Amongst Europeans, Brussels> is best known as the home of the EU, which, given recent developments, is something of a poisoned chalice. But in fact, the EU neither dominates nor defines Brussels>, merely forming one layer of a city that has become, in postwar years at least, a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis. It's a vibrant and fascinating place, with architecture and museums to rank among the best of Europe's capitals, not to mention a superb restaurant scene and an energetic nightlife. Moreover, most of the key attractions are crowded into a centre that is small enough to be absorbed over a few days, its boundaries largely defined by a ring of boulevards known as the "petit ring".
All prices are given in euros , the new currency that replaced the Belgian Franc on January 1, 2002. The exchange rate is fixed at one Euro to 40.34 Belgian Francs.
The layout of this city centre embodies historic class divisions. For centuries, the ruling class has lived in the Upper Town, an area of wide boulevards and grand mansions which looks down on the maze of tangled streets that characterize the Lower Town, traditionally home to shopkeepers and workers. This fundamental class divide has in recent decades been further complicated by discord between Belgium's two main linguistic groups, the Walloons (the French-speakers) and the Flemish (basically Dutch-speakers). As a cumbersome compromise, the city is Belgium's only officially bilingual region and by law all road signs, street names and virtually all published information must be in both languages, even though French-speakers make up nearly eighty percent of Brussels>' population. As if this was not complex enough, since the 1960s the city has become much more ethnically diverse, with communities of immigrants from North Africa, Turkey, the Mediterranean and Belgium's former colonies as well as European administrators, diplomats and business people, now comprising a quarter of the population.
Each of these communities leads a very separate, distinct existence and this is reflected in the number and variety of affordable ethnic restaurants. But, even without these, Brussels> would still be a wonderful place to eat : its gastronomic reputation rivals that of Paris and London, and though restaurants are rarely inexpensive, there is great-value food to be had in many of the bars . The bars themselves can be sumptuous, basic, traditional or very fashionable - and one of the city's real pleasures. Another pleasure is shopping : Belgian chocolates and lace are de rigueur, but it's also hard to resist the charms of the city's designer clothes shops and antique markets, not to mention the numerous specialist shops devoted to anything and everything from comic books to costume jewellery.
Many of the city's best bars and restaurants are dotted round the city centre, within the petit ring, and this is where you'll find the key sights. The Lower Town centres on the Grand-Place, one of Europe's most magnificent squares, boasting a superb ensemble of Baroque guildhouses and an imposing Gothic town hall, while the Upper Town weighs in with a splendid cathedral and a fine art museum of international standing, the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts. Few visitors stray beyond the petit ring, but there are delights here too, principally in St Gilles and Ixelles , two communes (or boroughs) just to the south of the centre, whose streets are studded with fanciful Art Nouveau residences, including the old home and studio of Victor Horta, the style's prime exponent.
Visitors to Brussels> are often surprised by the raw vitality of the city centre . It's not neat and tidy, and many of the old tenement houses are shabby and bruised, but there's a buzz about the place that's hard to resist and it's here you'll find the majority of the city's sights and attractions, restaurants and bars. The centre is also surprisingly compact, sitting neatly within the rough pentagon of boulevards that enclose it - the petit ring - which follows the course of the fourteenth-century city walls, running from place Rogier in the north round to Porte de Hal in the south. The city centre is itself divided into two main areas. The larger, westerly portion comprises the Lower Town, built for the working and lower-middle classes and fanning out from the Grand-Place, while up on the hill to the east lies the much smaller Upper Town, the traditional home of the Francophile upper classes. Broadly speaking, the boundary between the two zones follows the busy boulevard which swings through the centre under several names - Berlaimont, L'Impératrice and L'Empereur.
The Brussels> area telephone code is 02, but note that it has to be dialled even for local calls. From abroad, omit the "0".
The Grand-Place , with its exquisite guildhouses and town hall, is the unquestionable centre of Brussels>, a focus for tourists and locals alike. It's surrounded by the Lower Town , whose cramped and populous quarters are bisected by a major north-south boulevard, variously named Adolphe Max, Anspach and Lemonnier. The Lower Town is at its most beguiling to the northwest of the Grand-Place: the area is a cobweb of quaint, narrow lanes and tiny squares, on one of which stands the sturdy church of Ste Catherine , while on another sits the beautiful St Jean Baptiste au Béguinage . By comparison, the streets to the north of the Grand-Place are of less immediate appeal, with dreary rue Neuve , a pedestrianized street of mainstream shops and department stores, leading up to the clumping skyscrapers that surround the place Rogier and the Gare du Nord . This is an uninviting part of the city, but relief is at hand in the precise if bedraggled Habsburg symmetries of the place des Martyrs and at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée . To the south of the Grand-Place lie the old working-class streets of the Marolles district and the depressed and predominantly immigrant area in the vicinity of the Gare du Midi .
Quite different in feel from the rest of the city centre, the Upper Town is a self-consciously planned, more monumental quarter, with statuesque buildings lining wide boulevards and squares. Appropriately, it's the home of the Belgian parliament and government departments, formal parks and the Palais Royal . More promisingly, it also accommodates the Cathedral , a fine Gothic edifice with wonderful stained-glass windows, the superb Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts , arguably Belgium's best collection of fine art, and some of the city's swishest shops clustered around the charming place du Grand Sablon . There's also the preposterous bulk of the Palais de Justice , which lords it over the rest of the city, commanding views that on clear days reach way across the suburbs.
Brussels> by no means ends with the petit ring. Léopold II pushed the city limits out beyond the course of the old walls, grabbing land from the surrounding communes to create the irregular boundaries that survive today. To the east , he sequestered a rough rectangle of land where he laid out Parc Léopold and across which he ploughed two wide boulevards - Belliard and La Loi. These were designed to provide an imperial approach to the Parc du Cinquantenaire , whose self-glorifying and over-sized monuments were erected to celebrate Belgium's golden jubilee and now house three large if rather turgid museums - the pick is the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire . The boulevards were soon colonized by the city's bourgeoisie, but in the last few years they have been displaced by the brash concrete and glass tower blocks of the EU Quarter , among which is the flashy new European Parliament .
South of the city centre is the animated and cosmopolitan district of St Gilles , while neighbouring Ixelles has become the favoured hangout of the arty and the cool, its streets nurturing a handful of designer stores and a growing number of chic bars and restaurants. These two communes also boast much of the best of the city's Art Nouveau architecture. Ixelles is bisected by avenue Louise , a prosperous corridor that's actually considered part of the city centre - and is home to the enjoyable Musée Constantin Meunier .
Further out, to the southwest of the city centre, lies the gritty suburb of Anderlecht , famous for its soccer team and also worth a visit for its Gueuze brewery and the fascinating Erasmus house, one-time residence of Desiderius Erasmus, who lodged here in 1521. Adjacent to this area is Koekelberg , the site of the Basilique du Sacré Coeur, another whopping pile built by Léopold II. Also nearby is the commune of Jette , site of the Musée René Magritte . To the north of the city centre, beyond the tough districts of St Josse and Schaerbeek, is Laeken , city residence of the Belgian royal family, and Heysel , with its notorious soccer stadium and the Atomium , a clumsy leftover from the 1958 World Fair.
In Brussels>, the languages of the French- and Flemish-speaking communities have parity. This means that every instance of the written word, from road signs to the yellow pages, has to appear in both languages. Visitors soon adjust, but on arrival this can be very confusing, especially with regard to the names of the city's three main train stations: Bruxelles-Nord (in Flemish it's Brussel-Noord), Bruxelles-Centrale (Brussel-Centraal), and, most bewildering of the lot, Bruxelles-Midi (Brussel-Zuid). Note that for simplicity we've used the French version of street names and sights.
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