Brussels is a city of many faces. As well as being the capital of Belgium, it is also the capital of the EU and a melting pot of cultures. While it’s easy to associate it simply with bureaucracy and briefcase-carrying businessmen and women, this is just one side of a city that is a crazy hive of multiculturalism and energy.
Today, Brussels is lively, artistic, diverse, and underrated. It’s a crossroads of languages, severed by native Flemish and French-speaking Belgians, of Europe with its EU civil servants, and of the wider world, with its large immigrant population. This makes Brussels a really exciting place to explore and an even better one to spend a lengthy period of time getting to know.
Brussels, Belgium is split into different municipalities, each with its own unique flavor. Walking between them can feel like flitting between different trailers at the movie theater, so if you’re looking to find a long-term apartment in Brussels to rent, it’s important to understand the varying vibes of the different districts when choosing where to stay in Brussels.
The good news is that wherever you stay in Brussels, you’ll get to experience the whole city as it’s very easy to get around and small enough to travel from one area to another quickly. Public transport in Brussels is great, especially the metro system which the locals rely on. You can also use the city as a base to visit other Belgian hubs like Ghent, Antwerp, and Bruges, and you can get to the rest of Europe pretty easily too.
Whether you want to be in the historic heart of Brussels with its jaw-dropping architecture, or a trendy urban neighborhood on the brink of gentrification, or close to a shopping street like Avenue Louise, or an outlying area known for its parks and flea markets – there’s a place for everyone.
Where to stay in Brussels, Belgium
Brussels city center
All 19 of Brussels’ municipalities branch out from a very condensed city center, which is where a lot of the most famous and historic sites can be found. This largely medieval area is boxed in by a series of boulevards called “le petit ring” (the small ring), making a pentagon shape.
This is where you’ll find the Grand Place, a stunning town square surrounded by dazzlingly ornate buildings like the gothic Town Hall of the City Of Brussels, and Brussels City Museum. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
It’s particularly beautiful at night, with the city lights illuminating the buildings, and a Christmas, when there's a light show.
The streets that spiral out from the Grand Place are stuffed full of restaurants, chocolatiers, bars, antique dealers and interesting shops. There’s plenty of marveling to be done at the impressive Stock Exchange Palace (much more exciting than it sounds) and the opulent Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, thronging with fashionable and elegant shoppers.
On the corner of two of these busy streets is a small infamous statue that reflects Brussels’ sense of humor – the “Manneken Pis” which translates as “little pissing man”. A small bronze fountain statue designed in the early 17th century, it rather does what it says on the tin! It’s now become a bit of a must-see, although the current one is just a replica – the original is housed in Brussels City Museum.
If you head down a small alley nearby called Impasse de la Fidélité/ Getrouwheidsgang, you can also find a newer, female version called Jeanneke Pis which was created in 1987.
Among the mile-long list of Brussels city center activities is dining at the gourmet restaurants along Rue des Bouchers, watching the opera at the Royal Theater of the Mint, admiring the art nouveau building of the Musical Instrument Museum and visiting the Belgian Comic Strip Center.
This area is one of the best places to stay in Brussels, Belgium, but it’s worth bearing in mind that it is a bit of a tourist magnet. It would suit travelers taking their first trip and those that want all the sights on their doorstep, but if you’re after a bigger slice of authentic Belgian culture, you might be better off staying a bit further out and traveling in to see the main attractions.
A few minutes’ walking from the Grand Place is the old district of Brussels Saint Gery, with all its vibrant bars and evening hubbub. It used to be an island on the River Senne but the waterway has since been covered up and the area completely transformed.
Nowadays it’s mainly known for its nightlife. It’s the best place to stay in Brussels for live music – in the summer the streets heave with people out for a good time and there are often musicians performing outside cafes and bars, as well as a constant stream within the many music venues themselves. There’s a fantastic range of restaurants here, and of course, Belgian beer.
An old repurposed indoor market called Les Halles Saint Gery is not to miss – here you’ll find an exhibition center and cafe-bar, and beautiful historic fountain on the site of a former church.
There’s the stunning Sainte Catherine Cathedral, and the modern art gallery of Chartreux Center of Contemporary Art to explore. You can also seek out the final peeing statue that was built as a spin-off from Manneken Pis in Saint Gery – that of a urinating dog called Zinneke Pis.
Next to the city center is the swanky but charming neighborhood of Sablon. If you fancy being in the core of the old part of the city and close to the popular landmarks but without the crowds that the Grand Place lures, Sablon might be the best area to stay in Brussels for you.
With its quiet cobbled streets and gothic architecture, it’s easy to fall a little bit in love with this district of Brussels, Belgium. It’s focused around two main squares called Grand Sablon and Petit Sablon, and they are grand and well-preserved but have avoided being swarmed with waffle-stalls and trinket-sellers. The main railway station is also just a short walk away.
The plaza of Grand Sablon is where you can find the district’s best feature – a weekend antique market that pulls in vendors and customers from afar. The square is completely transformed – sheets are thrown down and laid out with rare books, dusty ornate mirrors, and quirky ornaments. Even if you’re not after an antique, it’s fun to poke about the stalls and soak up the atmosphere.
Architecture lovers can get their fill at the gothic Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon, which has free entry. It’s a Catholic church built in the 1400s with a stunning vaulted ceiling and striking stained glass windows.
Chocolate has already been mentioned, and it will be again – this is Belgium after all! Sablon is famous for its chocolate shops, and some of its most celebrated brands are based here such as Marcolini, Neuhaus, Godiva, and Leonidas.
Les Marolles is central but very different from the tourist-packed medieval neighborhoods we’ve seen so far. It might be the best area to stay in Brussels for really getting to grips with local life – there aren’t as many tourist attractions and it is mostly a residential area so generally a cheaper place to stay. It’s one of the oldest parts of the city, with Rue Haute one of Brussels’ longest and most ancient streets running in the footprint of an old Gallo-Roman road.
These days this typically working-class neighborhood is being gentrified and bringing in more and more fancy eateries and bars, but it still has an authentic feel. It’s one of the few places in the city where you can hear Dutch being spoken as well as French. Locals here are known as Marolliens after the old dialect that used to be used in this district.
Throughout the years, Les Marolles has accumulated a number of different nationalities and it’s now a diverse hub of different cultures – making the cuisine something to dive headfirst into. Immigrants from North Africa, Spain, Turkey, Syria, France and more all contribute to a hotpot of flavors.
One of its highlights is the flea market that takes over Place du Jeu de Balle/ Vossenplein every day called Vieux Marché. It’s a great place to bag a bargain and interact with the locals. It’s also known for a lively nightclub scene, with Fuse and Bazaar as two favorites.
Other sights include the Palace of Justice, the organic market of Atelier des Tanneurs, the beautiful Poelaert Square and Notre-Dame de la Chapelle – one of Brussels’ oldest churches.
Ixelles is a trendy area of town to the south of the center (the Grand Place is only a fifteen-minute walk away), that historically used to be a separate town until the growth of the city absorbed it. It’s long been an artistic center, and the birthplace of famous writers, actors, and artists (including Audrey Hepburn).
Home to two universities, the atmosphere here is young and lively. It has a bit of everything – top-quality shopping streets, cobblestone lanes, wooded parks, up-market eateries, art galleries, and interesting architecture.
It’s split down the middle by a significant street called Avenue Louise which is known for its luxury and designer shops and bustling nightlife. Avenue Louise is a pricier boulevard, full of Art Deco buildings and fancy homes of diplomats. The district on the whole is fairly affluent but because of the student population, there are places to stay with more affordable prices too.
Ixelles is home to a large African population (mostly Congolese) and has been since the 1950s, principally located in an area near to the Namur Gate (Porte de Namur/ Naamsepoort). This area is called Matongé and gives Ixelles a wonderful blend of multiculturalism and diversity.
This is probably the best area to stay in Brussels for getting an all-encompassing feel for the city. Diversity, art, nightlife, ancient and modern architecture – it’s all here in Ixelles. For peace and quiet, you can head to Tenbosch Park, for world-class dining experiences you’ve got little foody squares like Place Fernand Coq. Shopaholics can get their fix on Chaussée d’Ixelles and history and art fans will love the Musée d’Ixelles, the Abbaye de la Cambre and the Flagey Building.
If you stay here, you might just find that the Wednesday farmers market on Place du Châtelain becomes a regular haunt, too.
To the west of Ixelles is another artistic district – that of Saint Gilles. One of Saint Gilles’ best selling points is that it isn’t often chosen as the best place to stay in Brussels by most people – it’s a little bit off the beaten path in comparison with other better-known neighborhoods.
Saint Gilles is fun, youthful, cheap, bohemian, and above all – cool. It’s home to some great independent art galleries and Art Nouveau buildings. Brussels’ student population loves this area for its budget but good-quality bars and restaurants, vintage clothes shops, street art, and multicultural vibe. All this pulls in artists, musicians, and writers, making it one of the coolest neighborhoods in Brussels.
It’s not packed with tourist destinations unlike the more famous parts, but this makes it quieter at night and one of the less expensive options. There are green spaces such as Parc de Forest and Parc Pierre Paulus, and some fantastic museums like the Brussels Horta Museum just off Avenue Louise and the Museum of the Gueuze. There is also an action-packed cultural events calendar available to keep an eye on.f
All in all, Saint Gilles is a laid-back, affordable option with a playful, colorful feel to it. Making this your home for any length is going to turn you into a local within no time.
To the east of the center is the European Quarter, which is where all the EU buildings and business centers are located. It’s a high-end area to stay in Brussels but it’s well connected to the rest of the city and gives a very different impression from the other districts. It’s probably one of the more chic places to stay in Brussels.
While you’ll find the glittering metal and glass skyscrapers and modern buildings you might expect from the business quarter, you might be surprised to find a lot more on the architecture front here too. From Art Nouveau to Art Deco to Belle Epoque, the four main squares of the European quarter (Place du Luxembourg, Place Jourdan, Rond-point Schuman, and Place Jean Rey) have a bit of everything.
You can wander around the EU institution buildings such as the Berlaymont, the Parlamentarium, and the Europa building. There are also some impressive museums including the Institut Royale des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique and Centre Islamique et Culturel de Belgique. If it’s fresh air you’re after, Cinquantenaire Park is a recommended spot or Parc Leopold.
Molenbeek-Saint-Jean (often just called Molenbeek) is a commune to the west of Brussels that stirs up mixed opinions. It’s undergone a lot of gentrification over the past few years and is considered one of the most ethnically diverse and vibrant areas of the capital. However, it’s had a bit of unsavory press recently as a potential base for Islamist terrorists so some people are steering clear.
It can’t be denied, however, that Molenbeek has become one of the more alternative areas in the city, with low costs of accommodation, gorgeous tree-lined streets, and historic sites. It’s here you’ll find the beautiful recently renovated Karreveld Castle, some wide leafy park spaces, and get an insight into Brussels’ industrial past.
Saint Josse-ten-Noode (normally shortened to Saint Josse) is an area once again just outside Brussels city center, at only a 10 to 15-minute walk from the Grand Place. Like most of Brussels, it’s a cultural hotspot, but Saint Josse is probably the best area of them all for diversity.
Mostly residential, it has a higher population density than the rest of Brussels and isn’t as well-heeled as many other districts. However, it has an authentic local atmosphere that gives you the best window into the life of the modern-day Bruxellois, and rent around here is lower than average.
Because of its mixture of nationalities, it’s a great place to sample foods from all corners of the world. The Arab Cultural Center in Saint Josse is a hub of activity, Turkish barbers are everywhere, as are boutiques run by Bulgarians, Indians, Congolese, Romanians, Ugandans, Kenyans, Zanzibaris, Sikhs, Hindus… the list is endless.
It’s further away from the center of Brussels than the rest (about 30 minutes) but that takes it off the tourist path and keeps it true to its local culture. Koekelberg is well serviced by public transport, so there’s no reason not to consider it as a place to stay in Brussels, Belgium. It certainly has enough to offer for a stay of any length and is a quieter option than most of the other districts mentioned already.
This neighborhood’s biggest (quite literally) and best-known landmark is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic church that stands mightily at the top of Koekelberg hill and overlooks the city. This Art Deco building can easily be spotted on the Brussels skyline, and if you climb to the top of Koekelberg Basilica you’ll get a staggering view of the city. Inside you can check out a couple of museums, including the Museum of Modern Religious Art.
Koekelberg is also home to a couple of exciting destinations – the Belgian Chocolate Village where you can learn pretty much everything there is to know about how chocolate is made, and Brussels Aquarium. There are some beautiful parks here, and relaxed restaurants – overall, a chilled out and attractive part of town and a great choice when considering where to stay in Brussels.
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This post was brought to you in collaboration with Housing Anywhere.