A weekend in… Bruges

Studying medieval history? Seen the movie ‘In Bruges’? Or just want to eat lots of chocolate and drink lots of beer? Then look no further than Bruges, tucked away in… well, unfortunately it is in Belgium. Here’s how you can spend a weekend in Bruges.

So, what’s the deal?

Thankfully, I’ve been able to put my prejudices aside when it comes to Bruges. The charming city was one of Europe’s most powerful in the Middle Ages, caused by what the locals call ‘an act of God’. Basically, one night there was a massive storm and when everyone woke up, they realised that a sea channel had been created, linking Bruges with the North Sea.

For a few hundred years, Bruges enjoyed its status as the most powerful city on the North Sea, trading lace and other textiles with major trading centres such as Venice and Pisa. Unfortunately, one night God wasn’t so kind. His second act in yet another storm caused the channel to silt up and the city’s access to the sea was cut off.

Bruges sank into a funk, slowly being forgotten about by the rest of the world. This is exactly why Bruges is so pretty today; it’s caught in time as, thankfully, it was too much trouble to bulldoze it all and build something newer. Whilst nearby cities such as Ypres were being torn up in war, Bruges was just sitting quietly, waiting for hordes of tourists to discover it.

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Bruges by night.

When do I go?

Bruges isn’t one of those places perpetually blessed with sunshine. It’s not far from London, so think about what the weather would be like there before you book your weekend in Bruges. Tourists do come to Bruges all year round though, which means that nothing really shuts down in the colder months. Bring an umbrella year-round.

Where can I shack up?

There are a number of hostels in and around Bruges (called ‘Brugge’ in Flemish so let’s go with that to sound a bit cultured), with my top pick being the Bauhaus, which is part of the St Christopher’s chain. Rates are low, they’ve got a bar/restaurant attached and organise free walking tours, beer tastings and pub crawls. Snuffel Sleep-In’s another option (if you’re not afraid of outdoor showers) and Charlie Rockets is also in the city centre. Beds are super cheap, around half of what you’ll pay in the closest major backpacker stops of Paris and Amsterdam.

I’ve stayed in the first two which I can vouch for. Though rougher around the edges, If you’re travelling by yourself, Snuffel has a good common area and the Bauhaus’ organised tours are a good way to meet other people. I’ve never known the city to feel full, so booking a weekend in Bruges a week or so out should be fine.

What photos do I need to take?

Bruges isn’t a city with a massive to-do list; rather it’s a place to explore at your own pace. The city centre is not as small as you’d first think, but everything is definitely within walking distance. The best city maps are by a non-profit group called Use-It; they contain all sorts of quirky advice and are available free in many spots including hostels. They’re recognisable by the picture of a smoking Jesus on the front.

On your first day it’s a good idea to take a canal cruise; they leave every ten minutes (even more often at the height of summer), take forty minutes and cost about €7. The seem incredibly touristy and you can get the feeling that you’re being treated like cattle, but it’s a bit of a must-do. The cruise route takes you down canals inaccessible to pedestrians, so you’ll really get to see a different side of the city. Some of the drivers ask for tips, especially if they’re translating everything into a few different languages. You don’t need to feel obliged as tipping really isn’t a common practice in Belgium.

Particularly if you’re a fan of the movie ‘In Bruges’, head up the Belfry for an amazing view of Bruges (€8). Brugge’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it was built on a foundation of cowskins, hence the slight lean up the 366 steps. You can get up the tower for half the price if you look like you’re under 25. I wasn’t, but I said I was and got away with it.

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The view from the Belfry (when it’s not raining).

If you’re interested in churches (I can already see you skipping to the next paragraph) there’s a couple that Bruges likes to pump up; the Church of our Lady and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The former contains the only Michaelangelo painting to leave Italy during his lifetime, and the latter contains a holy relic, a vial believed to be filled with Jesus’ blood. I haven’t been to either of these as they don’t look particularly amazing and the Church of our Lady seems to have strange opening hours and has been shut every time I’ve walked past. Both are free to enter.

The only working brewery in town is De Halve Maan, which is open every day. Tours run every hour on the hour, include a beer and cost €6,50.

If you’re up for museums of a different sort, the kitschy Fries Museum and Chocolate Museum may be right up your alley. Both cost €7. Reviews are mixed, so you’ve been warned!

Is there anything else around worth seeing?

On the second day of a weekend in Bruges, you might want to see the surrounding Flemish countryside. Family-run Quasimodo Tours have city and countryside bike tours, as well as the excellent tour of Flanders Fields. I went on this tour back in November 2011 and it was incredible, taking you into the nearby battlefields and fought-over cities of World War I.

The nearby city of Ghent is also another option, particularly if the crowds in Bruges are getting to you. Ghent boasts similar architecture to Bruges and has a decent buzz as a student town. However, it’s a bit rougher around the edges so a lot of tourists dismiss it. It’s definitely worth a morning or afternoon as is on the same train line as Bruges. Both Ghent trains stations are close to the city centre; it’s not a bad idea to disembark at one and walk to the other through the city centre. Use-It also has a map of Ghent.

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Come here for a bit of peace – the very happening Ghent.

Those travelling by train to Bruges will usually go via Antwerp or Brussels. You may want to chuck your bag in a locker at the station and walk around for the hour or two; both stations are close to their respective city centres, and Antwerp’s station is a work of art in itself.

What can I get Mum?

Bruges is full of tourist paraphernalia and is a decent place to shop. The German institution, the famous Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop, has a large outlet in Bruges right in the middle of the city. Lace shops also abound and are insanely cheap for homemade wares. Last but definitely not least is chocolate; shops are everywhere specialising mainly in delicious pralines. Prices vary considerably so make sure you shop around.

How do I stop my tummy rumbling?

You can get decent fries (called ‘frites’ here instead of ‘patat’) from countless snackshops; the cheaper ones tend to be on the outskirts of the city centre and closer to the train station. The Belgian delights of waffles and mussels can also be found – waffles at little stands and mussels mainly in restaurants. Mussels are actually traditionally served with fries so don’t be worried that you’ve been tricked.

Just be aware that restaurants can be on the pricey and touristy side. Double check your bill before you pay; items such as bread and water have made an appearance on my bill before I questioned it.

But what you’re really here for is the chocolate; those on a budget can stock up at the supermarket where you can get yourself into a coco-coma for less than a couple of coins. Otherwise, chocolate shop-hop; there’s dozens around, some of which give out free samples.

Where’s the pub?

In terms of drinking, you’ve got a wealth of options here. My personal favourite is the tiny ‘De Garre’, on the street of the same name. There’s a huge variety of beers here but try ‘De Garre’. At only €3,50 and 11.4 per cent, they have a limit of three per customer!

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The dangerous beers which are served at De Garre – gotta love the complimentary cheese.

There’s a large number of little pubs throughout Bruges. Prices are pretty cheap for the quality you’re getting; some of the best-known Belgian beers are Leffe, Hoegaarden and Stella Artois, but there’s over eight hundred you can try in Bruges alone. Even if you’re not a beer drinker, this is the best place to find something for your tastes whether it be cherry, coffee or even chocolate-flavoured beer.

Right. So how do I get there?

Getting to Bruges is easy. From London, it’s easiest, cheapest and fastest to catch the train. Jump on the Eurostar headed for Brussels; just make sure you choose your destination as ‘Any Belgian Station’ rather than ‘Brussels’. This will mean that you won’t need buy an extra ticket for the journey between Brussels and Bruges. Prices can vary immensely so the best thing to do is to book your train online as soon as possible. Deals start at €80 return but you’re more likely to pay around the €100 mark.

You can also fly of course; Brussels has two airports; EasyJet use the main one whereas RyanAir fly into Brussels Charleroi Airport.

If you’re already on the continent, Bruges is best reached by train. Half-hourly trains connect the city with both Brussels and Antwerp (just make sure you change at the right Brussels station; there are three). You can look for deals online; for example if you’re travelling from the Netherlands, you can purchase a Benelux Weekend Pass for forty per cent off the normal price at www.nshispeed.nl.

Regular bus services also serve Bruges; Eurolines connects the city but check online beforehand as services are usually limited to one per day.

Bruges’ train station is pretty close to the centre of town, about a ten to fifteen minute walk if you know where you’re going. I’ve gotten lost twice, so it’s not a bad idea to catch the bus directly to your accommodation when you first arrive. There’s a small bus station right out the front of the train station; you can buy your ticket (€1,20) from either the driver or the little booth. The bus network is very comprehensive and links up most of the city centre.

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