Positioned at the intersection of England, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany, Belgium is both a prime stopping point for European travelers ticking countries off their must-see lists and home to the wealthy diplomats and military personnel who call the capital city of Brussels and its surrounding towns home.
That doesn’t mean navigating the Flemish country on a budget is an impossible feat – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The de facto capital of the European Union, Brussels caters to those with cash, but thanks to its affordable street food, breweries, bars and more, you can experience the best Belgium has to offer without paying through the nose.
Taking advantage of local culinary specialities and cultural offerings while also making the most of eco-friendly transportation, such as biking, walking and traveling by rail, can easily cut your costs in half. Here’s how to see the beating heart of Belgium without going over budget.
Don't flag down a cab – get your steps in instead
Major Belgian cities like Brussels and Bruges are extremely easy and pleasant to navigate on foot, with most major attractions compacted into one neighborhood. Not only is exploring on foot an excellent way to get to know the lay of the land and admire the centuries-old architecture along the way, but it'll also save you at least €10 (US$10.50) per day, if not more, that you'd otherwise have to put toward public transit or short taxi trips between attractions.
Consider making beer your drink of choice
Beer fiends will have no trouble finding a budget-friendly booze while exploring Belgium – the country is famous for its gueuze, Trappist and lambic beers, with more than 300 breweries currently in operation. Most local beers cost around €3 to €4 ($3.10 to $4.20) per glass, so a pint or a bottle is the most economical choice with dinner, or while knocking back a few drinks at the bar.
Don’t worry if you’re not the biggest beer drinker back home. With thousands of unique concept beers on tap here, you’re bound to find something to suit your palate – especially at long-standing beer-focused bars and cafes, like Délirium Café in Brussels or Bier Central in Antwerp.
Fill up on Belgian treats while out and about
Belgian food prices are often notoriously high, and mid-level dinner or cafe prices for two can easily top €100 ($105) if you’re not careful. Belgian street food is a great way to get around excessive dining costs, with fry stands, waffle carts and mitraillette (a foot-long baguette stuffed with fries and falafel or fried meat) shops being some of the most inexpensive – and tasty – spots to refuel.
Many cities across Belgium also have a blossoming outdoor market culture, ranging from fresh fruit and vegetable stands to seafood counters with mussels or clams for as low as €5 ($5) per serving. In Brussels, Noordzee is one of the best spots to indulging in fresh fish and local wines for less than €10 ($10.40) per person.
Make lunchtime your biggest meal of the day
Surviving solely off street food might not be feasible for a longer stay, but that's where lunch menus come in. Most sit-down restaurants here offer set lunch prices and seasonal specials that are a fraction of the cost of the dinner menu – usually about €15 to €20 ($16 to $21) per person for multiple courses.
Going big at lunch allows you to test out higher-end or top-rated restaurants without the price tag (and gives you plenty of time to walk it off too). Keep an eye out for rotating daily or weekly specials at places like Restaurant Breydel De Coninc in Bruges, which offers two seafood-focused courses and a glass of wine for €25 ($26) per person.
Invest in a rail pass to visit multiple cities
Travel within Europe is relatively affordable, thanks to budget airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir, but it’s the cost of taxiing between airports and city centers that can really add up.
Thankfully, rail travel in Belgium is both efficient and economical. There are stations in the heart of most major cities, and the SNCB rail system costs €8.40 ($8.75) per journey, no matter where you’re headed; transferable 10-trip passes are also available for €87 ($91). It could also be worth scheduling your trip for a weekend or public holiday, when tickets are half-price.
Check into a hostel or Airbnb if possible
Top-rated hotels and accommodations in Belgian hot spots, such as Brussels and Bruges, can easily cost hundreds of euros per night, but hostels in the city center and Airbnbs in up-and-coming neighborhoods offer similar conveniences for a fraction of the price. Private Airbnb bookings cost about €75 ($78) per night, while private hostel or dorm accommodations in the center of town will run you approximately €30 to €50 ($31 to $52).
Shop outdoor flea markets for budget-friendly mementos
One of Europe’s best destinations for flea markets and antique shopping, Belgium has dozens of open-air flea markets throughout the country dating back hundreds of years – and they all offer major discounts on unique mementos if you’re willing to do some digging.
Most major cities have designated parks and squares where flea markets packed with bric-a-brac and knick-knacks roll out on Sunday mornings. Some of the biggest include the Brocante Internationale in Waterloo and the Jeu-de-Balle, which takes place daily in Brussels' hip Marollen district.
Visit during off-peak times for lower costs
During Belgium's shoulder season, flights and accommodations are much less expensive, trains are less crowded and restaurant terraces always have a spot open. The best off-peak time to visit is between March and May and September and October, when the weather is still balmy enough to enjoy outdoor activities.
Get to know the city centers on a self-guided walking tour
Belgium is packed with free and budget-friendly walking tours, from food-focused market excursions and architecture discovery walks to niche and special-interest tours highlighting Belgian history and pop culture.
The most famous self-guided walking tour is the comic-book mural route in Brussels, the comic capital of Europe. Note that although you can find detailed maps of the best Adventures of Tintin and Smurfs murals for free online, the Brussels tourism information desk sells a comprehensive booklet covering the best comic-book walls in the city, as well as relevant history and fun facts, for €2.50 ($2.60). It's well-worth the cost.
Take advantage of the free museums and galleries
There are a handful of museums across Belgium that are free at all times, including the Musée Antoine Wiertz, the Parlamentarium and the House of European History. Looking to visit a site that charges admission? Save it for the first Sunday of the month, when most museums across the country are completely free for locals and visitors alike.
Daily costs in Belgium
Hostel room: €30–100 ($31–104) per night
Basic room for two: €50–150 ($52–156) per night
Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): starting from €75 ($78) per night
Public transport ticket: €2.40 ($2.50)
Coffee: €3–5 ($3.10–5.20)
Sandwich: €5–10 ($5.20–10.40)
Dinner for two: €30–70 ($31–73)
Beer/pint at the bar: €4–8 ($4.20–8.30)
Belgian waffle: €2–5 ($2.10–5.20)
Belgian fries: €2–4 ($2.10–4.20)