Bruges: Belgium's little Venice

by Theresa Durrant

Bruges has more to offer than just chocolate or beer, and can be just as romantic as the likes of Paris or Rome.

There could be nothing more perfect than taking a stroll around Bruges at night. This busy, energetic town by day oozes romance in the evening, where the cobbled streets bordered on either side by high, step-gabled buildings are surprisingly quiet. Wonderfully lit, the canals are invitingly serene and reflect the medieval buildings that surround them.

Peering through dimly lit restaurant windows, you can see tourists and locals soaking up the atmosphere and the delightfully tender dish that is Flemish stew (beef cooked slowly in ale).

Whilst there are some pockets of areas that would appeal to younger tourists, with trendy wine bars and night clubs, Bruges is largely an untouched town that offers fine dining and plenty to do. With the clattering of horse hooves, and medieval squares that are mainly pedestrianized you could close your eyes and feel that you have stepped into a different era.

Early in the morning is an especially good time in September, as the mist rising from the canals gently envelopes the taller buildings and spires. As the morning progresses, the narrow paths start to swarm with people ducking in and out of chocolate and lace shops and the smell of mussels wafts out of every restaurant.

What's to see?

There are numerous museums like Groeninge, Memling or Gruuthuse Museum that are certainly worth a visit, some of which contain splendid works of art collected over six centuries, including pieces painted by Flemish primitives. You can obtain 3-day tickets for approximately €15, which will allow you in to multiple sites.

Located in the Markt, the Belfort (Bell Tower) stands approximately 83 meters and is the medieval heart of Bruges. The views are certainly worth the trip for able bodied people, but be warned, there are approximately 366 steps and no lift, plus the stairway is extremely narrow. Thankfully there are places that you can stop and admire the interior structure and bells during your climb, so the trip up is not too taxing. The cost to enter the Bell Tower is approximately €8 per person, with the latest entry being at 4.15pm.

The smaller and possibly much prettier square called Burg, is the administrative centre of Bruges. Gothic buildings dating from the late 1300s contain neo-gothic images that depict major events in Bruges' history. The lower chapel in the old town hall is for worship only, but in the upper chapel you can enjoy the images at your leisure. The Burg is also host to a weekly food market selling local delicacies and produce, and gives a wonderful insight into Belgian life.

Bruges is home to 17 churches, 16 of which are Catholic, despite only a population of about twenty thousand inhabitants, but the one that stands out is Notre Dame, or Church of Our Lady, located at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk. This church boasts the second tallest brick structure in the world and is home to Michelangelo’s ‘Madonna with Child’, thought to be one of the only sculptures to have been exported from Italy during his life. Entry is free, so you can spend as long as you want admiring the beautifully carved wooden pulpit, nave and sculptures.

Things to do

One of the more leisurely ways to enjoy Bruges is via a boat trip along the canals. Lasting approximately 35 minutes, the guides are very informative, regardless of your language. The trip will set you back about €7 for adults and €6 for children, but offers a splendid opportunity to take photographs or just sit back and relax.

If water is not your choice of travel, then why not try a buggy ride instead. These horse and carriage rides are a delightful experience for all the family, and cover more of less the same points of interest as the canal rides. Also lasting about 30 minutes, you will be driven from Markt, past the brewery, Notre Dame and up to Love Lake, finally to arrive back at the Markt. To hire one buggy costs €36, which can hold up to four people.

Whilst Bruges is not just about beer and chocolate, it would be a shame not to sample some locally produced beverages like Jupiler, Palm or Hoegaarden. For the real enthusiasts you can take a journey around the brewery with a very informative guide, before being offered a free beer of your choice. Entry is about €10-12.

Alternatively, you can take tours around the Diamond Museum or chocolate factory, the latter being a great hit with the children.

Eating Out

For those of you that are vegetarian, then the restaurant in Hotel Koffieboontje, Hallestraat 4, 8000 Bruges, may be a suitable choice. This modern dining room, offering a warm welcome are more than happy to discuss specific dietary needs and have enough of a selection to suit all. Barely a stone throw from the Markt, the prices are reasonable, the ambience delightful and the food very delicious.

If you have been one of the brave ones to climb the Belfry, you may want to take refreshments in the square, but something worth noting is that some of the restaurants can be extremely expensive. For example, a lunch for four, that consists of nothing more than baguettes and beer at ‘Au petit Café’, could set you back as much as €71.

If you are looking for respite from all the walking, then you could not go too wrong with trying out T'Eekhoetje Tearoom, based in Eekhoutstraat, 3. This modern cafe-bistro is extremely clean and friendly, offering not only local dishes, but some classic international dishes too. Their bread pudding is absolutely scrumptious and is highly recommended. The cafe is usually closed on Wednesday, but opens until 6.30pm daily and 9pm on Saturdays.

Alternatively, if you want to try something more authentic, then the De Versteende Nacht, Langestraat 11, could be just the place.  This small, family run restaurant plays good jazz music and offers real local dishes, freshly made. The vegetable soup and Flemish stew are sublime, not to mention the asparagus salad, which would tickle any tastebuds and comes with a modest price tag.

Where to stay

Hotel ter Reien, is a quaint, family run hotel set beside the canal that runs across Langestraat. The staff are welcoming and very helpful and whilst the reception area is small, it is functional and offers internet access. Beyond the reception the hotel opens into an outside courtyard and disabled entrance. Though the rooms may be small, the beds are comfortable and the rooms warm. For a small hotel, they do however offer rooms suitable for wheelchair uses, so ensure to request this at the point of booking.

In conclusion

Bruges is an intoxicating mixture of cultures, which is reflected in the languages spoken, a coming together of French, German, English and Flemish dialects, this perfectly preserved medieval town holds enough charm to shame any of the major European cities. A perfect destination that would appeal to all visitors, whether young backpackers, old romantic types or families looking for escapism, there is enough culture and entertainment to ensure that you won't leave disappointed.