If you’re looking for a romantic, relaxing winter city break I can pretty much guarantee that Bruges is the place for you. It’s known as the ‘Venice of the North’ for a reason and this time of year is the perfect time to visit… to quote a certain rather well known film it really is a fairytale town…
Rather than take you through a blow by blow account of our rather boozy weekend, I thought I’d do a little round up of our top things to do in Bruges. Whilst I’m sure it’s beautiful at any time of year, I can’t recommend enough that you visit around winter time when the city really seems to come alive and of course, all those Christmas markets are there to explore!
Bruges City Tours
There are a few different ways to explore the city and learn a little more about Bruges in the process.
At the more extravagant end of the scale, if a horse drawn carriage takes your fancy you can have a half-hour tour for around 50 euro. This pays for the entire carriage – so you can either cosy up for 25 euro each or maybe fit 4-5 people in there for a cheaper ride. Most of us on a budget might prefer to hop on a free walking tour – which are available in a variety of languages and all seem to start or end in front of the Belfort (big bell tower in the middle). We plumped for a canal boat tour, which was an absolute bargain at 8 euro per person for 30 minutes, and a healthy dash of flânerie – as it really is one of those cities that it’s nicer to casually discover rather than intently hopping from one tourist attraction to another.
I’d recommend at least an afternoon spent just wandering around the cobbled side streets and canals, as it’s the best way to see some of the most picturesque spots in Bruges. Make sure to visit Minnewater park and the ‘Lake of Love’, a really beautiful area in the southern part of the city – about 20 minutes walk from the centre, and home to Bruges’ famous swans.
Culture & History
Like many weekend trippers in Europe, we were aiming to strike a balance between culture and fun and I reckon we did a pretty good job all told. I mean, you can’t really avoid the culture as it’s pretty much everywhere you turn in this amazingly well preserved medieval town, and anywhere famous for its beer (and chocolate) is certainly going to be fun!
Visiting some of the city’s museums, churches and historic buildings has to be one of the easiest things to do in Bruges when it comes to cultural discovery. There are museums dedicated to everything from chocolates to diamonds, and our top recommendation is the Groeninge museum, particularly if you’re an art fan. It contains exhibitions from some of the finest Flemish painters, and you can see the famous painting by Hieronymous Bosch – The Last Judgment.
The bell tower or ‘Belfort’ offers the best views of the city and is a great way to burn off some of the calories from all of the Belgian chocolate and beer you’ll no doubt be enjoying – I mean, the guidebooks say it’s a must see and they’re really not wrong. There are lots of winding stairs – but there are a few stops on the way up to catch your breath and take in a little history about the tower. You’ll no doubt be passing other people on the way up and down so make sure to stop in the corners and breathe in. It can get very busy at the best of times and there’s a strict number of visitors that they let up and down at any one go. There’s a “strict one-in one-out” policy through automatic turnstiles so if you’re travelling in a group you may need to wait a while to get everyone through and climbing together.
Entrance is no longer 5 euros – it’s 10.
A couple of final recommendations when it comes to culture include taking some time to visit some of the city’s churches. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a Catholic basilica dating back to the 12th Century and is most famous for its much venerated relic; a phial said to contain the blood of Jesus Christ. There’s also the Church of Our Lady, where you can see Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, and Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, which are worth a visit.
Food & Drink
One of our favourite parts of exploring any new city and something we particularly enjoyed in Bruges, we can only recommend you visit with an appetite!
When it comes to food, I’ll do the sensible thing and start with some savoury recommendations. Our top picks are mussels served with Belgian fries, Flemish beef stew and Tartiflette (a creamy potato dish). You’ll see these on pretty much most menus at restaurants and cafes around the city and we were lucky enough to try them all between us over the weekend! For a decent restaurant you’d expect to pay anywhere between 40 and 50 euros for a couple including drinks and main course. If you’re having starters and desert this can easily rack up to more like 80 euros.
On the sweet side, if there’s one thing that tops the list of things to do in Bruges, it’s Belgian waffles. After much googling, we turned to Chez Albert to try our first and certainly weren’t disappointed. Satisfyingly fluffy with a caramelised outer coating… these beauties were absolute perfection. It’s just off the main square towards the Basilica of the Holy Blood – literally 30 seconds from the bell tower.
It’s also hard to avoid eating plenty of Belgian chocolate. There must be at least five chocolatiers on every main street in the city and they smell so good you can hardly avoid detouring into the odd one for souvenirs and snacks to keep your energy up while wandering. Belgian truffles are obviously a specialty but there are also lots of different cone-shaped jellies that we didn’t try but appeared to be in every shop window we saw.
Last up, if you’re a fan of craft beer (or even if you’re not – like me before this trip!) then a brewery visit is a must. We skipped the brewery tour and headed straight for the bar at Bourgogne des Flandres – with a history in Bruges dating back all the way to the 18th century, it seemed like a good spot to learn more about the local drink of choice. Here you can enjoy tasting 6 very different beers for just 13 euro each, and then splash out in the gift shop to take a few bottles of your favourite home with you.
This city, like so many others in northern Europe, really comes into its own in the winter months and there’s even more amazing things to do in Bruges if you can visit at this time of year.
Obviously you have to explore the Christmas markets, where you’ll find just about any item of winter clothing or tree decoration you could possibly need. With freshly mulled wine available from just a couple of euros a glass, as well as eggnog, liquor coffee and any number of other warm alcoholic beverages, the central market is the perfect place to enjoy a drink and watch the ice skaters.
The shops around Bruges also put on a pretty awesome Christmas show when it comes to their shop windows. We loved wandering round and taking snaps of some of the best ones we saw, and honestly, I felt so festive after seeing everywhere decorated and ready for the season to begin. The markets opened on 24th November this year, hence the timing of our visit, and are open until the 1st of January – making it easy to plan a festive weekend trip.
Where to stay in Bruges
Although it is quite a small city there are a ton of hotels. I would highly recommend staying towards the centre of the old town if possible – or at least 5-10 minutes walk from the Belfort. The main reason being that you can quickly pop back in with your shopping or when the cold gets a little too much. Also great for relieving a certain amount of beer and Gluhwein (mulled/hot red wine) from your bladder! We stayed at the Martins Bruges – which was probably the most well-located hotel we’ve ever stayed at (right behind the Belfort and next to the Brewery!). It was also the cheapest out of all hotels in Bruges for us on those dates.