Bruges (also referred to as Brugge) is a quaint, romantic and charming town in Belgium with a well preserved design harking back to medieval times. When you get there during the day you may certainly be put off by the crowds. Hang in there and just wait till the evening. The town gets desolate as the day trippers head back to their home base and then you have this beautiful town all to yourself. The cobblestone streets and worn brick architecture transported us several centuries into the past as we navigated over spidery canals and past alluring pub windows. With historic churches, inviting squares and numerous brewpubs, Bruges has so much to offer and these sights are located so close to each other that you can walk around the entire town in just a few hours.
Our favorite things to do in Bruges
1. Take a brewing tour at the De Halve Mann
For those of you that do not care for delicious craft beer, you can probably skip the rest of this article. Bruges certainly has its share of Michelin rated fine dining, gourmet chocolate shops and wonderful museums. However, our short trip to Belgium was dominated by my passion for good beer. Our first culturally significant stop of the day was to De Halve Maan brewery.
We absolutely love the process of beer making. From the cultivation of the separate ingredients to the proper presentation of the final resulting beverage and everything in between – it fascinates me. The tours at this brewery are conducted in French, Dutch and English and require walking up and down many sets of steep stairs. We obviously chose their “XL Tour” which included a sampling of 4 beers in the cellar of the brewery afterwards.
Like everything else in Bruges, this brewery has been around for hundreds of years and it was breathtaking to crawl up to the 5 story roof of the facility where the beer used to cool off before fermenting back in the days prior to modern refrigeration. From this vantage point you could take in the beautiful surroundings and see the sprawling medieval town in all its glory. After gaining an appropriate amount of holiday-afternoon buzz, we spent the remainder of our day absorbing the cozy delight of a 1,000 year old village.
2. Visit the fascinating churches
Heads up! Dodging stupid tourists on bicycles in the street, stupid fat tourists in horse drawn carriages, stupid locals zipping by in tiny cars, and stupid map wielding tourists hogging the ancient narrow sidewalks is a sport in itself. When the snail’s pace of foot traffic begins to frustrate you, we suggest ducking into one of the grand Gothic cathedrals for a bit of silence (cue: crying baby) and appreciation of architecture that somehow came to be without modern machinery. Somewhere in the mix of mossy brick buildings and cobblestone streets is Sint-Salvatorskathedraal that houses Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture of Madonna with child. You could also visit the Basiliek van Het Heilig Bloed which is supposed to house the venerated relic of the Holy Blood (Don’t get me started here – see the 2008 film In Bruges for some background).
3. Get paralyzed by indecision at the Museum of Beer
An alternative to architecture gazing and cathedral crawls might be a brief pause in the Museum of Beer. Literally THOUSANDS of beers to select from the shelves for gifts or consumption back at your hotel. The real gem to this museum is the outdoor patio along one of the canals. The bar servicing the patio seating area has a wide variety of draft beer choices along with some simple bar snacks to hold you over til dinner.
4. Take a stroll through the canals after sunset
When the day-trippers head home and the shadows draw in, the wonderfully eerie, Gothic charm of this remarkable city emerges.The free night tour is a good option which begins around 8pm, or shortly before sunset depending on the season. This guided walk is led by licensed locals with unbounded enthusiasm and knowledge of their fine city. This free tour model is nice because you don’t have a commitment of joining a scheduled tour and paying in advance. Flexibility is great in case your plans change for the evening.
The relaxed evening atmosphere and reduced traffic lets visitors see a whole different side of the town while learning some amazing history lessons and many tall tales.
5. Indulge in a delicious Belgian Waffle (or two!)
God forbid you’ve made it this far into your first day in Bruges without eating any chocolate or Belgian waffles, now is the time to indulge. Most shops and food stalls begin closing by 10pm.
6. Spend a lazy afternoon at the Minnewater Park
The following Sunday morning was spent simply wandering along the canals and taking in the atmosphere of the village. It was interesting to witness this ancient European city seemingly evaporate at dusk while the tourists departed by train, and then repopulate again with endless waves of visitors from the station like clockwork at 9am. It was like viewing a time-lapse nature video of cranky, confused and tired insects with fanny packs & cell phones enter their hive, and then dutifully return for another day of waffle and beer consumption.
After a brief respite on a grassy knoll beside the water’s edge (who’s writing this thing?) we gathered up our single backpack and struck out in search of caffeine. Brugges is honestly one of the best pedestrian cities that we have encountered in our travels so far. Continuously crossing bridges with gorgeous views and passing by cafés & pubs where both locals and tourists enjoy the wonders of a Belgian brunch, it’s obvious why tourism is both a blessing and a curse for this tiny town.
7. Have a lovely lunch at an outdoor bistro cafe
Having found our ideal spot for lunch within earshot of the clanging bell tower, we hungrily scooped up homemade soup and local Belgian brews on a lovely bistro table outdoors. Thankfully we have been in relatively good health and able to cover many miles by foot. Alternatively, a short taxi ride or hotel shuttle will have you at the train station within 10 minutes for an easy departure to your next destination.
We purchased our train tickets the week before, and chose to arrange for a short stop in Brussels. I hate to diminish anything about Belgium’s capital, which hosts the European Union’s economic and political focal point (2016), but this metropolis appeared to be your average, run-of-the-mill city center. Obviously, we barely scratched the surface of Brussels in such a short visit, so on a future trip we will be sure to enjoy the many museums and cultural attractions that must be abundant. One thing is certain; you do NOT need to go out of your way to visit the Manneken Pis (Peeing Boy) statue that every website and guide book highlights. It’s tiny, dinky and dumb. Just like the tiny statue’s pee-pee. Rather, spend your time seeking out the gorgeous Warandepark (Parc de Bruxelles) which has sprawling lawns and numerous walking paths to enjoy.
The main square of historic Brussels is lined with more bistros, cafés, waffle stands and wine bars. It is very picturesque, but somehow lacks the same charm that the quaint and tiny village of Bruges embodies. For the beer geeks there is Delirium Monasterium – a lovely pub with gothic church designs to enhance an afternoon of sampling strong beers. More to come in a future post on Brussels.
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When to visit
You could go to this charming town all year around. To enjoy the fantastic brewpubs and to take in the beautiful outdoors of this city, we recommend visiting between April and October.
November to March are cold and rainy so take your winter jackets if you plan to visit at this time. The month of December can be absolutely delightful with holiday markets on the town square, hot chocolate vendors and the general thrill of peppermint flavored nostalgia.
How to get there
We departed our hotel in Paris at the butt-crack of dawn, took the subway to a main railway station (Paris Nord) and hopped aboard a train that rolled into Brussels about 1 hour 20 mins later. This bit of early morning transit and border crossing was pretty stress-free since we bought our subway passes and rail tickets in advance.
You could book the tickets from Amsterdam / Paris or other nearby city on Rail Europe but we recommend buying tickets directly on the Belgium rail website. Rail Europe and other agents let you book trains between all the European countries which makes it convenient, but they tack on a pretty decent margin on top of the ticket.
Let’s take a real scenario – Booking a round-trip ticket from Paris to Brussels and back. Here are the prices for the same train timings / same class on Rail Europe and on Belgium Rail for two.
Rail Europe – $212 x 2 = $424;
Belgium rail – E 171 x 2 = E 342 (Converted to $ on the same day = $371.75)
That makes it a $52.25 savings by booking through Belgian Rail.
A 2nd quick train ride and we found ourselves in Brugge one hour later during a gorgeous, sunny Saturday morning. The area surrounding the train station felt like any other modern European suburb, but once you walk 5 minutes towards the city center you begin to feel the history and enchantment of this ancient village.
You can use the same Belgium rail website to book ticket directly to Bruges. If you happen to be going to Bruges or other parts of Belgium over the weekend (Friday after 19:01, Saturday or Sunday), you can book the tickets here and get 50% off. We used this deal to book a separate round trip ticket from Brussels to Bruges saving us an additional $33.
We saved $85 by booking directly through regional Belgian rail and by using the weekend deal instead of going through Rail Europe or other agents. You can also get discounted prices if you book the tickets well in advance or travel during off-peak hours.
Where to Eat
Chez Albert: No trip to Belgium is complete without tasting mouth-watering Belgium waffles. Chez Albert is arguably the best waffle in the town. Get a waffle (or two!), take a seat in the main square and let the day pass by as you relax and people watch.
Soup: Yes, the name of this place if soup. This is a small place with very few tables but the soups, salads and sandwiches are to die for. It was so good that we couldn’t help ourselves from coming back the next day.
De Stove: Head to the high end, white table cloth De Stove for an exquisite French / Belgian dinner. This fine dining restaurant has good food, fantastic service and great wine selection.
Books & Brunch: This very cozy breakfast and brunch spot is a perfect place to start your morning in Bruges. With homemade bread and delicious coffee this mom and pop place definitely brings a smile to the face and the tummy.
Summary of our favorite places