Belgium for me has always been a country that has eluded me. I have completed a few tours of Europe here and there throughout the years and though they all included Belgium on their itinerary this has always been defined as driving through the countryside only. As such, I was determined to visit Belgium whilst living abroad and though Brussels was always on the travel bucket list, it is Bruges which bewitched me with her old school charm, warm atmosphere and distinct culture.
The Quick 5
How did you get there?
Though Brussels and I didn’t really click, I will say that it is a fantastic base to use for visiting Belgium’s other striking cities or even Luxembourg as part of an organized day trip or independently. Bruges is no more than a 55 minute train ride from Brussels Midi station and with trains departing twice per hour throughout the day you have no excuse not to pay Bruges a visit.
For those who don’t have a lot of time or wish to skip Brussels, many companies offer day trips to this delightful city operating from London, Paris and Amsterdam. If you desire to travel to Bruges particularly for the Christmas Markets, Anderson Tours offers both day trips and packages from London.
The best place to recover from sightseeing?
With any city do your best to avoid eating around the main square, without a doubt the prices will be more expensive than restaurants and cafes a few streets back. When in Bruges you will find an abundance of eateries drawing inspiration from Germanic, French, Italian and Flemish cuisine accommodating all budgets and palates but the historic Markt based in the town’s centre is where prices will be inflated due to its prime position. Now, even if you’re just spending one day in this medieval town I beg that you allow yourself to live in the moment and sample all the high quality, mouth watering cuisine on offer. Travel is about pleasing all the senses so don’t deny your taste buds.
As an avid baker, I have a passion for bakeries and quirky cafes and finding what a new town has to offer by way of baked goodies is one of my favourite travel pastimes. Be sure to stop at the Gingerbread Tearoom if you are on the lookout for quality cakes and waffles. Belgian waffles were a must for my trip and they are literally on offer everywhere. As a self confessed foodie I really wanted to savour my “Belgian waffle” moment and chose to eat at a café rather than purchasing from a street vendor. To say I was happy that I stumbled across the Gingerbread Tea Room would be an understatement. Firstly, I have to compliment the staff for creating a warm and inviting environment. It appears to be a family run business and I don’t think I have ever come across such brilliant and caring service.
Secondly the waffles… where do I start? Of course there were other things on the menu and breakfast is served to 11.00am, but I was a woman who knew what I wanted. The variety of waffle arrangements on offer was impressive and if you’re feeling health conscious there are fruit combinations. However, should you wish to kill two birds with one stone why not order your Belgian waffles to be coated in Belgian chocolate? The waffles are of high quality and thankfully were quite light in texture as I have trouble stomaching dense food. Remember should you be feeling a little guilty about splurging you can always climb the 366 step of the Beflort later on. Lastly, if you’re looking for a homely gift for someone special, Gingerbread Tea Room has a variety of bottled condiments and sealed treats available for purchase.
Bruges tips, tricks and advice?
Where comfortable shoes! I cannot stress this enough. The beauty of Bruges is that it is Belgium’s oldest town so the ground is pretty much limited to cobblestones that can be difficult to navigate in heels. Ladies I am not referring to stilettos but everyday heeled winter boots. The same rule applies for summer as I feel any sandals without a proper grip would be quite slippery on the cobblestones.
If you intend on climbing the Belfry of Bruges ensure that you get there early, particularly in the summer months. The tower can only receive roughly 70 visitors at a time so waiting times can be lengthy. During my visit over the Christmas period my wait was close to 1.5 hours despite the line not being that long at first glance. Luckily I was carrying my iPad and kept myself entertained with episodes of The Office, USA. The Belfort opens at 9.30am all year round and closes at 6.00pm and though there were a few times I thought about packing it in I was really happy that I not only stayed but pushed through the pain of climbing 366 steps. The panoramic views from the top are stunning and well worth the boredom of waiting and the burning muscles to make it to the summit.
If you are planning to visit Bruges on a Monday I would suggest trying to organise your visit for another day as you may discover that many museums and galleries are closed. In addition, if you are travelling to Bruges for religious purposes, namely to the Basilica of the Holy Blood with the sole intent to view the phial containing the blood of Christ, be sure to double check display times. Currently the phial is only available for viewing and worship every Friday both before and after mass. Lastly, given the growing popularity of this fairy tale town, crowds are unavoidable and probably seem even more intense due to the size of the town. Christmas markets make for a busy winter season and I am sure summer attracts even double the amount of tourists. Therefore, if you are not visiting Bruges as part of Christmas adventure (as magical as it is), try and visit during autumn or spring.
Best way to get around Bruges?
If the cobblestones are getting too much for your feet or you’re on limited time and really want to fly around town and surrounding countryside, then hiring a bicycle might be for you. With all day prices starting as low as €10.00 it is a healthy and cost effective way to sight see. As Bruges is a bike friendly city pedestrians should always be aware of their surroundings and for those biking be sure to carefully follow signage because even though the majority of one way streets permit cross directional travel for cyclists a rare few do not. Finally, due to the crowds be sure to book your rental in advance to avoid disappointment.
Should you find yourself in Bruges between March to mid November discover why this town is called the “Venice of the North” by taking one of the many canal tours on offer. Even if you are in Bruges just for the day this is a picturesque and inexpensive way to see the town as tours are only thirty minutes long and cost as little as €8.00.
Where to source the best chocolate?
With a chocolate museum and chocolate stores aplenty, Bruges is a chocoholics paradise. No matter what street you stumble upon in town you will always be in range of a chocolate store or two.
In all honesty I’m not a big chocolate fan… I’m more of a carb addict but I do appreciate quality artisan produce. In spite of my taste buds I adore being in chocolate stores and find them to be very comforting. After doing some research I gravitated towards The Old Chocolate Shop lured in by its old school charm and the promise of the best hot chocolate in Bruges, a promise which was kept. This family run business offers patrons a chance to dine upstairs and relax in the cosy tea room or to create their own chocolate boxes downstairs. The selection is incredibly diverse so be prepared for a difficult choice.
No matter where you elect to indulge, if you do not consume alcohol be sure to check the ingredients as many flavour combinations are infused with spirits. If you have specific dietary requirements preventing you from consuming dairy then you don’t have to worry about missing out as several shops sell dark chocolate options suitable for vegans and lactose intolerant individuals.
For foodies wanting to uncover the story of chocolate be sure to visit the Chocolate Museum which is open to tourists all year around with the exception of the Christmas period and New Years Day. Prices are very reasonable with adult admission currently priced at €8.00 which can be purchased ahead of time online or on the day. The museum opens at 10.00am so get there early if your tickets are not pre-purchased and be sure to check their website for any additional closures. For adults and children who wish to get hands on experience the museum offers workshops in various disciplines starting from €22.00 for adults and €12.00 for children. As an avid baker I firmly believe in the power of cooking based workshops as they have the ability to show people what they are capable of and walk away with new found confidence in the kitchen. So should you wish to learn how to make praline and truffles in Europe’s chocolate capital be sure to book well in advance as classes are not available daily.
Now should you have your eyes on Belgium as a whole (and you really should) the best article for you to draw inspiration from is Jen Miller’s 100 Best Things To Do In Belgium. Believe me you will be spoilt for choice as this teeny tiny little country has so much to offer. Personally I cannot wait to go back one day and Bruges will be on that list not only for the inevitable chocolate indulgence but the historical town is so untouched that you feel as though you have rented the DeLorean and gone back in time.
Bruges is a destination for couples, families, foodies and history junkies. It is small and accessible enough to enjoy in one day so can easily be included as part of a tour of Europe and its central geographical location makes it the perfect getaway for those living in the UK or the Continent. So if you’re ready to truly indulge your senses pack your bags for Belgium.
*Note: Thank you to Yasir Badani for his assistance with the images of myself featured and for being my patient model. Follow his adventures around the globe @yasirbad*