Saturday, 2 February 2013

A quick guide to Brussels on a Budget



To drink in bars and eat out in Belgium, Brussels in particular, is not often cheap – most lunchtime main courses in standard neighbourhood restaurants and cafés tend to be anything from €13 to €18, or dearer – it will vary widely of course, but in general it’s not the same as England, where you could expect to find a decent enough pub lunch for under £10 (unless in a gastro establishment) and there are other cheaper options for about £6-7. Beers also can mount up the cost – often a bottle may be around €4 to €5 for a ‘standard’ Belgian beer, especially in the main centre of town and touristy areas. So it can be handy to have a few tips to keep costs down, while still trying to get the most out of the city, but saving the Euros to spend on all that lovely Belgian beer instead!

Here are my tips on ensuring you are well fed while saving some cash:

Firstly, try to make sure your hotel booking includes breakfast. You might expect to pick up a croissant and coffee fairly easily for about €4, but this isn't always the case – you may have to shell out around €8 each for a cup of tea and a toasted bagel, or for a wrap or sandwich in somewhere like the fresh food chain Exki. So if you can have a decent start to the day included in your hotel bill it will work out much easier and not necessarily dearer. Failing that, pick up some pastries from the supermarché the night before, to have in your room.

Restaurant de la Bourse – in the St Catherine area. It’s recently been forced to move premises, but before the move, I’d been going here every February for about 8 years. They offer an unpretentious café space, with menus in 3 languages including English. Lots of Belgian cuisine and good ‘meal deals’ – e.g. a half-pot pot of moules (still a pretty huge portion) with frites for about €14 (cheaper than the majority of places selling mussels) which were better than many I’d tried around the city; or maybe a starter and main course together for €16-€18 – I’d recommend having the steak preceded by the tomato stuffed with grey shrimp that’s part of this deal, as in other places this starter alone could cost you €20! They have a good selection of dishes and sometimes specials – including on occasion rabbit cooked in kriek (cherry beer), stoofvlees (also called carbonnade – a beef in beer stew), and other Belgian dishes.

Vietnamese & other oriental – can easily be found around the St Gery area (just a few streets south of the St Catherine area) – this is a bit of a bohemian area with a run-down feel to it, but with some hip bars, student hangouts, cafes, boutiques, and upmarket restaurants vying for affordable rents. I’ve eaten in a few Vietnamese places round here (several also do Chinese or Thai) as they are cheap and quick, and it’s cuisine I can’t get easily where I live, so still feels like something 'different' to try when in Belgium. So if you aren’t intimidated by oriental menus in French or Flemish, these may be a good bet for something tasty and filling for not many Euros, before you head off for a Belgian beer. Though based on the experience of a friend, if you are vegetarian, just be really sure you've managed to convey your dietary needs across any language barriers.

Bar food – some bars will offer very limited hot bar food – for some reason Spaghetti Bolognese always seems to be popular, and quite often this is a cheaper option (maybe around €8) but decent too. At lunch and early evening, A La Becasse offers this, along with cheese platters and croque-monsieurs; other places might have something similar, but be aware that they may stick to traditional lunch and dinner service times – i.e. not necessarily any hot food available mid-afternoon. 
 
Frites – there are a few fritures in the city centre, but the one I visit most frequently for a ‘hotel picnic’ is the “Pissy boy chips” (you’ll understand when you see the sign ;-) – actually called FRITLAND, and on one corner of the square around the Bourse stock exchange building. They are open late, so a good stop-off on the way back from the bars then smuggled into your hotel under your coat for a 'hotel picnic', or in more clement weather, eaten outside while admiring the Bourse's monumental architecture. A range of sauces and mayonnaise is offered – I recommend the garlic mayo or Samurai (spicy) sauce. Will fill you up for about €3!

Soup – Belgians seem to be very good at soup! Many cafes and bars make their own fresh each day from whatever vegetables are to hand. I've had great asparagus soup in Waagstuk in Antwerp, and intensely savoury cheese and beer soup in the Halve Maan brewery cafe; bear this in mind as something worth looking out for as a cheap lunch.

Cheese & saucisson – Some of the beer bars won’t do food, but will have a stick of saucission or snack portions of cheese cut into cubes on offer for a few Euros. These can be a good way of staving off hunger and alcohol absorption if you’re having a relaxing afternoon with a few 9% beers.

Noordzee – closed Monday; this is a stand-up counter outside a fishmongers, where they fry up a few delicacies and make tasty fish soup, that you can wash down with a glass of wine. It’s not necessarily “cheap”, but if you are in the mood to spend €6 on some fishy treats or €4.50 for great fish soup, it’s tasty and good quality. It opens at 11am so might be a good place to head to for brunch on a sunny day if you’ve wrapped up warm and don’t mind standing around people-watching while you munch.

Italian – I haven’t eaten at any Italian restaurants in Belgium (having been too keen to search out particularly Belgian delicacies in the past), but vegetarian friends reliably inform me that this can be a good option on a budget, as pizza and pasta places tend to be cheaper than restaurants offering more ‘Belgian’ fare, and they should have a good veggie selection if you need it. Also true for other ethnic cuisines such as Moroccan and Mexican which can be found in the centre of Brussels.

Le Cirio – this is a lovely turn-of-the-century café with a bit of  faded glamour, but still with smartly dressed waiters attending you (and featured recently on Jamie Oliver's Food Fight programme – don't let that put you off!). It’serves food to around 10pm. I’ve had good Belgian fare here – waterzooi (a creamy chicken soup-stew), chicons au gratin, spaghetti carbonara, and other simple hot dishes, for €10. They do croque-madames and other snacks, and a reasonable selection of beers in pretty surroundings.

Beer and bars – while there are specific bars I’d list if advising serious beer aficionados where to go, if you are still making your introductions to Belgian beer rather than intent to hunt down cellar-aged rarities, and in general want somewhere with a decent selection that isn’t too touristy or too pricey, my recommendations would be:

Porte Noir – this may seem like a slight trek from the centre of the city, but really only about 10 minutes on foot from the Grand Place, and is my favourite bar in Brussels. It’s an atmospheric setting – down some steps into the old brick vaults of a convent that used to sit above it, to three rooms with bench seating, bottled beer in fridges, and about 10 Belgian beers on draught. They have a beer list so you can browse through this to decide on your next one, or ask the staff to help you choose if they’re not too busy. This place can get busy on a Friday and Saturday night, but it’s usually worth grabbing the edge of a trestle table if you can. Sometimes there is live music, and it’s a great place to spend a few hours getting acquainted with a variety of Belgian beer. It can be vibrant until quite late on a weekend evening but be aware that it doesn’t open until 5pm each day (closed Sundays).

Pochenellekelder – this is opposite the Mannekin Pis statuette, but isn’t too touristy despite it's location. It has erratic opening hours but is worth a look in if you pass when it is open. It has many costumes around the walls that are used to dress up the little statue for festivals. A decent beer list, though you may have to endure some surly service, but once you’re sat round the table with a nice warming Westmalle Tripel or similar, you won’t mind too much.

Moeder Lambic Fontainas – this is a serious beer bar; no meals here apart from a the excellent cheese platters and a few other snacks to take the edge of the hops. It’s not cheap, but it’s not unreasonable either, and with it’s stark modern interior, free wifi, and plentiful beer list of bottles and draught from round the craft beer world, I’d recommend it as the face of ‘modern’ Belgian beer drinking. They have a much older, tinier, quirkier original bar out in the suburbs, which is worth the trek if you're on a bit of a beer tourism roll, but it’s modern big brother at Fontainas is one of my favourites in the city also.


Student-y and 'locals' bars – these may be a good bet for a cheaper beer with a buzzing but down-to earth atmosphere. There are several around the west of the Grand Place, in St Catherine and St Gery, and in Ixelles and other central Brussels suburbs. There seems to have been a general move towards increased beer lists, so you should be able to find something decent for perhaps around €3.

Le Coq in Rue Auguste Orts is typical of this trend, and has a list of 35 beers including Trappists for around that price, and some such as Boon Kriek even cheaper. In previous years, it was also home to a rather large and slightly grumpy cat called Canaille – 'gangster' in French – who would wait for you to settle down, then march over and settle himself comfortably on your coat, your lap, or your table – whatever suited to mark his ownership of the joint. Sadly Canaille is no more, but apart from that this bar remains steadfastly unadorned, basic, and packed with locals and conversation on weekend nights.

Delhaize and Carrefour supermarkets – if you want to bring some good beer back to England, or just have a few in your hotel room (with a frites picnic!) then avoid the touristy beer shops near the Grand Place, and go to Delhaize and Carrefour supermarkets. There is a decent size Delhaize on Rue au Marche aux Poulets, and a Carrefour in the shopping centre at Gare du Midi, as well as some other small supermarkets around the city. They may well have decent selections of Belgian beer for much cheaper than in bars – a Rochefort or Westmalle might be around €1.50 here, instead of €4 or more in bars. Rochefort 10 normally retails in a shop in England for about £4.50 upwards, so it’s quite a bargain for the lucky Belgians who pick these up with their grocery shopping, and for any visitors to the city who have some spare capacity in their luggage.

Palais of Justice
Need to kill some time in Brussels before you get stuck into the beer, but still watching the pennies? Brussels is full of impressive architecture, so if you are lucky and the weather holds out, you can easily spend some time wandering around admiring impressive buildings while you build up a thirst. My picks would be the Grand Place – an impressive square with several monumental edifices, and handily a Brewer's Museums and a brewpub back onto this square as well; also the Palais of Justice, overlooking the Marolles district – huge and overbearing enough to strike fear into the heart of any miscreant!

There are also several Art Nouveau buildings that can be admired for little cost – in particular the Museum of Musical Instruments and some of the houses in the St Gilles area, and other little touches you will see on shops and buildings around the centre, such as in the Galleries St Hubert. There is also the huge Basilica of Koekelberg, an Art Deco cathedral, with it's panoramic views over the city for a €5 fee. The Atomium can be appreciated from the outside if you get the tram up to Heysel, with all it's past-futurist ominousness; also in the area, about a 15 minute walk from the Atomium, is the Tour Japonaise and Chinese Pavillion – both interesting buildings, and I think only €4 to visit both.

I’m sure everyone has their own brand of exploring to pursue, and when in a different city some of the fun is just wandering the streets and seeing what random places you happen across. But hopefully the above may be a guide to get you started, or help you identify a likely place nearby when your feet are tired from wandering, where victuals may be found at a reasonable (by Belgian standards!) price.

11 comments:

  1. w00t! great guide. thanx.

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  2. Great practical guide, nice work Tania.

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  3. Splendid stuff. I shall try cheese and beer soup this week!

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  4. Thank you for sharing such a nice guidance. I just came across to this blog and found great stuff from here. I would like to revisit this site in future to find more valuable information and recipes. Summer Sausage

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  5. Thank u tania!!we are planning a trip to Brussels soon. Your article was interesting and will be a guide for us, can u please suggest whether the local bars are safe enough to take the family along..

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    1. Hi there, glad you found it useful! I would certainly say bars in Begium (any I've been into, anyway - whether city centre or local) are "safe" enough to take family into - I've never witnessed any kind of trouble or threatening atmosphere! However whether it's suitable to take your family into them may be another thing - I guess it depends on the ages of your children, and whether they will be bored if in a bar with little by way of amusement. I'm also not sure what the regulations or customs are in Belgium in terms of children in bars. But if you were thinking of afternoons / early evenings / lunchtimes, then most of the places I've mentioned would be fine to take kids into. Some are more bar/drinking establishments than cafe-bars (e.g. Moeder Lambic) - but others with a bit of history and that serve meals and/or snacks are probably your best bet.

      There are places like Cafe Lombard and Nuetnigenough that serve food and are more cafe-like which I could certainly see children being welcome in, and children may also like Poechenellekelder with the many costumes of the Mannekin Pis (you may get unwelcoming service, but don't let that put you off, it's probably just the house style there rather than anything to do with whether you have a family with you or not!).

      Le Cirio, Moeder Lambic and Al La Becasse might be good bets to get some lunch with a family in tow - as they do reasonable pasta dishes/toasted sandwich type foods with ample seating.

      My big tip would be to check opening hours online if you can before going anywhere out of the way - they can be erratic in Belgium (and be prepared for them to vary from what's advertised anyway) - and some places like Porte Noir only open in the evenings, as they are more for drinking than for afternoon lounging. If you have any specific requirements you're looking for then let me know and I'll do my best to help. Enjoy your trip!

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    2. Another one to mention is Toone - kids might like it as it's tucked away up an alley (well, there are about 3 different alleys that lead to it) and it has a puppet theatre stage in it. Beer list is fairly standard but includes lots of Belgian classics, and is usually a quiet place to relax during the afternoon, and is also only 5 minutes (if that) from the Grand Place.

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  6. Wow, great reading Tania, me my wife and daughter are heading to brussels for 4 days break, will use your guide for sure, thank you, Tim,

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    1. Thanks for the comment! If there's any specific info you are looking for, feel free to ask away and I'll see if I can help. Hope you have a great trip!

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