Ah, Belgium. Home to chocolate, beer and waffles. Also fries. Bet you didn’t know Belgium had a thing for fries. And not French fries, mind you. Belgian fries. And Brussels is chock full of all of them and deserves at least a couple of days of exploring.
But it’s not always cheap, so here’s a list of things to do for free in Brussels (and how to save on the things that aren’t) Now, this is hardly an exhaustive list of things to do on a budget in the city, but we think it’s a pretty good start.
First things first: Transportation
From the airport: If you’re arriving via plane, as we did, the Brussels Airport website will give you all the info you need to figure out which bus or train to take depending on where you are headed. We took the bus and bought a 24-hour pass (€7) ’cause it was only about €3 more than a single ride ticket to the airport (€4). Seemed to make sense. Then we could just hop on a bus or tram or two to get from the city to our AirBnB and back into the city in the morning.
Bus, train, tram
The normal price for a single ride ticket is a steep €2.80, but it’s good on any form of transit. You can buy single tickets or timed tickets (like 24 or 48 hours) from machines in stations and near most of the bus stops. They take cards (but only debit cards with a pin number) and cash.
Rent a bike
Renting a bike in Brussels is even cheaper than taking the bus and will sometimes get you there quicker. Brussels has a great city bike rental scheme – you know, those rows of bike stands placed all over the city that charge by hour? Villo bikes are well placed and cost 1.50 for the day. If you can get the bike from point A to point B within 30 minutes (which is pretty easy), you don’t pay any extra!
Free things to do in Brussels
Need we say more? Here are our favorite free things to do in Brussels, Belgium.
Take a tour
Sign up online or show up at Grand Place a bit early to claim your spot for a free tour of the city led by local guides. They take tips at the end, of course, but you can pay whatever you deem fit and you’ll learn a lot about the city’s history, including stories behind the dual street names, how the city may or may not be the site of the first Wall Street, and how to find the best bars in town.
Admire some churches
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the craftsmanship of medieval cathedrals. Le Petit Notre Dame Sublon was built in 1400 and is spectacular. Another impressive specimen is Sint Michael’s, the big one near the center of town. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon it when the organist is playing a mini concert. If you’re not, you can at least enjoy a coffee from the loungers in the park out front and enjoy the edifice.
Learn about the European Union
If the politics of the EU interests you, take a stroll around the Parliamentarian. You’ll learn about the history of the thing and how it got started, when and why countries joined (or left), and what it all means for members. We were bored out of our freakin’ minds, but that’s probably because we are neither part of the EU, nor terribly interested in reading informative displays about politics. Say what you will.
Enjoy the city at night
At least one night, head to the main Place after dark to see it all lit up. It’s totally different than during the day and totally beautiful. If you’re lucky, there might even be a street performer or two entertaining crowds in the streets around the Markt.
Visit some museums
Brussels has plenty of museums. And if you’re lucky enough to be there on the first Wednesday of the month like we were, a bunch of them are free, including the Magritte Museum if you like surrealism and the Musical Instrument Museum right around the corner if you’re into, ya know, musical instruments. The latter has instruments from dozens of countries going back hundreds of years. We were excited to visit because we heard there was an audio guide that played the sounds of the instruments you were looking at, but when we arrived there was a sign that said they were transitioning to a new system and weren’t offering that anymore. So it was a bit less exciting.
Take a walk
Pick a park and enjoy. The one in front of Sint Michael’s has wooden lounge chairs where you can sit and relax (or catch up on Instagram) or Brussels Park has winding, but short, paths where you can people watch or peruse a temporary art exhibit. On the other side of town is the compact but lovely botanic gardens where you can take a quiet stroll.
See the sights
Of course, your first stop will be to gaze – if only briefly – at Manneken Pis, the famous little peeing boy fountain. But beware: he’s apparently the third most disappointing monument in the world (after The Mona Lisa and Prague’s astronomical clock, the latter I thought was way more interesting). He is pretty small, and sometimes he’s dressed in random costumes, but it’s one of those things you’re supposed to see, so do. It is, after all, one of the most visited free things to do in Brussels. Then, if you’re into peeing sculptures, go see Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis, the peeing girl and peeing dog sculptures, respectively, which were introduced more recently.
Brussels is super stylish. There’s a large shopping area downtown with, like, seven h&m’s and our personal European fave, Primark (Uh, men’s sweaters for 8 euros and hats for 3? Yes, please!), but if you want to stroll with the fashionistas, Avenue Louise is the place to do it. This is where the stores we couldn’t even imagine dropping an entire paycheck are located, but it’s fun to look sometimes. Or gawk. Whichever you prefer.
Visit a museum
Or several. If you’re lucky enough to be in town on the first Wednesday of the month, many of the museums don’t cost a dime if you wait until 2:00 to visit. The top spots are the Magritte Museum, the Musical Instrument Museum, The Museum for Natural Sciences and the Ancient Art Museum. We were especially excited about the Musical Instrument Museum but when we arrived they had discontinued the featured that allowed you to listen to said instruments, so it was rather a let-down. Other museums, like the Cinematek, offer free admission on the first Sunday of the month, and still other, more obscure museums, are always free. Check out a full list here.
So many free things to do in Brussels! But at some point, you’re gonna need to eat. If you’re vegan, don’t get too excited, because Brussels isn’t the veg hot-spot that you might have hoped. There are supposedly a couple of vegan food trucks, but we couldn’t find them. Here are some other things and places to nosh.
Refresh yourself just about any time of day (or night) with some frites (fries) and your choice of sauce on top. You can’t walk half a block in the city center without running into a fry shop. Vegans be warned: It was suggested after I already ordered Belgian fries several times that they may or may not be fried in beef fat, so inquire before you buy. Also, many available sauces are mayo-based, so ask before you make your selection.
For non-vegans, you can also grab a waffle from about every other shop near the Main Plaza. Smother it in chocolate, top it with strawberries and whipped cream, the works. Don’t expect much, though. For €1-€2 you’ll be getting either a frozen waffle or one whose batter came from a recently thawed bucket. You’re not missing much, vegans, though if you do want a waffle, you can get a vegan and gluten-free one – with soy ice cream and everything – at The Sister (though it will cost a little more at €6-€10).
Our go-to was EXKi, where you can get pre-made and prepackaged food like quinoa salad, wraps, soup and bread for decent prices. Not great prices, but acceptable prices. Plus they’re everywhere, so you’re never more than a 5-minute walk from food, vegan and non-vegan.
There are plenty of places peppered around the city and most are veg or veg-friendly and reasonably priced, so grab some fried chickpeas and fill up!
Ever since we spent two weeks in the UK and Ireland, we have a thing for tea time. Of course, our beverage of choice is usually coffee, but the custom goes. Laurent Gerbaud is the place to get it. They make a vegan hot chocolate (just add a shot of espresso if the dark chocolate isn’t enough caffeine), that will rock your world (though it costs about €4). So rich, dark and delicious with just a hint of bitterness. We visited multiple times during our stay. Plus you get a free chocolate with your beverage and they have several vegan options. Josh still daydreams about this hot chocolate.
What would a trip to Brussels be without sampling some Belgian beer? Head over to Delirium. It is filled with tourists, to be sure, but locals hang here too because of the extensive beer menu: 3,000 types! The menu is about the size of a hefty graphic novel! Try a few (some are moderately priced, €2.50 and up), but do make sure you can still find your room afterward.
Money saving tips for Brussels
Because free things to do in Brussels aren’t the only things worth doing in Brussels. But here are some handy ways to save a few euros.
Brussels is an incredibly walkable city. You can get most places within 15-20 minutes by foot, and walking is free! But if your feet get tired, bus tickets can be purchased at ticket kiosks and cost €2.80 euros and can be used for 75 minutes.
Dining out gets expensive fast. Save some cash by buying groceries to make your meals instead of having them prepared for you and you’ll save a ton. Supermarkets and grocery stores, also cafes and smaller restaurants, often close early, like 7:00 or 8:00, so don’t wait until the end of the night to get groceries or snacks or you’ll be out of luck. There are a few convenience stores open later, but they’re also more expensive.
The Brussels Card
Like most big tourist destinations, Brussels has a card. You can buy them for 24, 48 or 72 hours and include free entrance to most of the museums, a bunch of discounts, and you can add on unlimited public transport. But before buying one, make sure to look at all the perks, your schedule, and do the math to figure out if it would even be worth it. Unless you’re planning on hitting museums hard during a short time span, it probably won’t be worth it.
The main language spoken is French, but everybody speaks English. Most street signs and such are in French and Dutch (Flemish) and, oddly enough, don’t always mean the same thing.
Did we miss anything? If you know of an awesome location or attraction we missed, share away! Wander on!
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com