WHAT TO DO
Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. It is located in the northwest of the country, about an hour by train from Brussels. The earliest fortifications were built after Julius Caesar's conquest of the Menapii in the first century BC, to protect the coastal area against pirates. The initial mention of the location's name is as Bruggas in 840 AD. The name likely derives from the Old Dutch for 'bridge' (brugga). Starting around 1500, the Zwin channel, (the Golden Inlet) which had given Bruges its prosperity, began silting up and the Golden Era ended. The city soon fell behind Antwerp as the economic flagship of the Low Countries - it became impoverished and gradually faded in importance. In the second half of the 19th century, Bruges became one of the world's first tourist destinations. Today, its beautiful architecture is mostly intact, making it one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. The 'Historic Centre of Bruges' has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. With its picturesque cobbled lanes, dreamy canals, photogenic market squares, historic churches, excellent museums, delicious chocolate and tasty beer - Bruges is sure to please.
Start your journey in the heart of the city center at the Markt (Grand Place). The town's bustling main square, it is surrounded on all sides by exquisite buildings from a variety of different periods. The eastern side is dominated by the neo Gothic Provinciaal Hof building, which dates from 1887 and is the seat of the West Vlaanderen provincial government. On the western side is the attractive brick 15th century Huis Bouchoute. The south side of the square is dominated by the Belfort, Belgium's most famous belfry. Soaring 275 feet above the Markt, it is one of the finest bell towers in Europe. Construction of the Belfort van Brugge began in 1282 and the crowning octagonal upper section was finally completed in 1482. Today, a carillon of 47 bells (played manually) still hang in the tower. For commanding views of the town and beyond, you can climb the 366 steps up to the top of the tower.
Just east of the Markt, the less theatrical but still enchanting Burg has been Bruges' administrative center for centuries. It is in this lovely square that you will find the city's Stadhuis, the Gotische Zaal, Brugse Vrije and Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed. On the southeast side of the Burg is Town Hall (Stadhuis), one of the oldest in Belgium, having been constructed between 1376 and 1420. This beautiful building features a fanciful facade that is second only to Leuven’s for exquisitely turreted Gothic excess. Inside, an audioguide explains numerous portraits in great detail before leading you upstairs to the astonishing Gothic Hall (Gotische Zaal). The exterior is smothered with replica statues of the counts and countesses of Flanders, the originals having been torn down in 1792 by French soldiers. Note: entrance includes admission to the Gothic Hall and adjacent Liberty of Bruges (Brugse Vrije).
The Gothic Hall's multicolored ceiling shows off medieval carvings, and murals depicting the town's history add to the room's magnificence. Eye catching with its early baroque gables, gilt highlights and golden statuettes, the Brugse Vrije was once the seat of the ‘Liberty of Bruges’, the large autonomous territory and administrative body that ruled from Bruges (1121-1794). Much of the building is still used for city offices, but you can visit the former aldermen’s room, the Renaissancezaal, to admire its remarkable fireplace from 1528. The western end of Town Hall morphs into the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed). This spectacular church is renowned for the crystal vial kept inside that is reputed to contain a drop of Christ's blood brought back from the Holy Land by Dietrich of Alsace in 1149 on his return from the Second Crusade. Each year in May, this sacred relic is carried through the streets of Bruges in the Procession of the Holy Blood. The facade of the basilica, with its three Flamboyant style arches and gilded statues, was erected between 1529 and 1534. The church itself consists of a Romanesque lower chapel and a late Gothic upper chapel, which houses relics of Saint Basil brought from Palestine by Robert II, Count of Flanders. An elegant spiral staircase leads to the upper chapel (built in 1480), where every Friday the vial containing the Holy Blood is brought out and shown to the faithful.
From there, head over to the Dijver canal and visit the Groeninge Museum, which houses Bruges' best collection of art. In addition to its excellent endowment of Old Flemish paintings, the museum also incorporates a gallery of modern art and a superb collection of scenes of old Bruges. However, the first five rooms of the museum are the ones most likely to claim your attention, as they contain quite exceptional paintings by the Old Flemish masters. In Room 1 hang two major works by Jan van Eyck: Madonna and the Donor, Canon van der Paele (1436) and the portrait of Margaret van Eyck, the artist's wife, painted when she was 33 years of age (1439). In Room 3 are panels illustrating the legend of Saint Ursula and a portrait of Luis Gruuthuse, both famous works by unknown Bruges masters, and the Last Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch is among the paintings in Room 5.
One of Bruges' most popular photography spots, Saint Boniface Bridge (Bonifaciusbrug) is a narrow brick pedestrian bridge crossing the canal right between the Groeninge Museum and the Church of Our Lady. Although the bridge is modest in stature and also one of the youngest bridges in town - built in the early 20th century - it is famous because its position along the canal provides bridge crossers with some of the city's most tranquil canal views, as well as splendid photos of the basilica. Note: in summer, expect a bit of a line for photos at this spot. The best way to avoid that is to get here early in the morning, when far fewer people are about. The 375 foot high spire of the Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk) is the tallest in Belgium. Work began on the nave and aisles around 1230, the outermost aisles and chapels being added in the 14th and 15th centuries. The church is best known for Michelangelo’s sublime Madonna and Child (1504) statue, the only such work by the artist to leave Italy during his lifetime. The white marble sculpture stands on the altar of the chapel at the end of the south aisle. Also, be sure to seek out the triptych Adoration of the Shepherds by Pieter Pourbus.
Located next to the Church of Our Lady stands the oldest building in Bruges, the Saint John's Hospital (Sint Jansspitaal), founded in the 12th century. The tympanum, over the bricked up gate to the left of the Mariastraat entrance, is embellished with reliefs showing the Virgin, which bears the date 1270. Inside the ancient building, in what were once wards, an exhibition of documents and surgical instruments charts the hospital's history. Also within the walls of the old hospital is the Memling Museum - a small collection of works by the 15th century Flemish painter Hans Memling. Outstanding among these is the enchanting reliquary of Saint Ursula (1489), recognized as one of the artist's most important works. This gilded oak reliquary looks like a miniature Gothic cathedral, painted with scenes from the life of the saint. Note: south of the old hospital is the street of Walstraat, rimmed by tiny, exceptionally pretty, gabled 16th and 17th century houses in which lace makers still practice their craft.
At the far end of the Dijver canal stands an attractive ensemble of 15th century buildings comprising what was once the Heren van Gruuthuse mansion. Here in 1471, the fugitive King of England Edward IV took shelter. The original 'heren' were merchants with a monopoly on the trade in dried herbs (gruut), which was used to flavor beer before the cultivation of hops. Part of the mansion is now home to the exceptional Gruuthuse Museum, which holds a superb collection of antiques and applied art. Particularly appealing are the lacework, carvings, tapestries and weaponry, also the delightfully restored and completely authentic old Flemish kitchen and the dispensary. Nearby is the Gothic Saint Jacob's Church (Sint Jacobskerk). Its richly ornamented interior contains a number of fine 16th to 18th century paintings by local artists, as well as some interesting tombs. Among the latter, to the right of the choir, is the twin tiered tomb of Ferry de Gros - a treasurer of the Order of the Golden Fleece who died in 1544.
One of the nicest walks in Bruges is to stroll from the city center out to the windmills that dot Kruisvest Park, which traces the line of the old eastern walls of the town. Windmills originally sat atop the ramparts in the 13th century, though the surviving windmills today, sitting on the summits of the grass covered rampart remnants, are much younger. Note: the four windmills here are still used to grind grain. Conclude your tour of Bruges by taking a relaxing canal cruise. The boat route runs right through the heart of the city between the Begijnhof and Jan van Eyckplein, with great views of the canal side architecture along the way. Note: canal tours run every half hour between 10a and 6p daily from March through November.
WHERE TO EAT
Bruges has several great places to eat, drink and see a show. Start your day at That's Toast, located at Dweersstraat 4. This lively cafe is popular with locals and visitors alike for its all day breakfasts. The toast based dishes feature everything from eggs and waffles to tea and toast with smoked salmon. Another good spot is Books & Brunch, found next to Koningin Astridpark at Garenmarkt 30. This wonderful cafe has a friendly staff, darn good coffee and a fine selection of books in English. Note: the cafe is closed on weekends. Patisserie Schaeverbeke is at Schaarstraat 2. This splendid little patisserie is piled with creamy fruity cakes, croissants and fresh fragrant bread. De Belegde Boterham can be found at Kleine Sint Amandsstraat 5. This stylish place does excellent soups, sandwiches and salads - with fresh ingredients and tasty dressings.
One of my favorite lunch spots is De Bottelier, located at Sint Jakobsstraat 63. Decorated with hats and old clocks, this charming little restaurant sits above a wine shop overlooking a delightful canal side garden. Do try the fisherman's pie with a glass of the house wine. Note: the restaurant is open from 12p-4p on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sans Cravate is at Langestraat 159. Bare brick walls, a modern fireplace and striking contemporary ceramics form a stage for this open kitchen ‘cooking theatre’ that prides itself on its gastronomic French cuisine, fine wines and fresh ingredients. Den Amand can be found near the Markt at Sint Amandsstraat 4. Simple, unpretentious and very friendly - this cozy bistro offers a variety of traditional Belgian dishes. I enjoyed the meatballs and kalfsblanket (veal in a cream sauce). Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday.
When I think of Belgium, most of the time it's about chocolate and beer. It is universally known that this small nation has some of the best sweets and suds on the planet - I would like to share a few of my go to spots to indulge. The Chocolate Line is located at Simon Stevinplein 19. Bruges has over fifty chocolate shops, but just five where chocolates are handmade on the premises. Of those, The Chocolate Line is the brightest and best. Wildly experimental flavors by 'shock o latier' Dominique Persoone include Coca Cola, Cuban cigar, Japanese wasabi, crisp beetroot and black olive. Next is Chocolaterie Spegelaere, found on the edge of the city center at Ezelstraat 92. Famous for its 'chocolate grapes' (marzipan or praline filled chocolate balls wired to look like a bunch of grapes), Spegelaere is a local institution. Depla Chocolatier is at Mariastraat 20. This old timer has been in the historic center since 1958 and remains the town's oldest artisanal chocolatier to make its deliciousness on site. It's especially famed for its chocolate swans, filled with a mix of praline and gruut (herbs more common in brewing beer). Two additional shops worth visiting are Daya Chocolates at Katelijnestraat 27 and Galler Chocolatier at Steenstraat 5.
Now let's talk about beer. Your first stop in Bruges should be at Brouwerij De Halve Maan (The Half Moon Brewery), located at Walplein 26. Founded in 1856, though there has been a brewery on the site since 1564, this is the last family brouwerij (brewhouse) in the city center. Grab a seat in the courtyard and enjoy several of their excellent Brugse Zot, Straffe Hendrik or Blanche de Bruges, aka Brugs Tarwebier beers. Note: the brewery offers guided tours with tastings. 'T Brugs Beertje (Bruges’ Little Bear) can be found at Kemelstraat 5. Legendary throughout Bruges, Belgium and beyond for its hundreds of Belgian brews, this cozy brown cafe is filled with old advertising posters and locals who are part of the furniture. It’s one of those perfect beer bars with smoke yellowed walls, enamel signs and knowledgeable staff to help you choose from a book full of brews. Note: the pub has cheese platters and other snacks to help soak up all that beer. I will discuss more places to wet your whistle later on - for now, let's get back to eating.
Restaurant De Stove is located close to the Markt at Kleine Sint Amandsstraat 4. This intimate restaurant, managed by the same owners for over twenty years, offers the best fresh fish coming straight from the port of Zeebrugge - including delicious sea bass, codfish, monkfish and grey shrimp. They also have yummy homemade desserts, and a wide selection of wines and spirits. Bistro Zwart Huis is at Kuipersstraat 23. This stylish, redbrick space is set in a Gothic style building that dates from 1482. The fare is Belgian comfort food at its finest with Flemish stews, steaks and of course, local beers. Note: the restaurant hosts live jazz performances. Curiosa can be found at Vlamingstraat 22. A Bruges institution for more than three decades, this medieval crypt has evolved over the years from a lively tavern into a more genteel restaurant that provides a quiet spot for conversation over a meal and a glass of wine. The menu covers juicy steaks, delish mussels and vispannetje (fish stew). Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday.
Bistro Bruut is situated in a step gabled town house above a quaint canal at Meestraat 9. Head chef Bruno Timperman uses impeccably fresh seasonal ingredients to create beautifully presented plates of food that paint a spectacular picture, both for the eyes and for the palate. Be sure to go with chef Bruno's tasting menu. Note: the restaurant is closed on weekends. Renowned chef Geert Van Hecke runs the show at the superb Zet'Joe, located at Langestraat 11. This Michelin starred restaurant is one of the top spots in the country. The dishes are classical, the flavors intense and the sauces are sensational. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, and reservations are essential.
The romantic Park Restaurant can be found at Minderbroedersstraat 1. The best thing about this wonderful little place serving haute European cuisine is its luscious interiors which will take you back in time. In this intimate restaurant, set in a mansion house, mouth watering food is served together with the perfect wine pairing. Note: check their online booking form for hours and availability. My most memorable dining experience was at Den Gouden Harynck, found at Groeninge 25. Behind an ivy clad facade, this delightful Michelin starred restaurant garners consistent praise, and its lovely location is both central and secluded. Exquisite dishes might include noisettes of venison topped with lardo and quince puree, or seed crusted fillet of sea bream. The decor is beautiful, the service is outstanding and the wine list is excellent. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday, and bookings are necessary.
For post meal refreshments, make your way to Rose Red at Cordoeaniersstraat 16. Tremendous beers from 50 of the best breweries in Belgium are served by friendly and informative staff in this pink hued and rose scattered bar. There are five to six beers on tap and over 150 bottles - including some rare Trappist finds. Another splendid spot is De Garre, located down a narrow alleyway at De Garre 1. Do try the fabulous Garre draught beer, which comes with a thick floral head in a glass just like a brandy balloon; the pub will only serve you three of these bad boys as they are extremely potent. This hidden two floor tavern also stocks dozens of other fine Belgian brews, including the remarkable Struise Pannepot. Equally awesome is Cafe Vlissinghe, found at Blekersstraat 2. Countless luminaries have frequented Bruges’ oldest pub for over 500 years. The interior is gorgeously preserved with wood panelling and a wood burning stove, but in summer the best seats are in the shady garden where you can play boules (a throwing game using metal balls - similar to bocce).
The super cool 't Poatersgat is tucked away at Vlamingstraat 82. Look carefully for the concealed hole in the wall and follow the staircase down into this cross vaulted cellar glowing with ethereal white lights and flickering candles. ’t Poatersgat (which means ‘the Monk’s Hole’) has 120 Belgian beers on the menu, including a smashing selection of Trappists brewed by monks. Note: the pub is open daily until 1a. Le Trappiste can be found at Kuipersstraat 33. This lovely pub is in the cryptlike cellar of an 800 year old building, the perfect setting for sampling some of its hundreds of different Belgian ales. An additional spot that is not to be missed is Yesterday's World at Wijngaardstraat 6. Timeless hospitality and great beers are the name of the game at this quaintly old fashioned cafe - one that is part historical pub and part antiques shop. If you fancy gin, do visit Brugse Gin Club at Jozef Suveestraat 19. With more than 350 gins, this bar is the definition of a gin palace. End your evening at the Concertgebouw, located at 't Zand 34. Bruges’ stunning 21st century concert hall is the work of architects Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem. It takes its design cues from the city’s three famous towers and red bricks. Theater, classical music and contemporary dance performances are regularly staged.
WHERE TO STAY
Bruges offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Dukes' Palace, located at Prinsenhof 8. Set in a 15th century palace, this high end hotel is a short walk from the bustling Markt and the medieval Belfort. Featuring plush furnishings and marble bathrooms with designer toiletries, the posh rooms provide free WiFi and flat screen TVs, as well as coffeemakers and minibars. Upgraded quarters add sitting areas and living rooms. There is a chic restaurant (Dukes'), a bar and a seasonal terrace. Other amenities include a spa with a sauna and a steam room.
A second option is Hotel Heritage, located at Niklaas Desparsstraat 11. Set in an elegant 19th century building, this upscale hotel is close to the charming Burg and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Featuring ornate decor, the deluxe rooms offer marble bathrooms and come with iPads, complimentary WiFi and flat screen TVs, plus coffeemakers and minibars. Upgrades add living areas and city views. Other perks include an opulent fine dining restaurant (Le Mystique), a refined bar and a lounge with a fireplace. There is also a sauna and a steam room set in a whitewashed cellar.
Bruges is loaded with fascinating history, wonderful architecture, charming canals and cobbled lanes, plus excellent museums, spectacular churches and squares, as well as superb chocolate and tasty beer. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.