I moved to beautiful Bruges 2 years ago and it seems at least every month I have an Irish friend or relative asking what they should do when they visit. Here are my favourite things to do!
My no. 1 recommendation is to see the Belfry, the tall tower in the centre of Bruges. Most Irish people have seen the movie In Bruges (what inspired me to visit in the first place!) where the tower and market are featured. At the top of the 366 steps you’ll be greeted with the best view of the surrounding area. This attraction is extremely busy at the weekend, especially in the summer so I always advise people to get in line when it opens on a weekday where possible.
Above: View of the Belfry from the Historium
There are a number of museums I recommend. The Groeningemuseum houses The Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele by Jan Van Eyck and The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch and is worth a look besides these masterpieces. The Historium tells the history of Bruges in a fun and interactive way using the aforementioned Jan Van Eyck painting and is kid-friendly! If you go to the Historium make sure you step out onto the balcony by the bar to get some great pictures of the market and Belfry. For a museum more off the beaten path, check out the Volkskundemuseum (Museum of Folk Life) where they have a resident black cat, Aristide!
Above: Aristide, the resident cat at the folk museum
For those interested in beer, De Halve Maan is a local brewery which gives a comprehensive tour and is home to the first underground beer pipe in the world. The pipe runs 2km under the city of Bruges, reducing the number of trucks that need to carry beer in and out of the city. The tour sports a great view of Bruges too on the rooftop, so you don’t need to be a beer drinker to enjoy (and it is a great alternative to the Belfry if the queue is too long). The brewery also has recently started brewing a non alcoholic version of the popular local Brugse Zot (Brugian Jester) beer. This is the only place you can drink the unrefined beer which contains more nutrients (a good excuse to stop for a pint!). De Halve Maan tour has a lot of stairs, so if you can’t make it, The Bruges Beer Experience has a pretty good deal. You get the tour plus 3 beer tastings for 15euro.
Behind De Halve Maan is Minnewater Park, where most of the swans in Bruges congregate, so make sure you snap a picture. Beside Minnewater Lake is the Kasteel Minnewater (castle). I haven’t eaten here but I do recommend stopping in for a drink on a sunny day, as they have a lovely terrace overlooking the lake.
Above: Kasteel Minnewater overlooking the lake
You can also see the swans on the boat tour. I always tell everyone it is a must to go on a boat tour in Bruges. The boat tour is 30 minutes long and is open air, so make sure to pack for all types of weather. You can check https://www.buienradar.be/ to plan your tour without rain. Bruges is home to over 120 swans, and legend has it that a curse means that at least 58 swans must remain there. If they don’t, word is the city would be no more!
There are 63 chocolate shops in Bruges, in fact there are so many that there has recently been talk of reducing them! I like to stick to the homemade ones, as only 10 of the shops make their own chocolate. You’ll be glad to know that real Belgian chcoolate does not contain palm oil as that would make it lower quality (they use cacao butter instead). My two favourite shops are Dumon and Het Chocoladehuisje (literal translation The Chocolate House). Make sure you go to the Dumon on Eiermarkt as is the only shop that is still family run and is cheaper than their other branches in the city. They have range of chocolates made with stevia (Choc-o-pure) in dark chocolate if you need to avoid sugar or know a diabetic. Also, the shop was one of the last places Carrie Fisher visited! I am dairy free so I always go for a custom box of dairy free chocolate. Dumon knows which ones you can have, as does Het Chocoladehuisje on Wollesstraat. I like Het Chocoladehuisje because they also have a lot gimmicky shaped chocolate for bringing home to Ireland. They just recently started doing a yummy vegan praline chocolate too! The Chocolate Line by well known Belgian chef Dominique Persoone also recently released some vegan chocolates. Dominique is famous in Belgium for traveling the world to find the best chocolate and owns his own plantation so I like to think that’s pretty fair trade (albeit without the mark). I really enjoy their dark chocolate almond praline bar. In the shop you can see them making chocolate in store! The brand has an emphasis on eco packaging too. Looking for a chocolatier to have an ethical hot chocolate? The best cafe for this is hands down The Old Chocolate House on Mariastraat. They have Fairtrade chocolate and I love that they have coconut and soy milk available. The hot chocolate is served in a giant cup and you get to whisk the chocolate pieces in yourself. A fun experience for children and you can buy waffles there too!
Above: The Old Chocolate House café
I’m on a gluten free diet and vegetarian so finding a good place to eat always requires a bit of extra searching! I also like an emphasis on organic and local food where possible. My suggestions include options for everyone! For brunch or lunch, I like The Ginger Bread tea room on Sint Amandstraat especially for the gluten free pancakes! The street the cafe is on is full of quaint cafes with outdoors seating. That’s Toast also has veggie options and organic eggs and is great value for money.
In the evening, Jilles Beer & Burgers is great for veggies and non veggies alike, with a great drinks menu and a terrace. An excellent vegetarian place in Bruges is De Plaats. Check out Hashtag Food for fair food that caters for all diets, and they even have vegan Baileys!
The Royal Frituur on Langestraat is the place to get Belgian fried food. They have a variety of vegan, gluten and even soy free options (and yes every type of meaty or cheesy treat you can think of too). They are now even doing vegan and gluten free waffles. They also make their own mayonnaise (vegan and non-vegan). My favourite is the falafel or local vegan burgers from La Vie est Belle (Life is Beautiful in French). It’s great if you are on a budget as you can buy food there and go and eat it in the nearby hostel the Bauhaus. Recently the owner has decided to sell the business, in case you know of anyone interested in a super cool and trendy opportunity!
Nightlife and beer
The aforementioned Bauhaus has a pretty cool international crowd all week, as does De Snuffel hostel. I especially love how De Snuffel has an emphasis on Fairtrade wine and juice (and one of the cheapest wines in town too). I’m big into rock music so The Crash is one of my favourite bars, where you’re bound to meet local friendly people, and runs a karaoke every Saturday night (where it’s actually also quite welcome to sing pop and 80s, 90s classics). If you like heavier music check out Walhalla, the local metal bar. Even if you don’t, it’s well worth stopping in to try their locally made mead (a type of almost spicy tasting honey wine) and snap some pics of the outlandish decor. For music, De Snuffel has events as well as Comptoir Des Arts for blues, De Kelk for rock and 27b flat for jazz (and they also have great mocktails). More mocktails can be found at Groot Vlaenderen (and the fanciest alcoholic cocktails in Bruges too). Other favourite places for a drink for me are ‘t Poatersgat, a cellar bar underground, and De Garre – a brewery bar popular with the locals where you can get the house beer that is >13% and you are only allowed to order max 3 because otherwise you might have to be carried out of the bar…
Above: The Belfry in Bruges at night
The Local Language
In Bruges they speak West Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, but most people speak English and you’re probably more likely to meet someone who speaks English than French, so try that first. West Flemish has adopted some words from French though, so saying “Merci” for thank you is just as acceptable as saying “Dankjewel”. “Hallo” is a pretty simple way of saying hello but most people say “Dag” (Like how the Australians say “Gday”). People will understand if you speak the Netherlands version of Dutch. I always think it is nice to learn a few words in the local language before traveling.
Above: The Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele
Hope you enjoy your trip to Bruges!