- When to book- start looking at hotels and travel by September, although some places advertise rooms as early as April.
- Minimum cost– assuming two adults Hostels cost approx €50 (2015), bottle of Cava €3 from CarreFour (probably more in local shops if you don’t have a car), fast food dinner €20, evening entertainment free, breakfast €20… total approx €100 plus travel for one night.
- Recommended place-Het Zand (shortened to ‘t Zand) for huge crowds, sing-along music and fireworks (see map in main article).
- Recommended arrival time- 9.30pm if you want to be at the front, 10.30-11pm if you want to be part of the crowd.
- Key info- restaurants need to be booked in advance. Family friendly.Very busy but safe.
New Year’s (or Sint Sylvester Vooranvond as the locals call it) is great in Bruges. Here’s a write up of my experience and tips so you can have a great time too!
In the lead up to Christmas there’s a big Christmas market in Bruges, which takes over all of the shops and squares in the city centre and goes on right up until 31st December. There’s also usually an ice sculpture display just by the train station and ice skating in Grote Markt by the Belfry. A LOT of people travel to Bruges for Christmas and New Year so don’t go expecting a nice quiet little city break!
Start looking at booking your hotel in September, or earlier if you want somewhere specific. We’re going for 2015/16 and booked back in May, although most places haven’t released dates for booking yet and the hotelier did comment on how early we were! But it’ll be my 30th birthday and we wanted somewhere specific so e-mailed ahead to get it booked.
If you’re travelling by Eurotunnel you can book 9 months in advance typically, but again you want to be starting to look around September as they do get booked up early and prices go sky high! I would *strongly* recommend crossing the channel on the eurotunnel if you’re travelling from the UK as we do- fantastic service, really easy and we had one *very* bad experience one return journey on the ferry in early January when the weather was really bad, we had to queue for hours to get on and then the crossing was really rough. We had very nearly got on to the ferry which left before ours and apparently that was stranded in the sea for five hours because Dover had closed!
Restaurants are open as usual between Christmas and New Year, but need booking in advance for New Year’s Eve. Most restaurants will have a strict set menu for the evening- they want to keep it as smooth as possible for the poor serving and kitchen staff who have to work! Start looking at menus online early December to decide where you want to go- or earlier if you want to go somewhere more “exclusive”. Some restaurants take you right through the evening and into the New Year, but others will chuck you out early- so make sure you know what you’re booking. Look out for hefty prices too- you should expect to pay double what you’d normally expect. As for bars, some close early, some don’t serve food, or some are just completely closed so ask if you hope to eat somewhere.
The Run Up
Bruges is host to a huge Christmas market throughout December which is beautiful but nothing extraordinary as far as Christmas markets go. On Grotemarkt there is also ice skating. Shops all take on Christmassy displays which tourists slow right down to gaze at. Bruges is really REALLY busy at this time of year and there is no getting away from the crowds until evening. Everywhere from restaurants to trees to bridges seem to be decorated in fairy lights, and walking along the canals if you’re lucky enough to get a mild evening is just magical.
There is also an ice sculptures exhibit in the square outside the train station which tends to have a family-oriented theme. This is pretty pricey to get into but is probably worth it. Keep your eyes peeled for discount vouchers in booklets etc, it’s the sort of place you never need to pay full price. We went one lunchtime to a massive queue and were put off, then returned early evening to no queue at all. At peak times expect to queue for up to an hour. It was still pretty busy inside when we went much later and I can’t begin to imagine whether it would have been worth it had it been even busier. It stays open until 7pm so it’s worth waiting until the crowds die down for a proper look. There’s an ice bar in there too. It’s also worth noting the Ice Sculptures open on New Year’s day too.
Attractions and museums are generally open as normal every day after Christmas including New Year’s Eve, although they often close a couple of hours early. We got a City Pass on our first visit to Bruges which meant we could visit a lot of the attractions for a one-off payment- but do be careful if you buy more than 24 hours: the days have to be consecutive, even if your second day is New Year’s Day when a lot of places are closed.
New Year’s Eve and the Fireworks
Plan where you’re going to eat on New Year’s Eve in advance, as restaurants book up early and put prices up dramatically. We chose to eat a big lunch at 2pm in the Halve Maan Brewery restaurant after a tour, then just had street food on the evening- street food is definitely “where it’s at” for a price-savvy tourist on New Year’s Eve.
Most Belgian cities have some sort of public party on New Year’s Eve and Bruges is by no means an exception! The main celebration occurs in ‘t Zand, a large square not far from the train station.
To get to ‘t Zand from the Belfry in Grote Markt, face away from the Belfry and take the road to your left: Steenstraat. This is a major shopping street during the day. Then you basically just keep going, past the lovely Simon Stevinplein and Sint Salvatorskathedraal on your left, the road changing into Zuidzandstraat (literally South Zand street), and you’re there- Het Zand. The square isn’t much to look at on a normal day, but does host weekly markets as well as a huge fleamarket in summer months. It is, however, the largest square in Bruges which is why it gets the honour of hosting the New Year celebrations.
This is advertised as a giant karaoke event, and you can pick up lyrics in bars, hotels and the tourist information office some time during the early evening. In reality, this is a huge stage on which performers sing well known songs in English and Dutch, and the audience are encouraged to sing along. In other words, don’t worry, you’re not going to be invited on stage! It gets pretty packed: think 18,000 people plus but everyone is friendly and crime in Bruges is low. It’s still probably worth leaving your phone and cash in the hotel room as you never know who’s next to you wherever you go.
The main event is advertised at starting at about 10-10.30pm. Some people arrive earlier and mill around in small groups with bottles of bubbly, most Belgians don’t turn up until 11.30pm or later. When we’ve been, we got to the local area at around 9.30pm and checked out the small bars which line the square. They’re not the nicest of bars but do offer warmth, drinks and a loo! Beware though, a lot of them will charge for the toilet (even for customers drinking and eating with them!) on New Year’s Eve. The first one we came across I was *bursting* for the loo but was so outraged by the charge I refused, moving on to the next bar, and the next, until a mile’s walk and an hour later I gave in and paid the 50 cents for the privilege which I could have done at the first place haha. I think it’s just a necessary evil- and fair enough considering how busy it gets. It may seem like a waste if you’re penny pinching as we were at the time, but how many times are you going to wee during that one evening really? Probably more if it’s on your mind so don’t get bothered by it like I did!
So into the crowd you go. I can’t really recommend a particular place to stand, other than to say the further into the crowd the better! If you want to be anywhere near the front you need to arrive early, around 9.30-10pm. In my opinion being mid-crowd has a better atmosphere. No matter how much space you have when you first arrive, you WILL get packed in! In my opinion it doesn’t really matter where you are in the crowd or how much you can see- I’m a shorty so am used to seeing very little at these sorts of things. The atmosphere is great and if you bag a lyrics booklet you’ll have a great time singing along with the random French bloke next to you. You do get silly people doing silly things like trying to light Chinese lanterns and let them go- never a good idea in crowded places! But those people soon realise that there’s really no point, they’re not getting anywhere and all they’re doing is causing a hazard- so don’t buy them and don’t try to let them off. There are no laws against drinking in public places in Belgium, so it’s perfectly acceptable to bring a couple of bottles of something fizzy to share with your friends, family and new friends on New Year’s Eve. We make a habit of frequenting the local CarreFour supermarket to stock up on beer whenever we’re in Belgium, and a perfectly adequate bottle of some sort of Cava-style fizz can be picked up for a couple of Euros (although we are by no means wine connoisseurs, but if you’re more choosey than us then you’ll know what you’re looking for). Most people will have some drink with them, and many will be willing to share we’ve found!
By midnight it feels like the whole city has invited everyone they’ve ever met to t’Zand and the countdown starts. It’s a brilliant atmosphere to share New Year wishes with people in all different languages and different lifestyles. There’s a massive fireworks display which goes on for 20 minutes or so, and families start to leave pretty much straight away. Don’t worry though, the karaoke carries on and the music and partying goes on well in Nieuwjaarsdag (New Year’s Day)- think 2-3am, and even then there are bars which stay open until breakfast. This won’t be advertised, it’s something you just have to stumble upon I’m afraid. It probably depends on what sort of atmosphere they have, what sort of mood the owner’s in and how intoxicated they really are. Even the walk home is great- whether you leave at 12.15 or 2.15, there’ll be loads of people around wishing you happy new year, singing, cheering and generally having a good time.
Beware of people letting off fireworks in the street, something we’ve come across in a few Belgian cities on NYE. There always seems to be one or two people doing it, and they seem to have little consideration for others around them. If you hear random fireworks going off, just stay away. I have always felt 100% safe in Bruges, no matter how crowded it is, but being used to the strict rules surrounding fireworks in the UK they do scare me.
New Year’s Day
Most big shops are closed on Nieuwjaarsdag, but there are always a few touristy shops and cafes open. Museums are shut; bars and restaurants are not. The same goes for 2nd January too unless it’s a Saturday- some places may even stay closed until the following weekend. But after a big night out the night before, it’s the perfect day to just aimlessly wander the streets of Bruges, sipping a beer in whichever open bar you find and having a coffee and waffle. A lot of the tourists seem to leave immediately on 1st January, as the city seems completely dead… or maybe it just feels that way in comparison to the huge crowds of the night before. Once the weekend is over everywhere returns to normal, but it’s worth checking which places are open on 1st and 2nd January if you have to leave soon, otherwise you may end up missing out on that lovely restaurant you’d decided to go to on your last night.