City Discovery: Brussels, Western Europe’s Political and International Business Epicenter

The charming city of Brussels, Belgium is the Western European epicenter for politics and international business and is filled with fascinating culture and people. Its distinct and eclectic environment offers something for everyone, from the student hoping to study in the city in which the European Union is headquartered to the street-art aficionado in search of inspiration.

The Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs) were created by Belgian comic artist Peyo in 1958. The name came about when Peyo was dining with a friend and wanted him to pass the salt. Peyo couldn’t remember the word for salt, and Schtroumpf was a nonsensical word that just came out of his mouth at the time.

Everyone knows that Brussels is known for its exquisite chocolate; however, one thing people may be surprised to learn is that the Brussels International Airport is the largest selling point of chocolate in the world.



Intercultural experiences highlight exposure with the local culture, promoting a multilateral exchange of ideas, language and opinions.

Check out the Brussels Annual Comic Strip Festival, one of the many festivals for which Belgium is famous. The event varies from year to year, with past attractions including exhibitions in the park, meetings with authors/artists, water shows, concerts, and outdoor cinema shows. ISA staff coordinate this cultural activity so that students can experience firsthand the deep-seated love affair that Brussels has with comics. Noteably, Tintin often receives a great deal of notoriety at the festival, as the comic strip has been around since 1929, has been translated into over 80 different languages, and has sold more than 350 million copies over the years.

Enjoy a Belgian feast chez Iria and Elsie. Students sit down for a 10+ course dinner prepared lovingly by friends of the ISA Brussels team and served in their apartment in the heart of the city. Iria and Elsie used to be a host family with ISA Brussels, and they’ve transferred their care for students into this magnificent event. Students are given a description of each course as it comes out and learn the cultural significance behind each ingredient, recipe, and preparation. With dishes ranging from carbonnades flamandes (beef stew braised in beer) to chocolate pear cake, this event is a phenomenal way for students to learn about authentic Belgian gastronomy.



ISA excursions and cultural activities highlight historical parts of the local culture to help students better understand their new environment.

Spend a day in Wallonia, a French speaking town in the South of Belgium which is known for its stunning countryside vistas, quaint towns, and rolling hills. This ISA excursion gives students the opportunity to explore a less touristy and populated part of Belgium. Students visit the Château de Chimay, which was home to the princes of Chimay for many generations and has been an ancient stronghold for Belgian nobility since around the year 1000. Students also explore the Abbey of Maredsous which was founded in 1872 by Benedictine monks. Newer gernerations of monks still live there to this day and make delicious cheese which students are able to enjoy.

Uncover the hidden quirks of Brussels on a walking tour during your Bridging Cultures program. On this ISA sponsored guided walking tour, students discover some of the lesser known areas of the city and get a glimpse of the vibe of their new home. Prepare yourself to see trees wrapped in yarn, archaeological museums, and historical monuments dotted throughout Brussels, including the Royal Palace of Brussels and even a remaining fragment of the Berlin wall. On the tour, students will also encounter the unique architecture that can be found throughout Brussels, from the soaring Gothic cathedrals to the beautiful Guild Houses on Grand Place.



Sociopolitical discovery highlights social and political activities or experiences.

Visit the Parliamentarium, the largest parliamentary visitor’s center in Europe. The ISA staff plan a tour to this fascinating attraction, where students are able to see how the European Parliament functions on a daily basis and how their work influences the lives of European citizens. The Parliamentarium is highly interactive, with an array of role-playing opportunities and virtual tools for students to explore, including an enormous 360 degree digital screen which informs students on the decision-making process and their representatives. There are also opportunities for students to listen in on debates, watch votes taking place, and learn about the legislative process.

Spend an afternoon at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Allied Command Operations. The ISA Brussels staff arranges a visit to this globally important organization, located just north of the Belgian city of Mons, where students can learn about its work and the role of NATO around the world. Students receive briefings on NATO-US relations which are often tailored to students’ interests and fields of study. Last semester, a Commander from the US Navy gave the briefing and even joined the students for lunch.



Professional experiences provide exposure to professional development opportunities during an ISA program.

Take part in one of the highly respected internships through Vesalius College. Students receive course credit for the internship, and participating organizations in the past have included Fulbright, MasterCard, UPS, and Serve the City. Participants often describe these internships as the highlight of their program and are able to grow their professional experience on an international scale.

Take part in a volunteer activity organized by ISA. Most recently, students were able to help out with the children at the Petit Chateau, Brussels’ largest center for asylum seekers. Volunteering abroad helps prepare students to become global citizens and contribute to the local community no matter where life takes them. Students learn empathy, problem solving skills, and communication skills, and the Brussels staff help them learn how to articulate the lessons and skills gleaned from this for their future endeavors.



Environmental experiences expose students to different environmental aspects of the host country.

Check out the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, which open to the public only once a year in Brussels. The Royal Greenhouses have the illusion of being a glass city and are architecturally and botanically stunning. This cultural activity provides a valuable opportunity to students in a variety of ways; many of the plants belonged to Leopold II’s original collections and respect the spirit of the original collections that were cultivated there. The greenhouses are also filled with a substantial number of rare and valuable plants. This gives students an understanding of the history and traditions that have been carried on in the royal greenhouses for over a century.

Glide along the Dutch countryside on a bike tour in Holland. ISA students embark on a weekend trip to the southern region of the Netherlands, and they spend an afternoon in Kinderdijk, a Unesco World Heritage Site. This part of Holland is situated up to 23 feet below sea level, but the Dutch established an intricate set of 19 windmills there in the 18th century to keep the seawater from flooding the land. There is no better way to explore this intriguing and historical site than by bike.

Explore Brussels for yourself


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The 2015 City Discovery Series aims to showcase one of ISA’s program locations each week. Facts about each location and several Discovery Compass activity examples are given, however they are not a comprehensive list. These activities highlight the areas of Intercultural, Historical, Sociopolitical, Professional and Environmental discovery. The Discovery Compass aims to help students have the best possible study abroad experience by helping them to gain a better understanding of the local environment, customs and people through a variety of experiences.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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