No, Bruges isn’t great for beer and chocolates
I wanted to start off this blog with an inflammatory statement because there are so many destinations around the world portrayed only through a few superficial stereotypes. I might hasten to add though that Bruges does have an excellent array of chocolatiers and two fantastic breweries located within the city. However, I don’t want Bruges typecast as a pretty, cobbled street town with only a fistful of chocolate and a glass of golden beer to offer visitors. There is so much more to this fascinating Belgian city.
Bruges is located in the region of Flanders, and was actually once one of Europe’s most important trading hubs. While it may be hard to believe, the story of this unique city is shaped by generations of painters, diamond traders, crafts people and more.
On my first visit to Bruges, we ticked off all the traditional things, including a Belfry climb, windmills and a canal tour. My experience, while enjoyable, left me with a niggling feeling that I hadn’t made my way into the depths of the real city. So when Visit Bruges asked if I wanted to return, I saw it as an opportunity to view the city from a different light, and showcase all the reasons to visit Bruges – that aren’t just beer and chocolates (no matter how delicious they are).
Delve into Bruges’ rich history, walk with nuns in a leafy UNESCO World Heritage site or kick back with the locals in some of the hippest spots in town. This is the real Bruges.
Scattered around Bruges down quiet alleys, you might just be lucky enough to stumble upon the city’s historic almshouses. Built by wealthy citizens or guilds, they once provided safe homes for the elderly, single women and widows.
With their distinctive whitewashed walls and gabled roofs, just sighting them you are transported back to the 14th century. We discovered them by chance. Seeing a pretty courtyard from the street we wandered into Godshuizen and rows of small houses. It was utterly peaceful, with the winter sun slowly setting behind the furthest house and a soft glow slowly fading from the lush plants that blew gently in the wind. A few bikes propped up against the walls of the houses completed the perfect picturesque representation of a simpler time in Belgium’s history.
Divine Dining in Bruges
It’s no secret that Bruges is a place for foodies. In fact, over the years Bruges has amassed a huge number of Michelin stars reflective to its size. Previously, I’d been wowed here when I visited Lieven, (just off the Burg square) and enjoyed freshly baked bread, salmon tartare to die for and a risotto with mussels that singlehandedly changed my opinion on shellfish.
With this last delicious meal lingering on my mind, it was with a hungry curiosity that we entered another restaurant tipped for good things. Bonte B is regarded by a major UK journalist I know as one of the best restaurants he’s ever eaten in. Refined, with a Scandinavian-style minimalism, the interior feels warm and inviting. Every little detail is carefully thought out. From the butter dish to the napkins to the satisfying weight of the wine glasses – it just works. With each course, ranging from wild boar & butternut to mackerel – the chef personally explains each dish, adding an extra sprinkle of magic to the meal. Truth be told, I fell in love when the first tantilising hors d’oeuvre hit the table: scallops so succulent and rich in flavour that I almost shed a tear. If you’re looking for Michelin star standard without the stuffiness (and price tag) this is the place for you.
Like many visitors to Bruges, I always try to keep an eye out for places to eat away from the tourist hot spots. If you really want to rub shoulders with the locals, my advice is to head to Republiek on Sint-Jakobsstraat. There are so few tourists here that as we were leaving a guy had to go through three languages before finally switching to English and asking if the table was now free. A modern, trendy eatery, Republiek feels worlds away from the traditional Belgian dining scene in Bruges. On the à la carte menu is a selection of dishes that champion seasonal ingredients, from duck to tasty veggie options or sharing finger food in the form of tapas. Craft beer is plentiful, the cocktails are strong and you’ll be lucky to get a seat without a reservation on the weekend. If there are that many locals in one restaurant, they certainly must be doing something right here!
Handmade in Bruges
Throughout history, Bruges has always been innovating, creating and crafting. While many of the skills may have adapted to the times, some products are still hand made by locals the way they have been for centuries. A tourism initiative to keep this craft industry alive, Handmade in Bruges, showcases all the places you can take home craft items, from lace to chocolatiers to pottery. Keep your eyes peeled for the Handmade in Bruges logo in shop windows or check out the handy map.
Determined not to be tempted by the endless array of pralines and hot chocolates in shop windows, we decided instead to visit Juliette’s Artisanale Koekenbakkerij. As you enter the door you’ll get a mouthwatering waft of cinnamon and ginger, and the endless rows of cookies, cakes and ginger cups are clearly the reason. You simply can’t leave without sampling some speculoos biscuits or dentelles de Bruges (which translates as lace of Bruges).
UNESCO World Heritage Beguinage
There is nowhere better to get a taste of the Middle Ages than in Bruges’ historic beguinage. All Flemish beguinages, along with the historic centre of Bruges, are on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Beguinages were a unique concept, intended to provide a place for unmarried women to live in peace. Often these women would be religious, but not practicing nuns. This walled community was a lifeline for widows who might have lost their husbands in war. These women, referred to as beguines, could continue contributing to society through work and earn their own living.
Nowadays the beguinage in Bruges is inhabited by nuns of the Order of St. Benedict and functions as a working convent. The doors to this peaceful realm are thrown open every day for the public to visit, you might even spot a nun walking through the tranquil courtyard or praying in the small chapel.
Discover the Trading Hub of Europe
It’s not a well known fact, but Bruges was once an important international trading port, dealing in Flemish cloth and textiles. When I first visited Bruges, it was hard to imagine an inland city could have held such an important position in European history.
The best place to go so you can immerse yourself in this fascinating chapter of the city’s past is at the Historium. Located in a beautiful building on the main square, I was initially convinced that this would be a touristy, tacky attraction. I was pleased to discover I was very wrong. Wearing an audio headset, you step foot into historically constructed rooms so you can experience the sights, smells and sounds of the city as you follow a painter’s apprentice, Jacob, on his journey through Bruges.
This is also the only place in Bruges that you can actually visualise the city as it once was, especially through the innovative VR Experience (additional cost to the entrance) which sees you follow the journey a trader would have taken en-route to Bruges and see one of the wonders of the medieval world, the Waterhalle. I loved the fact that after visiting here I had a newfound admiration for the work of art this story is based on, Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck, which is found in the nearby Groeningemuseum, the city’s most celebrated art gallery.
Explore the Adornes Domain
It’s a story you’ll only hear about if you’ve visited Bruges. Way back in the 13th century, the Adornes family moved from Italy and became an integral part of the Bruges political scene and aristocracy. The wealthy family built a mansion, almhouses (for the poor) and even a beautiful, albeit unusual church.
Kasha and I started our weekend with a short walk from our accommodation in Flanders Hotel to the 15th century Jeruzalemkapel (Jerusalem Chapel). Inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (the place Jesus is said to have risen from the dead), the interior is unlike any church I’ve ever visited. A macabre altar in the centre of the church is covered in ladders and skulls while a sarcophagi dominates the room. Those keen-eyed fans of the silver screen might also recognise the church from its appearance in the movie ‘In Bruges’.
Literally a stone’s throw away is the Museum of Folk Life which occupies the former 17th century almhouses built by the Adornes family. Here you can learn more about this rich merchant family and how they rose to be one of the most influential families in Europe as well as learn about Bruges’ past by exploring eight converted almshouses that show what a cobbler, classroom or even a confectionery shop would have once been like.
If you’ve already been to Bruges, what made you want to visit? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so comment below!
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Our stay in Bruges was hosted by Visit Bruges, but as always my opinions are my own.