Bruges: A fairy-tale city of bridges and beer
Packed with beautiful architecture, dreamy canals and bridges — not to mention mussels, beer and chocolate galore — Bruges is an absolute delight to visit. As you wander along the cobblestoned streets of this perfectly preserved medieval town, it won’t take long to fall under a spell.
Bruges derives its name from the old and modern Dutch words for bridge (brugga) and bridgehead (bruggehoofd) — and it’s easy to understand why. There are 49 bridges in the city.
With a compact and easily walkable downtown, there is a lot to discover in a city that beautifully combines history with culture, confections and brews.
See & do
Head to Markt Square to see Bruges’ most distinctive landmark, the 83-meter-high Belfry Tower, which dates to 1248. For panoramic views, climb 366 steps to the top, while also glimpsing (and hearing) a carillon of 47 bells, ranging from 2 to 11,000 pounds. TIP: If you don’t fancy a tight spiral staircase with narrow steps, save your knees by watching the movie, “In Bruges” because one of the main characters traipses to the top of the tower.
For another great city view without quite as many steps, walk to the top of the Historium Museum located in Markt Square, to the Duvelorium Grand Beer Café. The café is operated by Duvel, and beers are a bit pricey, but the lovely terrace view overlooking the square is worth it. There are also a number of cafés along Markt Square and no shortage of frites or waffles. Look for Chez Albert for some truly out-of-this-world waffles.
Burg Square features Bruges' civic center. The architecturally magnificent Stadhuis, or City Hall, was constructed between 1376 and 1420 and features a painted, carved wooden ceiling with buttressed arches. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is famous for its relic of the blood of Christ, brought to Bruges in 1150 after the Second Crusade.
• Augustijnenbrug and Vlamingbrug – Believed to be the oldest surviving in the city, these ancient bridges date back to 1391. A unique feature of each is low-slung benches carved into the stone, which were built as platforms for merchants to display their wares.
• St. Bonifacius – Crossing a canal lined with medieval houses, this is truly the kind of bridge fairy tales are drawn from. This lovely bridge lies just behind the 13th-century Onze Lieve Vrouwe (Church of Our Lady), which displays Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child sculpture.
• Meestraat – With dozens of swans floating serenely nearby, walking along this bridge is exquisitely romantic.
• Minnewater – Located in the southern part of the city, the Minnewater Bridge aptly crosses over scenic Minnewater, or the Lake of Love. Legend has it that, “If you walk over the bridge and kiss your loved one, it will become eternal love.”
Explore Belgian beer
No visit to Belgium would be complete without a discussion of beer, its history and the top places in the city to find it. The United Nations thinks so, too, and UNESCO has approved the Belgian beer culture for inclusion on the list of the world’s intangible heritage.
In Bruges, there’s no better place to learn than on the De Halve Maan brewery tour. The brewery was listed in 1564 in the town’s register, and by 1856 the Maes family started brewing. TIP: Tours are popular and will sell out, so book in advance. Be advised, there are also quite a few tight, steep staircases. If you buy tickets online, you’ll need to check in at the visitor’s center first to get a voucher for a Brugse Zot beer at the end of the tour.
There are dozens of pubs, but for food and drinks, our favorite was the Bierbrasserie Cambrinus. Named after the patron saint of brewers (the original king of beer), Cambrinus features a three-inch-thick beer menu with more than 400 beers. TIP: Grab a seat at the bar for lunch or early afternoon to have a drink – but for a better experience, make a dinner reservation and be treated to an outstanding gastronomic experience. Other cellar bar and pub favorites were Le Trappiste, ’t Poatersgat and the Druid’s Cellar.
De Garre and 2Be are often mentioned as “must-dos” in Bruges, but we found them uncomfortably overcrowded and unmanageable. For more info, check http://belgium.beertourism.com/cities/bruges/for-beer-lovers.
Mussels & chocolate
For a steaming pot of mussels and perfect frites, look no further than Poules Moules. The variety of dipping sauces available is an added treat.
It’s hard to beat the oldest chocolatier in Belgium, Neuhaus, operating since 1857. Jean Neuhaus started by opening a pharmacy and covering medicines in a layer of chocolate to make them more palatable, before quickly figuring out the chocolate was the real star of the show.
Travel tips for Bruges
• Bruges is a city paved in cobblestones, making sturdy, thick-soled shoes a must.
• Parking is tight. Many hotels offer on-site parking, but it’s a good idea to call/email ahead and reserve a spot.
• To mitigate crowds, try scheduling at least one travel day on a weekday when crowds are lighter. Aim for early mornings or later evenings to have the squares to yourself, and get better pictures.
Images by Kristi Adams