Brussels is a bustling city in Belgium combining Euro cosmopolitan with old historic buildings and charm.
Definitely a melting pot of people, cultures and styles, Brussels offers a lot to see and do, including the tradition of imbibing Belgian beer.
But as the de facto capital of the European Union, this city can get expensive very fast, as rooms fill up on the weeknights and prices soar as administrators from around the continent come to do business.
From finding affordable hotels to knowing where to get a good deal on a plate of mussels and frites, here are a few tips to keep your trip on the cheap.
1. Free and cheap museums
While some of the fun ones like the museum of comics and the museum of musical instruments aren’t free, others like the museum of military history and touring the European Parliament are open to the public at no cost. And remember: all museums in Brussels are free on the first Sunday of every month.
Related: 5 free things to do in Brussels
2. Sipping beer at local brassieres
One bar might claim it houses the largest selection, the other says they have the strongest, or the darkest, etc. Don’t be sucked into a tourist trap just because you see that pink elephant on the beer bottle — all cafes in Brussels hold a rich and impressive Belgian beer selection. Take your time and look for something that has a local feel.
3. Know the mussels season
Brussels offers several local delicacies, but none are as famous as their steamed mussels. In Brussels, mussels season is typically in the fall (September to December), and sometimes in January and February. Ordering up a steamed pot in summer is available, but possibly not fresh and not from the North Sea. Other yummy alternatives for a taste of Belgium include carbonnades flamandes (Flemish beef stew) or rabbit in a gueuze beer sauce.
4. Seeking out fresh-cut frites
You will find enough frites (French fries) stands to make your head spin, but look for the ones with freshly-cut potatoes. Some stands use pre-packaged, frozen potatoes in their fryer, along with processed mayo in industrial-sized cans. The best frites shops have raw potatoes in burlap sacks ready to be cut and fried on the spot, with a giant assortment of sauces. Yum!
5. Don’t “pis” your time away
Word of mouth has somehow deemed Manneken Pis the landmark of Brussels. That mindset leads to continuous letdowns: the fountain is small, the statue is tiny and black iron poles block any chance of a good photo op. Locals find the hooplah hilarious, so listen, it’s no biggie. Go see it, and even grab a souvenir to take home, but just don’t revolve your whole day around it.
6. Laces out
Belgian lace is intricate, delicate, detailed and finely spun craftwork that’s quite special to some people. But textile work specific to a region isn’t unusual, so don’t feel like you have to pay an exuberant amount for it. Lace shops might look fancy, but it doesn’t mean they should overcharge. Beware of paying too much for lace around the center.
7. Walk but maybe don’t eat: Rue des Bouchers
This quaint little alleyway is covered top to bottom in Belgian cafes and restaurants, with waiters beckoning patrons from the sides. The whole street seems to be working together, as prices, deals and dishes are strikingly similar. Rue des Bouchers is a strange, independent organism that seems to live by sucking euros from tourists that don’t know the difference between paella and mussels.
8. Dine local away from the action
In general, Brussels best finds are down small streets and away from the tourist spirals of Grand Place. Being a safe, small city to wander in, locals know their favorite eating spots lie within neighborhoods around the center square. There’s a huge café culture here, do as the Belgians do and wander until something looks appealing.
Related: Exploring the neighborhoods of Brussels
9. Strolling around here is easy (and free!)
The “must-see” of Brussels is the city itself, and downtown is very walkable. From the Botanique cultural center to the Brussels Charleroi canal and the dozens of impressive churches around town — everything is a stone’s throw away. However, if you don’t feel like walking too much, public transit is also a breeze, with underground metro stops at all of the above-mentioned areas. A one-day pass is €7.50
10. Finding affordable accommodations
Again, the center is a great place to wander but not necessarily to sleep in. Prices are usually high, and most Belgians live luxuriously on the fringe of the center. Since the city is small and easy to move in, don’t be afraid to find something further from the train stations and Grand Place. Some of the more clean and modern spots are away from those areas. Check out our favorite budget hotels in Brussels.
Furthermore, as a hub of the European Union, during the week, hotel prices soar. For a better deal, come on the weekend when most bureaucrats have headed home.