It is often overlooked that Bruges is about one hour’s train journey from Brussels city centre. Just think – one hour away from the hustle and bustle of Brussels (now there’s a Eurovision song title for you!) is a compact city of less than 120,000.
Certainly, the differences between Brussels and Bruges couldn’t be more apparent: the former thrives on the cut and thrust of big city life, the latter is content to serenely sit back and let the world go by. Day tourists love Bruges, of course – but here’s the thing: once the last coach bus leaves, Bruges winds down even more. The result is as intimate a city experience as you’ll ever enjoy.
SLEEP AT… Let’s be honest – it isn’t very often you can say you once slept in a palace, and so Bruges’ only five-star hotel, Kempinski Hotel Dukes Palace, is something of a no-brainer. It’s also something of a gem of a hotel – very swish, quite arty, with a restaurant, Manuscript, to beat all comers. The only downside? You have to pay for Wi-Fi, which seems just a little bit counter-productive in this day and age.
Bruges is so small that everything is in the heart of the city; for a rather more intimate sleeping experience, try Number 11, a boutique guesthouse situated in a virtually silent traffic-free street close to the Groene Rei canal. It’s also a few minutes walk from Bruges’ many attractions and restaurants. Free Wi-Fi.
Another solid option for a good night’s sleep is the Pand Hotel, formerly an 18th century carriage house that is now a 26-room boutique offering. This one is something of a mini-deluxe choice and not without a high level of charm, as it reflects Bruges’ old-world style throughout with open fires, antiques, panelled walls, wooden floors and art works. The hotel also operates two guesthouses nearby. Free Wi-Fi.
A restored 14th century Patrician house and a former brewery, Hotel Azalea is located a mere 500 metres from the city’s main square, and right along by the charming Speelmansrei canal. A nice touch is the hotel bar, which has a terrace that overlooks a well-kept garden and a calm, rippling waterway. Free Wi-Fi.
Bruges is compact, we’ll admit, but there’s so much to see that you probably won’t pack everything in over a weekend or mid-week break. One of the several one-day must-sees is the Museum of the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Burg 13), which is a Romanesque church and a Basilica (rebuilt in Gothic revival style in the 19th century). If the exterior is impressive, the interior is breathtaking – all bright gilt and dark wood, with an atmosphere that is both special and sepulchral. Some say religion and alcohol go hand-in-hand, and so perhaps after visiting the Basilica you should immediately check out the Brewery de Halve Maan (Walplein 26), which is Bruges’ last working brewery. Enjoy a bit of history and a sip (or two) or the house brew, Brugse Zot, a wholly refreshing beer made from malt, hops and special yeast.
You can’t visit Bruges and walk away without tasting some of the best chocolate you’ve ever had. Enter Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein), one of the city’s 50 chocolate shops and (in our opinion) quite likely the best. Here, so-called ‘shock-o-latier’ Dominique Persoone hand makes on the premises choccies that boast (if that’s really the word) highly singular flavours – tomato & basil, black olive, tequila, bitter ganache with vodka, praline with fried onion, Coca-Cola, and bitter ganache with wasabi. The shop also sells accessories such as chocolate lipstick, which sounds tasty, if not possibly sinful.
To make the day even more perfect, why not see a completely different side of Bruges by boat? You can embark on the small boats at various landing stages along the canal route for a languorous 30-minute journey. Boat trips start at 10am, and finish up from 5.30pm onwards. Click here for further details.
EAT AND DRINK AT…
For such a compact city, Bruges certainly has enough great places in which to eat. While the many cafés located at the Markt square are fine for a quick snack or just a sit-down coffee, you’d be advised to seek out eateries located in streets that spread out from the old town centre. One such restaurant is Cafédraal (Zilverstraat 38), which is a hip yet downhome bistro/bar that is smartly designed (we loved the quirky speech bubbles on the main wall) and operates from the principles of customer satisfaction and expertly executed dishes.
If you fancy blending in with the locals, make a beeline for Gran Kaffe de Passage (Dweersstraat 26-28), which is a very reasonable (meals between €5-€12) local hotspot that fuses boho Art-Deco stylings with a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Think hearty traditional Belgian fare served with humour and character.
For a truly authentic Bruges experience, then make your way to Cambrinus (Philipstockstraat 19), a stone’s throw from Grote Markt; it’s the kind of bar you’d ideally like to stay in for longer than you know you should, with its selection of over 400 beers and a history that dates back to 1699. For an altogether more relaxing accompaniment to drinking beer, pop into De Garre (Off Breidelstraat), which is located just off the main square, and which blends atmosphere (think Lord of the Rings pub ambience), many, many beers and classical music.
[For further information about Bruges, click here]
(This first appeared in Cara magazine, August 2012.)