Areas and suburbs in Brussels
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, it’s essential for expats to understand its mosaic of streets and squares.
Communes in Brussels
In the same way Paris has districts called arrondisments, Brussels has its communes – 19 different neighbourhoods with their own name, four-digit postal codes and bilingual signs in French and Flemish.
Each commune is represented by government officials, much like a mayor or city hall, and is the first authority to which all citizens and expats in Brussels turn to 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, but 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, but the following are some of the best and most popular choices for expats.
Popular expat areas in Brussels
The area known as “the pentagon” lies between the boulevards that surround the historic city centre, also called the "little ring" by locals. It is generally the place where visitors are taken to show off the best of Brussels, and thanks to 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 (simply known to residents as the Bourse).
Traffic is definitely a problem in the area 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.
It is also apartment living, so 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 Arc de Triomphe-looking monument and park that was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence. As a result of most places in the city having both French and Flemish names, it is also known as Parc du Cinquantenaire.
This particular commune includes the shopping districts of La Chasse, Tongerenstraat, Chez Antoine and Jourdanplein, with its renowned market and famous French fry shack.
It is also more affordable than other communes in Brussels, while offering advantages of city life like 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 requires a car.
With a multitude of theatres and cinemas, restaurants and shops, Ixelles is probably the most diverse commune in the city and a place for lively life in uptown Brussels.
It is made up of a mix of different neighbourhoods offering a variety of choice for potential residents: 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 is sometimes possible to park on the street during off-peak hours.
Many expat families live in these areas and 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 the international schools requires a car, however.
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 (with mini golf and paddle boats) and the Zoniënwoud are wonderful places for relaxing outdoors. It is 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 like Stokkel Square, 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 is ideal for access to the highway, airport and downtown, although it is 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. Until the 19th century, Watermael and Boitsfort formed two separate hamlets. But King Leopold II's urban renewal project turned things upside down and joined the two.
With easy access to the city, it gradually became 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, and there is easy access to the highway.
Other suburbs of Brussels
Outside of Brussels, the communities of Tervuren (only 10 minutes from Woluwe-Saint-Pierre), Overijse and Waterloo are popular with expatriate families. These suburbs are preferred mainly for the availability of large homes at a lower cost, and their proximity to the international schools in Brussels. They are still close enough to commute into the city, though car traffic into Brussels in the morning is very heavy. Tervuren is home to the African Museum and has several tram stops that access the city centre.