Brussels – Tips to the cultural vibe

Imaginarium - Book fair 2013
Imaginarium – Book fair 2013

One of the reasons I really like Brussels is that there’s always something interesting to do. How can you stay up to date about all these activities? It’s not that difficult, first of all when walking around keep an eye out for the posters pasted all over the city. Big festivals, as well as concerts and theatre shows, are widely advertised with big banners. Another tip is to have a radio: first of all Belgian radio is nice to listen to and secondly they often talk about cultural activities in the city.

If you’re only in Brussels for a short time or you’re visiting, get your hands on a copy of the Agenda, a free publication available in every metro station, some bus stops and other areas such as place du Luxembourg. This free magazine (printed every Thursday) lists upcoming activities from Friday to Thursday, dividing them by genre. It also focuses on more popular activities describing them in more detail. The back pages are always cinema-related while a few of the middle pages offer some tips on restaurants and bars. If you can’t find the hard copy try the website.

Cultural activities are not particularly expensive in Brussels, but a few tips can help to make your experience cheaper: Arsene 50 (website) is a service that offers a number of half price tickets (plus €1 commission) for some activities. The downside is that it only sells tickets on the same day of the show, which is perfect for last minute decisions, but not so much if you’re used to planning your evenings well in advance. The tickets are available from 12:30 at the Arsene 50 desk into the Brussels information point (Bip) building (rue Royale 2-4 – map) next to the Royal Palace. It is also possible to buy them on the website but only after 14:00 so if you really want the tickets I suggest you go to the Arsene point early or someone else will get your ticket.

Places worth checking regularly:

Les Halles (rue Royale Ste Marie 22a – website) is an old market place transformed into a theatre. They have a very contemporary programme, including dance performances, circus and theatre. The atmosphere is intellectual but in a laid back fashion. The foyer features nicely-designed seats and a cool bar that serves drinks – very good fresh juices – and a little choice of food.

Recyclart (rue des Ursulines 25 – website) used to be La Chapelle train station and is now a nice cooperative that organises activities such as discussions, exhibitions, concerts and photography groups. They have a little bar also serving some simple dishes for dinner at a good price. The room where they do all the activities is right under the train tracks; although trains no longer stop at La Chapelle they still use the tracks so a very characteristic sound of Recyclart is the ‘tu tum tu tum’ of a passing train. I personally enjoy the easygoing atmosphere with mostly young students and workers.

Bozar (rue Ravenstein 23 – website) short for ‘beaux arts’ is one of the official places of Contemporary arts in Brussels. It houses permanent and temporary collections and installations as well as hosting concerts – mostly classical – in its huge concert hall. The atmosphere is mostly posh-intellectual, with an upper middle class audience. Then again, they also organise evenings like the Bozar night, where a more varied crowd invades the big rooms.

Les Riches Claires (rue des Riches-Claires 24 – website) takes its name from the ex-convent run by the Saint Claire nuns. The building houses a public library and a small theatre. The performances they host are repeated over a few nights per week for a whole month so there’s plenty of time to see them. They offer theatrical plays with complete stories and dialogues, so nothing too abstract. The language is usually French. The atmosphere is very casual. As always it is possible to have a drink and a nice chat at the bar in the foyer. The people working there are very friendly and happy to answer any questions about the place and its history.

Flagey (rue du Belvédère 27 – website) is just around the corner from place Flagey and I honestly don’t know which one took the name from which. The building is big with five rooms (studios) and I honestly don’t know if it used to be a cinema or a theatre or something else entirely. Nowadays, it hosts nice concerts of different genres, cinema festivals like the one on animation, and other performances. Tickets are sold at a nextdoor desk to the right of the main entrance. People and atmosphere depend a lot on what you’re going to see although it’s not unusual to find families.

Les Galeries Cinema (Galerie de la Reine 26 – website) specialises, as the name suggests, in films. They show current films as well as organising themed perspectives. A real jewel for cinema lovers and experts. The team behind les Galeries is small, young, very dynamic and passionate so it’s impossible not to like them. They sometimes organise special events around their programme, like the one they did in March: special projections in a public swimming pool with electronic music breaks, amazing!

Botanique (rue Royale 236 – website) is another varied cultural centre. They don’t specialise in one specific art, although concerts are what they offer every week. They also host festivals, in particular Les Nuits Botanique (music, May) and the Cinéma Méditerranéen (films, December) are worth a visit. A room on the first floor is dedicated to exhibitions. I personally really like the building: an old botanic garden with a big greenhouse that makes me think of the Universal Expos of the 1900s. A laid back, easy going, student atmosphere is a nice additional touch, and of course the compulsory bar with drinks and food.

Tour & Taxis (avenue du Port 86C – website). I wasn’t sure if I should list this location under nights out or under culture. The fact is that it basically puts together a few huge depots where pretty much anything can take place. I finally decided to put it here because it hosts a number of fairs throughout the year that I believe earned it place. The book fair is a huge event that takes place here in March (website) just to cite the most popular one. There’s a fair every weekend, just check the website and you’ll see. More rarely they host temporary exhibitions of visual arts. And occasionally they organise or host events like the Fade In festival (May – website), an appointment that every electronic music fan should note down in its agenda.

Wiels (avevue Van Volxem 354 – website) is another beautiful example of a clever regeneration project. It is a visual contemporary arts centre that offers permanent and temporary exhibitions, workshops, residences, plus some arts related activities for kids. They also put an effort into organising events in collaboration with other cultural centres. They have a nice bookshop with visual arts publications and a pleasant organic inspired bar. It is possible to just go there and read a book while sipping a tea on a rainy day enjoying the calm and peaceful atmosphere.

Note that almost all of the above have a Facebook page: it might be easier to stay informed by just adding, following or liking their pages!

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