, the Société des Transports Intercommunaux de Bruxelles (called MIVB in Dutch). STIB operates the Brussels metro and an extensive network of bus, tram, and night-bus services. Thanks to a standardized ticketing system, STIB ticket holders may also use trains and coaches within the boundaries of the city. The metro is undoubtedly the fastest means of transportation, not to mention that the walls of most metro stations are embellished with works of art that you can admire while waiting for the next train.
Tickets can be purchased at ticket machines in metro stations, at an STIB kiosk, from the bus driver, or online. A single fare costs either 2.10 EUR or 2.50 EUR — the more expensive tariff applies to tickets bought from the driver on board. There are ten different types of regular tickets available and eight different “formulas” of season tickets. Alternatively you can get the new MOBIB pass, an electronic card charged at will with season or single tickets. For more information on fares and timetables, consult the STIB website. You could also download the STIB-MIVB app, which is available for both Android and iPhone.
The More Expensive Means of Transportation: Taxi
Taxis can be hailed on the street or at a taxi stand. There is no main taxi hotline, so it’s worth keeping a record of the telephone number of at least one taxi company in Brussels. A list of all taxi companies with contact details can be found on the website Bruxelles Mobilité; Taxi Verts and Taxi Bleus are the dominant Brussels operators but there are several smaller ones as well.
If you hail a cab on the street, make sure it’s registered in the Règion de Bruxelles-Capitale, otherwise your ride might turn out to be very expensive. You can recognize available taxis by their white “libre” (free) sign on the windshield. Fares are the same across all taxi companies, i.e. 1.80 EUR per km for daytime rides within the 19 municipalities, and 2.70 EUR for every journey outside the city boundaries. The taxi meter always starts at 2.40 EUR, and for night rides between 22:00 and 06:00, there is a surcharge of 2.00 EUR.
The Greener Alternative
There are several regional transportation providers operating bus and train services, notably the Flemish company De Lijn and the Walloon transportation society TEC (Transport en commun). Brussels is currently investing heavily in the RER project (Réseau express régional): the city aims to use pre-existing railways, within a radius of 30 km, for a new train network in order to provide a fast and reliable service for commuters and a real alternative to the car. At the moment, this network is supposed to be in service by 2017.
In its fight against congestion and pollution, Brussels City Council has introduced several schemes, such as the Prime Bruxell’Air, which awards free public transportation, carpooling, and bicycles to people who give up their car’s license plates, and eventually scrap the car itself. Carpooling schemes are open to all. If you are interested in using one, go to the website of such providers as Cambio, Zen Car, and Carpool.
Cycling is also being actively encouraged by Brussels authorities by means of interactive cycling maps, cycling classes, and various promotions. For more information, please check the bicycle section of Bruxelles Mobilité.
Childcare and Education in Brussels
Children’s Facilities in Brussels
As with so many other aspects of everyday life, childcare in Brussels is organized by the two language communities. The Flemish organization for children and families is called Kind en Gezin. Children in the French community are taken care of by the Office de la Naissance et de l’Enfance (ONE).
For infants, toddlers, and preschool kids, you have the choice between daycare families (registered or private ones) and day nurseries. The latter work slightly differently depending on the respective language community that they are affiliated with. Various degrees of state subsidies are available for childcare facilities, depending on their official status.
Schoolchildren benefit from extracurricular activities that take place after the official school day finishes, e.g. in the form of homework schools. The schools often offer study support and private lessons, as well as cultural and leisure activities in the afternoon. Most activities are financed by the government and they are either free or cost very little.
Choosing between the Education Options
In Brussels (and all of Belgium), school is compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 18. Education is free for children at state schools and other official institutions. Belgian state schools are actually community schools, but they fulfill the same functions and obligations as state schools in other countries. Official, subsidized education is provided by municipal and provincial authorities.
Other forms of schools include private institutions often affiliated with a religious faith, especially Catholicism (free subsidized education) or private schools which are not recognized by the government, e.g. international schools. They receive no financial aid from the state, but they enjoy greater academic freedom in return. However, some of them might offer diplomas that are not officially recognized. Additional information on education in the Brussels-Capital Region can be retrieved from the Be Home website.
The Myriads of International Schools
Not surprisingly, Brussels has a plethora of international schools. Some of them cater exclusively to children of EU staff, others are open to everyone. The advantages of sending your children to an international school are plenty. Most of these schools are at least bilingual (English and French), and they frequently offer internationally recognized diploma programs, such as the International Baccalaureate.
The European Council of International Schools offers a search function which allows you to look for a registered international school in Brussels. The most famous are the International School of Brussels, the British School of Brussels, and St John’s International School. There are more international schools in Brussels, catering specifically to the French, German, Japanese, and US-American expatriate communities.