It is official: size doesn’t matter. Pressed in between the tinkling Manneken Pis and the afternoon shadow cast by the magnificent Grand Place, the Rainbow Quarter in Brussels might only squeeze into a couple of cobblestoned streets, but it remains the epicentre of Belgium’s LGBTIQ community.
Located around Kolenmarkt, a knot of streets that include Rue du Marché au Charbon and Plattesteen in the Saint Jacques neighbourhood, the Rainbow Quarter is made up of open-minded drinking dens, cosmopolitan café-bars, and clubs that thunder on until dawn. It’s also home to Rainbow House, an LGBTIQ community centre which hosts a range of regular events.
But as the LGBTIQ scene rapidly evolves, new gatherings and hangouts are beginning to pop up across the city, here’s how to make the most it.
Bars, clubs and pubs
It was in the Rainbow Quarter that first gay venues in Brussels started to open in the 1970s, and the area is still home to the city’s premier LGBTIQ venues. As in most cities, gay men are better catered for than lesbians, and the majority of LGBTIQ-friendly bars prominently display the rainbow flag outside.
Chez Maman hosts some of the city’s finest drag acts, including stalwarts like Mademoiselles Boop and Marla. The drag queens here are bitchy, flashy and fantastic with performances taking place atop the bar itself. Before the performances start, squeeze into the cramped, dark venue and raise a toast to Maman herself: a huge portrait of her hangs above the bar. The place gets rammed when the shows start around midnight, so it’s worth arriving early.
The Rainbow Quarter also has some more sedate, LGBTIQ-friendly bars: jazz club L'Archiduc has hosted musical royalty, but the martinis are the real headliners; Lord Byron (Rue des Chartreux 8) is a local’s bar with an excellent cocktail selection (ignore the unassuming curtained shopfront and make your way in); and Au Daringman is one of the last remaining brown cafes in Brussels, its dark wooden walls stained with years of tobacco smoke.
Away from the Rainbow Quarter is a more contemporary LGBTIQ bar scene. Originally a backpacker hangout, Via-Via now offers a warm cosmopolitan vibe and a superb choice of beers beneath exposed wooden beams, while petite corner bar Fontainas (which caters mainly to gay men but is very lesbian-friendly too) mixes the best mojitos in the capital. In the daytime, try for a terrace seat.
When the DJs start to spin and the neon strip lights begin to glow, spontaneous parties often erupt at the recently opened Benelux. For something a bit less commercial, try Barlok, an alternative LGBTIQ-friendly warehouse club by the canal. Expect dancing, an avant-garde atmosphere and plenty of tattoos. Catclub is a popular gay party that can attract big-name house DJs; otherwise the vintage tunes of Gay Haze is a chilled Sunday choice near the Palais of Justice.
The more adventurous should seek out semi-regular Soirées Chaudière a party that happens in a former squat at 123 Rue Royale. Now a community housing project, people have been living here since the mid-2000s, with the approval of the city authorities.
Safe spaces and sightseeing
As well as housing a range of LGBTIQ organisations, Brussels’ pre-eminent gay space Rainbow House also hosts regular events catering towards different scenes, whether they're showing film screenings or hosting Balkans-themed club nights. Beyond the railway tracks to the south, LGBTIQ non-profit organisation Tels Quels, runs an ever-popular café, which hosts everything from karaoke parties to drag shows.
Brussels was also the final scene of the torrid, and often violent, love affair between the poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. A plaque outside 1 Rue des Brasseurs, a short walk from the Grand Place, commemorates where Verlaine shot his lover Rimbaud on 10 July 1873, ending a passionate two-year liaison.
Films, festivals, magazines and music
Brussels has a LGBTIQ arts scene the equal of many cities thrice its size. Spoken word fans should check out Warrior Poets, a collective inspired by ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet’ Audre Lorde who dedicated her life to challenging injustice with her art. They put on poetry and music nights around the city that aim to deconstruct gender, sexuality and race.
Independent journal Girls Like Us, whose founder Jessica Gysel is a long-time stalwart of the Brussels LGBTIQ scene, is a gay feminist publication with an artistic bent. They regularly host film screenings, DJ workshops and magazine issue launches for their extremely welcoming community. Anyone with an interest in LGBTIQ culture is welcome.
However, probably the most intriguing out of all of Brussels’ underground collectives is self-styled “curatorial project” Buenos Tiempos, which hosts regular LGBTIQ-focused events across the city such as rooftop parties, talks and workshops. Founders Alberto and Marine even host events in the living room of their canal-side home on the edge of Molenbeek.
Other, more regular events include the gay film festival Pink Screens, held every November at venues across the city, and Genres d'à Côté, a monthly film club with an LGBTIQ focus. Art and film weekender Girl Heart Brussels also aims to attract lesbian visitors from across Europe, while fans of queer African cinema should check out Massimadi film festival, held each May. L-Festival, a six-day event for lesbians with parties, exhibitions, photography and gigs, is held towards the end of each year.