While many tourists are inclined to tackle the whole of Belgium in once fell swoop, often visiting Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent in day trips leaving from Brussels, Culture Trip recommends at least one extra night spent in the “Venice of the North.” While the city core may be relatively small, day-trippers run the risk of dropping their jaws at the (admittedly gorgeous) Burg and Markt squares, clambering up the Belfry, devouring a waffle, and being on their way again. And all of this when Bruges’ core – medieval and UNESCO-labeled as it is – hasn’t even begun to reveal its most charming secrets or its sumptuous hotels.
Another idyllic experience you’d miss out on if you had to hurriedly catch your train or bus is a walk along the canals as evening falls. Once the streets, with its illuminated lampposts, have quieted and you’ve found your way to the Groenerei, Sint-Annarei or Gouden-Handrei, prepare to feel like the only person in this enchanting world.
In keeping with the slumber that rests over its medieval center once the sun sets, Bruges’ nightlife isn’t so much about wild parties as it is about bar hopping. Besides the Eiermarkt, with its student bars and the odd brasserie that hosts live DJ sets at night, it’s pretty much cozy terraces and cellar pubs all the way. Bruges fixtures such as De Garre, ‘t Brugs Beertje, and ‘t Poatersgat and their endless supply of great Belgian beers always set the right tone.
As your handheld saunter along the canals will attest to, there’s hardly a place that has sent more hearts aflutter than Bruges. Romantic sceneries are unavoidable, so commitment-phobes might want to opt out of this one, lest your partner gets the wrong idea. You’d certainly want to sidestep Café Rose Red, a charming little dwelling where roses dangle from the ceiling and many lovebirds emerge newly engaged.
Your upcoming trip to Bruges, a gourmet kind of town in a Burgundian kind of land, is not the time to stick to that well-intentioned diet. Either it will fail, or you will make yourself miserable walking past about 50 chocolate shops, numerous waffle places, and the country’s only museum dedicated to its beloved fries (yes, samples are involved). Homey restaurants such as Den Amand, Den Huzaar, Ganzespel, and Gran Kaffee de Passage serve top-notch comfort food of the Flemish kind.
Of course, there’s one problem with well-preserved Bruges: everyone is in on the secret. The cat’s been out of the bag since before the 20th century even started when the French and the English came in droves to witness the medieval splendor for themselves. Yet even in summer, there are certain spots you can count on to be (relatively) safe from the masses. The hidden urban orchard Hof De Jonghe is one, and so is the tranquil but beautiful Sint-Anna Quarter. Though the beguinage might be a tourist classic, quiet reverence still reigns supreme there.
If being packed like sardines in summer isn’t your thing, early December and the whole of January are real sweet spots in Bruges’ busy schedule. In both cases, the city bears all the markings of a winter wonderland, though you don’t want to push it too close to actual Christmas if flocks of tourists are your biggest pet peeve.
Though the Bonifacius Bridge may look primed to star in a medieval love affair, this stone construction only dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. It serves as a valuable lesson to realize that not everything in Bruges is as old as it looks; however, a lot of its gingerbread center is as historic as it seems, including one of the oldest city halls in the Lower Countries. In the 20th century, though, a lot of newer buildings were plopped down in the signature brick and stepped gable style to blend into their venerable environments. To make the distinction, look for the blue-and-white plaques on the houses’ façades; those will tell you who the real old chaps are.
Yes, maps can be useful, but once on the central Markt Square, it can be lovely to wander around for a while with the thing tucked safely inside of your backpack. It’s there when you need it, but exploring the picturesque town and bumping into wonderful details left and right is one of the greatest things to do when in Bruges. Part of the city’s charm is its small scale – getting from the Minnewaterpark to the Baron Ruzette Park on opposite sides of the center takes half an hour on foot – so even when you get lost, there’s always an easy and quick way back.
Bruges is no stranger to festivals of all shapes and sizes, including a citywide photography festival, a summer music festival in the Minnewaterpark, and the Procession of the Holy Blood in May when a vial of Christ’s blood makes it way around town. Lucky visitors and skilled planners have their trip coincide with the Bruges Triennial, where they will witness contemporary art against the backdrop of Bruges’ old-school public space.
The next Triennial takes place from May 2018 until September 2018.