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The Ultimate Guide to Living in Brussels, Belgium

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I moved to Belgium in 2019 to start my first paid job, excited and so eager to live in a different country and get to know a new culture.

My internship was in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the capital of the European Union as well, so the city was promising in terms of a great international experience and a big expat community, which I have to tell you, it did not disappoint!

I'll detail below everything you need to know before moving to Brussels and how you can do it, too.

An Introduction to Living in Belgium

Brussels is the European Capital of the continent. It is as international as it can get in Europe. Even the country itself has 3 official languages (Flemish - a dutch dialect, French, and German) and being the EU capital, English is also spoken everywhere in the city.

The 3 Parts of Belgium

For me, Belgium has proven to be such a peculiar mix of cultures confined in one rather tiny country.

  • The north part of the country is known as Flanders (the Flemish part where people natively speak Dutch and the cities will remind you of Netherlands)
  • Wallonia in the south (the French part of the country) where of course you will hear everyone speaking francais
  • The German part is a very small community, and this one does not influence the culture as much as the forever split of French/Dutch disputes, customs, and history.

Now getting to the capital: Brussels, situated in Flanders (Dutch) but part of Wallonia (French). Also split.

The city is divided into 19 districts (known as communes). And remember this split, because when you move here you will see that each commune has different rules for… well, everything. From how we recycle our garbage, to parking rules, and to, of course, expats registration and living rules.

Now they don't differ a lot, but you will need to research your specific commune, since there is no general rule for Brussels as a city.

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How to Find a Job in Belgium

A government building with arches in Brussels, Belgium
A glimpse at the beautiful architecture in Brussels, courtesy of Unsplash.com (along with hero picture)

Now of course this depends on the background and the level of the job you are looking for, but for a young person at the beginning of their career, like I was, who is looking for an internship (paid enough to live in the city), Brussels is the place, being the nest of so many international organizations and big companies.

In my case, I found an internship through an internship platform for young people. This platform is to find internships anywhere in the world.

Once I applied on their platform, the entire process to get the job only took 3 weeks (screening, online interview, and signing the contract). Do note that I'm an EU citizen, from Romania. If you're a non-EU citizen, the process might take a little bit longer but is still possible for you!

The platform through which I found my job works with multiple companies and startups in the country (it is not limited to Brussels, although of course the capital offers more opportunities), and has a range of jobs in many many fields, but since they are internships, you can expect mainly entry level jobs with an entry level salary. In my case, my internship was as a sales assistant for a software company. 

The Perks I Gained by Moving Abroad for an Internship in Brussels:

  • The platform I applied through offered support through the entire process (advice for my interview, guidelines for moving to the city and finding a place, mediating my expectations for the internship with my employer, access to a community of expats already living there)
  • A secure way to have a virtual hiring process before moving to the country
  • Clear expectations of salary and benefits on their platform before applying for any job

The Boring but Important Details About Living in Brussels

A female expat living abroad in belgium looking back at the camera with a bright, checkered scarf wrapping back to the camera
Loving my life with these intricate buildings just outside of my office

Although it is a very international country and you will meet people from all over the world, visa regulations are complex for non-Europeans, and Belgium is a country with a lot of bureaucracy.

Fun Fact: In 2021, Belgium broke its own world record for the longest time without a standing government in function. It took 591 days to form the government body, compared to their own record from 2012 when it took them 541 days.

Why do I mention this? Because in a country with 3 governments (Flemish, French and German) and a capital with 19 communes, public affairs take time, and can go wrong. It's important that you move to Brussels with a less than ideal picture of the Belgian government so when delays happen, you won't be so surprised or worried.

The Legal Hurdles You'll Need to Jump:

  • Make an appointment in the commune where you will live to register as soon as possible. It can take even more than one month to get your residence card.
  • Your residence card is used to log in to any government portal and you will need it when you go to the doctor, to pay your taxes, and to get a work contract.
  • You have to declare your taxes individually, and more often than not, things can go wrong. Ask your employer to assist you with the forms (which of course are in Dutch or French).
  • Check the official website of the government for updated and official information.
  • If you come from outside the EU you need to present yourself at the commune and declare your arrival, if you are planning to have temporary residency (meaning, you're coming for work).
  • In order to apply for a residence card you will need your rent contract. Some communes also ask for your work contract.
  • For renting an apartment, it is usually at the owner's discretion if he needs proof of work or anything else. But remember that without a rent contract (some places don't offer it) you cannot register in the commune.

Public Transportation in Brussels

Brussels is very well connected and you can get anywhere by metro, tram, or bus. To make things really easy, Google Maps are always accurate with their routes and times.

A single ticket is valid for an entire hour, even if you change the vehicle, while a monthly pass for all the 3 ways of public transportation in the city is 49EUR per month (at the time of publication).

And now is the time to remember how the country is split in the different regions. While you might think that's not relevant right now, it is. The public transport system reflects these regions, as surprising as that might be.

It is important to remember that the main city of Brussels is covered by a transportation company functioning in the capital, STIB. While if you look for buses in the nearby cities on the Flemish side you have another company named Delijn. On the French side, there is another company called TEC.

You would need different tickets/monthly subscriptions for each of them. But if you live and work in the city center, you only need your STIB card. 

For traveling to other cities or other countries, the train is the winner. It is easy, fast, usually on time, and there are multiple train stations in the city. Also you should definitely check the Belgium Rail company: SNCB, because they usually offer weekend discounts, half price tickets for people under 26 or group deals. 

Now that we are done with the boring part of it, let's finally have some fun and explore the city!

Best Neighborhoods to Live in Brussels

a sunset overhead view of Ixelles, the expat community in Brussels
Ixelles, the expat neighborhood in Brussels, courtesy of Unsplash.com

With 19 communes to choose from, you might feel a little overwhelmed when starting your apartment search. Don't worry, I've narrowed it to my favorite parts of the city after years of living in Brussels.

By the way, you'll notice the places I recommend you rent to get a feel for each neighborhood are on Vrbo, not Airbnb. Personally, I like Vrbo because you're able to cashback on each stay that you can then use on your next trip. Whereas with Airbnb, there are no rewards for users. But if you still prefer that platform, most rentals are on both Airbnb and Vrbo.

Ixelles

The expat neighborhood and the commune that attracts most internationals is Ixelles. Ixelles has a lot of shared flats to find cool roommates and plenty of bars and cafes to socialize.

I recommend you start your search for a place starting here and expanding to neighboring communes. 

Ixelles is not just a great location where you find everything you need nearby, this area maintains that old European architecture style and cobbled streets. It's also surrounded all over by immense parks for outdoor activities. 

📍Before you decide to move to this neighborhood, I suggest you book a hotel or vacation rental for at least a night or two to get a real feel for it at all hours. This will give you the best chance to see if living in Ixelles is a good choice for you.

The European District

Then of course I HAVE to mention the European District, or Leopold Quarter. This neighborhood is home to the impressive buildings that hold the European Institutions.

The European Union has over 60 separate institutions and most of them function from Brussels, all located in the same neighborhood, including the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council.

These institutions also attract annually the biggest number of trainees in the city, so a must do is to spend your Thursday nights in Place du Luxembourg, a roundabout in front of the Parliament surrounded by bars and terraces where people hangout after work and party, sometimes until late.

📍Before you decide to move to this neighborhood, I suggest you book a hotel or vacation rental for at least a night or two to get a real feel for it at all hours. This will give you the best chance to see if living in the European District is a good choice for you.

How to Find an Apartment in Brussels

A close up of apartment buildings in Belgium that still have the traditional Belgian architecture
A glimpse at the beautiful Belgian architecture, courtesy of Depositphotos.com

People come and go in this city for internships constantly, so finding a place is not cumbersome.

My first go to are Facebook groups, which are highly used in Brussels for renting. Beware though, because of the high influx of people moving here, there is also a high rate of scams through Facebook, so the only advice is to not sign anything virtually before you get there to see the place yourself and can make the choice.

For trustworthy websites that function well and that I also used in my search I recommend Immoweb and Spot A Home (this one is mainly for short term rentals).

A Few Apartment-Hunting Tips:

  • Always check the location of the place and the neighborhood (it's up to your standards to check the safety, cleanliness and proximity to supermarkets, stores or bars/cafes from your place)
  • Usually posts specify the rent price and utilities separately. Always ask about the entire cost breakdown (rent, utilities, internet, electricity, etc)
  • Ideally, don't sign a contract or pay anything in advance before seeing a place
  • Although most people speak English, renting contracts (as any other legal documents) will be in French or Dutch, so prepare yourself to befriend google translate or make local friends to help you really understand what you are signing

Food You Have to Try When Living in Brussels

A close-up image of Belgium waffles with chocolate syrup, whipped cream and strawberries
Just look at these delicious Belgium waffles, courtesy of Unsplash.com

When it comes to what food you must try, there are the 3 holy Belgian inventions that you HAVE to try.

Their Fries

Yes, french fries were invented by Belgians. They serve them in kiosks called Fritterie with specific sauces. The must try places are Maison Antoine and Fritterie Flagey, by far the best fries you will find in the city.

Their Waffles

Waffles are also a staple for Belgians and something they take much pride on. You have 2 types of Waffles: The Bruxelles Waffle and the Liege Waffle.

The historic place that offers the best (and I mean THE BEST) waffles is Maison Dandoy in Grand Place in the city center. There is always a 20-30 minute wait (for good reason) but you have to trust me on this one.

Their Beers

And I mean, their hundreds of types of beers (800+ to be more precise). Belgium is known for their beer production and they really go big on variety.

If you would drink one different beer every day it would still take you more than 2 years to try ALL of them. Beware, they are stronger than a lager or blonde beer, so choose responsibly.

Quality and variety go over quantity when it comes to Belgian beer.

Things I Wish I Knew Before I Moved to Belgium

The manicured green lawn and hedges at the Royal Palace, a large, stone building in Brussels.
The stunning gardens at the Royal Palace, courtesy of Depositphotos.com

‍I have lived in Brussels for a few years and I tried to create a guide that is detailed but also offers a good start to organize your move. Looking back now at how I learned about all these things, there are some crucial details I wish I knew before taking this decision.

Here are 3 things I wish I knew before moving to Brussels:

  1. I remember getting an ad that said, "It was your choice to move to a country where it rains 200 days a year." And I wish I knew that before moving. It's a rainy and windy country in winter. So make sure to pack your umbrella, and raincoat, and your rain boots, and some vitamin D supplements.
  2. I wish I would have asked for help with my taxes sooner. I tried to fill them on my own and a mistake cost me some hundreds of euros and more than half a year waiting on the financial services to correct it.
  3. To explore the small cities more. There are many gems and small towns that reflect Belgian culture much more than the capital. It's worth taking weekend trips to these places. You'll be surprised.

‍Will You Move to Belgium?

Living in the capital city of Belgium has of course been a lot of fun. It's been a unique experience to see how 3 distinct cultures merge to create 1 incredibly unique country.

Living in Brussels has allowed me to live in the heart of the European Union, and as someone at the start of their career, this experience has been unbeatable. While I'm not planning to stay in Brussels forever and know I'll live abroad somewhere new before long, I'm grateful for this experience.

Yes, you'll need some patience when dealing with visas and logistics but most of us expats face those hurdles no matter where we move. To me, the pros have certainly outweigh the cons of living in Brussels.

If you decide to follow in my footsteps, cheers to your next adventure and your life abroad in Belgium!

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