Bruges’ architecture is stunning, no doubt about it. You could spend all day wandering around taking it all in, and you still wouldn’t tire of it. Check out my earlier post here for a little stroll around the city taking in the sights.
We visited Bruges for two days. 48 hours to take in as much of the city as we could. I had done my thorough research by watching the movie In Bruges – a deliciously dark comedy which is well worth watching before you visit the city. It gave me a great insight into the city, as well giving me a few locations that I wanted to search out.
The lovely people at Visit Bruges had kindly organised a pack of information for me including a city guide and maps, so I was good to go.
We had checked into our hotel, unpacked and had 48 hours ticking down on the clock before we had to jump on a train back to Brussels. Plenty of time you would think, but no. There is a lot to cram in.
If you are planning a trip to Bruges, to make the most of your time I would recommend a 3 night stay, unless you are happy to do repeat visits.
Here are some things I would recommend that you do:
1. Climb the Belfort
The Belfort towers above the central Grote Markt, standing at an impressive 83 metres tall. This medieval bell tower dates back to around the year 1240 but the octagonal section at the top was added between 1483 and 1487.
A popular tourist attraction, visitors can climb to the top using a narrow spiral staircase of 366 steps, which by the way, gets narrower and steeper the further you go up. There are a few passing points along the way but they are fairly rare towards the top.
There are sections along the way where you can stop and see the Great Bell and the Drum Room, and to get your breath back.
It definitely worth the climb, as the very top of the tower gives you great views of the city, albeit through netting. I assume this has been in place for a long time, but a part of me did wonder whether it has been installed after In Bruges was released. Hmm.
The climb back down is far easier, you will be pleased to know. We visited on a Monday morning and there was no queue, whereas the weekend has been quite busy when we passed.
2. Visit the De Halve Maan Brewery
A family brewery in the centre of Bruges, the Brouwerij De Halve Maan has been operating since 1856 and run by six generations of the Maes family. It is here that they brew Brugse Zot, a blond beer with the jester logo that you will see in most bars in the city. They also brew the stronger and darker Straffe Hendrik beer here too.
The brewery runs regular hours tours around the facility, but once a day at 2.15pm there is an ‘XL tour’, which is more in depth with a smaller group, where there is the option to taste a range of beers at the end (only one beer is included with the standard tour).
An interesting, relaxed and informative tour, it is well worth a visit and gives you the opportunity to head to the roof of the brewery building for great views of the city. There are many sections of the building that are quite difficult to get around – steep, narrow steps and ladder sections.
3. Explore the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal
Bruges’ Saint-Salvator Cathedral is the oldest church in the city dating back to the 10th century. Originally a church it was not granted cathedral status until the 19th century, and following a fire which destroyed the roof in 1839, it was rebuilt along with a new 99 metre high west tower, to give the building a more cathedral-style look.
The interior of the cathedral is possibly one of the most beautiful I have seen. The jaw dropping scale of the stained glass windows, the ornate details around the ceilings, the organ. It was gorgeous. Definitely a must visit (if you like that kind of thing).
4. Call into St. Jaanshospitaal
St. John’s Hospital is one of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in Europe. It now houses the Hospitaalmuseum which explores the history of the hospital with a collection of objects and documents. The old chapel section of the building features a collection of works by Hans Memling. It’s a stunning space to wander and admire, although there was an exhibition running currently which wasn’t really to my taste. The building interior itself is worth the visit alone.
There is a courtyard behind the main building which leads to the old pharmacy (included in the ticket price) and offers some great views of the exterior of the hospital buildings.
5. Admire the Church of Our Lady Bruges
Directly across the from St. John’s Hospital stands the Church of our Lady Bruges, or the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Dutch. It’s tower is the tallest structure in the city at 115 metres high. The exterior of the church is impressive from all angles, and although it’s interior is impressive, it doesn’t compare to the Saint-Salvator Cathedral in my opinion.
Saying that, it’s a building that you would be hard to miss in the city, so definitely worth a visit when you are passing.
You are not going to visit Belgium without eating some chocolate. Every few steps you take around Bruges, you are likely to stumble upon yet another chocolate shop. But that’s okay, because chocolate is good. Especially Belgian chocolate.
Most of the chocolate shops feature some impressive and artistic displays of their wares and the smells emanating from these shops are definitely enticing. There are usually some tasters available, you know, just so you are sure that you like the Belgian chocolate.
Be sure to call into The Chocolate Line where they have a great selection and you can watch the guys making chocolate at the back of the store.
Anyway, where was I? Chocolate. If you not only want to eat all of the chocolate, but you also want to learn about the chocolate, you should definitely pop into Choco-Story, The Chocolate Museum.
Here you will have the opportunity to learn about the history of the chocolate from it’s cocoa origins and how it is turned into the chocolate that we eat. Don’t worry, included in your ticket price is a bar of chocolate that you can munch on along the way, there are various tasters and well as an interactive section where you can watch the chocolate being made and are given another sample!
NOTE: I didn’t take any photos in Choco-Story as I was too busy eating chocolate.
7. Basilica of the Holy Blood
A little bit of culture again. Located in the corner of Burg Square is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The ornate facade leads to a staircase that heads to two chapels, the lower of which maintains the original romanesque style, whereas the upper chapel was rebuilt in the 16th century in the Gothic style we can see today. The level of detail in here is almost too much to take in.
For fans of ‘In Bruges’, it’s worth mentioning that they didn’t use the interior for filming the scenes that were meant to be located there.
8. Eat a Belgian Waffle
You can’t get away from waffles of the Belgian variety here, so you just need to jump in and have one. Down every street there are cafes advertising their wonderful waffles. Kiosks selling waffles. Shops selling waffles on a stick. Huh?
So, despite being full to the brim of Belgian chocolate, we had to find time for another sugary treat. We aimed to head to the renowned ‘Lizzie’s Waffles’ on Sint-Jakobsstraat for a waffley treat, but given the popularity of Lizzie and her wonderful waffles there was a constant queue outside the door, which permanently had a sign saying ‘FULL‘. Fine Lizzie, I’ll get to you next time as I’m not prepared to wait out in the cold. Wandering the streets on a late afternoon we found a quirky little cafe called Delicious which had a giant waffle hanging above the doorway and it didn’t have a sign on the door saying ‘FULL’, so in we went.
Delicious isn’t your traditional Belgian eatery but rather a kitsch little cafe, which had hundreds of napkins pinned to the walls, with little notes from visitors from around the world.
Being a simple man, I opted for the plain old sugared Belgian Waffle and a coffee as I wasn’t mentally prepared for any more chocolate at that point. It was, as the sign above the door said, Delicious.
9. Drink ‘a’ Belgian Beer
When I say, drink ‘a‘ Belgian Beer it’s unlikely that it’s going to be singular. Belgians are very proud of their beers, and in most cafes and restaurants the beer menu is larger than the food menu.
Belgian beer can also be surprisingly strong. Ranging from about 5% to 11%, you need to be fairly careful when perusing their novel-like menus as if you order a stronger beer, you won’t necessarily taste the difference and stronger beers are just as smooth and easy to drink as the weaker ones.
One thing that’s a definite is that they taste great. And whichever beer you order, you are likely to be served it in the branded glass for that beer, something which is less likely over here in the UK. This became something of a challenge to me. It wasn’t just about sampling a variety of beers, it was about sampling them from many different styles of glass and proudly taking photos of each one!
Bruges is full of little bars and cafes, so there is no shortage of places to have a quick drink stop. There are a few special places that stand out though.
Caffe Vlissinghe is the oldest, continuously running cafe in Bruges and dates back to 1515. It’s a traditional style bar in a single room with a lovely old fireplace and a great atmosphere.
‘t Brugs Beertje is another lovely little bar with two cosy rooms. The beer menu has a selection of about 300 Belgian beers – don’t try and get through the whole of this!
2be Bar, aka The Beer Wall is a really popular bar with a wide range of draught beers and large outdoor terrace area. The menus hang from the ceiling on elastic and have a huge range of drinks. The Beer Wall outside of the bar is something of a tourist attraction in itself. I’m not entirely sure how many photos I walked through on the way to the bar, but it was several! There is also a great shop here selling all the beer and chocolate that you could ever need.
De Republiek is a vibrant cafe bar that is open late into the night (and responsible for a few of those beer photos above)! Friendly staff and really great vibe, it’s definitely somewhere to visit for a few drink, and the food also looked great.
The Bottle Shop is another stopping point if you are a fan of the beer. Selling a wide selection of Belgian beers, as well as the branded glasses, it’s definitely worth stopping by.
10. Eat Belgian Food
The Belgians certainly like their food. If you get past the chocolate and the waffles, there is still plenty on offer.
Why not try Frites (fries, chips) with mayonnaise from one of the overpriced kiosks on the Grote Markt. I must admit I’m not really sure on the appeal of this, it’s just chips and mayo, but some tourists were lapping it up. Nothing like a selfie with some Frites in front of the Belfort to bump up the Instagram likes I suppose!
Alternatively, in nicer restaurant surroundings, moules-frites were a popular choice for patrons. I opted for a Flemish stew as one of my meals and it was a deliciously hearty meal for chilly January evening.
Our evening restaurant choices were a big hit. We asked the hotel receptionist for some recommendations, and being super friendly and helpful they came up with half a dozen options and marked them all on a map for us. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet – I don’t think I have been to a city where service staff are so consistently helpful and friendly. It was a breath of fresh air.
The first choice was directly opposite the hotel – a lovely little restaurant called Diligence. A small room with a large curved bar and tables packed in fairly tightly, there was a real buzz to the place. Fans of In Bruges may recognise the interior of this place from one of the scenes in the movie – there is a link to it on their website!
Our second night choice of restaurant was also a hit. We had pre-booked the night before, given it’s seemingly huge popularity and it was a good thing we did.
Bierbrasserie Cambrinus is a busy vibrant bar and restaurant with an even more extensive beer menu than ‘t Brugs Beertje, at approximately 400 different beers. The food menu was also extensive, after much deliberation I opted for a steak that was pretty impressive.
We had heard good things about many other restaurants in the city, but as usual, time was against us so there are plenty of options for next time.
That should keep you busy for a couple of days if you decide to visit.
But what about the Beer Museum, I hear you ask? I know, I know. It was on our list, but having had a few tipples at the brewery, we decided against a visit on our one full day otherwise we wouldn’t have made it out for dinner!
But what about the Boat Trips on the canals? Well, we did intend to do one of these but given that it was a very busy weekend, there was long queues for the boats. They seemed crammed full of people – more people that I would have wanted to be in very close contact with on a wobbly little vessel for 30 minutes. Again, next time maybe!
There definitely will be a next time. With such good transport links from the UK, it was a simple and relaxing weekend break and I would thoroughly recommend a visit.