Looking for a fun easy trip out of London? Heard good stuff about the ‘Venice of the North’? Or just seen ‘In Bruges’ starring Colin Farrell?! Knew it. Me too. In which case I’d highly recommend a weekend in Bruges in November as Eurostar tickets come in cheap (I paid £70 return), and whilst Airbnb doesn’t appear to have taken off in full just yet the established B&Bs are decent value and of a really high standard. Bruges is absolutely beautiful and warrants no set agenda: just wander and enjoy.
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3 THINGS YOU REALLY CANNOT MISS:
BELFRY OF BRUGES | I might be a little biased, because I can’t get enough of birds-eye views from tall buildings. If you’re going to do just one uber touristy thing in Bruges, and spend the rest of your time sideways drinking 13% beer – then let this be it. There could be a bit of a wait as capacity for the tower is just 70 people at a time, but grab some frites and be patient. The belfry was added to the market square around 1240, when Bruges was prospering as an important centre of the Flemish cloth industry (you can read some interesting history in the queue). Climb the often very narrow 366 steps and be rewarded with a spectacular panorama out over the red-roof tops.
Also check out: the bells, which just Do. Not. Stop. ringing! Charming at first, slightly tedious after the 100th rendition. Especially as the tunes are only changed every 2 years and toll every 15 minutes.
GEERNAARTSTRAAT | this narrow medieval street links Grote Markt (Market Square) with Eiermarkt (the Egg Market) and features a monumental water pump by Pieter Pepers. It’s right next to the heart of tourist-ville, but feels calmer and offers some great people watching. Bar des Amis is in a good spot, and Het Hof Van Rembrandt gets good reviews (although we drank at the one next door whose name escapes me). Kick on through a Saturday evening (yes, there is Bruges nightlife) and you’ll really ditch the tourist couples! L’Amaral had decent music and felt like a house party in someone’s front room; De Coulissen is truly terrible and still packed when we left at 2:30am, but definitely your chance to embrace full on euro-trash dancing.
Also check out: You’ll be spoilt for choice with cosy watering holes, but the difficult part is not feeling like you’re on an organised tour. I really liked the atmosphere at De Garre which is protected out of sight down an alley; Vlissinghe is the oldest pub recorded as early as 1648 and in ‘the quiet area’ near the windmills; I was also recommended Cafe Rose Red.
L’ESTAMINET | this restaurant-come-pub was pointed out by our lovely B&B host Lut Setola, and turned out to be a real winner. On an autumnal Sunday, stroll though leafy and beautiful Koningin Astridpark and tuck in to what looked like a specialty of spag bol baked with cheese on top. Everyone was ordering it! The establishment opened at noon and didn’t shut until 2am – even on a Sunday.
3 THINGS WORTH A SNOOP:
HUISBROUWERIJ DE HALVE MAAN | A weekend in Bruges in November wouldn’t really be complete without a visit to this local brewery, which offers some fascinating history: it’s been a brewery since 1564 and the Maes family took over in 1856. It wasn’t until 1997 that heir Véronique Maes renovated the brewery, resulting in today’s homebrewery De Halve Maan. For €8 there is a guided tour showing decades of well-preserved brewing history and a free Brugse Zot Blond to boot.
LE COMPTOIR DE MATHILDE | I was tempted to be controversial and have ‘Belgium Chocolate’ as a thing to avoid. I just don’t rate it that much! I find it too sugary, rather than the creamy-melt-in-your-mouth kind of goodness of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Clearly no class. However we did stumble across a couple of real gems. Le Comptoir de Mathilde has delicious praline, and in my opinion the best gifts along with La Belgique Gourmande next door – the latter sells the chocolate milk sticks!
Also check out: Chocolatier Dumon is pretty famous, but I found their chocolates too sweet and the staff equally sugary.
CANAL BOAT | sure, you could just walk Bruges, but the 30 minute boat ride is pretty fun. Again, just €8 so not extortionate for a tourist trap. Keep your eyes open for the wooden Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce hotel; swans gliding near the red-brown brick houses with Dutch-style triangular roof top; buildings such as Holland House reminding us that this part of Belgium used to belong to the Netherlands; the oldest existing bridge known as the Augustijnenberg, dating from 1391 and with ‘benches’ cut into the sides for Medieval peddlers to display their wares.
3 THINGS TO STEER CLEAR:
CHURCHES | on arrival, it’s clear to see that Bruges has a history steeped in religion. The churches are beautiful from the outside, but to me felt a little unloved on the inside. It also seems slightly odd to welcome tourists openly in to the bare and cold interiors, but then charge a museum fee (admittedly small) to see both Michelangelo’s The Madonna and Child in the Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk) and the relic of the Holy Blood in the Basilica. Perhaps I am being overly critical, but I just didn’t get the sense that the town cherished and actually visited their own places of worship.
Also check out: similarly I found the main Béguinage – from the French meaning of a semi-monastic community of women called Beguines – of Begijnhof a little under-whelming. It’s calm and tranquil, yes, but flooded with tourists. Pick your moment and still your mind.
SEGWAYS | Very central Bruges is on tourist steroids! If you’re feeling even vaguely lazy, then all manner of tours are available to drive, cruise, peddle, trot or even glide your way around the city. Just don’t be that div on the segway. Really?!
EUROSTAR WEBSITE TIMES | this is a ‘watch out’ and less of a ‘steer clear’. Maybe I’m just a wally, but I really thought the Eurostar itself went to Bruges. Seeing as it is promoted and can be booked on their website…. Just note that the times printed on your ticket are those in and out of Brussels. And it takes another hour to get to Bruges. The real issue is that the trains don’t link seamlessly, which would be helpful! Our 7:56am train on Monday morning was from Brussels, so meant getting picked up in a taxi at 5:45am for the 6:08am Bruges train allowing 30 minutes at Eurostar customs – not the civilized start time we had expected.
1 THING I WISH I’D DONE:
CHRISTMAS | I think even more so than a weekend in Bruges in November. this place would be fairy-tale-level magical if it snowed in December or perhaps January. The city is flaunting it in the beauty stakes as it is, but with frozen canals and an icing of snow, those hundreds of beers and some mulled wine would be even more welcome sat around an open fireplace, all wrapped up in winter gear.
AND KNOW THIS: In the middle ages, the wealth of waterways made Bruges the world’s ‘chief commercial city’ and was considered to be the wealthiest city in Europe.