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Brussels

by Suzanne Milne on 08/08/2013

Politically important, commercially savvy, yet with a population of just over one million, the beauty of Brussels lies in its elegantly civilised size, pedestrian friendly streets and squares, and its many masterfully curated museums – of which there are more than 100 – that offer everything from the visual delights of the Comic Strip Museum to the didactic discoveries in the Musical Instruments Museum. Of course, it is also home to arguably the world’s finest chocolates, and the debatable origin of pommel frites – that staple of children’s meals.

THE LOWDOWN A microcosm of European civility, Brussels was set up as a fortress town in the 10th Century, and became an important commercial centre on one of Europe’s most crucial trade routes – between Bruges and Cologne. Today it is the unofficial capital of the European Union, hosting more international journalists and politicians each year than Washington DC, and is also a crucial crossroads for travellers using the Eurostar on their way to a host of destinations around Europe. This also makes it an ideal stopping point for families; rather than simply rushing through on your way elsewhere, make it a multi-destination holidays with a stay for two or three nights – you’ll be surprised at just how much this hub has to offer children of all ages.

THE HIGHLIGHTS With over 100 museums, there is effectively an endless supply of places to visit. Our picks include the Musical Instruments Museum, the Atomium and the Belgian Comic Strip Center. But there are also delightful parks and, of course, that Belgian requisite – chocolate. For shopping, head up to Avenue Louis Bertrand and its surrounding streets for familiar boutique names and brands, while Place du Grand Sablon is a top destination for antiques as well as a hearty traditional Belgian meal.

WHEN TO GO Any time of the year is great in Brussels but if you want to avoid the crowds Easter can be a good time to visit, as many residents of Brussels use this holiday period to make their own trips across Europe. Timing your trip with a festival makes for an even more memorable experience in any city, and July is the month to do it here. The Ommegang Pageant begins on the first Thursday of July with processions and marches throughout the weekend in commemoration of Charles V’s journey from Sablon Church to the Grand Palace. From mid-July to September, Quai des Péniches is transformed into a beach, and the 21 July marks Belgian National Day. However, with all the summer festivals from June to August, streets and attractions will be incredibly crowded during this time, so book ahead for attractions and museums at this time where possible. The first weekend of September sees artists, puppet masters, mimes and theatre companies descend on the city for the Fete des Saltimbanques art festival. Then from the last weekend of November, the Winter Wonders market occupies a 2 kilometre stretch of streets, creating a magical wonderland of festive fun with everything from traditional fairground rides and an ice rink to light installations and concerts.

NEIGHBOURHOODS Being a small and walkable city, stick to the centre as your base. That way, you may never need to hail a taxi or set foot on public transport. While some of the attractions we have flagged up on our Brussels City Guide planner map may look quite far apart, the whole map covers just 13 kilometres, and most are within a few square kilometres of the centre, so you are never too far from plenty of great restaurants, activities, parks or shops.

Before you go…
READ IT Mortimer & Blake comics by Edgar P Jacobs
WATCH IT Anything with Audrey Hepburn in it… she was born in the suburb of Ixelles
VIEW IT MC Esher’s works… he lived and worked here from 1937 to 1972
While you’re here…
BUY IT A Tintin souvenir
TASTE IT Waffles… see if you can try at least three varieties
SNAP IT A cheeky portrait in front of the Manneken-Pis 

THE BASICS
Banks… The normal opening time is 09.30, closing times vary from 15.30 to 17.00 depending on each branch. Closing for lunch and Saturday afternoons is common practice. ATMs can be surprisingly difficult to locate but the main stations are home to more than a fair few.
Business hours… Most shops and museums open from 09.00 to 18.00, though almost all museums are closed on Mondays and a few only open for summer months.
Mobile phones… This handy map shows all known public WiFi access points.
Pharmacies… These can be identified by a green cross on the store front. For a weekend pharmacy, Pharmacie Maertens is centrally located at Av Brugmann 222, 1050 and opens on Saturdays. The nearest open pharmacy can be found here; type your address into the ‘Rechercher’ box on the top right, the list will then order stores by distance.
Police… There are police (who generally speak English) on almost every corner – they are ready and willing to help, which will usually mean pointing you in the right direction for the local tourist attraction. The main police station is at 30 Rue du Marche au Charbon.
Post office… The branch at Avenue Fonsny 48A, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussel, Belgium has extended opening hours of o7.00 until 23.00 daily.
Supermarkets… Carrefour and Dutch brand Hema both have numerous branches within the city that close around 19.00. Some independent supermarkets remain open until 21.00; 24hr grocer/tobbacconists can be located by the ‘Night Shop’ signs.
Telephone codes… The Belgian international code for calling to the country is 32. Brussels’ city code is 02 and needs to be added before any number regardless of where you’re calling from. Calling out of the country, add 00 before your country code.
Tipping… The service charge is included in most bills, including metered taxis. Leaving some extra loose change is expected in mid- to top-range restaurants; tipping between 5 and 10 per cent is the norm.
Toilets… Most restaurants and bars will allow you to use the toilet, though tipping the attendant up to 50c is often required. Many toilets are unisex with urinals that are not closed off.
Visas… EU nationals can enter without a visa as long as they are in possession of a valid passport or national ID card. Citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan don’t require a visa either and can travel with just a valid passport, unless staying for longer than three months.

Brussels Card… Available for either 24, 48 or 72 hours, it includes unlimited use of public buses, metro and tram services as well as free access to museums including Autoworld and the BELvue Museum and discounts on many others. The card is not needed for under 12s as almost all attractions already apply the equivalent discounts.

GETTING AROUND The easiest way to arrive into Brussels from outside of Belgium has to be via Eurostar or Thalys, and it is an easy journey from here to anywhere central by taxi or even bus. Walking the central town is easy, but there is also an effective Bus, Metro (train), and Tram service that will link you up with further-flung suburbs (none are too far-flung!). If you’re still not quite convinced, the Brussels Tourist Board have put together some handy walking route maps to show just how simple it is to navigate the city on foot. There are also a number of bicycle programmes, including Villo! the official city-wide hire scheme and Pro Velo who offer children’s seats, bikes and trailers alongside the regular range.

LANGUAGE Dutch and French, although English is so widely spoken that you won’t have any issues here. However, you could still do well to learn a handful of both Key Dutch Phrases and Key French Phrases.

IN AN EMERGENCY
For the police… Call 101.
For an ambulance… Dial 105.
Hospital for a paediatric emergency…
Hôpital Universitaire des Enfants Reine Fabiola is a paediatric hospital at Avenue Crocq 15, 1020 Brussels (telephone +32 (0)2 477 33 11). There is also Hôpital St-Pierre which has a separate emergency department for children at CHU Saint-Pierre, Rue Haute 290, 1000 Bruxelles (telephone; +32(0)2 535 40 55). Both have English speaking members of staff.
Health Note… EU Citizens should carry their EHIC cards as these are needed to access state healthcare; those without an EHIC card (including non-EU citizens) will need to pay for any care received and later make a claim through their travel insurance provider.

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