Brussels as a premier study abroad destination? Mais oui!

by Matt Gulizia, ISA Site Specialist for Belgium

Brussels, Belgium is a relatively untouched gem among a sea of available study abroad destinations.  One would think that because it is the European center for business and politics, the city and its inhabitants would tend toward being stodgy and tame, but this is simply not the case! In fact, the city emits an eclectic and quirky atmosphere which is evidenced by its funky street art (think yarn-bombing and comic strip graffiti) and the hipster-y cafés which are speckled throughout its various neighborhoods.

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Here are some of the charms of Brussels which should not be overlooked when deciding on where to study abroad:


Exceptional Gastronomy

Gastronomy is one of the best ways to experience a city’s culture, and exploring the thousands of cafés and bars in the city is a phenomenal way of awakening to all that Brussels has to offer.  One cannot discuss the food culture of Belgium without first mentioning chocolate.  Chocolate in Brussels is respected similarly to how wine and fashion are valued in many cultures, with residents savoring its subtle complexities.  The history of Belgium’s love affair with chocolate runs as far back as the 17th century, and it rose to prominence when Jean Neuhaus invented the chocolate praline (chocolate shells filled with soft fondant centers) in Brussels in 1912.  Interspersed with the more traditional varieties of chocolates, one can find more exotic varieties in Brussels today, such as wasabi or orange-flower cream.  The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolate per year, which is a testament to this deeply rooted reverence for it.

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In addition to chocolate, Belgians are probably most known for their culture of crafting fine beers.  The country boasts a variety of family-owned and artisanal breweries, one of the most notable of which is Cantillon Brewery in Anderlecht, Brussels.  There are somewhere around 700 different varieties of Belgian beer from which to choose, and Belgians even use their beer to prepare traditional Belgian dishes; boeuf carbonnades is a prime example of this and is a hearty beef stew, much like boeuf bourguignon, which is braised in beer rather than wine.

With gastronomy built into the core of Belgian culture, students will discover a delectable array of traditional dishes while in Brussels.  These dishes include stoemp (creamy mashed potatoes with carrots or leeks), waterzooi (a rich fish stew which can also be made with chicken), steamed mussels, and vol-au vent (chicken and mushroom stew with puffed pastry).  The city also enjoys a thriving food truck scene, with favorites serving up Belgian waffles, French fries with an inordinate number of sauces (click here to read ISA Brussels Student Blogger Bethany Mulcahy’s article about Belgian frites), gourmet toasties, and delicacies from all over the world.

Brussels.Belgium.2012.Waffles-on-Waffles

Political Prestige

Brussels is an ideal study abroad location for any student who takes interest in or is studying international politics.  The city is not only the capital of Belgium but is also the European de facto capital of the European Union.  The “European quarter” of Brussels is nestled on the east side of the city and houses many prominent departments of the EU.  The European Union, which has grown from six founding countries in 1951 to a mammoth economic and political force affecting more than 500 million people, is headquartered in this section of the city.  The European Commission is the main administrative branch of the EU, and its commissioners in Brussels draft proposals for law and policy and ensure their implementation once passed.  The European Parliament is situated in Brussels as well, and this department is tasked with amending, delaying, and rejecting the laws and policies drafted by the European Commission.  Students in Brussels are able to visit the Parlamentarium, a dynamic and engaging parliamentary visitor’s center that offers insight into the institutions that represent this part of the world.  Additionally, the European Council summit meets at the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels four times a year to drive the direction of the EU based on contemporary issues (i.e. climate change, financial crisis, etc.), concreting Brussels’ influence in European politics.

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Brussels is also home to the United Nations, and the city’s office maintains, nurtures, and develops partnerships between the UN and the various departments of the European Union.  Finally, students in Brussels have the opportunity to visit the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), which is the headquarters of NATO’S Allied Command Operations.  It is undeniable that political happenings are abuzz throughout Brussels, and it is a fantastic city in which to discover the world of international relations.  One exciting feature of the ISA Brussels program is that it offers internships directly through Vesalius College; students participating in the program have the opportunity to work for various organizations who do exceptional and influential work in this arena.  For those who want to be at the heart of international affairs and politics, there is truly no place like Brussels!

Diverse Array of Art

Brussels is a veritable hotbed for captivating works of art, with over 80 museums and even more informal installations sprinkled throughout the city.  René Magritte is one of the most famed Belgian artists, and a museum was constructed in 2009 in Brussels to house his works.  Magritte is known for his surrealist images which lead observers to question their learned perceptions of reality, and his paintings are often witty and playful.  Magritte’s works of art have been provoking thought and enchanting viewers for almost a century.

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Other prominent museums in Brussels include the Musée Horta (featuring works from Victor Horta, who developed the Art Nouveau movement in Belgium), the Palais des Beaux-Arts (an immense center for fine arts which offers exhibitions, music, dance, theatre, cinema, literature, and architecture), and the Musée Ixelles (a museum housing over 13,000 works of art in the styles of realism, impressionism, luminism, symbolism, fauvism, and more).

One little known fact about Belgium is that the country’s passion for comic strips is embedded into its culture.  Brussels is the birthplace of the celebrated Tintin, Spirou, and Smurf comics, which have been enjoyed by children and adults across the globe since the 1920s.  There is a dedicated Belgian Comic Book Museum in the city which celebrates the history of Belgian bandes dessinées chronologically in a playful and entertaining way.  One need not visit this brick-and-mortar structure to experience the comic strip phenomenon in Brussels; in fact, there is a comic book route traversing the city that students can follow.  There are around 50 comic strip murals along the route, which have turned bare walls and gables throughout Brussels into colorful and lighthearted works of art.  Students cannot help but smile as they walk past these whimsical installations, and ISA Student Blogger Caroline Westberg even wrote a fantastic post about them.

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Quick Acculturation

One of the greatest features about Brussels as a travel and study abroad destination is that it feels like home relatively quickly.  The inhabitants are typically quite kindhearted and warm, and the city enjoys a great quality of life.  Because Brussels is such an international and cosmopolitan city, English is widely spoken by its inhabitants as a common language, making students feel more at ease when arriving in this new environment.  Though English is commonly spoken among the city’s populous, this is not to say that students will not have the opportunity to speak French or even a bit of Dutch while abroad.  In fact, the residents are very happy to speak their language with visitors and students alike, offering the best of both worlds when it comes to communication.  Finally, though Brussels is a bustling capital city, it strikes a unique balance that makes it feel smaller and more intimate.  The city is charming and unpretentious, with stunning architecture, beautiful parks, and numbers of off the beaten path activities and things to see.  Each neighborhood in the city has its own personality and evokes a solid sense of community in anyone calling it home for a period of time.


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