I didn’t have any expectations on my first arrival to Brussels. All I knew was limited to ”the capital of EU, waffles, beer and fries”. It’s not that I’m ignorant, I simply had never thought of going anywhere else than Italy before. Fortunately it didn’t take me long to reverse this truly unfair image of one of the most intriguing cities I’ve ever lived in.
Brussels is a lively place that can be both hectic and surprisingly cheerful. Wherever you’re heading to, the brick-wall terraced houses keep you company (sometimes interwoven with steel and glass constructions) and you are likely to come across some interesting items displayed on the window sills – toy soldiers, wooden figurines or cats (including fake ones) could be just an example.
If a visit or stay in Brussels is in your plans, you will surely collect your own examples soon. Just don’t get distracted by one of the things that many previous visitors, myself included, have found somehow surprising!
1. The underground river
Let’s get some drinks and sit at the river? Not in Brussels! Unlike most European capitals, the city does not lie on any major river. More interestingly, there is a river called the Senne that flows underneath the main central streets. It hasn’t always been like that, though.
Until 1871, the Senne flowed just through the city centre. Unfortunately, it became an ”open air sewer” that deluged the streets with even the shortest spurt of heavy rain. It got even worse in the second half of the 19th century when excess flooding combined with a cholera epidemic. The decision was taken: this stinky and polluted river had to be removed.
The Senne was soon directed under the ground, covered and diverted, and replaced by public buildings or boulevards. Wish to learn more? Visit the Sewers Museum: http://www.sewermuseum.brussels/nl
2. 50% of green areas
You may probably not believe how green Brussels is. Green areas constitute as much as 50% of the city! Naturally, 70% of them are in the outer suburbs, while only 10% in the actual city centre.
In any case, if you like jogging, picnicking or slow strolling, you don’t have to worry about finding the right place.
My favourite parks are Bois de la Cambre, Parc de Woluwe, Josaphatpark and Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Discover more: http://www.brussels-gardens.be
3. Laundry service
This is definitely the worsts surprise Brussels held for me so far… To cut the long story short: previous to my arrival and after long weeks of searching, I finally found a room to rent. In the pictures it looked small, but decent. However when I finally got the keys, not only did it turn out to be 1 of 11 other rooms in the same house with shared bathrooms and kitchens, but also it had no washing machine provided.
I had never imagined that I would be obliged to carry heavy begs of laundry and have it washed with the use of jettons outside my premises. And I wasn’t the only one – the lack of a washing machine in the apartments is still a common thing in Brussels, so if you prefer to avoid using an external laundry service, better make sure what your future place of residence is equipped with!
PS I moved to another place in less than 2 months. The washing machine was the first thing I had asked about.
4. Two-language signs
You probably already know that Belgium is divided into the Francophone (French) and Flemish (Dutch) regions. As a capital Brussels allows both sides to function and get around without any trouble. This means that street signs, posters, metro voice-overs or cinema subtitles always have a double-language version (or triple, if English included). In such a sea of various letters and sounds is really easy to get lost at the beginning. Once I missed a metro stop just because instead of French (Arts-Loi), I read the Dutch name (Kunst-Wet). They sound pretty different, don’t they?
5. Music in the underground
This isn’t something everybody notices or is even aware of, but Brussels metro system has its own radio station that keeps you entertained each time you are waiting for the next train to arrive – a constant stream of music simply plays out of speakers on station platforms. Some locals believe that it brightens up their day, others argue that it makes the overall noise even less bearable. I personally support the sooner, especially on quiet evenings when the waiting time extends.
Interestingly enough, you will hear no Francophone or Flemish music on the Brussels underground stations: it is to avoid political discussions. As a result, you will hear 70% English-speaking songs, 15% Italian-speaking and 15% Spanish-speaking records.
6. Take-me-home items
It might be a custom in many other cities, but I have never seen it in my home country (Poland) yet. People tend to give, instead of throw things away. Especially in the residential areas, many home items can be found in the streets with a ”take me home” sticker on. Books, candle holders or paintings – depending on your luck and watchfulness, you can collect some unique (in)valuables!
7. Shopping nightmare
Whether it’s getting some groceries or a pair of sunglasses, you might need to take a day off – most of the shops close at 6.30pm and supermarkets at 8.30pm, both get overcrowded on Saturdays and don’t open on Sundays whatsoever. This is a real nightmare for those who finish their work late in the evening, or those who hate long queueing times. A tip? I haven’t figure it out yet, so any advice would be gratefully appreciated!
Would you like to know more? Feel free to leave a reply below or drop me a message: firstname.lastname@example.org
Enjoy your stay in Brussels!