Though Brussels abounds with wealthy diplomats in suits, the European Union’s capital also accommodates people on tighter budgets.

Few outings are truly free in one of Europe’s richest regions, but motivated travelers can find things to do in Brussels without having to crack open their wallets.

Walk the comic book route through Brussels

Brussels is the self-proclaimed “comic book capital” of the world. It has more comic stores than any other city, and Belgian artists birthed renowned characters like Tintin (pronounced tan-tan) and the Smurfs.

Though Brussels has the Comics Art Museum, there’s no need to stay indoors to see its love for comics. Dozens of large murals across the city depict both comics and the comical: Saint Peter watering cannabis plants, naked men crouching on rooftops, mustachioed Asterix and company charging Roman fortresses. Forget museums - the comic book route is one of the best free self-guided walking tours in Brussels.

Feast on free samples at the Neuhaus chocolate factory store

Belgium’s chocolates are world famous, but not everyone knows you can taste Belgian chocolates for free in shops. Though basic decency dictates trying then buying, especially with small businesses, the Neuhaus chocolate factory store on Brussels’ western outskirts is more forthcoming. Shoppers can pluck free chocolate pralines straight from discounted boxes throughout the store. Pace yourself, and bring water.

Walking in Matonge district
The Matongé district in Brussels shows the intersection of Belgian and Congolese cultures  © Getty Images

Get a taste of Central Africa in Matongé

Tens of thousands of Congolese diaspora live in Belgium, thanks to its colonial meddling in the current Democratic Republic of the Congo. The colonial history is bleak - Tervuren’s Africa Museum offers some insight - but a stroll through Matongé shows a brighter side of the intersection of Belgian and Congolese cultures.

Matongé’s Congolese roots were planted when Congolese students flocked to Brussels for education in the 1950s. Seventy years later, Matongé is home to shops, hairdressers and restaurants run by more diverse groups of African diaspora. Travel from Europe to Central Africa by starting at Porte de Namur station, roaming shops selling everything from colorful wax print fabrics to extra hot chilies. For a deeper understanding, Flemish-African House Kuumba offers ticketed guided tours of Matongé.

See the lights from atop Mont des Arts

Mont des Arts is one of Brussels’ most famous views for a reason: it’s hard to beat postcard-perfect gardens against the regal rooftops of the Grand Place. Climb the steps to the top of the hill around sunset, then keep your eyes on the skyline so you don’t miss the magic when the Grand Place first lights up the night.

Hike through Forêt de Soignes

Urban as Brussels may be, a quiet forest is but a stone’s throw away in the vast Forêt de Soignes. Miles of walking, cycling and horse riding trails weave through the old beech forest, more than enough to keep the speediest hikers busy for hours. For a scenic start, begin hiking from Parc Tournay Solvay. The romantic park near Boitsfort station is not easy to find, but its château ruins and sculpted lakes are worth the extra effort. 

Fashion & Lace Museum
Fashion & Lace is one of the museums that are free the first Sunday every month © Jean-Bernard Carillet / Lonely Planet

Take a stroll to a free museum

On the first Sunday of the month, join crowds of Bruxellois in learning the history of lace, marveling at the Manneken Pis’ extensive wardrobe, studying old book bindings and more, all free of charge. A handful of museums and monuments participate in this monthly event.

Escape the crowds in the lanes of old Anderlecht

Far from the tourist trail, historic Anderlecht offers picturesque lanes with a fraction of the tourists milling about central Brussels. Follow mansion-lined streets around central St-Guidon church to find two historic places: Belgium’s smallest beguinage and the Erasmus House, one of the oldest houses in the country. The 600-year-old structure, which is now a museum, is named after Erasmus of Rotterdam, a Dutch Renaissance scholar who lived in the house in 1521 while he penned his version of the New Testament. Anderlecht is free to explore, but the Erasmus House and beguinage are free only on the first Sunday of the month.

Palais de Justice
Palais de Justice in Brussels was once the largest building in the world © Tupungato / Shutterstock

Explore the halls of the Palais de Justice

Once the largest building in the world, the imposing Palais de Justice is now a running joke in Brussels: it’s been covered in scaffolding for decades, and rumors say it’s because someone lost the blueprints. Few tourists venture beyond the scaffolding to find the impressive neoclassical work of architecture beneath that’s free to enter. Some rooms close for court proceedings, but there are many tales of people accidentally entering anyway - and some even spending the night.

Ride an elevator up to Place Poelaert for sunset

The glassy Poelaert elevators are a curious juxtaposition against the Palais de Justice’s neoclassical columns. Passengers get a free panoramic view over Marolles’ brick houses and church steeples before the doors open to Place Poelaert. If you want to blend in with the locals, bring your own drinks and set up shop in the square to watch the sunset over one of the best views in Brussels.

Place du Jeu de Balle flea market
Browsing through old comics at Place du Jeu de Balle flea market © Jonathan Smith / Lonely Planet

Hunt for treasure at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market

Cardboard boxes overflow with porcelain plates, old maps, and enough comic books to stock a library on the cobblestoned Place du Jeu de Balle. The old market square in Marolles district has housed Brussels’ most famous flea market since 1873. The tradition is still going strong daily, but savvy shoppers know Sunday mornings bring the best finds. And if you’re not buying, the atmosphere is half the fun anyway.

Go thrifting in Marolles district

Beyond the flea market, Marolles is known for antique and vintage clothing shops. East of Place du Jeu de Balle, old wares overflow on Rue Blaes and Rue Haute: Melting Pot Kilo sells cheap vintage clothes by the kilogram, unusual antique furniture occupies multiple floors in Via Antica, and Librarie L’Abac peddles centuries-old rare books. Don’t be shy about browsing - you won’t be alone!

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