A little-known fact among new arrivals is that the Belgian capital is a city of neighbourhoods. To best get a feel for the city and to choose a place to live in one of the areas and suburbs in Brussels, expats need to understand its mosaic of streets and squares.
Each district of Brussels (or commune as the Belgians refer to them) is represented by local government officials. This is the first authority to which all citizens and expats in Brussels turn when it comes to civil issues and local policies. This includes registering an expat's arrival, establishing residency, obtaining a driver’s license and addressing work permit-related questions.
Certain communes are more desirable than others. Choosing a particular location depends on where a person will work, study, and whether they have a family. There is really something for everyone in each of the 19 distinct communities in Brussels.
The following are some of the best and most popular choices for expats:
Popular expat areas in Brussels
This area lies between the boulevards that surround the historic city centre. It's generally the place where visitors are taken to show off the best of Brussels. As a result of major renovation works, the downtown area has increasingly regained its charm for residents.
The Brussels city centre is marked by historic architecture such as the Grand Place, the Royal Palace, museums, charming squares and nightlife venues that surround the Brussels Stock Exchange.
Traffic is a problem during peak times, lunch hour and weekend nights. Parking is also a concern for residents with a car as garages and parking spaces are rare. This is the area for expat urbanites working downtown or looking for a place to stay while studying in Brussels for a while.
Etterbeek incorporates the European district and the Jubelpark complex. The district is also known as Parc du Cinquantenaire. This commune also includes the shopping districts of La Chasse, Tongerenstraat, Chez Antoine and Jourdanplein, with its renowned market and famous French fry shack.
It's also more affordable than other communes in Brussels and offers easy access to public transport. For expats working in the European Quarter who want to walk or take a short metro ride, Etterbeek is ideal. However, commuting to the international schools on the city's outskirts will require a car.
With a multitude of theatres, cinemas, restaurants and shops, Ixelles is the most diverse commune in the city and the place to be in uptown Brussels.
It's made up of a mix of different neighbourhoods, offering a variety of choice for potential residents. Expats will be able to choose between the African Quarter Matonge, the student area around the university, charming upscale neighbourhoods around Place Brugmann and Place du Chatelaine, as well as art deco homes around the ponds of Ixelles. Ixelles is also home to Place Eugene Flagey, with its famous cafés and buzzing sidewalk scene, and the chic shopping street, Avenue Louise. The Abbey de la Cambre is also found here.
Parking is always a challenge as most of these neighbourhoods are popular shopping, dining and market destinations. Some apartments provide parking, and it's sometimes possible to park on the street during off-peak hours.
Many expat families live in these areas. It’s not uncommon to see strollers parked outside of the neighbourhood restaurants. Central to downtown and the European Quarter, Ixelles is great for couples, singles or young families. The commute to international schools requires a car.
A mainly residential, cosmopolitan commune, large amounts of green space are found in its parks and forests. The Parc de la Woluwe, the Mellaerts Ponds and the Zoniënwoud are wonderful places for relaxing outdoors. It's also a favourite of embassies. Housing here is a mix of apartments, townhouses and large homes, many with private gardens.
Parking is also a non-issue most of the time. The Avenue de Tervueren is one of the main arteries in and out of Brussels and dissects the commune. Surrounding streets hide beautiful homes and commercial centres where shops, restaurants, hairdressers and a popular weekly market are frequented by families and young people alike. The metro and tram also stop here, making it easily accessible to the rest of the city.
Woluwe-Saint-Pierre also has a wonderful sports centre with a pool, tennis courts and soccer pitch which is open to residents for a small fee. It's ideal for access to the highway, airport and downtown, although it's expensive.
The commune authority itself is also well organised and accommodating to foreigners and new arrivals in Brussels.
Watermael-Boitsfort is in the south of Brussels and borders Ixelles. With easy access to the city, it has gradually become a highly sought-after residential area. Half of the commune's territory is covered by the Zoniënwoud, while clusters of semi-rural housing, village houses and large villas give the commune a quaint charm. The International School of Brussels (ISB) is located here. There's also easy access to the highway.