The closest major city to the Channel Ports is easier to get to than drive around but there’s plenty to keep you occupied when you do – eventually – arrive.
Thank God for the minor fines strike.
Industrial action by Belgian police between Christmas and New Year saw little misdemeanours like – say – illegal u-turns, and obstructing traffic while parked up consulting the map, satnav (and phoning the hotel), go unpunished.
(FYI this is the second fines strike; another might follow at the end of January).
Thanks to Christmas road closures, the one-way system in the old town – our own incompetence – and some traffic (Brussels is reputedly Western Europe’s most congested city) it took ninety minutes between arriving in central Brussels and pulling up outside our central Brussels hotel.
All that driving around however means we finally got our heads around the road layout. The key is the R20 inner ring, the 8km road around the city centre.
Built on the old city walls, locals call R20, and the area inside it, ‘The Pentagon’ because it has five sides (actually six).
Aside from surrounding the city centre, R20 extends west to connect directly with the R0 outer ring and the E40/A10 motorway in from the Channel ports, Ostend, Gent and Bruges.
Approaching from this direction is very easy, and grand too, because the dead straight R20 west spur – known at this point as Avenue Charles Quint/Keizer Karellaan – runs head on to the green copper-domed Koekelberg Basilica.
Around the side of the Basicilica R20 drops into the 2.5km Leopold II tunnel which brilliantly speeds underneath local traffic to emerge at the Charleroi Canal, on Point Sainctelette, the northwest corner of the inner ring.
It’s only a few hundred yards from there – likely in heavy traffic, mind – to Boulevard Anspach (or Anspachlaan), one of the three main roads inside the Pentagon.
Pretty much Brussels’ Oxford Street, the two, three and four lane Anspachlaan cuts north-southwest past the Bourse stock exchange, one of the city’s big tourist focus points (surrounded by big bars).
Half way along, it connects to Rue de Lombard which winds through the old town area to Rue Royale (Konigstraat) which runs parallel to Anspachlaan in the east.
These three roads get you almost anywhere in the Pentagon and, uniquely it seems, they are all two-way. Good luck with negotiating the one-way back streets. We eventually found our hotel by chance. Sick of petty squabbling we climbed out of the car for a proper fight only to find we were stopped right outside.
Long term on-street parking is notoriously expensive in Brussels plus the meter needs feeding at least twice a day (but short term shopping parking is cheap or free). If you fall foul, like we did in 2012, the fine makes its way back to the UK.
The Pentagon on foot
At about two kilometers long and 1.5km wide, the compact city centre has plenty to keep tourists occupied for a couple of days. At the geographic centre is the extraordinary Grand Place, a small square surrounded by intricately carved, stone mediaeval buildings. Five minutes away, across Rue Lombard, is the (in)famous Mannequin Pis statue.
Another ten minutes further south, uphill, is Place du Grand Sablon, another pretty square surrounded with cafes with the antique district just behind. At the top of Sablon is Rue Royale. Look right (south) to the monumental Palais de Justice with its panoramic views over the city. North along Rue Royale is, first, the Place Royale roundabout (and the Magritte Museum) then the large, rectangular Parc de Brussels with the vast Royal Palace across the southern end.
West from the parc, past the Notre Dame-like Brussels Cathedral, and across Anspachlaan, is buzzing St Catherine’s, around the grimy, gothic cathedral with a long, narrow park down to the Brussels’ Eye big wheel. On the way back to the stock exchange is the restored Halles St Gery covered market, an arty hangout which hosts lots of exhibitions.
Outside the Pentagon
The Pentagon occupies a tiny part of the Brussels Capital Region, a bilingual enclave just above the dividing line between the two Belgian regions (French-speaking Wallonia in the south and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north).
All the European Union buildings are just to the east of the Pentagon, next to the massive Cinquantenaire Park with its impressive triumphal arch – the N3 road passes in a tunnel underneath – and the Autoworld museum. NATO headquarters is in the north east along the N22/A201 to the airport.
Laeken, in the north just inside the R0 ring, is home to the actual Royal Palace. That’s off limits but the Royal Greenhouses, 2.5 hectares of regally covered gardens, are open for two weeks in the spring. Just up the road is the amazing Atomium, the 100m high model of an iron crystal. You can drive right up to it and park underneath.
Places to stay
Flush with Christmas cash we stayed at Hotel Amigo, two minutes’ walk from Grand Place, and a Brussels institution. The budget alternative, with great views from a modern building in traditional style, is the from-€64-per-night Ibis on Grasmarkt less than 10mins walk from Grand Place, right next to an underground car park.
NH has a swish place on Sablon, Novotel stakes out St Catherine’s and the Brussels Marriott looks head-on to the stock exchange. Particularly easy to get to – and with fantastic views – is the high rise The Hotel, right on R20 in the south west, a short walk from the Palais de Justice, and Tiffany’s, with rooms from around €130.
Brussels is exactly 100 miles from Dunkirk (125 miles from Calais/Eurotunnel). Heading this way we tend to use the DFDS Dover-Dunkirk boat because Dunkirk is quieter than Calais. Even though it takes thirty minutes longer it costs the same as the short crossing and drops you that much nearer the Belgian border.
From any of the Channel ports Brussels couldn’t be easier to get to, straight there on the E40 (A16>A18>A10) one of Europe’s major roads. Because E40 can get quite busy some prefer the A25 from Dunkirk via Lille then A8 past Tournai to Halle on the R0 ring in the south west.
This trip we tried the cross country route for the first time, via the fortified village of Bergues to the attractive market town of Poperinge just over the Belgian border then onto Ypres – cheating a bit on the A19/A14 motorway past Kortrijk – to pick up N8 at Oudenaarde and straight into Brussels from the west via Ninove.
It’s lovely if you have the time, through a surprisingly hilly west Flanders, but takes around three hours, twice as long as the motorway Dunkirk-Brussels.
Outside the Pentagon: