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Despite Belgium, and particularly Flanders, being a cycling-crazed nation, Brussels isn’t really a big cyclist’s city in itself. The terrain of Brussels isn’t very well suited for recreational bike riding and there is a tragic lack of bike infrastructure. But this year, the Tour starts in Brussels and as a local I wanted to do a good write-up on how you can make the most out of a visit to the Grand Depart, what to do when not watching the race and basically give you some suggestions on what to do to make the best out of a visit to Brussels during the Grand Depart of the Tour de France.
I’ve spent most of my adult life in Brussels, either studying, drinking, living, working or having fun in general. I’m very proud of the city as it has a lot of great qualities, but I’m also very much aware that it’s got it’s challenges and downsides, like most capital cities. I’ll be responding to questions in the thread too.
The Brussels bid for the Grand Depart was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’ first Tour de France victory. Eddy Merckx is widely regarded as one of the best cyclists ever worldwide, and is considered Belgium’s most accomplished athlete. Despite being alive and kicking, he’s even got a metrostation named after him in Brussels. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Merckx’ first Tour victory, the 100th anniversary of the maillot jaune is also celebrated. It was first awarded to the leader of the general classification in 1919. The current record holder of most won Maillot Jaunes also happens to be....Eddy Merckx.
Saturday 6th of July kicks off the Tour de France with a city centre départ
at Place Royale, which is within walking distance from the city center and Brussels-Central train station. Stage 1 loops around the west of Brussels over the Muur van Geraardsbergen
and Bosberg (known from the old Ronde van Vlaanderen final), with the only mountainsprint points to be won on the Muur. It then follows the soft rolling hills of the Pajottenland region towards the industrial zone of Charleroi, including a passage next to the Sloping Shiplock of Ronquières
.The route circles counterclockwise towards Brussels, going past Waterloo and Overijse (where the Brabantse Pijl is contested) to re-enter Brussels from the eastern side. The finish is at the Royal Palace in Laeken, which will likely be contested as an uphill sprint that might be more suited to Sagan or Matthews than Viviani.
My advice for stage 1: Go catch the start at the Place Royale around 10am. After the riders have left, you can explore the neighbourhood. The ‘BOZAR’ museum
or one of the galleries of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts
(especially the Magritte Expo) are a fine place to spend a few hours and are located within 5 minutes walking of Place Royale. Another option is the Comic Book museum
, which is a bit more of a walk away but not more than 15 minutes on foot. If you want to view the rest of the race, you should go looking for a pub which broadcasts the stage. One of my favourites is Les Brasseurs
, which is in the heart of the city center, which has an awesome range of correctly-priced beers and a lovely serving staff, and some TVs which will probably show the race as it’s unfolding. Between Place Royale and the city center are also some other tourist hotspots like the Grand Place
, Manneken Pis
(PEEBOY) and the Mont Des Arts
which merit a visit.
If you’re less concerned about viewing the race live or if you want to find a good spot near the finish line, you can use public transport to go to Laeken and visit the Atomium
to mention you’ve stepped on 9 balls. A small getaway from the busy TDF circus could be to spend the afternoon in the Botanical Gardens of Meise
, which is not far from the finish and which is a wonderfully relaxing place. A short warning: the finish line is a bit outside of what I’d consider ‘regular life’ in Brussels. There aren’t any cafés, restaurants or anything nearby (mainly because it’s on the Royal Domain where the Belgian Royal Family lives) so I think any food and drinks will only be easily found at overpriced local stands.
The second stage of the TDF is a Team Time Trial held entirely in the Brussels Capital Region. The depart is planned on the cobbled street at the Royal Palace
(not to be confused with the Place Royale, which is where Stage 1 starts and which is 150m around the corner, the other Royal Palace, which is in Laeken and where Stage 1 ends) and then takes off towards the western Rue de la Loi, including a passage through the underground tunnels usually blocked by commuting cars
. It then makes a clockwise loop around the towns of Woluwe, Ouderghem, Watermael-Boisfoort and will take a cut through the green lung of Brussels, the Bois de la Chambre
. It then cuts back into the large boulevards of Ixelles and crosses under the first part of the parcours
at Montgomery before heading easterly towards the same Royal Domain where the finish of stage 1 is. The last 4km features a mild incline, just harsh enough to wreck a good flow for any team that has spent too much in the straights towards the finish. It also features the weird and out of place Japanese Tower
for some surreal sights.
This parcours shows off the topography of Brussels: far from flat, and the weaving in and out of tunnels will give a bit of that Champs Elysees feel. The finish might be a brutal challenge for some of the heavier riders, and teams will have to conserve and dose their energy to make sure they don’t drop a rider too much in the last few kms. Also: lots of tram rails will be crossed, so I’m expecting at least 1 rider to catch their wheel in one and crash out of the TTT.
My advice for stage 2: Make a pick between the depart at Palace Royale (Caravan leaves at 13h, first team at 14h30, last team at 16h30) or the finish at the Atomium (same times, but half an hour later). An alternative option might be to go to Montgomery (which has a metro station and is easily accessible) and where you might catch the teams passing twice. If you're in the neighbourhood of Montgomery, you can visit the Cinquantenaire parc & monuments, including the Art and History Museum
. If you want to see suffering, I’d suggest hanging out at the Avenue Van Praet, where I’m sure the heavier riders will be dropped and where speeds will be lower, so taking pictures will be easy. Only problem: It’s slightly less reachable by public transport because the nearby tram follows the parcours. Otherwise my advice for stage 1 is an easy repeat for a good day out. Since both the start and finish are basically in the same place, you can catch up on suggestions you missed on day 1.
Cycling-related events during the Grand Depart
At the Place de la Brouckère, there will be a fan village in the days leading up to the TDF and during the first days. Very few additional details are available as far as I can see. It sounds not very worth it, but I’ll probably go and have a look once it’s actually installed.
The team presentation will be held on Thursday 4th of July between 16h and 20h, with the teams starting at the Place Royal and them arriving on a podium on the Grand Place. I think sticking around on the Grand Place for this might be a worthwhile bit if you’re in town for the Tour.
More information: https://www.brusselsgranddepart.com/letouen/event/the-week-of-the-grand-depart/
How to get around town
Brussels is a relatively compact city. It’s got a great network of public transport called STIB-MIVB, which combines metros, trams and busses in the region of Brussels Capital. Depending on how long you plan to stay, I’d suggest going to one of the MIVB booths and buying a 48h (€19) or 72h (€23) pass. These give unlimited rides on the network, including to and from Brussels Airport by bus. STIB-MIVB is very punctual and reliable for getting around, even during busy times, and most locations are within walking distance of metro stations. Only between midnight and 5AM, public transport is limited to about 10 buslines spawling out from the city center. These are the Noctis lines
which drive on friday- and saturday night. FIFIBLACK
pointed out that MIVB-STIB network will be free on saturday and sunday 7/8th of July
. So you might just need a ticket if you plan on staying longer!
You’ll probably arrive into Brussels by airplane at Brussels Airport (Zaventem) or at Brussels-South (Charleroi, usually Ryanair). It’s a short trainride from both those airports to Brussels. From Zaventem there’s also a busline to Brussels. Other options to reach Brussels are by international trains, which usually arrive at Brussels-Midi train station which connects to the city center by tram and metro. Lastly, you can also opt to take a long distance bus. Both Flixbus and Eurolines offer regular connections to the Brussels North trainstation, which has a tram connection to the city center.
Bike fans will most likely be disappointed to hear Brussels isn’t very bike-accessible. Due to poor bike infrastructure and the topography of the city, very few people actually ride their bikes in Brussels. There is a major bikeshare called Villo (for which a €150 deposit is asked) with fixed stations, and there are some smaller bikeshare initiatives of which I don’t know all the details. If you plan to bring your own bike, I would invest in about 12 locks and a hired toughman to guard it at all times. Bike theft is a bit of a problem, especially when it comes to expensive bikes like mountainbikes or road bikes. My tip: don’t bother unless you’re fitting it with a longer bike vacation.
Both regular taxis (indicated with a taxi sign on the roof) and Uber are available in the city center and most major locations of Brussels, but are very rare outside major cities. Taking them to get to your hotel or hostel late at night is a good plan and will set you back 15 to 20 euros.
If you’re planning to make an excursion outside of Brussels, you will most likely buy a train ticket. These can be bought at any train station and differ in price range depending on your destination.
If you’re making the trip by car, I’d look into renting a guarded long-term parking spot for your stay. Traffic in Brussels is pretty terrible, and the closed roads during the race will not improve circulation. The city center is also relatively car-free, and the bits that aren’t are very congested. Hedone
added: "On Saturday there's also a free shuttle by train between Brussels North and Bockstael, to get to the finish in Laken, they run every 20 minutes between 14h and 20h. The ride takes about five minutes, and it's a small walk from Bockstael station."
TL,DR: Use the STIB-MIVB network, it gives the most bang for your buck.
Where to stay
Brussels takes in its fair share of tourists all year-round, ranging from backpackers to family vacations to the most wealthy eurocrats and businessmen. The offer of hotels and hostels follows this trend: you have very cheap, bare-bones hostels and you can probably spend the Team Ineos yearly budget on a weekend in the best suites.
AirBnB is not super popular in Brussels for two reasons: the company doesn’t want to comply too much with local legislation, and it’s causing a surge in rent prices in the city center. I would recommend sticking to actual hostels or hotels, but that’s my principles.
Hostel & Hotel comparison services might be your best bet to find what kind of space you are looking for compared to your budget.. For work-related lodging I’ve hosted people in both locations of the LADJ hostel chain
in Brussels, which is cheap and qualitative, being close to the city center.
Where to hang out to drink.
I’ve grown up as a young adult frequenting bars, pubs, cafés, dive bars, squats, and all the other places you can have a drink at in Brussels. In general, I’d follow 3 rules for any bar in Brussels: 1) If a draft pils (Jupiler, Stella or Maes) from the tap is more than €2,20 for 25cl , the place is overpriced and should be avoided. 2) If there’s a brightly lit gambling machine in the bar, the place is probably a bit dodgy and should be avoided. 3) If you enter somewhere and the people there stare at you with death glares, order a Coca Cola and leave again after paying.
The city center has a rich collection of bars and pubs, some of them typically ‘brown’ bars with a lot of history, others more focused on the recognizable factor that all Irish Pubs have in all cities all over the world. Finding a good one is down to looking out for the warnings I pointed out but I’d say 80% of bars in the city center are just fine places to have a beer, coffee, wine or soft drinks.
To name some of my favourites bars to sit down and have a drink, both inside and outside ,all in the city center: Les Brasseurs
, Le Coq
, Via Via
, Moeder Lambik
,... Most of these stay open quite late during the weekend, usually until 5 to 6am so you can catch public transport to get back to a hotel or hostel. A famous one is the Delirium bar
, which has the largest beer menu in the world, but it’s a bit of a tourist trap. If you want to visit it, go for the experience, not for the quality. The_411
added a worthy addition in terms of a classic 'beer hall' which is a bit hidden away in an alleyway: A la Becasse
which is a medieval-style beer hall. Just across the street is L'Imaige Nostre Dame
hidden in a similar alleyway. You won't have a TV to watch the Tour, but they're worth a visit and a Lambic-style beer!
If you want to go partying or have a bit of a wilder night out on friday or saturday, I can recommend the O’Reillys Nua
(which also hosts karaoke), the Archiduc
(which is a great fancy jazz bar), the Fuse
(worldrenowned Techno/EDM/IDM club) and any concert in the Ancienne Belgique
concert hall. For people looking for LGTBQ+ places, the city center has a small neighbourhood around the Marché des Charbons which is very welcoming to everyone.
These are all within walking distance of the city center. There’s probably also a ton of parties going on in the city during the weekend. Too many to list and I won’t even begin filtering out the good and the bad. There’s always something going on!
What to eat & drink
Food and drinks are our pride. If you don’t eat and drink your heart out in Brussels, you’re doing something wrong.
One thing you should try is good Belgian fries. Not the McDonalds bullshit ones, oversalted and too thin, but good ones from a Fritkot, our local street food equivalent. In the city center I recommend Fritland
or Friterie Tabora
in the city center. There’s probably gonna be a bunch of pop-up frietkoten around the Grand Depart locations too, and those tend to be professionals and thus quite good. You want to order your fries with a sauce. Mayonaise is a classic, but give those fries a shot with Tartare, Belgian Pickles or Andalouse as well! Often you accompany your order with a vlezeke or petite viande which is some processed yet delicious leftover meat shaped in simple geometric shapes. A frikandel, boulette or hamburger can really hit the spot! Special shoutout to the Mitraillette
, which is a baguette filled with some sauce, a hamburger patty and as many fries as can fit. It’s decadent and delicious.
If you’re going for a Belgian restaurant experience, try the Mussels (yes, we stole that from the Dutch), the Stoofvlees/Carbonades (a beerbased gravy-beefstew), the Vol-au-vent (a chicken stew), Tomates-crevettes (mayo, small prawns and tomato), Stoemp-saucisse (a potato-vegetable mash with sausage), or any recommendations they offer.
The city center has a whole lot of different places to eat, in a wide variety of cuisines. Because of our high demands in terms of quality, I would only recommend avoiding restaurants around the Grand Place or the Rue des Bouchers (which are overpriced because of the tourist factor) or multinational fast food places like McDonalds or Subways.
My personal favourites? Italian restaurant Mirante
, Asian restaurant Yaki
, Tapas Locas
, Belgian/burger-style restaurant Houtsiplou
,... eh, I could keep going. A good meal should be between €10 and €20 for a main course, anything over that is overpriced.
In terms of beers, I’d say: give them all a shot. Between the trappist beers (like Chimay, Orval, Westmalle,...), the Abbey beers (Leffe, Maredsou, Affligem, Grimbergen,...), Pils (Maes, Stella, Jupiler), White beers (Hoegaarden, Blanche de Bruges,...) and IPA-style beers (Delta IPA is a local Brussels one), most bars have a longer list than you can finish in one day without dying. My personal recommendation is to have at least one Geuze-style beer (Boon is my favourite), which is typical for the Brussels region and based on wild yeast fermentation, and to try some different styles between the dubbel (brown beers), tripel (blonde beers) and other sorts. Look at what the bar’s got on tap, that’s usually gonna be what you want to order. (Geuze only come in bottles because it’s fermented on the bottle, so that’s the exception). If you stick to the rules above when it comes to bars, a night’s worth of beers should be about 25-30 euros and you’ll be quite drunk at the end of it.
If you’re interested in buying Belgian products like beer, chocolate or sweets, just go to a supermarket like Delhaize, Carrefour or Colruyt and buy them off the shelves like anyone else. You’ll save a lot of money compared to the tourist shops and you’ll probably get stuff that hasn’t been sitting in a stuffy souvenir shop for weeks. Check with your airline how much you can legally export of everything.
How to behave and how to stay safe.
Brussels is a year-round tourist destination and you can in general expect to be hosted as a tourist in any other European town. Tourist hotspots deal with the same issues as all over the world: Pickpockets, scam artists and overpriced foods & drinks. Stay sensible like in any other situation: don’t flash valuables, keep an eye on your belongings and try to avoid interaction with people who might not have your best intentions at heart.
The city center of Brussels, referred to as the Pentagone/Vijfhoek
for its shape in between the main avenues built on the old city walls, has a mix of tourist spots, shopping areas like the Rue Neuve
, rich neighbourhoods and impoverished neighbourhoods which can quite suddenly flow into eachother. You can walk or use public transport to discover the city at your own pace really. Police is quite visible in the city center and usually backed up by their colleagues dressed as civilians, in particular during large events. There is still some presence of the military, especially in the train stations, to patrol and assist the police. It can be a bit of a shock to round a corner and to walk into a fully armed soldier. They’re there as a show of safety, and we’re frankly bored of them.
In most places in the city center, you will be served in French initially. English is usually spoken by any staff in hotels, bars and restaurants but it’s not guaranteed to be effortless or accentless. A lot of people you meet will be able to talk in English with you, and locals tend to be quite helpful as long as you are polite. Besides English and French, a lot of locals speak Dutch as their second or third language and a smaller portion has it as their native tongue, like me. People might also be able to help you in Spanish, Arab, Portuguese, German, Italian, Turkish or Greek if you’re lucky, due to the multicultural nature of the city. They also might be able to understand you if you chat in those languages, don’t assume noone understands you :)
Belgium and Brussels are a rather cash-based economy, especially when it comes to bars and restaurants. Over the last years more businesses have transitioned towards accepting credit and debit cards, but often you’re paying by cash. Most metro- and trainstations will have ATM machines for cash withdrawal, as well as some banks in the city center. I’d suggest always having some cash on hand.
Tipping in bars is not expected but welcomed as appreciation for good service, but not more than 5 euros over a night. In restaurants, it’s common courtesy to leave a bit of change for the waiting staff, but again, nothing more than 10 euros.
An oddity is that Belgian bars and restaurants are not required to serve tap water. Going out for a meal means also buying drinks, even if that means buying bottled water. Usually, people drink a beer, soft drink or wine during their meals because of this. During a night out, you can always ask a bartender for a glass of tap water and you’ll get one if you’ve been drinking there all night without much questions.
Public toilets are a rare sight in Brussels. With the notable exception of the St. Catherine Church, which has a legal, functional urinal on it’s side wall
, there are very little public toilets and I expect this to be a problem during an event like the Grand Depart. I’m expecting long queues especially where there’s already less facilities...like at the Place Royale or around the Atomium. The best thing to do is to go to a bar and have a drink and to use the toilet there. This is common practice for a lot of people.
It’s perfectly fine to be publicly intoxicated in Brussels, as long as you don’t cause a disturbance. There’s no issue with buying a beer in a nightshop and drinking it out in the streets, as long as you don’t bother anyone with it. There’s plenty of parks dotted around Brussels where people hang out in the weekends and evenings when it’s sunny, with a couple of cans of beer and a bag of crisps. Throw your empty stuff in the trashcans and leave the spot like you found them! There’s no recycling fee on cans, only on bottles (but not very much, so meh, into the trashcan it goes).
After the March 22nd 2016 bombings, Brussels has picked up somewhat of a reputation about being a “terrorist hellhole” (thanks Trump). Truth is: these isolated lunatics don’t represent a micropercentage of the population of Brussels. However, that doesn’t mean Brussels doesn’t have bad neighbourhoods where you don’t want to hang out at night without some locals, but the risk is more about being mugged than about being forcefully converted to salafism.
A small sidenote is that there’s a vocal part of the population that isn’t quite on board with the “Disneyfication” of Brussels and it’s inner city. I am inclined to agree because the focus on expensive events like the Grand Depart takes away means and time from resolving other issues such as poverty, education or mobility. There might be some protests or small actions aimed at the Tour de France circus, but so far I haven’t noticed anything that’s remarkable enough to cause a disturbance.
Things to visit while in Brussels
I mentioned some things to visit already in the earlier part of this post, because for me it makes sense to weave it into the Grand Depart experience. Brussels has a lot of great (and sometimes weird) museums, has some lovely views and boasts some impressive restaurants, bars and other evening spots. There’s probably some good resources online about ‘must-visits’ but I’ve based my post on my own experiences and what I think is worthwhile in Brussels.
Should you stay longer than a few days? Not really. You can visit the European Parliament maybe, and have a day excursion to Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp or Liege to add on, but I think that should be enough time to see the most important bits of the city.
Hope to catch you all in Brussels for the Grand Depart, I’ll definitely be in town and maybe I’m up for meeting some people.