Bruges, “The Venice of the North” is known as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Once a thriving mercantile town, it’s now more of a tourist hotspot with visitors drawn to its medieval architecture, romantic canals, rich chocolate and strong beer! Whether you’re travelling to Belgium via Eurostar or taking a leisurely minicruise across the North Sea, here are our top tips on things to do on a two day break in Bruges.
Bruges is a relatively small city so the easiest way to get a handle on the place is with a sightseeing tour. You can hop on a Bruges City Tour minibus in the main square which will take you round the main sights in under an hour. A nice alternative is a boat ride on the canals which gives a unique perspective on the city along with interesting and informative commentary; canal cruises are also a bit more cost effective as well. If you’re really counting your pennies then try one of the free walking tours; Legends of Bruges tours leave three times a day from the Grote Markt and offers local insights and tips on the ‘must do’s’ in Bruges as well as a free beer!
Speaking of beer, this really is a must in Belgium! With the current trend for craft beer, Belgian brews have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. There are loads of nice pubs in the centre of Bruges but for something different, try a visit to the De Halve Maan brewery (that’s Half Moon to you and me). The last active brewery in Bruges city centre, beer has been brewed on this site since the 1850s and the brewery is still run by the Maes family to this day. You can take a tour round the brewery and see how their signature beer Brugse Zot is made, learn about the history of brewing in Bruges and even handle some of the ingredients. There is a room full of beer glasses of all shapes and sizes (each type of Belgian beer is served in its own specially designed glass which is meant to improve the flavour of the beer!) As the brewery is housed in a medieval building, expect steep, narrow stairs and passageways as you make your way round. However, the climb to the top of the building is rewarding as there are spectacular views across the town. A tour of the brewery cost €10 and includes a glass of Brugse Zot Blond in the tap room afterwards. This beer comes straight from the brewery and is unfiltered which means it is cloudier than usual but retains more of its taste. Also brewed on-site, Straffe Henrik is a “tripel” beer so is a lot stronger, not for the faint-hearted!
Work off that beer with a trip to the top of the Belfry. Located on the main market square, the Belfry (Belfort in Flemish) is one of Bruges’ most prominent landmarks and dates all the way back to the 13th century. A narrow, steep staircase of over 300 steps takes you to the top where you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of the city and across West Flanders. Some of Bruges’ other medieval buildings include the Church of Our Lady, the Begijnhof Brugge, the Provinciaal Hof and St. Salvator’s Cathedral. A more unusual building is the Basilica of the Holy Blood tucked away in a corner of Burg Square. The church houses a relic containing cloth said to be stained with the blood of Jesus Christ which was brought to Europe after the Crusades by the Count of Flanders. Whether you believe the legend of not, it’s still an interesting and unusual sight which can be viewed for a small donation.
After all that exploring it’s time for some refreshment. Bruges’ most famous culinary highlight is probably the humble chip! You can find frites all over the city and they are great for a snack with mayo for dipping but if you’re looking for something more substantial there are plenty of great restaurants around the city centre.
The tourist-trap restaurants around Grote Markt all offer fixed price deals so you should be able to find something to fit your budget. Mussels (Moules-frites) are always popular and may well be Belgium’s national dish but my recommendation is to try Waterzooi; a thick stew or broth usually made with fish although chicken is a popular alternative nowadays.
Whatever you choose to eat you must try some Belgian beer, most places have a great selection and staff should be able to guide you to the best beer to compliment your meal. As Waterzooi is associated with the town of Ghent, try a Gentse Strop; a strong, pale beer whose name has an interesting history dating back to the 1540’s and the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands.
After a hearty Belgian breakfast (maybe some waffles!) continue your cultural break with a visit to some of Bruges’ excellent museums. The Gruuthusemuseum shows the interior of a house of a rich family as it would have been in the late Middle Ages as well as an impressive collection of gold and silver objects, weapons, musical instruments, tapestries and ceramics. The Groeningemuseum contains a comprehensive collection of Flemish and Belgian painting including masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch and Gerard David.
Some more unusual museums include the Frietmuseum devoted to the history of potatoes and the production of Belgian fries, probably the only one of its kind in the world! The Choco-Story takes visitors through the history of chocolate making in Belgium and includes some free samples for those with a sweet tooth. Those of you with a strong constitution could go to the Oude Steen, the old prison, which now houses a torture museum with some grisly artefacts which are sure to send a shiver down your spine.
Explore the golden age of Bruges at The Historium on Bruges Market Square. Through various themed rooms and interactive displays you’re transported back to Middle Ages Bruges where you can explore the back streets, the great houses and Jan van Eyck’s studio. There are great views of the market square from the balcony and a Duvelorium Grand Beer Café where you can relax with a beer after your tour.
There’s enough to do in Bruges to warrant a return visit as I’m sure you will have fallen in love with this quaint medieval town during your short break. If so, maybe next time you could explore the rest of Flanders with a stay the seaside resort of De Panne or one of the other great Flandrien towns like Ghent, Brussels or Antwerp.