It often surprises people when they discover that Bruges is about one hour’s train journey from Brussels city centre. Just imagine – a mere 60 minutes away from (the admittedly very well appointed) Brussels is a much smaller city of less than 120,000. Although close in proximity, the differences between Brussels and Bruges couldn’t be more evident. The former is the central hub of the European Parliament, and therefore enjoys in varying ways the ebb and flow of important city life. Bruges, on the other hand, is satisfied to put up its legs and just let the world and its busy, hustling citizens pass by. Another surprise: you’d be taken aback by how few people choose to stay overnight. Day tourists love Bruges, of course, but once the tour coaches leave, the city unwinds even more.
What To See/Do
Bruges is small, I’ll admit, but there’s so much to see that you probably won’t pack everything in over a mid-week visit or a weekend break. You might say that the truism ‘less is more’ applies here. There are quite a few must-sees: one of the most impressive is the Museum of the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Burg 13, holyblood.com), a Romanesque church and a Basilica that was restructured in Gothic revival style in the 19th century. If the external features are striking, the internal qualities are truly awe-inspiring – all-round vivid gilt and dusky wood, with an ambience that is equal parts exceptional and sepulchral.
I have it on good authority that religion and alcohol go hand-in-hand (yes, really), and so I’m recommending that after visiting the Basilica you should call into the Brewery de Halve Maan (Walplein 26, halvemaan.be), which is Bruges’ last working brewery. Experience a slice of history and a drink (perhaps two, if you behave) of the house brew, Brugse Zot, a bracing beer made from malt, hops and special yeast.
You can’t visit Bruges, however, and walk away without sampling some of the tastiest chocolate you’ve ever had. Say hello to Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein and Vaarstraat, thechocolateline.be), one of the city’s many chocolate shops and (in our humble belief) quite likely the best. Here, self-styled ‘shock-o-latier’ Dominique Persoone hand makes, on the premises, chocolates that include especially unusual flavours – tomato & basil, bacon, black olive, tequila, saké, wasabi, bitter ganache with vodka, fried onion, chilli pepper, gingerbread. The shop also sells accessories such as chocolate lipstick, which is, perhaps inevitably, far too tasty for adults.
To make your day even more picture-perfect, why not see an entirely different view of Bruges by boat? Board the small vessels at several landing stages along the canal route for an unhurried 30-minute trip. Boat outings start at 10am and end from 5.30pm onwards. (visitbruges.be/en)
EAT AND DRINK
For such a small city, Bruges has an abundance of terrific places eat and drink in. The cafés all around the Markt Square are fine for a quick snack or a sit-down, foot-resting coffee, but for something that little bit more special or interesting we’d recommend seeking out eateries located in the narrow streets that spread out from the old town centre. One such restaurant is Cafédraal (Zilverstraat 38; cafedraal.be), an organically hip yet lowkey bistro/bar that is smartly designed and which functions via the principles of customer approval and accomplished dishes. For lunch here I had the Gamba á la Plancha, with lemongrass and chilli, served with white rice (€28).
If you fancy blending in with the locals and the subtle tourists, head to Gran Kaffe de Passage (Dweersstraat 26-28; passagebruges.com), which is a very even-handed establishment that combines bohemian Art-Deco stylishness with a sophisticated atmosphere. Think nourishing traditional Belgian fare served with wit, history and charisma. There is also a hostel here (with very good rooms), making it ideal for the more budget-conscious traveller.
Belgium is – as if you didn’t know – famous for its multifarious beers, and for a truly trustworthy Bruges experience, you should make your way to Cambrinus (Philipstockstraat 19; cambrinus.eu), a stone’s throw from Grote Markt. It’s the kind of bar you’d ideally like to stay in for much longer than you know you should, with its selection of over 400 beers and a history that dates back to 1699. It also has a sister café four doors down, where they serve homemade tapas, bread, what they describe as ‘beer cheeses’, with over 20 artisanal draught beers.
For an altogether different (but just as casual) addition to drinking beer, pop into De Garre (De Garre 1; degarre.be), which is situated just off the main square, and which fuses atmosphere (think Lord of the Rings pub ambience), many, many beers and – here’s the clincher for a lazy afternoon – classical music.
Unless you’re a member of royalty (and let’s be honest here – the only royal connection I have with life, the universe and everything is that I sleep in a king-size bed), how often can you say that you once slept in a palace? If you fancy testing the flexibility of your friendly plastic cards, then a visit to the five-star Hotel Dukes’ Palace (Prinsenhof 8; hotel-dukespalace.com) is a no-brainer. It’s also something of a gem of a hotel – very ritzy, quite creative, with a restaurant that is as high-end as you imagine. Set beside the hotel garden, the Dukes’ menu is both classy and healthy. On one evening, I had a starter of Shrimp Croquettes, with cream and fried parsley (€18), and a main of Sea Devil (Ibérico ham, with parmesan and fennel, €26). Sipping from a glass of Cuvee Des Jacobins Rouge – traditional Belgian Flanders Red ale aged for 18 months, which strengthens its flavours of stone fruit, vanilla and cherry – you could easily drift off to Neverland without feeling short-changed.
Bruges is so small that everything – yes, even Dukes’ Palace – is in the heart of the city, but for a somewhat less expensive and more intimate sleepover, try Number 11 (Peerdenstraat 11; number11.be), a boutique hotel located in a practically silent and traffic-free street close to the Groene Rei canal. Interesting fact – scenes from the movie, In Bruges (which co-starred Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) were filmed here.
Another good option for a headrest is the Pand Hotel (Pandreitje 16; pandhotel.com), formerly an 18th century carriage house that is now a 26-room boutique offering. This one is something of a minor-deluxe choice and not without a marked degree of charm, mirroring as it does Bruges’ old-world style throughout with antiques, panelled walls, open fires, wooden floors and artworks. And we love the fact that breakfast eggs – and here’s a quote from the website – are prepared “according to your wishes on granny’s AGA stove.”
Any more for any more? How about Hotel Azalea (Wulfhagestraat 43; belforthotels.com)? A restored 14th century Patrician house and a former brewery, it is located mere minutes away from the city’s main square, right by Speelmansrei canal. A nice touch (among many) is the hotel bar, which has a terrace that overlooks a manicured garden and a peaceful, undulating waterway.
For further information about Bruges, see visitbruges.be/en
Written by Tony Clayton-Lea