Today, being “green” is not simply a matter of having green spaces, and Brussels has wholeheartedly embraced sustainable development as part of its overall regional urban plan, where the development of energy-efficient buildings and a sustainable economy is closely linked to the re-population of formerly abandoned districts and the bringing back into use of empty buildings: estimates put the number of unoccupied apartments at around 35,000 and unoccupied office space at around 2 million square metres. In addition, as in the rest of Europe, consumers are demanding greener products, including energy-efficient domestic appliances and buildings, organic and fairtrade food and environmentally-friendly clothing.
It won’t take visitors long to find green spaces to enjoy in the city. Very broadly, the greenest suburbs are also the most affluent, mostly situated to the South and East of the city centre, including the districts of Ixelles, Uccle, Woluwé St Lambert, Watermael-Boitsfort and Woluwé St Pierre. In the city centre, the Parc de Bruxelles occupies a rectangular block separating the Royal Palace form the Federal Parliament buildings. Formerly a hunting-park for the Habsburg governors, it was laid out as a formal French-style park by Zinner in 1835. A walk along the Rue de la Loi to the European district brings you to Le Cinquantenaire, the impressive triumphal arch celebrating fifty years of Belgian independence. Looking a bit like a cross between the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the arch was not finished in time for the park’s official opening in 1881, so the scenery-painters from the Opera House were called in to mock up something suitably impressive from wood and canvas. The arch was completed in 1905 and now offers splendid panoramic views of the city from the top (free entry via the Royal Army Museum). The Cinquantenaire Park is a favourite spot for joggers, and part of it is taken over on summer evenings by the “Friskis & Svettis” group for their outdoor aerobics (www.friskis.be).
Many parks in Brussels have spectacular water features, including the fountains in the Square Ambiorix and the Square Marie-Louise, the placid Ixelles Ponds just off the bustling Place Flagey and the boating-lakes in the Woluwé Park. The largest piece of woodland in the city is the Bois de la Cambre and its neighbour the Forêt de Soignes, at the far end of Avenue Louise. A five-minute walk from the busy avenue you no longer hear the traffic and can commune with nature amid the huge trees.
The woods have a lake with an island, on which stands the newly-restored “Chalet Robinson” café-restaurant, the only one in the city accessible only by boat!
The English Garden Suburb movement of the 1920s had its followers in Brussels, and the “Le Logis” and “Floréal” districts of Watermael-Boitsfort are the result. In April and May, the streets there are transformed by the bright-pink blossom of hundreds of Japanese cherry trees.
Among the city’s many delightful private gardens, a favourite is the garden of the Van Buuren Museum in Uccle (www.museumvanbuuren.be) laid out between the 1920s and the 1960s by Belgium’s greatest landscape gardener, René Perchère. The gardens contain a series of “rooms” including a rose garden, a yew maze, a performance space, an orchard and the delightful “Garden of the Heart” to console Mrs Van Buuren after the death of her husband.
A 60km “Promenade Verte” (“Green Walkway”) has been laid out through the Brussels Region’s parks and green spaces, see http://www.brussels.irisnet.be/culture-tourism-leisure/parks-and-green-space for a detailed map.
Brussels is a compact city without too many steep hills, so it's ideal for cyclists. Bicycles can be hired from KM10 in Watermael (www.km10.be, € 20 per day), from the “Point Vélo” at Brussels-North or Brussels-Central railway stations (www.recyclo.org, € 7.50 per day) or from cyclists’ lobbying group Pro Vélo in Ixelles (www.provelo.org, € 13 per day), which also organises a programme of guided bicycle tours on themes including Art Nouveau architecture and strip cartoons.
If you get tired, you can take your bike on the Brussels Metro outside the rush hour (www.stib.irisnet.be, maximum 2 bikes per train, except 7h-9h and 16h-18h30 on weekdays).
For shorter rides, you can’t miss the 180 racks of “Villo” bikes dotted around the city. To use them, you need a credit card or a Belgian debit card to join the Villo scheme. Members can use the bikes free for 30 minutes, and then are charged for every subsequent half-hour: a tip is to plan your rides to always last less than 30 minutes! One-day and seven-day Villo memberships are also available, and you can join Villo in advance online. See http://en.villo.be for details.
If all that cycling has worked up an appetite, Brussels has plenty of places where you can buy and enjoy organic food.
The hippest organic market is held on Wednesday afternoons at the Place du Châtelain in Ixelles, one of the city’s trendiest districts. In the early evening, it becomes a sort of huge open-air apéritif party, with stall-holders selling a wide variety of food and drink, including wine, beer, cider, cheese, cooked meats, salads and fruit for immediate consumption!
Other organic food markets are held on the Place Sainte-Catherine on Wednesday mornings and in the Ateliers des Tanneurs (58, Rue des Tanneurs in the Marolles district) on Sunday mornings and Wednesday mornings.
The Sunday morning market on Place Wiener around Watermael Town Hall also has many stalls selling organic food. For a regular home delivery of boxes of organic fruit and vegetables, sign up at www.bio4you.be or www.alternature.be.
Brussels also has a service for home cooks, delivering recipe cards with all the organic ingredients needed to prepare the dishes (www.cookitude.com ).
Even the mainstream supermarkets stock many organic products: look for the “bio” or “biologique” or “fairtrade” logos.
There are also many shops stocking specialist ranges of organic products, including Desmecht the herbalists in Place Ste Catherine (www.desmecht.com), “Super Green Me” selling food, household linen, children’s clothes, designer underwear and cosmetics in the Rue Van Aertvelde (www.supergreenme.be), “Tout l’or du Monde” on Plattesteen (www.toutlordumonde.be) an organic café that also sells fairtrade groceries, “Petit Baobab” on Chaussée de Vleurgat (www.petitbaobab.be) selling clothes, including Marie Cabanac’s “Ethnic Wear” range (see www.marie-cabanac.com or her shop at 171 Rue Antoine Dansaert) and “Bamboo” on Rue Emile Bouilliot in Ixelles (www.bamboo.be) selling sustainable, ethical, fairtrade and organic products including jewellery, accessories, tableware, clothes and cosmetics.
For a quick organic snack, or delicious cakes and salads, pop into one of the many branches of “EXKI” (www.exki.be) or “Le Pain Quotidien” (www.lepainquotidien.be).
Fifteen years ago, it was quite hard for Brussels’ vegetarians to find somewhere to eat out. In many traditional Belgian restaurants, the only alternative to meat-rich stews or dishes fried in animal fats was a green salad. Fortunately things are now very different, and there are many restaurants serving delicious vegetarian food that is not trying to imitate meat-based dishes. The district of Ixelles offers the widest choice, from the long-established “Tsampa” (109 Rue de Livourne, www.tsampa.be) and “Shanti” (86 Avenue Buyl) as well as “Dolma” (329 Chaussée d’Ixelles, www.dolma.be) and “L’Element Terre” (485, Chaussée de Waterloo - map). Elsewhere in the city, check out “Soul Resto” (20 Rue de la Samaritaine, www.soulresto.com) “Picnik” (109 Rue de Flandre, www.picnik.be) and “Bio Lounge” (116 Rue de l’Enseignement, www.biolounge.be). You can search for other vegetarian restaurants by district or price at www.resto.be.
You could even plan a city break in Brussels to coincide with one of the following “green” events that take place there every year. Travel by Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) to minimise your carbon footprint!
April-May: Every year the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken open to the public in aid of royal charities. Huge collection of exotic plants in an incomparable series of nineteenth-century cast-iron-and-glass greenhouses (www.monarchie.be)
In May “Wood & Habitat”, including guided tours of wooden houses (www.bois-habitat.be)
From June to September, regular outings of the “Roller Parade : you can join 400 in-line skaters on a car-free skate around the avenues of Brussels (www.belgiumrollers.com).
During September Mobility Week, includes a Car-Free Sunday (www.dimanchesansvoiture.irisnet.be)
Every October: “Tourisme autrement” organises an alternative tourism fair at Tour & Taxis (www.tourisme-autrement.be).