When Brussels became the capital city of a new country in the 19th century, many buildings in the old town were destroyed to make way for brand new ministries, palaces, schools, army barracks and office blocks constructed between 1880 and 1980. The historic Flemish town centers are better preserved in other cities: Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Courtray, Leuven and Mechelen.
Brussels operates as a bilingual city where both French (85%) and Dutch (Flemish) (15%) are official languages. Thus all the streets have two names, which can sound totally different. For example, the Main Square is called both la Grand Place and de Grote Markt. Although officially bilingual, French is undoubtedly Brussels’ lingua franca. English is also widely understood, but not always widely spoken. Visitors should realize that language is a very divisive issue in Belgium (though this is not as noticeable in Brussels).
Historically Dutch-speaking, Brussels became more and more French-speaking during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, most inhabitants speak French in daily life. Some numbers say that more than half of the inhabitants of Brussels do not speak French or Dutch at home. The Brussels dialect, a Brabantian dialect of Dutch, can be heard, especially in the outer districts of Brussels Capital Region. French speakers shouldn’t have too much trouble understanding the local French. Dutch speakers may have some difficulty with the Belgian Dutch accent.
English has become a common spoken language because of the international institutions based in Brussels, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and NATO. It is still relatively rare to find written tourist or general information in English, although the situation is improving greatly. One can expect public announcements in train stations to at least be said in French and Dutch, while larger train stations (such as Zuidstation/Gare Du Midi) typically include English and sometimes German. English is also used on metros, trams and buses, announced last for information such as line transfers and terminal stops. Do not hesitate to ask someone if you do not understand what has been said.
Brussels weather can often be grey and humid with a high and fairly evenly distributed annual average rainfall of 820 mm (32 in) and on average approximately 200 days of rainfall per year, both which are more than that of London and Paris. Summers tend to be cooler and wetter than London and winters colder. The daily and monthly temperature variations are quite small. Daily differences between average highs and average lows don’t exceed 9ºC (16ºF).
In the summer, maximum temperatures rarely reach 30ºC (86ºF) but can feel much hotter due to high humidity. The summer visitor should be prepared for rain. Warm and sunny weather is not constant during that season or even to be expected.
After October, temperatures can drop off quite rapidly and winter months are often damp and chilly. However temperatures of 15ºC (59ºF) are not unusual into December. Snowfall is rare, and starts to melt fairly quickly, becoming slush on the ground. The winter visitor should be prepared for wet ground.