Thinking about moving to Brussels? Whether you have been handed an exciting opportunity by your company to gain experience that will accelerate your career, had the luck of getting posted to this much sought after location as a diplomat or civil servant, or simply decided that as an intrepid entrepreneur Brussels is the place for you – read on to get the expat perspective on the increasing allure of ‘The capital of Europe’.
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It’s got connections
Brussels is an incredibly well-connected city, both in terms of internal infrastructure and international travel. It has one of the most extensive tram networks in the whole of Europe, with a further 40 km of metro track to supplement that, and then we can add to this, the buses, some of which run until 3 a.m. However, it’s in the international connections where Brussels really shines. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the crossroads of Europe’ – And no wonder! Of course, being a capital, Brussels has an international airport; but it’s only about 12 km from the city.
Then there is rail travel; Brussels has the three busiest stations in Belgium, Antwerp, (which you can also read about on this website) comes in 4th. But the one we are interested in is Brussels South, with direct routes to London, Paris, Amsterdam Frankfurt and Cologne.
Also, perhaps surprisingly, as it’s more than 100km away from the coast, Brussels has a port! There are waterways and canals, which are a fantastic way for companies to transport their goods to the Netherlands or France; it is more cost effective than using road transport. But apart from saving money, the really great thing about this is that they are also saving the environment. This has meant a huge reduction of around 740,000 fewer heavy goods vehicles per year on the road, reducing the level of carbon dioxide by about 51, 545 tonnes. And, of course, this means less congestion on the roads and room for the many cyclists you’ll see in Brussels.
Where do Expats live in Brussels?
Moving to Brussels but you don’t know where to live? Well, the answer to that question sometimes depends on the kind of expat you’re talking about. There are 19 different districts in Brussels, referred to as ‘communes. They all have different characters, and so will attract different kinds of expats.
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The largest, and probably the most attractive for those who enjoy urban culture is Bruxelles Ville, or Brussels City, – (quick tip; get used to seeing everything in both French and Dutch, more on that later). As you can guess by its name, this is the historic and commercial centre and is home to many famous sights such the Grand Place, the Royal Place and the Stock Exchange. It has a great nightlife, but limited affordable accommodation and denser traffic, so is mostly popular with more transient expats, like students or young businesspeople who prefer to rent apartments. Its Dansaert quarter is one of the most popular here.
Schaerbeek is the second largest commune, and most culturally diverse. There are roughly 130, 000 people living here, coming from 140 different countries. Again, this makes it popular with the younger crowd, who love its different kinds of markets. However, if you are looking for a more family-friendly place to settle, then Etterbeek could be for you, especially if you have kids; it has the densest network of education centres in Belgium, and many international schools. It’s also a great place to shop, with the bustling La Chasse neighbourhood, the Place Jourdan and the Rue Des Tongres competing for your custom. Another attractive thing about this commune is that house prices here are still reasonable. It is popular with expats working in the European quarter.
If you have a bit more to spend, then Ixelles might appeal to you. This is probably the most expensive commune to live in. Why? Well, it’s kind of like living in a village, within a city. It’s quite chic, with its parks, squares and fashionable restaurants and bars – definitely an ‘in’ place to be. You can live in fantastic, Brussels-style town houses and spacious loft conversions, even Art Deco homes. It’s also quite culturally diverse, containing the African quarter, Matonga, as well as the student area around the university. It’s well-sought after by expats, but some of the most desirable parts to live are the Place Brugmann, Molière, Châtelain, Etangs and the Abbaye de la Cambre.
Woluwe-Saint-Pierre has many parks and green spaces, and facilities such as sports centres and easy parking. It is also home to some of the most expensive properties in Brussels and is popular with diplomats and embassy staff because of its proximity to the European institutions. Two other communes popular with expats who have families are Uccel, which is in the south, with its fantastic parks and large number of international schools, and Watermael-Boitsfort, which is next to Ixelles but has a countryside feel to it. It offers easy access to the highway for mini-breaks and escapes from the city and is the location of the ISB, (International School of Brussels) which has 1,500 students from around 65 different countries.
Where do Expats Work?
Well, to be honest, most expats living and working in Brussels are employed by one of two massive organisations. Either one of the many European institutions under the umbrella of the European Union, with Brussels being the de facto capital of the E.U. Or NATO, Brussels is the location of its headquarters. About 10% of the entire Brussels workforce works for one of these two International entities. Of course, there are also many international companies that either have Brussels as a headquarters or use it as a European hub. And something a bit more recent has sprung up, like Antwerp, in the fact that it has become a great place for digital nomads and also for entrepreneurs using their adventurous energy to form start-up companies. There are many ways the Belgian state and regional authorities are nurturing the growth of SMEs and start-ups. You might want to check out Hub.Brussels for example. Keep this in mind if you’re moving to Brussels.
Expat Social Groups
There are quite a lot of ways to meet and greet your fellow expats. You could try one of the many web-based social groups, many international ones have a Brussels group, and they all offer chances to meet and take part in events.
InterNations, as the name suggests is very diverse and organises a wide range of events. Expat Club also has many members and organises international events and trips, such as Christmas in Lapland or the Venice Carnival. There are also more specific expat groups; NATO International Club, for families of NATO workers and Welcome to Belgium, which is open to members of the diplomatic corps, civil servants and military personnel.
A couple of interesting ones for women are Global Woman Club, which organises business networking breakfasts among other events, and WIC, (Women’s International Club), loads of events and activities to take part in, whilst also helping out with some Belgian charities. The list could go on and on, with international singing, acting, cycling all on offer, but I think it’s safe to say that you get the fact that there are many ways to meet expats from all walks of life in Brussels.
To sign off, I should just mention that one of the best things about Brussels, is the wonderful idea of letting work evolve into having a great time. I’m talking about the phenomenon of ‘Apéro’. The idea comes from an after-work drink or get together with your colleagues. However, it’s now exploded into many different ways to meet people, some of them are more intimate, some are more specific web-based meet ups, like ‘Apéro Entrepreneurs Bruxelles, which is what the name suggests.
Then there’s Le Boermet, which is massive! Situated in an old slaughterhouse, it has bars, food-trucks and dee-jays. From 6-10pm thousands of people eat, drink and get merry while they network. And as they say themselves, it’s the place to be! For a more specific guide to which bars, clubs, eateries and hot-spots to hang out I’ll need more space, and another blog – Brussels deserves, and more to the point, needs it!