If you’re planning a visit to Belgium, or more specifically Brussels, in the winter, this guide on what to know, prepare for, see, and eat is for you! Despite what you may think, winter isn’t a bad time to visit Brussels – tourist crowds are down, there are plenty of indoor activities suited to avoiding the rain and it’s the perfect opportunity to taste the hearty cuisine and strong beer in cozy restaurants.
While the country of Belgium is small in size, it’s situated in a region known as the Low Countries that has a long history. If you aren’t as familiar with Belgian history, the high-level overview below, with specifics about Brussels, may be helpful.
- The city of Brussels was founded in the 10th century, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that the town’s importance grew on account of it being a stop on the trade route between the port city of Bruges and the prominent medieval city of Cologne.
- The Grand Place became the city’s central marketplace where local merchants and tradesmen gathered until the square was bombarded and mostly destroyed by the French military in 1695. It was rebuilt and further restored over time; today it is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
- The tides would turn against the French in 1815 when Napoleon, the Emperor of France, would finally face defeat during his last stand just south of Brussels in the Battle of Waterloo.
- A successful rebellion against the Dutch and the subsequent importing and crowning of a German prince led to the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830.
- As the longest reigning king in Belgian history, King Leopold II is responsible for initiating the construction of many of the prominent public works you see in Brussels. Not as familiar to people are that some of the darkest moments in Belgium’s history are associated with the atrocities carried out under his control and exploitation of the Congo Free State (see book referenced below).
- Belgium was the site of significant and deadly battles in WWI in Flanders Fields to the north of Brussels and in WWII to the south of Brussels in Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge. Ypres in Flanders and Bastogne in Wallonia are home to memorials and museums honoring those killed, wounded, and missing.
- Belgium was one of the first countries to join the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and subsequently the European Economic Community in 1957, precursors to the European Union (EU). The founding of the EU and European citizenship occurred in 1993 with Brussels considered the de facto capital of the EU. Today, Brussels is one of the seats of the European Parliament. The city has also been the political seat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 1967.
- There are three official languages of Belgium – Flemish (Dutch dialect) in the Flanders region to the north, French in the Walloon Provinces to the south, and German in the small community residing in the east of the country (bordering Germany).
- The city’s emblem and a main tourist attraction, Manneken Pis, is a statue of a little boy peeing that is located just a few blocks from the Grand Place. What started as a fountain dispensing drinking water to the city residents in the 1400s has evolved into this iconic figurine. The original Manneken Pis statue installed in 1619 was replaced with a replica in 1965, but you find the original in the Brussels City Museum (see below).
- For historical and cultural references to Brussels and Belgium, here are a couple of suggested books, movies, and references to Belgian art to read/watch/ listen/ view:
- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild details the impact of the colonialization of the Congo by King Leopold II including graphic details about the atrocities committed as a result of the forced labor system in the Congo Free State. Many of the prominent public works you see in Brussels were funded by this exploitation of people and natural resources in the Congo.
- A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among the Belgians is written by Harry Pearson, a British author recounting his first visit to Belgium in 1998. It’s a humorous account of an outsider’s “blunders” in this country and an introduction to the unique customs and cultures of Belgium.
- The movie In Bruges is probably best described as a dark comedy with a quirky story set in Bruges, in the Flanders region of Belgium. The film, with Collin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, provides a good preview of the historic city center of Bruges, which feels all the more enchantingly medieval on an overcast winter day.
- Nothing to Declare (Rien a declarer) is a Franco-Belgian comedy with English subtitles that humorously depicts a fictional relationship between customs officers at the border of France and Belgium as the elimination of borders goes into effect in the EU.
- Viewing the works of famous artists like the Surrealist Rene Magritte, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, and the brothers Jan van Eyck & Hubert van Eyck, who created the Ghent Altarpiece (as referenced in the book and movie The Monuments Men), provides perspective on the influence of Belgians in the visual arts.
- You can’t separate Belgium from its beer, but more specifically, its famous abbey-brewed Trappist certified beers. The three criteria for certification as Trappist are: the beer is brewed within the walls of the monastery, the brewery is of secondary importance and follows business practices in line with the monastic way of life, and the brewery is not a profit-making venture with any residual income remaining after expenses being donated to charity.
Belgium can boast that six of the fourteen monasteries producing the Trappist-labeled beer reside within its borders: Westmalle, Westvleteren, Achel Chimay, Rochefort, and Orval.
- The city of Brussels is officially bilingual, however French is more widely spoken than Flemish. Due to the presence of the EU and other large international organizations, English is also prevalent in Brussels; nonetheless, I would encourage you to learn some French:
- To say hello, use Bonjour
- If you want to greet someone in the evening use Bonsoir
- Thanks can be expressed with Merci
- If you need to excuse yourself for a simple mistake or move past someone in a crowd, use Pardon, but in preparation for asking a question, you can say Excusez-moi
- To toast with your drink, use A santé!
- If you’re looking for the toilet, Les toilettes? will get you pointed in the right direction
- If you want to ask someone if they speak English, say Parlez vous anglais?
- While it’s unusual to have continuous days of temperatures below freezing in the winter, Brussels has an average of 200 rainfall days in a year – it’s prudent to expect some dreary and rainy weather during a winter visit. Don’t let the weather ruin your travel plans though– adapt as the Belgians do by carrying an umbrella and/or raincoat, waiting out the downpour inside a café, or simply tolerating the drizzle. Definitely embrace the sunny days!
- Brussels is centrally located in Belgium and Northwest Europe allowing for convenient commuting between cities and countries. Transportation by way of public transit is a better option than trying to get around with a car in Brussels. Uber is available and cheaper than taxis, especially when commuting to/from the airport.
- Brussels city transit
- From the airport, there is a bus (#12) or Intercity (IC) train that takes you to city center. A bus ticket and train ticket to city center are 4.50 EUR and 9 EUR, respectively (as of February 2020). Alternatively, the Uber pick up point is within the P1 front parking structure.
- From the Midi and Central train stations, there are metro and bus lines connecting you to city center and the surrounding neighborhoods.
- Transit across Belgium
- You can easily reach Ghent and Bruges by train within 30 minutes and 1 hour, respectively. These cities make for good winter visits when tourist crowds are down and the gray skies add a bewitching background to the medieval vibe.
- Long distance commutes outside Belgium
- Paris, Amsterdam, and London are all reachable by train within two hours. The Thalys train operates to/ from Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam, while the Eurostar runs between Brussels and London. Purchase tickets well in advance for these trains as prices increase closer to the date of departure.
- The FlixBus offers low-cost and convenient bus travel to/from Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam as well.
- Brussels city transit
- In terms of where to stay, the below areas are good places to find hotels and Airbnbs:
- You’ll find City Center within the innermost ring road that is shaped like a pentagon. Sablon, Sainte Catherine, and the Mont des Arts are a couple nice neighborhoods in this area.
- Saint-Gilles is adjacent to the city center but offers interesting restaurants and cafes while still being conveniently located.
- Ixelles is a quieter area further outside city center but the metro and bus make the commute to main attractions easy.
- Etterbeek, home to Parc du Cinquanternaire, is also outside city center but again, the metro and bus make the commute to main attractions easy.
- As the home base of the European Parliament and a business nucleus in Europe, be aware that eating out in certain areas of Brussels can be expensive. Also consider the following when dining:
- Make dinner reservations at restaurants, especially if eating outside city center where restaurants don’t necessarily cater to tourists.
- If you ask for a glass of tap water at restaurants and cafes, don’t be surprised if they only offer bottled still or sparkling water that is, of course, not free.
- Tipping in Belgium is not a standard practice as there is a service charge included with the bill, but if you receive excellent service, it’s recommended to leave a few Euros.
The most popular attractions – Mannenken Pis and the Grand Place – shouldn’t be missed, but when you need a respite from the rain, seek out the following indoor sites:
- With Brussels being home to one of three places of work of the European Parliament (Luxembourg and Strasbourg as the other two), take advantage of the opportunity to better understand how the EU functions and visit the location of the European Parliament plenary sittings. The EU facilities that welcome visitors are all situated at Place du Luxembourg – start at Station Europe (visitor’s center), and then continue to the Parlamentarium (interactive explanation of the EU), Hemicycle (location of plenary sittings), and The House of European History (history museum). The entire visit is free and self-guided through the use of helpful multi-media guides and bilingual attendants.
- Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Sablon offer covered shopping and dining in an upscale environment. Browsing the many chocolate shops inside the elegant galleries built in the 1830s -1840s is a good way to escape the rain.
- Brussels is home to a number of museums near city center with the added benefit of offering free admission on certain days (see below). Three options to consider if you’re interested in art and history are:
- Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium encompasses three permanent exhibits – Old Masters, Fin-de-Siècle, and Magritte Museum. Within a beautiful building you will find works by Flemish artists like Bruegel and Reubens, and the Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte. A ticket to all three exhibits (Collections + Magritte Museum) costs 15 Euros, but admission is free on the first Wednesday of the month from 1 PM until close.
- BELvue Museum is just down the street from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and focusses on the history of Belgium beginning with its independence in 1830 through displays of objects and photos, as well as current perspectives from Belgians as shown in videos. I would add that the main focus seems to be on social issues and it does gloss over some significant historical events. Admission is 8 Euros, but free on the first Wednesday of the month from 1 PM until close.
- Brussels City Museum and GardeRobe MannekenPis Museum (Manneken Pis Wardrobe Museum) are situated in the Grand Place and just a block away from the Manneken Pis statue, respectively. The City Museum covers the history of Brussels and has the original Manneken Pis statue on display, while the Wardrobe Museum contains some of the many creative outfits gifted to the statue. The museums are accessible under the same ticket for 8 Euros, but admission is free on the first Sunday of the month.
- It’s hard to miss the massive Justice Palace that was constructed on the old High Town of Brussels in the second half of the 1800s. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you find the towering structure covered in scaffolding, which has been in place for over thirty years and is apparently now necessary to keep the aging building intact. Enter if you dare, but once inside, walk the hallways to admire the interior of Belgium’s most important courthouse. There is no admission, but you’ll go through a security check at the entrance. Wander around as you please being mindful of the signs indicating what is restricted to the public.
While you’re standing outside the courthouse, take in the expansive city view from Place Poelaert.
- The Brasserie Cantillon in Anderlecht brews a type of beer, lambic, that is only produced near Brussels. They offer brewery tours in English on Monday, Friday, and Saturday. Tickets for guided tours are 9.50 EUR and come with two tastings at the end of the tour – book in advance.
- When you want a break from museums, give ax throwing at WoodCutter a try – it’s a three minute walk from Manneken Pis. The staff will happily fix your form to ensure you hit the target at least once.
- Find a spot in a café or bar, like one of the below, while you wait for the rain to clear:
- For a cozy setting to warm up with a coffee or tea, try Moka, and for a lunch break, visit Peck 47 – both are nearby the Grand Place.
- Au Bon Vieux Temps in city center has a “hidden” entrance but once you’re there, you can try the Westvleteren Trappist beer (most expensive beer they have). An alley over is the tiny tavern of L’Imaige Nostre-Dame that has live music and a fun atmosphere.
- La Pharmacie Anglaise on the Mont des Arts near the Royal Museums of Fine Arts has unique but pricey drinks in a comfortable setting. Reserving a table when grabbing a drink in the evening is recommended.
- In the Saint-Gilles neighborhood, Kami and Hinterland are welcoming cafés perfect for coffee and a delicious breakfast or lunch.
- Café Mort Subite near the Grand Place and RamDam bar in Ixelles are ideal if you’re travelling with a group as there is plenty of seating and a great selection of beers.
- A visit to Beer Mania in Ixelles is recommended if you’re looking to buy a souvenir beer glass for your favorite Belgian beer, or want to enjoy one of their 400+ beers in a tasting room.
- If you’re visiting Brussels from the end of November through the New Year and spending any time in city center, you’ll undoubtedly encounter the Christmas Market. The 200 plus chalets selling food, drink, and trinkets are set up in a couple locations across the center. Other highlights include an impressive sound and light show in the Grand Place and a Ferris wheel at Place Poelaert.
- There are plenty of places to buy delicious Belgian chocolate, but why not learn how to make mendiants, truffles, and a classic chocolate bar for yourself. The Belgian Chocolate Makers in Saint-Gilles hosts a chocolate making class on Saturdays at 2:30 PM for 35 Euros.
- If you need an extended break from the winter weather that includes some pampering, the Thermae Spa is located just outside the city in Boetfort and offers spa and wellness services in a 400 year old castle.
Eat & Drink:
What’s not to love about a country known for their frites, mussels (in season from around September to February), waffles, chocolate (the praline was invented here), and beer. Do try these crowd pleasers, but don’t forget about national dishes like boulets (meatballs), Flemish vol-au-vent (a creamy chicken dish served over puff pastry), carbonnade flamande (ale casserole with beef), steak tartare (raw ground beef), or even rabbit served in a kriek (cherry) sauce.
Expect indulgent French and comforting Dutch inspired cuisine, but know that there’s plenty of great options for globally inspired menus. A couple of specific restaurant and café recommendations for your visit include the following, starting with “snacks” and moving to meals:
- Delirium Café is just a few side streets away from the Grand Place and while it’s a touristy atmosphere (BEWARE of pickpockets), it’s a lively environment in which to sample the famous Delirium Tremens (voted “best beer in the world” at one point) or one of the other thousands of choices offered. The “companion” to the Manneken Pis statue, Jeanneke-Pis, is next to the entrance to the bar.
- You can find waffles sold throughout the city, but for my personal favorite, go to Maison Dandoy near the Grand Place and Brussels City Museum at Rue Charles Buls 14. Maison Dandoy is a bakery chain you’ll find throughout Brussels, but their waffles are only found in this location, hence you’ll often encounter a line out the door – if it’s a short queue though, definitely stop in.
- After finishing your visit at the European Parliament, walk through Parc Léopold to Place Jourdan for frites with a side of mayo (or any other sauce) at Maison Antoine.
- There is no shortage of chocolate shops in Brussels, but while you’re walking through Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, try the chocolate at Neuhaus, Leonidas, Chocolaterie Mary, Pierre Marcolini, or Godiva.
- Le Marmiton, near Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and the Grand Place, caters to tourists with an approachable menu, but doesn’t feel overly touristy, especially given its location. As you walk Rue de Bouchers towards the Grand Place, you will encounter plenty of “offers” from restaurant staff beckoning for your business at some of the best tourist traps.
- Le Troisième Acte and C’est bon C’est belge are both near the Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium and offer great food in a comfortable setting at prices that you would expect for the area.
- Restobieres and Le Renard Bleu restaurants are next-door neighbors situated on a narrow street not far from the Justice Palace. You’ll feel at home if you’re looking for a traditional Belgian meal in a cozy atmosphere.
- Ma Jolie in Saint-Gilles serves delicious cuisine in a comfortable and warm setting. The staff are attentive and it’s easy to make a reservation online.
- For a reasonably priced vegetarian option, Le Botaniste serves has an appealing lunch and dinner menu not far from the European Parliament.
More to come on Spring, Summer, and Fall in Belgium!