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The Venice of the North, the city of swans, the ultimate medieval city – Bruges’ gaggle of nicknames already indicates how much the canaled town and its historic center speak to the imagination. Here’s how to make the most of your getaway to swoon-worthy Bruges.
The easiest way of getting to Bruges when arriving by flight at Brussels National Airport is through the direct railway connection that leaves every hour. If you just missed the last connection, and don’t want to wait, you can take a train to Brussels-Zuid first and then transfer. Both routes should take about an hour and a half. Once at the Bruges station, you can either take a bus – there are plenty – to the center or enjoy a brisk, 20-minute walk. Do not plan on driving your car around cobbled Bruges with its narrow alleys.
First off, a leisurely walk through picturesque Bruges is a worthwhile experience all on its own. Two particularly stroll-worthy neighborhoods are the Gouden-Handrei and the Sint-Anna quarter, both less touristy but equally historic. Other popular ways to explore Bruges are boat rides along the crisscrossing canals or by bike (the way most locals get around). A major attraction – and workout – is climbing the 336-step Belfry tower that watches over the main market square. The panoramic view on top is great for getting a feel for the city’s general layout from the start, not to mention the carillonneur’s impressive bell mechanism that’s up here. On the same square lies City Hall (anno 1376) with its magnificent polychrome vaulted ceiling inside.
Always having been a city of the elite, it’s no surprise that besides gorgeous old buildings, Bruges attracted many of yesteryear’s great artists and their work. The Groeningemuseum has been able to assemble a world-renowned collection of works by the Flemish Primitives such as Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling. The Church of Our Lady holds one of Michelangelo’s few sculptures to be found outside of Italy, the Madonna with Child. Other religious highlights include the Basilica of the Holy Blood where, you guessed it, a vial of what some people believe to be Jesus’ actual blood is kept, and a curious, 15th-century replica of the Jerusalem Chapel.
Naturally, all that medieval splendor tugs at the heartstrings, and Bruges, with its legions of swans and cobbled alleyways, is more than accommodating to the romantically inclined. Legend has it that walking across the bridge of the Minnewater (‘the Lake of Love’) will grant eternal love to a couple, which you can celebrate by having a picnic at the neighboring Minnewaterpark. It’s a tradition for tourists to share a slightly colder kiss with the frog statue at the Burg Square, in hopes of turning the animal into a prince or princess charming after smooch number 100,000. As far as aphrodisiacs go, the Old Chocolate House, Olivier’s Chocolate, and Dominique Persoone’s pioneering The Chocolate Line project are your best friends. Café Rose Red is the most romantic bar of all with a revolving selection of artisanal beers, an intimate décor and red roses dangling from the ceiling. Fellow beer hot spots to stand out from the pack are the homey ‘t Brugs Beertje, the 500-year-old Café Vlissinghe, and student hot spot ‘t Poatersgat.
Family-minded and attractive to guests from all walks of life, Hostel Lybeer boasts just as fancy a lounge as the most expensive of Bruges hotels, with pub quizzes and democratically priced beer tastings to boot.
Dormitory beds start at €19
Hostel Lybeer, Korte Vuldersstraat 31, 8000 Bruges, Belgium, +32 50 33 43 55
Hostel en Gran Kaffee Passage
Somewhere in between a hostel and a boutique hotel, Hostel en Gran Kaffee Passage’s neat rooms house two, three or four beds. Downstairs in the fin de siècle restaurant that gave the hostel its name, you can enjoy a hot Belgian meal for as cheap as €9.50.
Double rooms start at €64
Hostel en Gran Kaffee Passage, Dweersstraat 26, 8000 Bruges, Belgium, +32 50 34 02 32
Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce
The selfies with this particularly photogenic hotel are endless thanks to its scenic location at the crossing of two waterways and its timbered façades. What’s more is that its plush rooms live up to the appeal of its alluring exterior, making for a nostalgic stay amidst antique furniture, luxurious bed linen, and precious 20th-century paintings.
Double rooms start at €195
Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce, Wollestraat 41, Bruges, Belgium, +32 050 33 79 26
Ganzespel does authentic Flemish food well for a great price. Classics such as waterzooi and steak béarnaise are there to provide comfort and warmth, and as the afterglow of a good meal for less than 20 euros sets in, you can relax while playing the traditional board game for which this snug place was named.
Ganzespel, Ganzenstraat 37, 8000 Bruges, Belgium, +32 50 33 12 33
At Bistro Bruut, two nephews bring together people on long, unpolished wooden tables to treat them to Belgian dishes with a twist. Bruno and Bas do their thing in a casual atmosphere with seasonal produce, all as fresh as can be thanks to the limited menu of three, four or five courses. Bruut is Flemish gastronomy at its most jovial.
Bruut, Meerstraat 9, 8000 Bruges, Belgium, +32 50 69 55 09
Bruges as a city of great gastronomy can be a costly surprise for many a foodie. Bistros such as the Italian La Porta and lunch favorite Kok au Vin try to ease the pain by producing the affordable without losing the delectable. The same goes for star chef Geert Van Hecke, who may have put an end to his world-renowned Karmeliet restaurant earlier this fall but whose more accessible side project Refter is alive and well.