I won’t lie, I didn’t know about the existence of Bruges until the release of the 2008 black comedy film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell. While the film’s dialogue contains a lot of demeaning words about Bruges, it is actually a delightful Belgian town to spend a few days in. Bruges is a historic city with such old-world charm that a building constructed in the 1800s is considered “new.” A lot of people pass over Belgium when travelling through Europe, but if your travels should take you there, you should consider a 1-2 day stop in Bruges. Here are 5 things you shouldn’t miss if you’re planning an excursion to the “Venice of the North.”
1. Bike Around the City
Once you get away from the central Markt that’s crowded with buses and tourists, the inner, historic circle of Bruges is quite easy to bike around, especially if you choose to go on a quiet weekend afternoon. You’ll pass rows and rows of Flemish architecture and cobblestone streets, and once you leave the almost-medieval gate to Bruges (called the Kruispoort), you can bike a full circle around the outside of the city centre and see some of the famous windmills. Some of the park area is quite beautiful, and the bike/pedestrian path that circles the city is right next to the canal that also encircles Bruges. It’s a different yet quick way to really see all of the city, plus it feels so charmingly dutch to be riding a bicycle with old windmills in the background! Just be mindful that, though the use of cars is discouraged in the city centre, no street is “car free,” so exercise caution as you would biking in any city. Most tourist maps identify where bike rentals are located, and as it is a popular activity, there are many options within a small radius. Bonus: biking is exercise, and you’re going to need it because of number 2…
2. Eat “frietjes” and “wafels,” and sample many of the chocolate shops and bakeries
Belgium has an especially rich gastronomy, but you can’t go a trip without trying some of their street fries or a waffle loaded with syrup and gelato. Belgium is often argued as the inventor of what North Americans refer to as “French fries,” and over these 300-some years they have certainly perfected them. And what better way to end a night out on the town at 4 in the morning than with a bag of street fries (hint: there is no better way). Waffles are also native to Belgium, and you’ll never taste a better waffle anywhere else in the world. A great place to go in Bruges for a delicious waffle-ice cream combo is the Haagen Dazs just off the Markt square – combine the most delicious waffles in the world with some of the best ice cream in the world, and you have yourself a little piece of heaven.
Being also some of the most famous in the world, you no doubt have to try (and bring back home in droves) Belgian chocolate. You can find just about anything made of chocolate in Bruges – from the standard chocolate bars, cakes, and loaves, to body parts (penises and boobs) in the shape of chocolate, and even chocolate cigars. Belgian patisseries are among the finest I’ve tried, and incorporate chocolate into much of their pastries. But, if you really want to eat chocolate like the locals do, don’t invest in the $6 fully-loaded gourmet chocolate bars – those are largely for tourists, as locals mostly eat what are called “pralines,” which comprises of a chocolate layer covering a soft fondant centre. There is a chocolate museum in Bruges, but it’s largely forgettable, save for the live demonstration of how pralines are made.
3. Drink Beer – Visit Staminee de Garre and try their House Tripel, and take a tour of De Halve Maan Brewery
In my short time on this earth, I’ve drank a lot of beer. Draft beer, craft beer, cold beer, warm beer, strong beer, weak beer, fruity beer, bitter beer. But never in my life have I had a more delicious glass of beer than when I visited this hard to find hole-in-the-wall recommended by my exchange professor. The Staminee de Garre House Tripel is very strong, clocking in at 11% alcohol, and the bartenders will actually limit you to two of these delicious beers before cutting you off. One of my biggest travel regrets is not buying a bottle of this amazing beer to bring back home with me, as it isn’t available anywhere else in the world. And so, I direct all you travellers heading to Bruges to go down that little alley and find this place, and try this absolutely decadent beer for yourself, and I will live vicariously through you.
But in addition to de Garre, Belgium is obviously internationally-known for its incredible beer culture and distilleries (Stella Artois being the most famous, but no where near some of the fine calibre of Belgian beers that exist). One of the coolest tours you can do in Bruges is to visit De Halve Maan Brewery, established in 1546 and remaining as the city’s last family-operated brewery located in the historic centre. Like many breweries, you go through and find out how their beer, the Brugse Zot, is made, but as it is a family-operated brewery you get a great sense of their passion for the business and for crafting good beer. Plus, the climb up to the roof of the brewery offers a great view of Bruges (that doesn’t involve the difficult ascent of climbing the Belfry!). Check out their restaurant before or after and have a cup of beer soup – trust me, I was surprised at how good it was too!
4. Climb to the top of the Belfry
The view from the top of the Belfry (also called the Belfort) is the best in Bruges, giving you a full panorama of the city centre – orange rooftops and wide canals interspersed with cobblestone and weeping willow trees. Be warned, however, it’s not an easy climb up – 366 steps in a winding staircase that gets narrower and narrower as you ascend. Even the steps get smaller – I have relatively small feet, and towards the top I couldn’t fit my entire foot on the width of a stair, and as the staircase is open to two way traffic, it can get quite snug when you’re trying to pass by tower descenders. I recommend being in decent physical condition to climb the Belfry (or you may end up like the poor sap in In Bruges!). All this being said, the view is worthwhile, and it’s always impressive to say you walked up and down 366 stairs! When you do climb the Belfry, however, I suggest having better timing than I did – the night before I did it, I had imbibed in perhaps one too many Belgian beers, and my friends and I went up the Belfry just before noon – the 47 bells striking 12 at the very moment of us standing right next to them was not a pleasant experience for my head!
5. Tour the canals
Admittedly, this is the most touristy, hokey thing you can do in Bruges (aside from seeing the vial of the blood of “Jesus” at the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which I wholeheartedly endorse if you’re non-religious and want to waste your time). But it’s considerably less hokey than riding a gondola in Venice while an old Italian man plays a violin and serenades you! The tour guides on the boats in the canals are trilingual and very knowledgeable about the different buildings built along the canals, from historical anecdotes to pointing out the “dog of Bruges” to identifying which building Colin Farrell jumped out of in the movie. You really get a taste for the flavour of Flemish architecture at canal level, and the flora that cascade over the medieval walls and the willows that weep into the water are absolutely beautiful against the old-world setting. You simply cannot have a stay in Bruges without an excursion on the water, and it’s not an overly pricey way to see the entire city. Any one of the five landing stations is equally as good of a starting point, and the price is about 8 euros.
In In Bruges, Colin Farrell stipulates that if he grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress him but he didn’t, so it doesn’t. The very irony of this statement is in how impressive Bruges really is for such a small, old town. Give yourself a visual (and in some cases, edible!) treat on your trip through Western Europe, and make a stop in Bruges, if only to experience these five must-do activities.