Finding Home: Brussels Edition

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Grand Place

My goal in the next year is to travel to a select few places, to see if I could actually set up a base there.

This is what I found in Brussels.

Last year, I wrote a post about how I’m ready to find a home base, where I can have a proper community again and a life that’s not only about travel. I want to be able to have a sense of home to come back to.

I’ve also realized as a writer and entrepreneur, I can’t be a full time traveler and do all the things I want to do for my business. I can’t keep growing at the rate I want, and I no longer want to feel stagnant. Thus, I’m finally ready to find a stable place from which to work remotely and to start setting down some roots.

In being as transparent as possible on this blog, I want to take you along on this journey through a series of posts about finding my idea of home, and what that ends up meaning to me. 

Here are the ideal things that I’m looking for in a base: 

  • Welcoming community that’s educated and open-minded
  • Medium to large city with a lot going on in terms of events and cultural attractions
  • Near the ocean, preferably on a coast. 
  • Good public transportation
  • A good ratio of a relatively low cost of living to a high quality of life. 
  • Not terribly cold 
  • Excellent foodie scene and fun nightlife
  • A central base that’s good for traveling to other places
  • *Optional* At least one other language besides English spoken regularly, so I can work on becoming fluent in another language while being immersed in the culture. 

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Grand Place

I originally didn’t even have Belgium on my list of where I was thinking of basing myself, but when I traveled to the land of frites for the first time, I realized how many things I connected with and loved about the country.

I chose Brussels, in particular, for its multicultural vibe, location, and the fact that it’s a big enough city in Belgium that I wouldn’t be lost for things to do. Believe me, there are some very tiny towns and villages in Belgium that wouldn’t be a good fit for me to live in, although I do love visiting them.

Brussels surprised me in a lot of ways. I didn’t hear amazing reviews about the city before I arrived. In fact, most people used the terms boring and dirty to describe Belgium’s capital city.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium
Brussels isn’t actually that dirty compared to major US cities.

This may have to do with its origins as a city. The name Brussels comes from the word Broekzele, which translates to settlement in the swamp. And with its location along the river Senne, it really did used to be a bit of a swamp.

They eventually had to cover up part of the river that went through the middle of the city in 1871, because it had become such a health hazard with its garbage and pollution.

Maybe because I came in with such low expectations, I was blown away by the diverse city when I explored it for myself. I mean, there’s good beer, good chocolate, good waffles, good frites, it’s where Tintin comes from, and up to 104 languages are spoken in the city. What’s not to like?

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Belgian Beer
Mmmm I had so much Belgian beer while I was in Brussels.

Sure, it may not be as beautiful as some other major European cities, but we can’t all be Paris, right? Personally, I found the alternative and modern structures that were mixed in with the medieval architecture in Brussels to be endearing and unique.

I like a city that has spunk and an eclectic feel to it, and I found that and more in Brussels. I’ve also found Belgians to be fairly weird individuals, and I mean that in the best way possible. They just don’t seem to care as much about what other people think, and their dress, attitude, and favorite pastimes reflect that.

The city of Brussels itself has an interesting history. I love how multicultural it is and how international it has become. The city is the de facto capital of the European Union and NATO, so to call it a central part of Europe (in addition to its location) is appropriate.

Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s review some of the main factors I’m mulling over about Brussels as a home base.

Factors to Consider

Weather

The weather would probably be one of the hardest aspects to get used to in Brussels. I’ve heard weather in Belgium is similar to the UK in terms of being gloomy, overcast, and rainy the majority of the time. In other words, it’s shit.

During the couple of weeks I had in the country in September, I experienced all of the gloomy weather. I think I had one sunny day the week I was in Brussels, and I had a nice day or two in Bruges and Ghent, but it was already fairly cold even by September.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Weather
The sky looked like this for 90% of the time I was in the city.

I can take a guess that the weather would be one of the more difficult things to get used to in Belgium. After living in Portland, which is very similar weather-wise, I know that I would either have to invest in a light box/light therapy or take regular vacations to places with nicer weather.

I’m one of those people that is most definitely affected by SAD – or Seasonal Affective Disorder – and I think it contributed a large part to the depression I experienced while I was living in Portland. I wouldn’t want to repeat the same mistakes and go through the same mindset if I was to move to Brussels.

People

I’ve heard mixed reviews about Belgians and how welcoming they can (and can’t) be. The main complaint I’ve heard from expats is that Belgians like to stick to their friend groups and schedules that they’re comfortable with. Of course, this is an overgeneralized statement I’m putting on the people of Belgium, but I’ve heard that Belgians aren’t a huge fan of shaking things up.

If you’re an expat in Belgium, it seems more likely to have a lot of other expat friends but local Belgian friends are few and far between.

Honestly, I expect to face challenges moving to any new culture. I know this kind of ambivalence (or sometimes mistrust) of outsiders is unfortunately a common occurrence in all parts of the world these days, but I’m prepared to put myself out there and deal with that attitude better than I did in Portland.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Belgian Beer
Making friends over beer in Brussels, the Belgian way!

The one thing going for Brussels is that it’s a city where almost everyone comes from some place else. Because it has become such an international capital, there would be a large expat community to insert myself into, although I wouldn’t want to miss out on Belgian friendships either.

As for who I already know from the city, I don’t have a huge community yet in Brussels.

I have two Belgian friends, Jeremy and Martin, whom I met in Asia last year, one Belgian friend, Jeroen, whom I met through Martin while I was in Brussels, and my American friend, Briana, who started her own business in the city. I also have a Belgian penpal that I used to write to when I was 12, but he’s based more in the Bruges area.

Culture/Events

For everyone that told me Brussels was a boring city, I don’t know what y’all were talking about. There were countless events going on around the city while I was there, with plenty of cultural, musical, and artsy options in the mix.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium
An orchestra concert in the middle of the Grand Place.
Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Manneken Pis
If the lovable little Manneken Pis with his many costumes doesn’t scream culture, I don’t know what does!

The meetup.com page for Brussels was poppin’ when I perused it while exploring the city. I ended up taking a hip hop dance class and going on a free walking tour during my week. There was also an impromptu orchestra performance that I stumbled across in the Grand Place my first night in the city.

To me, Brussels came off as very much a lively and fun place to walk around and live in.

Location

Besides not being next to the ocean, I couldn’t think of a better location to be based in than Brussels for access to the rest of Europe. It is smack dab in the middle of the action. There are trains and buses that leave throughout the day to other European countries, and flights are cheap from Brussels to any other destination on the continent.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Location

You really can’t beat Brussels for its central location and its easy access to other countries. Even when flying outside of the European continent, it’s still a reasonable airport to fly into and out of for cheap flights. This is a huge plus for Brussels in my mind.

Transportation

Like most other major – or even small – cities in Europe, the transportation in Brussels is excellent. I will admit that I got confused on the local train system when I was coming from the airport, but that’s probably because there were so many options. It’s something I’d have to get used to.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Public Transportation
I used public transit to whisk myself to all the best chocolate, frites, and waffle shops in the city.

In Brussels they have metro, buses, trams, and trains. The central station could take me to numerous spots around Belgium or Europe within a half day. Trains are fast, clean, on time, and relatively inexpensive.

There’s no doubt that Europe has it down when it comes to public transit, and Brussels is no exception.

Language

Brussels could be the perfect city to live in for language study. With its multicultural benefits, English is widely spoken, but there are still 103 other languages heard around the city at any given time – with French (63%), Arabic (21.1%), and Dutch (19.6%) being the most common.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | language
Multicultural Brussels.

I’d probably dive into my French language skills fully if I were to move to Brussels, and try to pick up as much Dutch as I possible while there as well.

Food

Brussels is not exactly the European capital you think of when you hear the words foodie scene, but the city has an underrated culinary scene that deserves more attention than it gets.

With its difference in cultures, you can find all types of food in the city besides just Belgian. I noticed the shawarma shops in particular, seemed to be the go-to foodie item when you’re in a rush and/or after a night out in the city.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Food
Cafe eats. If they have bagels in Brussels, I’m not complaining.

It wouldn’t be my first choice for a foodie city, but I don’t think it would be terrible either. And, really, Belgian beer would make up for it. I think I would be most worried about accidentally getting into a regular diet of frites, waffles, and chocolate if I lived in the city.

Cost of Living

Although the quality of life is high in Brussels, the cost of living is not always the cheapest. I found it to be comparable to Paris in terms of going out for food and drinks, maybe slightly less expensive, and I ended up spending more than I originally planned during my week in the city.

If I was to base myself here, I would have to budget accordingly and note the difference in the currency rate since my clients pay in US dollars. The current rate (as of April 2018) is  1 Euro = 1.24 USD. It doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but believe me it adds up after awhile.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Belgian Beer
I would probably need a budget just for beer if I moved here.

According to Numbeo, one of my go-to site for figuring out prices in other cities before I arrive, here are some average every day costs in Brussels:

  • Meal at an cheap restaurant = 11-15€ / $13.50-$18.50
  • Meal at a mid-range restaurant = 30€ / $37
  • 1 pint of beer = 3.65€ / $4.50
  • Coffee (latte/cappuccino) = 2.85€ / $3.50
  • One-way local transport ticket = 2.10€ / $2.60
  • Monthly transport pass = 49€ / $60.50
  • Monthly utilities (basic) = 125€ / $154
  • Monthly Internet = 46€ / $57
  • Movie ticket = 10€ / $12.35
  • Monthly gym membership = 24€ / $30
  • 1 pair of jeans = 85€ / $105
  • Average rent for 1 month (for a 1 bedroom) in city center = 794€ / $981
  • Average rent for 1 month (for 1 bedroom in a 3 bedroom share house) in city center = 475€ / $587
  • Average monthly net salary (after tax) = 2,046€ / $2,528

In total, I’d expect my average monthly costs to be somewhere around 1,595€ / $1,970 

Compared to California, prices are about the same for beer, coffee, movie tickets, internet, transportation, and utilities. Prices in Brussels would be more expensive for things like clothing and eating out, but would be cheaper for rent and monthly gym memberships.

Overall, the cost of living would be less expensive in Belgium compared to a city like San Francisco (I mean, what city isn’t?), but more expensive compared to living in other California cities like San Diego or Sacramento.

Quality of Life/Safety

As for quality of life, yes, Brussels may be dirtier than most European cities, but if you go to any major city in the US (ahem, San Francisco I’m looking at you) – Brussels fits right in. The air quality is good, it’s mainly trash on the streets in certain areas outside the city center that makes Brussels seem like a dirty city.

Brussels also has a lot of green spaces to relax in and it’s not as crowded as London or Paris, especially when the summer comes around.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Quality of Life
Stahhp it Brussels, those blue skies only lasted for the afternoon.

There are some ‘unsafe’ areas in Brussels that I was told to avoid, however, I ended up staying near one of these areas next to the Midi Train Station and I didn’t feel overly uncomfortable.

It seems that most crime is related to pickpocketing and a few scams. There is a medium chance of mugging, but it mostly happens at night in poorer areas of the city. The main safety threat when living in Brussels seems to be related to terrorism more than anything else.

In terms of being a woman, besides the usual concerns, Belgium is a very safe country for female travelers.

Visa

Visas for Americans are not required for stays under 90 days, but if I wanted to stay for a more permanent amount of time the visa process gets much more difficult.

I met up with a friend of a friend while I was in Brussels, who is also American and who had just successfully secured a long-term visa and started her own business in the city. I picked her brain about the process and how much time and effort it took her.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium | Belgium Visa

Don’t get me wrong, it sounds like a pain in the ass, and she went through a lot to put together a complete business proposal and visa application, but she gave me hope that it is possible.

The main difference with her business and mine is that she was starting a business in Brussels and employing local Belgians through it.

My business is a remote contract business that’s based in the US, so I would either have to change my business structure completely, look for another visa that I could apply for, or maybe just start a new side business that’s based in Belgium.

These are a few options that I would have to explore more if I was to seriously consider Belgium as my next base.

Final Thoughts

Belgium has a lot going for it in terms of good public transit, location, a large expat community, language study, multiculturalism, high quality of life, and Belgian beer (that’s a solid reason to move somewhere right?).

The downsides would be the cost of living, which would be slightly higher than I was wanting, the visa process, and the dreaded gloomy weather. All manageable things to deal with if I was to make some adjustments.

Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium

I would probably give Brussels a 6/10 in terms of what I’m looking for from my ideal base. The jury is still out on whether I could see myself living there, I think I’d have to spend more time than just a week to make that decision.

Related: Brussels Hotel Guide

Do you think I would be able to get past the negatives and make a life for myself in Brussels and Belgian culture as a whole? Stay tuned for my next edition of finding a home – Paris!

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Finding a Home: Brussels, Belgium

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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
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