As the host city for many European Union institutions and their well-heeled Eurocrats, Brussels may not sound like the best destination for travelers on the cheap. A plate of mussels, a local specialty, can set you back nearly 20 euros, $28 at the current exchange rate of $1.34. But with a little creativity, you can enjoy Brussels’ pleasures on a budget — from free chocolate samples and cheap waffles to the spectacular Grand Place Square.
Getting there: Skip Europe’s biggest transport scam: 55 euro airport-to-downtown cab ride lasting barely 30 minutes. Take the 20-minute train ride for 3 euros to the central station. From there, subways, buses and streetcars go everywhere.
Getting around: From downtown, you can get to most sights and an infinite number of cafes, restaurants and bars on foot. Public transport is cheap. A one or three-day pass costs 4.5 euros and 9.5 euros respectively.
You can also not pay, like many Bruxellois, but you risk a 50 euro fine
Parks, landmarks and markets: Brussels’ top tourist attraction is free: The Grand Place, a spectacular square in the historic center of the city. It is known for the ornate architecture of its centuries-old buildings, including City Hall and former guild houses for skilled professions like brewers, bakers and butchers. The square is beautifully lit at night, and every other year its center is lined with a carpet of flowers mid-August for three days. The next flower carpet will be laid in 2010.
Beware the expensive, touristy shops around the Grand Place. For a more authentic, less expensive way to sample Belgian goods, there are daily and weekend markets. Rummage around the daily flea market in the Marolles neighborhood. Sundays, there is a big market around the Midi railway station and on Place Flagey.
With more than 2,900 acres of parks, Brussels is a very green city. Don’t miss the park on the Place du Petit Sablon, with its numerous statues, or the Parc de Laeken, with the royal castle.
For a beautiful bird’s eye view of the Belgian capital, go to the top of the Museum of Musical Instruments, at rue Montagne de la Cour 2. Admission is 5 euros.
For concerts and other entertainment, check the free magazine Agenda, available in subway stations and pubs, or see http://www.agenda.be/v2/fr.html.
Museums and churches: It can rain in Brussels. And rain! But more than three dozen museums and historic churches provide for ample indoor activities.
Use the Brussels Card that covers public transport and entrance to museums only if you plan to visit more than four or five museums, or are older than 25. Most museums cost only a few (euros) for visitors under 25, making the 20 to 30 euro card pricey.
One of Belgium’s newest attractions, the Rene Magritte Museum, in the house at Rue Esseghem 135 where the famed surrealist painter worked for 24 years. Entry is 5 euros for visitors age 23 and under. Access to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History is free year-round. Many other museums are free after 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month.
Entrance to churches is free, but hours are more limited than in museums. Eglise Notre Dame de la Chapelle, the city’s oldest, located on the Place de la Chapelle, was built in the 13th century.
Art in the 225-year-old Eglise St-Jacques sur Coudenberg, on the Place Royale, is also worth a visit.
Cheap eats: Brussels is rightly famous for French fries, waffles and mussels — frites, gauffres and moules in French. If on a budget, stick to the first two. Moules can cost 20 euros a plate.
Frites are sold at grease emporiums known as friteries. Check out Chez Martin on Place St. Josse, near the Madou subway stop, or Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan, near the EU headquarters, which is open into the wee hours.
Waffles are on sale everywhere for 1.5 euros and up. They come smothered with whipped cream, sugar, fruit or — what else? — chocolate sauce.
Bars: There are pubs and cafes all over town vending scores of different kinds of beers — blond or dark and always foamy. The St. Catherine and St. Gery neighborhoods have un-touristy bars, such as Zebra, Walvis, Greenwich and Monk.
The bars on the Grand-Place are touristy and pricey. But just around the corner, Delirium holds the Guinness World Record for the most types of beer in one bar (2,004), and the former brothel, Goupil le Fol, offers unique fruit wines. Beers and wines are usually 2-4 euros per glass, cocktails double that.
Day trips: Brussels is less than an hour by train from Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent and Liege.
Dos and don’ts
Do ask for free samples in the chocolate shops. When you’ve gone to each one, you won’t need to buy any. Do go to chocolate factories for discounted prices. Neuhaus and Leonidas both have factories just outside of Brussels.
Don’t rent a bike. The rental system was recently overhauled, but it still does not work well. You can actually be arrested for riding a bike out of one district into another.
Don’t eat in the Grand Place. It is a spectacular place to see, but very expensive. Try cheaper places nearby.
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