The cheeky guide to where to live in Brussels

1. Who is this article for?

This article is written for any expat thinking of moving to Brussels and who would like an insider’s view of Brussels. We’ll stay clear of the stereotypical “beer, cafés and frites” guides that somewhat tend to miss the mark in terms of information.

2. How does this author know Brussels?

I went to school in BXL for close to 20 years and lived there for another 15 as an adult. I still have family that live there in 2024.

My grandfather and great-aunt witnessed the Nazis marching in. He made a beeline to France on his little bicycle but was later caught. A generation earlier, my great-ancestors had a house on the Grand-Place.

I have the accounts of life in the1950s in Brussels through my father’s memoirs. (When you could still drive with your car under the Cinquantenaire arcade.)

I think I know a thing or two about Brussels.

3. Disclaimer

This article is going to be “cheeky” as we say in the UK. It is going to be the account of one adult who did not work for the European Union. It will be the account of a citizen who really experienced Brussels.

I am not a journalist and will not be speaking about Marcolini’s pralines. We’re going to “keep it real”, in the parlance of the youth of today.

To some, it will sound unnecessarily opinionated. Then again, saying that Brussels is great just because there’s wonderful frites at Place Jourdan is incorrect also.

You are warned. This is not for the faint of heart.

4. Brussels in the broad strokes

We can consider that there are 3 main areas within the 19 communes.

Brussels is cut up into “communes” that all have their own postal code and administration. The word “commune” refers to the territory but also to the building where the paperwork is done. (ID cards, residency etc)

Auderghem is a “commune” in the sense that it is a territory with a postal code (1160). But when you go to “la commune” in Auderghem it means that you go to the local council for paperwork. It means two things.

The 3 main areas of Brussels are the posh communes in the south of Brussels, the communes in the middle and the Communes of the North of Brussels that are not posh at all.

These three areas will provide you with a different living experience according to your personal taste.

(Picture: A simplified map of where to live in Brussels)

5. The communes of the South

We could bunch together the communes of the South according to the criteria of a certain atmosphere and rental possibilities.

These are Boitsfort, Auderghem, Uccle and the two communes of Woluwe.

In the broad strokes, these are “the most proper” in terms of overall appearance and cost. They are rather places where we reside than places where we go to “do things”.

In all my years living in Brussels, I have not once gone to either of them under the pretext of there being an event. This means that these areas do not act as magnets for people of Brussels who do not already live there.

6. The communes of the Middle

In the middle of Brussels we have the communes with high movement in terms of rentals, going out, culture, partying and all the rest. These are the “socially active” parts of Brussels.

These are Brussels Center, Ixelles, Saint Gilles, and parts of Forest and Etterbeek.

7. The communes of the North

In the North we have everything that sits above the canal: Anderlecht, Jette, Ganshoren, Berchem, Schaerbeek, Koekelberg, Evere.

As we will see, I can genuinely say that I have never heard of anything going on there culturally, nor has there been any reason for me to go to these communes in 30 years.

That’s not to say that each don’t have their own local “cultural association” or youth club but as a general rule you’d have to look very hard to find reasons to ever go to places like Anderlecht or Evere.

8. Where should you live?

After this very broad presentation of the communes in three groups, I will speak of each commune individually. The descriptions reflect my experience and my perception. They do not aim to be “the truth”.

Before we start, let’s not forget that there is a financial factor. Quite obviously, if a person makes 20k a month, they will be able to fly over concerns such as safety, cleanliness of the streets, badly insulated houses etc. There are many houses in the absolute worst areas where true works of art of interior decoration hide behind their front door.

Let’s now talk about the communes one by one.

9. Boitsfort and Auderghem

I tend to put these two in one same group because of the Boulevard du Souverain that links them together so easily. Boitsfort is by far the poshest of the two and has many of hidden beauty spots such as orchards, ponds, parks, architecture, cute restaurants and the like.

Boitsfort is more geared towards buying property. I have never heard of anyone renting a small flat in Boitsfort. The rentals that do exist are pricier and made for couples or families. In terms of safety, you’ll feel safe everywhere in Boitsfort, Let’s call it a family commune.

Auderghem could be summarized as houses and more houses. In this sense, it is almost a mirror copy of Etterbeek. Its claim to fame is the big supermarket and the access to the E411 motorway.

A good place to escape any sort of excitement. Safe, dependent on how unlucky you are to meet the wrong type of person at night. In terms of rentals, same situation as Boitsfort.

10. Uccle

For the longest time, Uccle didn’t belong to Brussels. It was a countryside commune that was added later. Uccle carries with it a connotation as being very upmarket and very posh. You will find massive villas and chic houses.

It has a self-sufficient quality that makes it possible to stay in Uccle while never needing to venture out elsewhere in Brussels. It is separated by the woods, which makes it necessary to own a car or have a budget for Uber or taxis. Like Boitsfort it has many hidden beauty spots well worth discovering: farms, horse riding, parks…

I would definitely live there. Actually I did, until I was about two. Very chic.

11. Ixelles and Saint Gilles

I have chosen to bunch these two together because they are the 2 communes in which the students and similar unemployed people live. This is where you go when you look for a 1-year lease in Brussels and where most of the cheap rentals are found.

Ixelles and Saint Gilles are where the nightlife happens as well as the art expos and anything to do with culture.

In terms of safety, it depends who you meet and at what time. I’ve never had any trouble there personally but you must remember that Brussels is rampant with drugs. As a consequence, you will have no guarantee you won’t meet a complete tweaker at 2 in the morning. (I have a blog on this – drugs are ridiculously easy to find in Brussels and beer is drunk like water)

Both communes are incredibly international, contrary to communes like Uccle and Boitsfort for example. You have to be aware that your next door neighbour might not speak any of the national languages and make all the noise they ever wish and maybe even move into the cellar for extra living space. (My brother has a thing or two to say about this…and the mouse infestation from the food on the floor)

Just joking but it’s true. I can not emphasize enough that there is a definite atmosphere of anonymity and not caring. (Think New York in the 80s) Just behind Place Flagey in Rue du Serpentin I had my door kicked down by the local police at 3 in the morning. They were seemingly looking for a drug dealer. If that wasn’t enough, on the floor above me there was a girl who sub-let her apartment to a group of men living on mattresses. The landlord cut off the water and power to kick them out – it was unreal! Then the boy who moved in decided to live at night and smoke drugs with his friends to loud music. It was absolutely ghetto.

At this same address, a boy appeared in the cellar and started to live there. I suspect he was on my electricity meter because my bills exploded. Even as I shut off everything in the flat, the meter digits were still moving. I’ll never know who was using my electricity but I ended up not paying anyway.

(Picture: The street I used to live in. Ixelles is still considered one of the nicer areas of Brussels)

It really depends what you find in Ixelles and Saint Gilles. But remember that the apartments were all converted from old houses built for families in the 1900s so you will likely hear people walk above you.

Then I moved to rue Gray, which was also chaotic. My upstairs neighbour used to bang on the floor if I even had a phone conversation past 10 PM. I could hear him open and close his drawers and every footstep he took.

Some tenants from faraway lands were not aware of European safety measures in terms of electricity and connected too many sockets together. The whole thing caught fire and I was miraculously saved by the fire brigade as I hung halfway out of my window on the second floor.

Some people “love” the international atmosphere in Brussels which in reality could be best explained as a chaotic collection of nationalities that are drawn to the appeal of the EU. They mostly don’t need to learn the national languages and see no reason to integrate (whatever that means).

Saint Gilles is about the same as Ixelles with the addition of soem very sketchy areas. In other words, there are parts of Saint Gilles best not vengtured in. Especially around the Midi station and most areas below La Barriere de Saint Gilles. Run down exterior, rubbish thrown out any day of the week, mostly dirty. Quite unappealing for my taste. Can be dangerous.

12. Brussels center

There is commune in Brussels that is actually called Brussels. The postal code is 1000 and it is the commune that hosts the Grand-Place.

My issue with living in Brussels-Center is the lack of any sort of getaway. You are constantly in the noise of it all without any possibility of seeing a tree or a park. The rentals seem to be of better quality than Ixelles and Saint Gilles.

You have easy access to all the bars and restaurants but it lacks a certain village quality. There isn’t really a feeling of a community. It isn’t like its own little Uccle. Just rentals in the middle of the traffic and the noise. Here also, it can get sketchy because of the close proximity of Molenbeek and the Midi station.

Another factor is that Brussels center is in a valley which means that Ixelles and the rest are higher uphill if you have to walk. Pollution that can more easily get trapped especially in Summer.

Definitely not for families or for people who enjoy a good walk in the park.

13. Etterbeek

This is an easy one. Houses and more houses. Lifeless as anything has ever been, you could literally walk around all day in Etterbeek and say “There’s nothing here!” and it will always be factually true.

I’ve never heard of anything going on there and just see house after house of the same type of architecture. Never a beauty spot to discover…a proper no man’s land in Brussels.

(Picture: this photo faithfully captures the excitement of Etterbeek.)

14. Schaerbeek

Schaerbeek is known as the commune that is extremely sketchy but at the same time has a select few areas with houses worth several millions of dollars.

It can be posh from one street to the next and just as suddenly fall down to the lowest levels of safety. For example, the always-dangerous red light district.

I can’t say I’ve ever spent time there nor heard of any reason to go to Scharbeek. Should you live there? Honestly, why no? You will soon see which streets look safe or not.

15. Anderlecht

When I did my training as a teacher, I was made to go to a local school. I remember looking around and thinking “Why would anyone ever want to live here?” My shock was genuine. This too is a proper no man’s land but with the added factor of it being run down.

You do not want to live in Anderlecht.

15. Molenbeek

In recent years, there has been a gentrification of certain parts of Molenbeek in which “bourgeois” Belgians co-exist with a population that is made up of third- and fourth-generation immigrants from North Africa.

These descendants of immigrants were given the short end of the stick and have developed a somewhat reactive position towards Belgium. In many ways, Molenbeek meets the definition of a ghetto. (I know, I know, not all but still…)

My few times going there were always involved tension, aggro, intimidation and a general feeling of lack of safety.

I just wouldn’t go there without a very valid reason.

16. Saint Josse

Saint what? Ah yes! The smallest commune in Brussels.

I don’t quite know what to say about Saint Josse and can’t say it has a defining feature. More on the Saint Gilles side of things if you had to compare. In terms of living there, why not? You would be sufficiently close to the action without the inconvenience of being too low in the valley of Brussels-Center.

17. Ganshoren

Speaking of unknown communes that went MIA there is Ganshoren. It’s funny actually: I have never heard the French sentence “On va à Ganshoren”. Come to think of it, I’ve never even HEARD anyone say the word Ganshoren in French.

It pretty accurately sums up the importance of this commune in Brussels. Despite this I could well inagine Andy Warhol do something outlandish like live in Ganshoren. We’d stand back in amazement and say “Oh wow ! That makes so much sense for an artist of his caliber! Why didn’t we think of doing that?”

(Picture: Andy Warhol as an improbable resident of Ganshoren)

To explain Ganshoren to a foreigner, I would say that there are most probably houses in which people sleep. Maybe even shops and highrise buildings? I don’t know.

You should go and tell me afterwards what you saw.
18. Evere

I know even less about Evere than I do about Ganshoren. Except that I don’t think Andy Warhol would want to live there due to it being too depressing.

Between Aderlewcht and Etterbeek in terms of atmosphere. Not sketchy but lifeless all the same.

19. Koekelberg and Jette

It would be unfair to make 2 separate reviews for these two since none is worse or better than the other.

They fall within the Evere and Ganshoren category: dull and out of the way. Far from any sort of cultural activities or excitement of any kind. Bland would be a fair way to describe them.

I actually lived in Jette right near the Atomium for a year. At first I thought “What a weird idea”. After I had done it, I knew why it was a weird idea. It’s a bit as if time had stopped but not in a relaxing way. More in an empty way.

You could almost say that it’s a psychological state of wishing for nothingness. Or actively pursuing the “anti-experience” of life and doing one’s best to not enjoy the many rich surprises of Planet Earth.

Just as for Anderlecht, the question is not “Why not?” but “Why would you?”

Not sketchy or dangerous, just terribly numb.

20. The two Woluwes

We end on a higher note in the form of Woluwe Saint Lambert and Woluwe Saint Pierre.

I was never sure if there’s a reason they have a similar name, nor could I say what the differences between the two are.

These communes are definitely on the posh side but without the village atmosphere of Boitsfort. It’s where people go to buy an apartment and settle in Brussels. There is a variety of things here including parks, ponds, big expensive houses with swimming pools, cinemas, shops…very self-sufficient like Uccle.

I’d say they are a bit separate from Brussels in terms of atmosphere. It’s rather where families live. Definitely very safe and on par with Boistfort and parts of the residential side of Auderghem.

21. To conclude

As other towns, Brussels can be placed into wider boxes and at the same time still offer surprises that contradict these generalisations.

You can get stabbed at 11AM at the Prince d’Orange in Uccle by a crack dealer, just as you could claim to “never had any problem” walking home at night in La Cage aux Ours in Schaerbeek.

I’ve bought chips at the Barriere de Saint Gilles many times at night and heard that other people ran into serious trouble with one ending up at the hospital. Just down the road, my friend owned a house near Place Bethleem where a person got stabbed.

Another of my friends was beaten up by a maniac just near the VUB university which is normally considered safe. My brother saw two kids pull out a gun in broad daylight in Molenbeek less than two years ago. On it goes…

In this article, I make many generalisations which nonetheless mainly stand against any cross-examination. Despite changes and renovations in Brussels, things will stay put. Evere will not suddenly becone the most exciting commune in Brussels behing my back, is what I mean.

I hope this article was informative and that I offended no one.

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