You’ve booked your trip to the capital of Belgium – home of delicious beer, waffles, chocolate, and fries – and you can’t wait to start planning! There are, however, some things about Brussels to keep in mind as you prepare for your trip. This isn’t a guide about attractions or an itinerary. Here you’ll find details on a few Brussels travel tips.
Travel Tip #1 – Brussels is Bilingual
There are two official languages in Brussels, Dutch and French. All of the public transportation stops and street names are displayed in both languages. Sometimes the names resemble each other, like Louiza Louise. Some are completely different, like Zuidstation and Gare du Midi. If you know a few words in either Dutch or French that could help you out, but be on the safe side and verify both names when you plan your travel. Especially because Google Maps tends to just pick one name or the other, without showing them both. Also note that at major stops and stations, names and directions are frequently given in English as well as Dutch and French.
Officially, the city is bilingual. In practice, everyone speaks French. Most of them speak English, too. If you need to converse with a server, shop owner, museum guide, or anyone else in the service industry, they probably speak enough English to help you out. It’s often required to be trilingual to land service-sector jobs in Brussels. Nevertheless, you’ll be better off learning your key travel phrases – “thank you, hello, goodbye, please, bathroom, etc.” in French rather than Dutch.
History of the language divide
The language divide in Brussels is not just inconvenient for traveling, it embodies a fundamental cultural divide between the two largest regions of Belgium. In the north, you have Flanders, where the inhabitants speak Dutch. In the south is Wallonia, where they speak French. A small, German-speaking community lies in the eastern part of Wallonia (the part that borders Germany). Belgium officially has three languages, but you won’t find German-speakers unless you travel to that specific territory.
There is a bitter rivalry over linguistic dominance between the Flemish and the Walloons, going back to the founding of Belgium. The Flemish had to struggle against francophone dominance for almost a century before earning official recognition of the Dutch language.
This rivalry still permeates political and social relations between the two groups. The Belgian government is federal and highly fractional. Political power is widely distributed among the national, regional, and local levels. This is the result of a careful agreement between Flemish and Walloon political forces. It often prevents the Belgian government from functioning effectively, though.
Want to read more about Belgian politics? Learn how the German-speaking region of Belgium is including the public in decision-making.
As a traveler, this linguistic clash will have little impact on you apart from the previously mentioned logistical details. When in doubt, speak English. In fact, you’ll be safest most of the time speaking English. If you’re in Brussels, finding English-speakers isn’t a problem. If you’re in either Flanders or Wallonia, you don’t want to risk speaking the wrong language in the wrong region – even if you know a little Dutch or French. It’s better to come off as a polite tourist than to offend someone!
Travel Tip #2 – Navigating the Touristy Beer Shops
Don’t get sucked in by the “novelty” beer shops in the Brussels city center. Cheesy tourist shops are great for picking up souvenirs like magnets or postcards. But something you’ll likely consume while you’re still here? Buy it at a supermarket. The selection of beers is more or less the same, and cheaper.
Don’ let someone sell you a bottle of Leffe for more than €1.50, claiming it’s a “Belgian specialty.” Enter the touristy beer shops and look around to see the selection; checking out all the different types of Belgian beers lined up like that is a little fascinating. But in these shops, take notes and then go purchase your beer at Carrefour.
Planning a trip to Brussels? Check out the 5 best museums to visit.
Travel Tip #3 – The Manneken Pis is Smaller than You Think
The statue of a little boy peeing that represents the city of Brussels? It’s two feet high. As you come upon the street corner where he’s perched atop his fountain, dozens of tourists around snapping photos, you’ll probably have high expectations. Lower them – lower them to two feet.
Don’t take Manneken Pis off your list of things to see – you should definitely still pay him a visit and snap a photo or selfie. He’s the symbol of Brussels, after all. He’s also a short walk away from the iconic Grand Place, so a trip to see him likely won’t make you diverge from your itinerary. Just prepare yourself for a much smaller statue than you were expecting.
Read more about Brussels’ UNESCO sites like the Grand Place.
If you get a chance, visit the less famous but still iconic Janneke Pis, the little girl peeing statue across from Delirium Bar. Janneke is likely to have fewer tourists crowding her but avoid going at nighttime if you want to evade some drunken behavior of the Delirium patrons.
Travel Tip #4 – Beware the Electric Scooters
Electric scooters have taken over Brussels, like in many cities across the US and Europe. There are at least three different companies in operation in the Brussels area. Some residents love the scooters – especially university students. Others detest them. The commune of Uccle, for example, has cracked down on valid parking zones for electric scooters. If you park your scooter outside of these zones you could face a fine. Here’s a map of no-parking zones.
Riding an electric scooter seems like a fun, touristy way to hop around Brussels, but it can be dangerous. Brussels is full of cobblestone sidewalks, forcing scooter drivers into the street with cars and buses. This is not only dangerous for those on the scooters but to the rest of the traffic as well. Renting an electric scooter can be fun, just be aware of the safety risks before hopping on.
Final Thoughts on Brussels Travel Tips
Brussels is a remarkable city to visit. Due to its demographic diversity and its status as the unofficial capital of Europe, it has a rich cultural heritage that tourists and residents alike are delighted to discover. Hopefully, these Brussels travel tips will make planning your trip a little easier.
Have you visited Brussels and you can think of some more tips? Leave them in the comments below!