When to go to Brussels

Brussels’ rich culture makes it ideal for a mini-break any time of year. You’ll have a different experience depending on when you visit because the weather is incredibly fickle; a bright sunny morning can deteriorate into rain by lunchtime. But that’s part of Brussels’ charm: in summer, long days are spent sipping beer and marvelling at the fact you can’t see the cobblestones of the Grand Place for visitors; in winter, when the biting winds whistle through the alleys, you can escape the elements and scuttle indoors to explore the museums or warm up over a hearty bowl of waterzooi in a snug restaurant.

Spring - first beers on the terrace

Spring is my favourite time to visit the capital: the mercury occasionally reaches double figures (around 10–14C) and cafés and restaurants are tentatively setting out a few tables and chairs on their terraces — albeit with patio heaters. During the earlier months (excluding Easter) you can also explore the city’s sights without the crowds and queues. The highlight of the season is the annual opening of the 19th-century Royal Greenhouses of Laeken (April 15–May 8 2011; www.monarchie.be). Designed by Victor Horta’s teacher, Alphonse Balat, they house rare species some of which date from the reign of Leopold II. The other big spring fixture is the Brussels Jazz Marathon (May 27—29, 2011; www.brusselsjazzmarathon.be). A three-day event featuring 125 concerts and over 400 artists – all for free!

Summer - festivals, festivals, festivals

Of course it’s crowded, but summer is an exciting time in the city: temperatures have reached the mid-20s, the sun doesn’t go down until 10pm and the city’s social calendar is packed with events, including: Brussels European Film Festival (June 22—29, 2011; www.fffb.be); Ommegang (July 5 & 7, 2011 9pm; www.ommegang.be) a procession of floats and giant puppets — from Place du Grand Sablon to the Grand Place — that has been performed since 1549 to commemorate the arrival of a Virgin Mary statue brought by boat from Antwerp during the 14th century; Bruxelles les Bains (July 2—August 22, 2011; www.bruxelleslesbains.be) when 4,500 tonnes of North Sea sand transforms Quai des Péniches (near Yser metro station) into a 1km-long city beach lined with cocktail cabanas and impromptu volleyball games; and the UNESCO-listed Meiboom (August 9) follows an old folklore tradition of planting a maypole at the intersection of Rue du Marais and Rue des Sables; festivities include a brass band and plenty of puppets. Finally, every two years the Grand Place’s famous cobblestones are covered with over 700,000 Ghent-grown begonias to form the Tapis des Fleurs (August 15, 2012; www.flowercarpet.be) — a spectacular sight.

Autumn - bike rides and more beer

On a good year, summer’s heat lingers and you can still squeeze in once last terrace of the season at Brussels Beer Weekend (first weekend of September; www.weekenddelabiere.be), when 48 breweries descend on the Grand-Place offering taste tests, beer-cart processions and a brewer’s parade.
Alternatively, you can enjoy a bike ride through the copper-and-russet woods of Bois de la Cambre and the joie-de-vivre of summer is extended by way of Europalia (October 4, 2011—January 15, 2012; www.europalia.be) Belgium’s biggest art festival. Held every two years, it aims to strengthen European cultural links by celebrating different cultures. Events range from dance recitals and music performances to art exhibitions and scientific presentations.

Winter - quiet until the Christmas markets!

Come November, the temperatures have descended to 6—9C and long wet days reign until the frost arrives in mid December. The short dark days are lightened, though, by the glitz and cheer of the Christmas markets (November 26, 2011 —January 2, 2012; www.plaisirsdhiver.be). Wooden stalls can be found on La Bourse, Place du Grand-Sablon, Place Cardinal Mercier and Quai aux Briques. Wrap up warm; hat, scarf and gloves are essential, as temperatures plummet after nightfall.