Once upon a time, you heard a story about a princess and a prince, a castle, and the prince’s village. Your imagination pictured an incredible medieval village of beautiful stone and brick homes, crinkly cottages, brilliantly colorful doors, quaint shops, and, well, you pictured Bruges, Flanders, Belgium. This is the story about how, once upon the future, you went to see your storybook village.
Brugge, or as it’s spelled in the U.S., Bruges, is a western Flanders medieval town about an hour west of Brussels, Belgium, and it’s everything a European storybook town should be for a fairytale adventure coming to life.
Bruges History and Humor, Tongues in Cheeks
Arriving on a quick hour-plus train ride from Brussels—or Bruxelles, as it’s spelled in Flemish—the taxi ride from the train station to Hotel Jan Brito was a perfect start to the trip with Pieter at the wheel. Speaking French to him, he turned around and smiled, “We speak Dutch in Brugge, never French.”
I always thought French was the primary language in Belgium.
“We fought the French to keep them from forcing their language on us,” he continued. “Jan Breydel and Peiter de Connick were patriots who rallied the Flemish and defeated the French. That’s why we don’t speak French.”
Surprised, I asked, “When was this battle?”
“1302,” said Pieter with a smile.
And thus, a visit of beauty, amazement, and tongue-in-cheek humor began. I found shopkeepers and café servers had a twist to bring smiles and chuckles.
Brugge is so pedestrian-friendly; it was hard to tell if we were on a medieval cobblestone street, a skinny alley, or a sidewalk. We slipped between strollers and sidewalk cafés, nudged around tight corners, and pulled up in front of Jan Brito, a 17th-century manor house, a beautifully preserved lodging surrounding a courtyard garden.
We entered Markt (in some places listed as “Grotte Markt”), the market square, and Pieter pointed to the statue of Jan Breydel and Peter de Connick, honoring the victory. The statue towered over one end of the square but was dwarfed by Belfort, the Bruges belltower, on the other end.
Bruges, high on bucket lists after the 1990s dark comedy “In Bruges,” is like visiting Medieval and Gothic Europe with chocolate everywhere. After all, this is Belgium.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a beautiful old city maintaining buildings built between the 12th century and the 19th century.
Brugge Heritage Route
After settling into my garden loft room at Jan Brito, I hefted the camera bag and headed onto the cobblestone streets toward Vismarkt, the old fish market. The historic town center is compact, and the Stad Brugge (Visit Bruges) Heritage Route walking tour is just a 5-kilometer (3.2mi) level walk past every must-see sight.
The fish market snuggles under the stone column and roofed square packed with vendors selling everything except fish. The craftspeople mainly featured handmade gifts, clothing, and art.
“Thank you so much,” said Beatrice Vincke, a ceramist or keramiek from Bruges, when I admired her ceramic bowls and jewelry. She picked up a shimmering green bowl with blue inlays like stepping stones in a pond. “I like being here at Vismarkt and talking with everyone. There are so many interesting people from all over the world.”
Walking along Dijver, one of the many canals in and around Brugge, I walked down Steenhouwersdijk, one of the many unpronounceable street names I’d struggle to say, and over Blinde-Ezelbrug, an 18th century bridge over the canal.
Venice of the North
Canals surround the heart of Bruges entirely, and one major one, Kanaal Gent-Brugge (Canal Ghent-Bruges), connects the western Flemish town to the larger city. It is possible to take an excursion from Bruges to Paris via a canal boat trip, but that is a different story. The canal setting gives Brugge the moniker “Venice of the North.”
Brugge takes great advantage of those assets, such as the Lake of Love next to Minnewater Park, where the canals Minnewater and Katelijnevest meet. Minnewater Lake is just over a one kilometer (0.8mi) walk from the Belfry of Bruges.
Passing between the ornate Bruges Vrije, the 18th-century court building, and Stadhuis Brugge, the 13th-century city hall, the Blinde Ezelstraat path slips under a gothic walkway enters De Burg, the public square at City Hall, including the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Listening to the sounds of the ville, the air was filled with the music from the Belfry in the next block at the Markt.
Sharon and Marcie from Dallas, Texas, walked beside me, and we started conversing.
“I had never heard of Bruges before Marcie said we had to go if we were going to Amsterdam,” Sharon said. “It was just, what, Marcie, a two-hour train ride?”
“No, it was about 90 minutes from Amsterdam to Antwerp and then about the same to Bruges,” she replied. “But it was worth it! I can’t believe what a beautiful city this is.”
Marcie said that she read about Brugge in an article and was immediately captured by its Romanesque appearance in the photos. It had been on her bucket list for years.
“When we decided we were going to Amsterdam, I insisted we overnight at least one night in Bruges,” she said. “When I showed Sharon the pictures, we decided to stay for two nights.”
We were in a group of people casually sightseeing from De Burg to Markt. Strolling is a top way to spend time in Bruges. More than a day trip is needed to enjoy this incredible treasure of a city. Taking leisurely time to take in the stunning architecture on Breidelstraat, we passed the Bruges Beer Experience, the beer museum, and walked into the vast Markt.
“Maybe we’ll see you later,” said Sharon. “We’re going to the beer museum.”
Too early for dinner—mealtime peaks around 8:00 in Bruges—I did some people-watching and decided I needed a more organized way to see the town.
The Carriage Tour
“Climb on in,” said Christie, the curly-haired carriage driver of the single-horse, black coach parked on the edge of Markt. “I’ll get you oriented. There’s so much to see; it’s hard to do it all.”
She was right. Even though I was in town for three days and nights, I could tell it would not be enough. I couldn’t fathom how much zipping around Sharon and Marie would need to see everything in two days. Anyone planning simply a day trip to Bruges will miss an awful lot.
“We’ll meander through town a little so you can get the feeling of Brugge,” Christie said, as she released the brake and our horse-drawn carriage pulled from the central Markt (that’s what the “market square” is called in Flemish) square, the cobblestone central plaza, below the Belfry onto Zuidzandstraat.
It’s Like Turning Back Time
Take away the cars, turn back the fashion clock a couple of centuries, and you’d barely know that it was the current year. While there has been some modernization in storefronts, the buildings and the charm from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries are all over the historic center, starting right at the Belfry—built in 1486 and still the tallest municipal bell tower in the world.
There was nary a car in sight. Change the clothing of the shoppers to the 17th century or 18th century, and the scene would be the same then as it was this evening.
Christie talked about the buildings in Brugge as we turned from the main shopping street onto Mariastraat and 16th-century blocks of incredibly picturesque homes.
“This is one of the oldest residential areas in Brugge,” she said as we slowed to weave between strollers on this beautiful evening in the antique city. “The homes are very precious to us and very expensive to buy.”
“We love it!” said the man in a couple walking next to us. We were moving at their pace because of other strollers on the street. “We’re staying in an Airbnb just down the block.”
“Sort of,” he laughed. “We’re from Canada; that’s in the Americas too.”
Christie said that no one is allowed to change the exteriors at all, but the interior where they were staying was modernized.
“Ours was modernized inside,” said his companion. “It has WiFi and satellite TV.”
Real Belgian Beer
As we turned onto Walstraat—I was beginning to figure out that “straat” means “street”—Christie pointed out the Walplein, originally de Halve Maan Brewery, on the corner.
During my week in Belgium, I learned that Belgian beer is the best I’ve ever tasted. Walplein, from de Halve Maan, dates back to 1564 and is the oldest brewery in the city, one of the oldest in Flanders, and my favorite from my time in Belgium. It’s also available in the U.S. at Total Wine stores.
Beer has been part of Belgium for centuries. In Mechelen, the beer I liked, Het Anker, first started brewing in 1471. Later that week, I’d slake my thirst in Antwerp with Brouwerij De Koninck, the city’s oldest and best-known beer. U.S.-brewed Belgian-style craft beers are inspired but not like the real thing.
The Bruges Beer Experience has the history and the samples to prove it.
“We have to stop and let the horse rest for 15 minutes,” said Christie. “You can wander around and take pictures.”
We made a U-Turn at Wijngaarplein, a park turned into a preserve for swans and ducks along the Baakersrei Canal.
Begin the Beguine
I scurried across the canal and into the 13th-century setting of the Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde, or Begijnhof Brugge, a collection of medieval homes for Beguines, lay religious orders from the 13th to 16th centuries. The white-painted houses surrounding a beautiful walking garden in a peaceful setting have been used as a Benedictine convent since 1927.
Returning to the carriage, there was time for taking photos of the swans and ducks in their preserve and then the return ride to Markt.
“Notice that some of the 15th-century homes have steps along the roof gable,” pointed Christie. “We’re told that the number of steps used to indicate the wealth of the family in the home.”
We crossed Bakkersrei again and passed The Church Of Our Lady. This 13th-century church is where Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child of Bruges sculpture is located. The statue, famous in its own right, the renowned artist’s work, was stolen by the Reich in World War II and recovered by the Allies’ Monuments Men to be returned to Brugge.
The tour ended with the return past Bruges city hall, which took us back into Markt. I thanked Christie for the incredible hour on the cobblestone streets and returned to the hotel.
It was time for dinner, so I detoured down Wollestraat, across Dijver, and onto Quay of the Rosary, or Rozenhoedkaai. Walking along the peaceful water, I found myself on the back end of Huldenvettersplein, a small square of sidewalk cafés, and a luscious chocolate shop.
Slipping into Vistro De Mosselkelder, I ordered dinner, which included the Euro-standard frites (French fries in the U.S.).
Breakfast was at Jan Brito because I could not find a café open as early as the hotel—a challenge I experienced throughout my European trip. Europeans eat later than us Americans; even Starbucks doesn’t open until 7:30 or 8:00. The hotel had an ample selection of pastries and rolls, fruits, meats, cheeses, and omelets. I enjoyed all my breakfasts in its garden dining room. While on this trip, I compiled a list of tips for choosing restaurants in European cities that you can check out.
Museums and the Walking Museum
It let me start the day early for a walking tour of places I had yet to visit. Bruges is an art lovers paradise. There are statues and public art throughout the city, but the gems are the major museums,
The Groeningmuseum features 600 years of Flemish art, including the father of Bruges painting, Jan van Eyck, and paintings by Hans Memling and Gerard David, up through 20th-century modern art.
The Historium puts the story of Bruge’s medieval and gothic architecture and history into full context.
The wanderings late that morning found me in front of Sint-Janshospitaal, a hospital dating to the 12th century. The Sisters of Saint Joseph planted herbal gardens, still thriving today, with plants and seeds used for medicinal purposes. The historic and ancient pharmacy looks into how plants were converted into medicine. The hospital adjoins Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, the Church of Our Lady, with its Madonna and Child statue.
“I don’t know which is better, this or the beer museum,” said Roger as we left the museum at Sint-Janshospitaal after the earlier visit to the chocolate museum. “Belgian chocolate or Belgian beer? It’s a hard call.”
“This is my last lunch in Bruges,” I said. “I’m doing waffles.”
After all, one must have Belgian waffles in Belgium. In many American restaurants, regular baking powder waffles are made with deeper pockets and called “Belgian.” Those are not Belgian waffles. Those crispy waffles are made with yeast and must rise before the thicker batter, filled with melted butter for the crunchy crust, is baked with their deep pockets.
The line was long at the famous Waffle House, so I crossed Bakkersrei and walked into Otto Waffles Atelier on the corner of the canal and Katekunjestraat. The line was shorter, and the fragrance of leavened pastries was in the air as I decided which kind of waffle to order.
Settling on a serving piled high with fresh strawberries from nearby Holland (hold the whipped cream), I stood at the bar and window overlooking the canal.
“I wish I had gotten strawberries,” said a woman in Dutch or German next to me.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak that language,” I replied in English.
“Oh, sorry,” she said and repeated what she said in English, introducing herself as Gretchen.
It was German, as it turned out.
“Have you been to Germany?” she asked me. “We have beautiful medieval cities like this.”
I told her it was not part of this trip and shared that my mother’s family was from Germany before emigrating at the end of the 19th century.
“If you like Brugge, you’ll love Rothenburg and Heidelberg,” she said. I jotted the information in my notebook for a future trip. We dug into our waffles. Each waffle at Waffle Atelier is made to order, so it takes a few minutes before settling down for a special lunch.
Canal Boat Tour
Afterward, I walked across the street to the Stael Brugge Boat Tour to take a canal boat around the burg. I clambered from the dock into the open boat, listening to about a dozen other passengers chatting in multiple languages.
“That’s quite a camera setup you have,” said the man beside me, introducing himself as Braun as I stripped off the camera sling pack to set it on my lap. He held up his iPhone. “I just use my phone. Less to carry.”
We laughed and talked about how picturesque it was in Brugge. The boat started pulling away from the dock, making a sweeping u-turn in the canal and heading under the bridge and to the east. The public address speaker droned with descriptions of Sint-Jans in four different languages. English was second on the list, and I tuned out the rest.
On the Bakkersrei, we passed a half dozen other canal tours and floated gracefully between the gothic wonders of the old city. We passed the Gruuthsemuseum and then slipped under a building and street before exiting into the Djiver. The wider canal passes many stately homes, inns, hotels, and the United Kingdom’s consulate building.
Multiple canals intersected with the Djiver, and when we turned north, we were now on Sint-Annarei. The canal became Langerei, and we were swept into the confluence of the Kanaal Gent-Brugge, the canal onto which we skimmed, Kanaal Brugg-Oostende and passing Damse Vaart.
Here, we saw the massive locks connecting Brugge to Zeebrugge, its outlet to the North Sea, and a shipping port.
The afternoon was waning, and I headed back through the old city, wandering the streets and shops. Before returning to the Jan Brito, I stopped at Neuhaus Chocolate. Throughout the city, chocolate shops advertised “pralines.”
As an American, a “praline” means a carmelized New Orleans treat loaded with pecans.
“Would you like to try a praline,” asked the shopkeeper behind the long glass case loaded with chocolate and candy.
“I can’t,” I said. “I have a tree nut allergy.”
“There are no nuts in most of these pralines,” she said, pointing to various chocolate cubes on trays.
“What’s a Belgian praline?” In a moment, she would prove that dark Belgian chocolate has medicinal value.
“These were invented by a pharmacist, Jean Neuhaus, as a way for patients to take medicines,” she said. “Neuhaus was from Italy, learned chocolate in Switzerland, and studied in Grenoble. He came to Brussels in 1857 and started doing this.”
Neuhaus’ history online says that his grandson evolved the praline by injecting flavorful fillings instead of medicine in 1912. The family-owned business still makes candy today. The candy is available in the U.S. in Macy’s and Nieman Marcus stores and online at various places, including Amazon.com.
I picked out a variety of twos and fours and left €35 (US$38) with the shopkeeper. I questioned whether this hefty bag would last through the next week in The Netherlands.
Windmills of Brugge
With only two full days in Brugge and an early train to Antwerp the next morning, I had to skip seeing the four giant windmills in Kruisvest, 1.6 kilometers (1 mi) from Markt. It was time to find a café for dinner. I had seen one on the carriage ride and wandered back toward the Church of the Holy Lady to Bistrobar Boreas for dinner.
Although most expect to see windmills in Holland, there are four on the eastern ancient walls and ramparts of Bruges adjoining Kanaal Gent-Brugge. These were erected to grind grain into flour. The Bonne-Chière mill was built in the 19th century and relocated to its current site in 1911. It has only been used as a visitor attraction.
The Christmas Market
Brugges remains on my bucket list for a return journey. Perhaps this time, I’ll come in December for the Christmas Market. It was a bummer to miss this globally famous Christmas Market set up in Markt—just like in medieval times.
It’s open from the fourth Friday in November through the first Sunday in January. Brugge has two markets, one with general arts, crafts, food, and gifts in Markt. The other is down the street, featuring artisan-created crafts and jewelry.