Bruges is beautiful by day, but becomes truly magical at night. As the sun sets the buildings lining the curves of its famous canals are bathed with golden light; mirror images reflected in the inky black water. It’s a sight that literally takes your breath away.
Like most popular European cities, the ‘Venice of the North’, as it is often referred, is buzzing with tourists. But unlike many places — where claustrophic crowds can spoil your experience — Bruges has more than enough charm to counterbalance the hoards of people.
This is largely due to the fact most of its medieval Flemish structures are still perfectly preserved, which resulted in the entire city centre being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
I travelled early in winter (annoyingly, just missing the famous Christmas market by days) and stayed in the delightfully quirky HUYZE DIE MAENE B&B, right in the city centre.
After arriving in darkness, I awoke the next morning to the clip-clop of hooves. Pulling back the curtains, I had a bird’s eye view over the historic Markt Square, and the horse-drawn carriages waiting below.
During the occupation of World War I, German soldiers would parade across this square in full military uniform, while local children marched cheekily alongside them.
Now the square is ringed with cafes offering those Belgian staples — waffles, and moules frites.
You can’t go to Bruges without sampling their iconic mussels dish, moules, which can be ordered several different ways, from traditionally steamed with onions and celery (simple, but so delicious!), to a range of white wine, cream and tomato sauces. Many restaurants also have their own house special recipe.
Eat al fresco if you can; most bars and cafes have covered patio areas warmed by heaters in the colder months, and it just adds to the holiday feel. And don’t forget your side of frites.
Fries have their own celebrity status in Belgium, and Bruges is home to the world’s only Frietmuseum, devoted to the history of the humble chip. Here you can uncover the answer to that much-debated question: were fries invented in France, or Belgium (no spoilers, but let’s just say, ‘French’ fries might be a misnomer…)?
Of course no bowl of moules would be complete without a glass of Belgian beer to wash it down – but be warned: these brews are often stronger than their English counterparts, and are renowned for packing a punch.
At one end the square, the medieval Belfort Belfry ascends 83-metres into the sky. The main structure was built in 1240, while the octagonal top section, which — rather unnervingly — leans around a metre to the east, was completed in 1487. If you’re brave enough to tackle a narrow staircase and 366 steps, you can pay a small fee to climb to the summit, where the views from the top are quite stunning.
You won’t have to venture far along the cobblestoned streets that radiate out from the square to find a traditional Belgian Chocolatier.
Inside you’ll find mouthwatering displays of rainbow fruit jellies and chocolate-dipped strawberries, stacked in display cabinets and lined high along the walls. And, of course, chocolate of every kind — white, milk, and dark; sprinkled with candied citrus fruits, crushed walnuts, caramel crumbs, and every other flavour you can imagine.
I decided not to consult the tour guides, choosing instead to wander the streets at leisure, discovering new sights around every corner; medieval stone buildings, tiny cobblestoned alleyways, delightfully overgrown gardens. Then, the waterways opened up before me…
Many famous sights that don’t quite live up to expectations, but in Bruges it’s the reverse – photos of the canals barely do them justice. By day they’re pretty, tree-lined waterways, glinting in the summer sun, in colder months they’re romantically layered with mist.
Taking a cruise along Bruges’s most famous canal, the Groenerei is a must. Be prepared for queues – even in the colder months – but it’s worth the wait.
A bus tour is a great way to take in the sights that circle the main centre – they leave regularly from Markt Square and I was able to jump on without booking first. Alternatively, you can hire a horse and carriage, join a bicycle tour or there are free walking tours from the centre (remember to leave a nice tip for your guide though).
If you have a couple of days to explore, it’s definitely worth investing in a Brugge City Card. For €47 you get a 48-hour pass to 27 different museums and attractions, including canal trips. Pay just €6 more for a 72-hour pass.
One of the biggest things I noticed about Bruges was how family friendly it was – there were lots of young children and babies and it had a really relaxed feel. Although, in saying that, a lot of the kitschy stores I went into would have been difficult to navigate with pushchairs.
Equally it would make an amazing girls’ weekend destination, or romantic getaway: chocolate, chips, Christmas and canal rides – what’s not to love?
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