Life in Belgium
It may be a small country in size but Belgium plays large in international scenes and consistently ranks among the top places to live in the world. Belgium’s multicultural makeup gives its capital Brussels an edgy vibe with an array of global services and facilities on offer to ease in even the newest expat.
On the surface, Belgium offers many attractions in spades. It’s the home of the European Union (EU), a short trip to a number of international capitals, and has three official languages (French, Dutch and German) and a sizeable international community. Beyond that, it’s also famous for fries, Tintin, chocolate, and beer.
Belgium is one of the best places to live for expats
Belgium consistently scores well in all the main indicators of good living.
Belgium has a high life standard and ranks among the top 10 in several indicators of the OECD’s Better Life Index, with the average household wealth above the OECD average. Besides that, the international presence in Brussels is second only to New York, with some 1,500 institutions employing around 3,000 diplomats, and a base of more than 2,000 European headquarters of multi-national organisations.
For those coming to Belgium for a limited period, there is no shortage of furnished apartments, or so-called ‘aparthotels’. For longer stays in Brussels, there is a wide choice of rented and owner-occupied housing, both within the city’s 19 communes and in the suburbs, ranging from studio apartments to villas. Further afield, there’s an equally wide choice of property in more rural residential areas, and growing expat communities in Belgium’s other main centres, which are covered in this guide under the Housing section.
Belgium has an excellent standard of healthcare, too. High quality medical care is widely available, enhanced by large university hospitals. It’s also considered cheaper than the US, and shorter waiting times means Belgium is becoming a hotspot for medical tourism from surrounding countries.
It’s also relatively affordable. Brussels, where many expats choose to base themselves, is cheaper that other western European capitals such as, Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna, and Zurich, according to Mercer’s Cost of Living rankings. On top of that, the country boasts a good public transport system with a smooth-running integrated network of buses, metros and trams.
Quality of life
When it comes to eating establishments, the country is proud of the choice and quality of its restaurants. In fact, Brussels ranks among the top European cities with the most Michelin stars. In total, the Michelin Guide for Belgium 2014 featured three restaurants with a three-star rating, 17 restaurants with a two-star rating and 101 restaurants with an one-star rating. But it’s not just highbrow dining that the Belgians excel in. According to a 2012 survey by VirtualTourist.com, Brussels was the only western European city in the top 10 destinations in the world for street food.
Belgium is unlikely to disappoint on the cultural and entertainment front. Besides impressive museums, a lively theatre scene, and some of the most picturesque historical towns in Europe, Belgium has more castles per kilometre than any other country in the world. There are also a number of colourful festivals, not least the folkloric, UNESCO-recognised Carnaval.
If you’re a beer drinker, you’ll find yourself in the capital of great beer. All major cities and towns have bars of all types, from trendy lounges to old Flemish hostelries serving an array of the best-tasting and most interesting beers in the world. In fact, in Belgium, beer is even a ‘religious’ affair, with Trappist monks having brewed and sold their own beer for centuries.
Expats with young families will be happy to know that the country has one of Europe’s most extensive childcare networks, with almost all young children attending organised daycare, rated as high quality and decently priced. The Belgian educational system offers parents a huge choice, including a range of international and language schools. Check the Education section for a guide to schooling. Another useful group is the not-for-profit Brussels Childbirth Trust (02 215 3377,www.britishinbrussels.com ), an organisation for expats that offers advice and arranges meeting groups and support for both parents and their babies and/or children.
Belgian weather and bureaucracy
By all key indicators, Belgium is a great place to live but it is not all sugar-coated waffles.
The first is the weather. An old Belgium joke says that the country has great weather – about 20 times a day. There is a significant amount of rain all year round and that can be frustrating. But it can also be overstated – if you are from the UK you’ll be happy to hear that Belgium actually has less average annual rainfall, according to the World Bank.
Second, the country’s bureaucracy can be very challenging due to a complex system of government, relationships between the different language groups and a talent for overcomplicating things.
But if you find the challenge of understanding the differences between region, language and ethnicity complicated, you’re not alone. Some years ago the soon-to-be prime minister of Belgium sung the first line of the French national anthem – after being asked to sing the first line of the national anthem in French. Oops.
The Belgian lifestyle
Still, a combination of high living standards and great international communities, schools and other organisations, plus an excellent array of choices for dining, entertainment and travel, means that Belgium more than holds its own against other major expat destinations.