Among the big hitters of European city breaks, where the likes of Paris and Rome dominate every must-do wishlist, Belgian cities tend to fall woefully under the radar. When it came to Bruges, I had no idea what to expect but knew that I should probably watch the film before I went. I didn’t.
Luckily, a Ryanair seat sale managed to push through my perceptions of Belgium as I found myself purchasing a £30 return fare to Brussels Charleroi – quite the bargain in late July when summer holidays send prices soaring. For the cost of a nice meal out, I discovered two entirely different but charming cities that deserve to be much more than a vague afterthought or squeezed-in day trip.
In my city guide to Bruges below, you’ll find a whole host of things to fall in love with about Bruges, including handy tips on how to get there, where to stay and what to see. We spent two days in Bruges before moving onto Brussels, which I’ll cover in another article coming soon.
Getting to Bruges
As one of the closest countries to the UK, Belgium is easy to reach by rail, road and air. The Eurostar arrives directly into Brussels city centre in under two hours from London, making it a great option for Southern dwellers. From here, it’s a mere 50 minute train journey to Bruges.
For those located in other parts of the UK, you can find daily departures to Brussels via British Airways, Brussels Airlines and budget airlines too. A quick word of warning though as there are two airports in Brussels; Brussels International and Brussels Charleroi. Charleroi airport is located around 90 minutes away via public transport, while Brussels International is much closer, so be sure to check which you’re flying to in advance.
We flew from Manchester to Brussels Charleroi with Ryanair and the transfer is pretty simple. Just catch the bus outside the airport to Charleroi Sud station where you can hop on regular trains to Brussels. We then caught a further train to Bruges, taking around 2.5 hours in total. There are also pre-bookable shuttle buses that take you directly from the airport to Bruges and a number of other cities but we missed it by a mere few minutes.
Where to stay in Bruges
As a quaint medieval town, Bruges historic centre is undoubtedly the best place to stay – the town centre is surrounded by a ring road, making it easy to find on a map. Everywhere within this circular road is easily walkable for the average person – plus, it’s the most picturesque place to stay.
We opted for B&B Brughia Chambre D’hotes, a beautiful 16th century guesthouse located around 20 minutes walk from the train station. With just five rooms, including the small double that we were in, there’s an intimate feel to the property and the friendly owners had a keen interest in helping us to discover the best places in Bruges. Plus they had adorable little Biscoff sauce pots with breakfast – what more could you ask for?
Even spending two days in Bruges was unusual according to our B&B owner (most guests are overnight only) but we felt like this gave us enough time to sightsee at a relaxed pace.
Things to do in Bruges
Bruges is a city for tourists, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. If your sole purpose of travelling is to live like a local you may struggle to find it in Bruges, despite the abundance of residential areas in the historic centre – also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the streets in the main sightseeing area are lined with sightseers, stroll just a couple of minutes in any direction and you’ll find a different feel altogether. Most of the residential areas are incredibly quiet, even hushed; it almost feels like you’re walking through a film set looking for the door that’s about to burst open for a musical number.
We were pointed towards Langestraat, a winding road said to be filled with boutiques, cafes and quirky stores, but as we traversed the cobbles we saw mainly closed signs, a familiar sight around much of the city besides those most touristy areas. Luckily it was worth it for the stunning windmills at the end of the street, but little else. In a sense, it’s almost best to immerse yourself in the trappings of this chocolate box town and be done with it.
While I didn’t manage to catch In Bruges before I left the UK, I spent a lazy evening watching it during the trip which really heightened the sightseeing experience. Plus, it’s way funnier than I expected too so now I’m going to join the people recommending it as a must-watch for visitors.
Visit Markt and Burg squares
Nestled adjacent to each other are the city’s hubs, lined with gothic buildings that you’ll instantly recognise from travel guides and postcards. It’s possible to spot the Belfry Tower, the tallest building in the square, from virtually any part of the city – a great tip if you’re prone to getting lost.
Those in good shape can climb the 366 winding steps for a great view of the sprawling teracotta rooftops. Being filled with copious amounts of waffles however, I saved my €10 in order to gaze up from my ant-like vantage point on the ground instead.
As you may have suspected by the name, Markt square is home to morning markets throughout the week. Midweek visitors can browse for food and flowers while weekends play host to stalls piled high with gifts, bric-a-brac and other surprising delights.
It’s also home to the Christmas markets: even in the midst of Europe’s week-long heatwave, the look and feel of this square made me crave the twinkling lights, woolly hats and steaming hot chocolate of the festive season. A good excuse for a return trip, yes?
In Burg square, you’ll find the impressively gothic Town Hall (built in 1376) and Basilica of the Holy Blood. The latter is tucked away in the corner but claims to hold one of the more niche attractions of Bruges – a vial of Jesus Christ’s blood.
Regardless of your beliefs (I couldn’t help wondering who it really belonged to) taking a look inside during the display hours is one of Bruges top things to do. Everyone from nuns to curious tourists can take a short turn at peering into a hazy vial with an optional donation very much welcomed, of course.
If you want to know more about a city than simply looking at the impressive facades, walking tours are a great way to orient yourself with some of the history behind the beauty. The great thing about these Belgian ones is that they often include food or beer tastings too!
Local delicacies galore
“What is there to see in Belgium Laura?” a colleague asked me when I talked about my upcoming trip. My response was firmly all about the local delicacies as I daydreamed about warm, thick chocolate poured over fluffy waffles, hints of strawberry peaking through the richness, and crispy fries.
As a food obsessive, Belgium is a great place to visit. As a vegetarian, it’s less so – mussels are a speciality everywhere – but still perfectly manageable. This balance, as well as a tight holiday budget, lead us to eat more snack-based meals in cafes and takeaways, rather than seeking out restaurants as we usually would.
Admittedly, my favourite food is the humble chip so I was all about finding the best spot. We checked out Chez Vincent where piping hot fries come in paper cones, the simplicity in contrast to the ornate Saint Saviour’s Cathedral opposite. I’m not convinced that the chips are better than any others I’ve tried (in Belgium or otherwise) but it’s a brilliant people watching spot.
Where Bruges really excels is the sweet treats and at times, it feels like chocolate’s intoxicating scent belongs in the air when in reality, it’s wafting from the sheer abundance of chocolatiers. Many of these stores are vast, selling everything from the simple chocolate bar to elaborate designs and pick ‘n’ mix bags of pralines.
In the winter months, you can create your own hot chocolate from blocks of chocolate on wooden sticks and stock up on souvenirs. During summer, the only way is to buy for the here and now as any attempt to cart them around in your bag will result in a melting (albeit still delicious) mess.
Local delicacies: the next level
Okay, so perhaps you want a little more insight into the time-honoured creation of these local dishes, rather than only eating away joyfully with eyes bigger than your stomach. Luckily, Bruges has tons of food experiences, tours and museums for you to get stuck into.
When I first came across it online, I thought I’d found a bunch of people who truly understand me. You may think an entire museum dedicated to the humble fried potato, the thin fry, the gloriously squishy chippy chip (I could go on) would be ridiculous but Bruges has created that very thing. Judging by the reviews, Frietmuseum really is more of a kids attraction and if I’m honest, the fact I let these comments put me off visiting hurts a little. If I take a trip back to Bruges in the winter months – I’m working on it – you can bet I’m penning this into my schedule.
For those with a little more cool than me, there are also plenty of beer and chocolate tours to whet your appetite. As well as learning more about the creations themselves, the tastings are a fab way to discover your new favourite bev (or sweet treat) just in time for souvenir shopping. Here’s a selection that I think look pretty great…
Criss cross the canals
Move over Amsterdam, out of my way Venice; Bruges might be my favourite canal-filled city yet. With willow trees whispering to the water below and matching houses lined up across the banks, the glistening reflections adds a peaceful feeling to the already romantic city. And unlike the formerly mentioned cities, you can still find plenty of quiet places to capture that perfect shot without hordes of people falling over each other to do the same. Plus, you’ll want a stroll to walk off all the sweets and booze.
If you want to go full tourist, a half hour boat tour on the canal will help you to appreciate the city from a new perspective. You can board at either of the five jettys scattered along its banks, with prices at €10 for adults and €6 for children.
Visit every park in the city
Among the winding streets and canals, there are so many pockets of green space to be discovered in Bruges and during the 39 degree heatwave of our stay, we really welcomed the shade from trees towering overhead.
If you’re there during the summer months, it’d be a shame not to make yourself a picnic, grab a good book and spend a few hours watching swans lazily traverse a lake.
The most famous of the lot is probably Minneswater Park, sprawling gardens set alongside the most stunning lake. However, this came with a small but noticeable price as it felt a bit more touristy here and walking tours would frequently crowd down the paths next to our lounging spot.
On our first afternoon, when an early pre-flight start had us feeling lethargic, we accidentally stumbled upon the petite Koningin Astridpark which I almost preferred. Yes, it’s another filming location for In Bruges and as we watched the film later that night, I leapt up in excitement to see Brendan Gleeson approaching the very bandstand we’d lay in front of just hours earlier.
Has this city guide persuaded you to visit Bruges yet? If not after almost 2,000 words, you’re a lost cause but thanks for stopping by! Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.