I’m really excited to tell you all about our recent trip to Bruges. It’s a beautiful city famous for canals, beer and chocolate, what more could you want from a holiday. As a huge fan of independent businesses, we spent a while hunting for somewhere interesting to stay. After a bit of research on the internet, we stumbled across a great little bed and breakfast that looked right up our street. Every review I read about B&B Emma was full of praise for it’s owners. The mystical Jimmy and Leen seemed to be the highlight of everyone’s trip.
Keen to find out what all the fuss was about, we set off for Bruges to meet them for ourselves and enjoy their hospitality. They welcomed us into their home and instantly began sharing their incredible passion for this fabulous city. Not only are they wonderful hosts with an encyclopedic knowledge of Bruges, they also serve up a truly fab breakfast. Full of energy from Leen’s top-notch smoothies and armed with their special, personalised map, we set off to explore. Read on and learn the true insiders guide to this amazing city.
First Up – A Bit of Background About Bruges
So Where is Bruges?
If you don’t know where Bruges is, it’s situated in the Northwest of Belgium towards the coast with the English Channel. From the UK, it’s barely an hour from the Eurotunnel, Calais or Dunkerque along a relatively peaceful, if not slightly flat piece of motorway. If you live further North in the UK you can even take the overnight ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge. From other parts of Europe it’s also an easy train ride from Brussels or even Amsterdam, with a short change in Antwerp. Bruges is also easily accessible to the motorway network of Europe and for us it was an easy drive from where we live in Cologne. Whether you are looking to take a short European city break or an interesting stop off on a longer trip around Europe, Bruges is a perfect place to visit.
The Birth of a Medieval Powerhouse
The city of Bruges dates from Medieval times. It’s famous canals were formed from a natural river, called the Reie. For this reason a lot of the canals have names ending in “reie”, with names such as Spiegelrei, Langerei, Groenerei and Spinolarei. The other canals were originally part of the city’s rampart protections. The first ring was built in 1127-1128 and then at the end of the 13th century a later a second, larger canal ring was dug under the orders of the French king.
Development into a Major Trading Hub
By the 13th Century Bruges had developed into one of the busiest trading cities in Europe. Most of this was linked to England’s wool industry. In the 14th century Bruges became a key member of the Hanseatic League , a powerful association of northern European trading cities. This brought ships laden with exotic goods from all over Europe and further afield. At this time the population of the UNESCO protected, city centre area of Bruges was around 40-45,000. This compares with roughly 20,000 today. The wider area of Greater Bruges has a population of 118,000.
Silting Up of the Canals – 400 Years of Slumber – Followed by A Bright Future
In the 15th century the waterway linking Bruges to the North Sea silted up. Attempts were made to build another canal but the city’s economic lifeline was gone. At the end of the century, the Hanseatic League moved their headquarters from Bruges to Antwerp. This was followed by an exodus of merchants which left houses abandoned, the canals empty and the streets deserted.
For 400 years the city slept until passing tourists enroute to the Waterloo battlefield rediscovered Bruges in the early 19th century. In 1892 a famous Belgian writer and poet called Georges Rodenbach wrote about the preserved charm of the Bruges which brought many wealthy visitors to come and see what all the fuss was about. Rejuvenation continued in 1907 the Boudewijnkanaal was built to link the city with the new port of Zeebrugge.
As the capital of this part of Belgium it is a manufacturing centre for glass, electrical goods and chemicals. It’s future as a tourist mecca was secured following its’ stint as the European City of Culture in 2002. So that’s a bit of the background to give you a bit of an idea about the history of the city. Now read on a find out more about some of the amazing things to do, see, eat and drink on a visit to Bruges.
What to See and Do
Whenever I visit a new city, I find that it really helps to get your bearings as quickly as possible. Before I go, I try and search the internet to find some great maps that I can print out or download to my phone. This really helps to get a good idea of what I want to see before I arrive. One of the best map resources that I have ever found is the “Use It Travel” series. They currently cover a select number of cities in Belgium, France, Netherlands and Norway (plus one or two others). Their maps and guides are written by locals so they have some amazing tips and ideas you don’t get in most guide books. You can download their iPhone App here or you can download and print the maps from their website here.
Getting Your Bearings with a Walking Tour
Rather than just head out on our own, we decided to start off with a walking tour. If you haven’t done one before, they are the perfect way to get an initial feeling for a city. Bruges is a fairly compact place so you can get a tour covering the main sights in a couple of hours. Most of the tours start in the main square so they are easy to find. Although you can book tours when you arrive at various tourist offices, they do get busy so it’s a good idea to book in advance. There are loads of different providers of walking tours and the quality varies considerably.
Official City Guides – 3 Years of Tough Training
When you take a tour of Bruges, make sure you look for the “Official” city guides. They undertake a gruelling 3 year training course where failing any of the exams means instant dismissal from the course. One of the best tours is the official city of Bruges tour, but that only runs on a Saturday afternoon. They also run, literally, a running tour of Bruges for anyone wanting to combine sightseeing with hardcore exercise. You can also take a photographers tour of the city if that’s your thing. You can find more information about the Visit Bruges tour here. Another option for walking tours in to book through Tours by Locals, who handpick local guides who will help you get the most out of the city. You can find out more about their tours online here.
In Bruges – An Awesome Place for Movie Fans
Bruges is great place to visit for movie fans. If, like me, you have a passion for the cult movie “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell then you can stalk out some of the locations from the film. The Visit Bruges website has a fantastic movie map that highlights all the key locations from the film. You could also check out this blog from Wonderful Wonderings (here), which adds even more detail for movie lovers looking for more info.
A Different Perspective of the City – Boat Tour of the Canals
One of the most impressive things about Bruges is it’s network of canals. Taking a boat tour in Bruges gives a totally different view of the city and really is a must do. The boats operate between 10 am and 6 pm and they cost 8 Euros per person for a 30 minute tour. There are 5 locations where you can take the boat tours from. Bear in mind that every tour starts and finishes in the same place, there’s no “hop-on – hop-off” option. We scouted out the various start points and for some reason the one at Huidenvettersplein seemed to have the shortest queues. This spot is easy to find on a map but all the locations are close together so its worth having a look at the different queue lengths rather than just going to the first one you see. As you can see from the photo above, the boats are open so wear a waterproof jacket if it’s raining.
The Hub of Bruges – The Market Square
The hub of Bruges’ tourist activity is the Market Square, called the Grote Market. Any visit to Bruges will see you passing through it on a regular basis and it’s a great point of reference as you walk around the city. As with many cities, there are lots of cafes and restaurants around the square. However, they are very tourist orientated, with prices to match. There are often better options just a few metres away so think beyond the square especially if you fancy eating something other that a traditional plate of Belgian frites (chips/ fries). Having said that, if you just want to rest your legs, grab a coffee or a beer and people watch for a while it’s a great spot.
The Belfort – Check Out the View from the Top
At the south end of the Market Square is the famous Belfort (belfry), which stands 83 metres tall and houses a total of 47 bells. If you are feeling fit, you can walk up the 366 steps where your reward will be an amazing view across the whole city. The Belfort is part of a complex of halls that dates back to the 13th century. In the Middle Ages, it was a warehouse and market hall in the Middle Ages. It’s an impressive place to visit and access to both the museum and the Belfort tower costs 10 Euros and is open 7 days a week between 9.30 am and 6 pm. The view from the top really is worth the effort. Find out more about the Belfort on the Visit Bruges website here.
Burg Square and the City Hall
A short walk East of the Market Square is the impressive Burg Square. At the heart of the Square is the impressive City Hall (Stadthuis), which was built in 1376. This makes it one of the oldest town halls across the European Low Countries. For over 600 years, the city has been ruled from this exquisite building. You can take a look around between 9.30 am and 5 pm, 7 days a weeks for the bargain price of 4 Euros. It’s worth it just to see the gothic hall and it’s 19th century murals and colourful vaulted ceiling.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
Another intriguing building in Burg Square is the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilige Bloed Basiliek), which was built between 1134 and 1157. It houses a vial of blood that is said to be that of Jesus himself. As well as the Gothic Basilica, there is also a chapel underneath which is definately worth a visit. The contrast between the 2 parts of the building is amazing and as long as there are not too many tourists, it provides a peaceful break from the hustle and bustle of the city. Read more about the Basilica and it’s opening times here.
The Half Man Brewery
London maybe famous for it’s tube, but the one is Bruges is much more interesting. Mainly because their’s has beer in it. In 2016 a unique 3km underground pipeline was built from the Half Moon Brewery (Halve Maan) to their bottling plant in the suburbs. This pipeline enables their Brugse Zot to still be brewed within the city walls whilst enabling the brewery to grow while at the same time reducing the traffic in the historic centre of the city. The brewery is another great family business with a history stretching back to 1856. Originally established by Leon Maes, it is now in the hands of the sixth generation of the family. If you are a beer fan, don’t miss their brewery tour. It’s a great way to find out more about the brewery and of course a tasting always provides some welcome refreshment. Read more about their tours on their website here. There are lots of different beers from this part of Belgium and every one also has its own specially designed glass. You can buy beer and glass gift sets from various shops around the city and they make a great present for the beer lover in your life. I certainly appreciated my Bruges Tripel gift set and use the glass regularly now at home.
The Begijnhof Convent – Peace and Quiet in the Heart of the City
Another peaceful spot we loved in the city was the ‘Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde’ also called the Begijnhof . It’s a gorgeous little spot with white-coloured house fronts and a tranquil garden. It was originally built in 1245 and was once the home of the beguines, who were emancipated lay-women who led a pious and celibate life. Nowadays, it is a convent that is inhabited by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. You can visit one of the small houses and get an insight into what daily life was like in the 17th century. It’s worth knowing that the gates close at 6.30 p.m.
Frites (Chip) Museum
With chips (or frites/ fries depending on your nationality) holding such a big part of modern life, an interesting and slightly quirky place to visit in Bruges is the Friet Museum. The museum is the brainchild of Cédric and Eddy Van Belle and it’s another interesting family business in keeping with the spirit of the From Real People blog. It’s an educational museum that explains the history of the potato, fries and the different condiments we often eat with them. The Friet Museum is open 7 days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. For the bargain price of 7 Euros (5 for children under 11), you have a great bargaining chip (see what I did there) to bribe your children to behave while you do all the other bits of Bruges. You even get a chip tasting at the end of the visit. Find out more about the museum on their website here.
The Best Place for Chocolate – The Chocolate Line
No visit to Bruges would be complete without mentioning Chocolate. You are literally spoilt for choice when it comes to chocolate shops. Obviously there is not really such a thing as bad chocolate but it’s hard to figure out where to start when it comes to chocolate in Bruges. Thankfully Jimmy and Leen came to the rescue with a recommendation for a place called “The Chocolate Line”. If you have read some of the other posts on this blog, you might have read about our monthly Wine and Chocolate evenings. I like to think we know a bit about good chocolate. However, nothing prepared me for this shop. On the first day of our visit we stopped by to try just one chocolate each to see what all the fuss was about. Wow! I had an apple caramel chocolate and it was genuinely one of the most amazing things I have ever eaten. Yes, it really is that good.
The Wonderful World of Dominique Persoone
Their shop is located on Simon Stevinplein, which is a square about 2-300 metres from the Market Square. It’s just off the Steenstraat shopping street. The Chocolate Line is the brainchild of chocolatier Dominique Persoone. He likes to call himself a shock-a-latier and is especially famous for inventing a chocolate sniffing device for a Rolling Stones party back in 2007. Dominique certainly brings a bit of rock n’roll to the world of chocolate. He goes on interesting adventures to help develop the communities from where his cocoa is sourced and he loves to combine different flavours to create amazing chocolates. In the shop you can choose different size boxes and fill them with a selection of wonderful creations. The prices of the boxes are pretty reasonable for such great chocolate. Check out the range in advance on the Chocolate Line website here.
Staying in Bruges – Top Tips
B&B Emma – The Wonderful Jimmy and Leen
Cercle Bruges and Chelsea Dagger
So when it came to staying in Bruges, in true From Real People style we sought out a small independent B&B. It was wonderful to meet Jimmy and Leen. Their B&B Emma is named after their daughter and they really are sharing their home with their guests. It was thanks to them and their awesome recommendations that we had such a perfect trip to Bruges. If you are a fan of football, ask Jimmy about his love for the local club Cercle Bruges, where he was club captain in 2007 and now coaches their Under 19 team. One of the odd fascinations I have about football is the songs that teams play when they score a goal. For Cercle Bruges their choice is one of my favourite songs, Chelsea Dagger by the Fratellis. If you are a fan of tea (as in the drink) you should also stop by the tea shop Javana where Leen works. You can read more about their wonderful little B&B on their website here.
Cosy Rooms and a Wonderful Breakfast
Just to tell you more about their B&B. They have 2 lovely bedrooms that are warm, cosy and well decorated with lots of white and crisp linen. Jimmy and Leen are perfect hosts who take the trouble to find out what their guests like when they arrive. They will then happily sit and mark up a map with all the best bits of Bruges on it (many of their tips to us are shared here). They also make one of the most gorgeous breakfasts I have ever had in a hotel or B&B. First of all, Leen’s smothies are just awesome, freshly made and the perfect start to anyone’s day. They go out early and get fresh local bread, which they serves with meat, cheese and jam from local suppliers. The location of their B&B is pretty perfect as well. It’s just a 10-15 minute walk from the centre through a lovely peaceful part of the city with some really cute streets.
St Anna and St Gillis – Peaceful and Quiet – Close to the Centre
With only 2 rooms, not everyone will be able to stay at Jimmy and Leen’s lovely B&B. With a lot of people using Air BnB or other sites like Booking.com, it’s always hard to know where to start when looking for accommodation. If you are going down the B&B or apartment route the areas of St Anna and St Gillis are great places to look. These areas are north of the Market Square but close enough that you can visit all the main sights within no more than a 10-15 minute walk.
A Few Tips for Eating In Bruges
As with any tourist city, there are literally hundreds of options for eating and drinking in Bruges. It’s always hard to find good places to eat, especially at prices that don’t break the bank. Thankfully, Jimmy and Leen were on hand with some great recommendations that we found to be perfect places for either a quick snack or evening dinner.
Cafe Vlissinghe – The Oldest Continually Running Cafe in the City – Great for Lunch
After our late morning boat trip on a fairly cold day we were looking for somewhere to warm up and grab some lunch. Cafe Vlissinghe is a great spot that is the oldest cafe in the city of Bruges that dates back to 1515. You can find it in a cute little lane in St Anna at the side of one of the canals north-east of the centre. It’s a lovely cosy place that also has a nice garden that would be wonderful on a hot summer’s day. We stopped by for a lovely bowl of soup and a nice Bruges beer. Open from 11 am to 10 pm, they have a full menu and a wide selection of beer and wine. Take a walk around some of the lovely cute streets around the cafe to get a feel for the not so touristy part of Bruges.
Bistro Du Phare – Lovely Local Restaurant in North Bruges
For an evening meal in St Gillis (North of the Market), Jimmy and Leen recommended their favourite local restaurant, Du Phare (the ferry). It was lovely place that quickly filled up with locals having dinner so it’s worth booking or arriving early in the evening. They had a lovely selection of meat, pasta and tapas. The food was really nice and being off the tourist trail the prices were pretty good too. The staff spoke good English and the menus were also available in English. Check out their website here.
Republiek – Mingle with Locals for Dinner Near the Centre
If you fancy eating somewhere a bit closer to the centre of Bruges but is also a little off the normal tourist trail, another great recommendation from Jimmy and Leen was Cafe de Republiek. The design is cool and retro while the menu has a range of lovely food. We didn’t visit ourselves but it came highly recommended either for a sandwich or evening dinner. You can check out their website here to give you a better idea of their style and food. Just a quick note though. Be aware that the restaurant is closed for renovation through to the middle of October 2017. Being lovely people who don’t want to disappoint their customers they have a pop-up summer terrace called Hof de Plezance (which roughly translates to ‘Court of Fun’). Entrance is through Naaldenstraat, around the corner from De Republiek.
Estaminet – For Awesome Italian Food
The other restaurant that Jimmy and Leen recommended to us was Estaminet. We ate there on the first evening of our trip and it was lovely little place with friendly service. It’s located on the Astrid Park (Botanical Garden) a few hundred metres south east of the Market Square. You can check out the menu in advance on their website here to see if there is anything you fancy. Most of the food is Italian. I had the Lasagne and it was really nice served with a Brugge Tripel beer.
Where to Drink Belgian Beers and Cocktails on a Trip to Bruges
Talking of beer, no trip to Bruges would be complete without enjoying a glass of beer or two (or even more) at a traditional local pub. Before our trip we got a couple of recommendations from our American friends Alex and Sunny. We also got some additional ideas from Jimmy and Leen of course, so I thought it might be useful to share a few ideas with you to save you some time on your trip.
De Garre is an amazing little pub that is really hard to find. It’s located down a tiny (really tiny you could miss it) alleyway on the street that connects the Market Square and Burg Square. It’s one of the best places to drink Belgian Beer in Bruges. They have a selection of over 130 different beers served up with amazing cheese boards.
Cocktails at Groot Vlaenderen
If you fancy a cocktail you really should checkout a place called Groot Vlaenderen, which is just North of the Market Square. It’s in a lovely old building on the corner of the street and is open from 5 pm in the evening. The cocktails are lovely, with a few different ones from the normal selection. My long island iced tea was a classic but a real winner.
Finally, to finish this tour of Bruges I wanted to post the picture of the toilet at Groot Vlaenderen. It really is one of the most impressive toilets I have ever seen and believe me in the course of my children’s lives I have seen a lot of toilets. So if you visit for a drink make sure you take a trip downstairs and enjoy their facilities.