“If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.”
– Colin Farrell’s character from the movie In Bruges
So, what’s that all about? Well, there is a tradition going back to the 1800’s for people to say nasty things about how awful Bruges is. The funny thing, is the negative comments only keep driving more and more people to visit. In all, I think the citizens of Bruges are probably okay with it. The reality is though, that Bruges is a lovely place. The movie I quoted from above is a dark comedy about two contract killers sent to Bruges to complete a hit. In reality, it’s 107 minutes of views around Bruges which is a beautiful medieval city.
So, about Bruges… It’s the capital of the Flemish region in Belgium and located an hours’ train ride north from Brussels, the capital of Belgium. As a popular tourist destination, trains depart about every 30 minutes throughout the day and whisk you across some stunning countryside. The perfectly preserved medieval town is still mostly surrounded by the original wall and a canal that was also used for protection – a natural moat of sorts.
The view when entering the city
One you cross into the city the narrow lane ways and alleys draw you in and the sight of the many large buildings tower over you.
The general vibe is the locals are a quirky bunch who enjoy showing off their city. The height of Bruges was in the 12th to 15th centuries as it was the main port in the region and this fostered a city growing up around all of the trade. Another reason the city has many canals originally used for moving goods and plazas which were marketplaces. Now, the 20,000 residents that live within the city walls share their city with about 2 million tourists a year who come to see the architecture and stroll along the canals. To some, its known as the Venice of the north.
So, what is there to do in Bruges? Well, I loved just wandering around the city. There are tons of parks, plazas, shops, restaurants, bars and even one brewery all within the city walls. If you pick up the local tourist map, they even mark a bunch of romantic spots with little hearts and identify the parks for which is best to play frisbee, which for a picnic, and even which for people watching.
So, here are few of the highlights:
I can’t describe how amazing just going around the city is. The twists and turns of the narrow streets or the views from the wider boulevards are stunning. I think pictures can barely do it justice.
Visiting the Markt
Like Brussels, the center of Bruges is set up with a main plaza and very actively used still today as a hub of trade and commerce. There are also a few quirky street performers and a ton of sidewalk cafes.
I like to think of these as the Bruges version of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco
The Markt also is the location of a few museums and other historic buildings like the town hall below.
This is Belgium after all… A great way to relax and dip into the local culture is by stopping in to one of the many beer focused gastropubs.
The famous Beer Wall showcasing the vast variety of Belgian beers
The €10 tasting tray at the Beer Wall cafe – a perfect combination
The outdoor beer garden of the Beer Wall cafe viewed from across the canal. A great place to spend an hour in the sun.
Beer tasting at the Duvel room. Yes, I ate all of that cheese…
In addition to the two beer rooms I visited, there are many more in the city and the brewery itself which are all great options.
Sample Belgian chocolates
It’s not just the beer that’s famous in Belgium. The chocolate is also amazing. There is no shortage of small choco shops in Bruges either. Lest you actually get fitness from all the walking.
Take a canal boat tour
Massively popular with tourists, many canals boasts will take you around while providing a guided tour and an interesting perspective on the town.
There are a ton of museums for such a small place. From art to history to the weird and quirky. I thought the museums dedicated to fries was interesting but wasn’t willing to pay the €7. I’m sure, like McDonalds, you can get fries with that.
Climb the Belfry
The belfry, just off the main Markt square is an old bell tower and was used in the past as a treasury for the city. As a center of trade they needed to have an efficient and secure quasi-banking system and this served the purpose quite well. These days it’s a tourist attraction and depending on the time you visit can have up to an hours’ wait.
This was one of my favorite activities.
The Belfry was constructed in 1240 and has been effectively destroyed by fire and rebuilt three times since then. The third time they used more stone than wood in the upper portions which has served it quite well. The stairs get quite narrow at the top portion so they restrict the tower to only 70 guests at a time using a simple one in, one out method. So, after paying your €6 and waiting patiently you can begin the ascent.
Whether you do this to work off the beer and cheese before or after the fact it’s a great workout. From base to top it’s 366 steps with small showrooms as you go up featuring some of the history of the building.
At the top, you are rewarded with cool breezes and amazing views of Bruges and beyond.
Even with all of the above, this barely taps into the number of things you can do in this historic city. You could easily base a 7 day or more trip here and spend time in the city mixed with day trips to the coastline located nearby or south to Brussels. I will definitely return. Hopefully with someone to explore the city and take advantage of all those little heart spots.
And, for the record, Colin Farrell was wrong.
If you have any questions about things to do in Bruges feel free to drop me a line.
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