Bruges is a fabulous city for everyone, and there are so many attractions and sights, restaurants and cafes, beers and chocolates that it’s hard to know where to start! Here’s my five favourite places in Bruges, from a woman’s point of view. Soon we should have a his version of the article too. Maybe one day we’ll add a kid’s one! Let me know what your favourite places are too.
1. Wandering the streets, nowhere in particular
As cheesy as it sounds, my favourite place in Bruges is nowhere in particular. Just being there, wandering aimlessly. I’ve done it alone, with the hubby and in big crowds. I’ve done it in the sun, the rain, the snow and the wind. In Winter or Summer, morning, day, evening or night. I have never been disappointed.
Bruges is beautiful. I can happily just walk through the cobbled streets, looking at the buildings, the canals, the shop displays, the little squares, the markets… Even in winter I will chose to drink outside in a bar just to be in Bruges.
I can’t give you an address, or directions. Maybe start at the Grote Markt? Or maybe somewhere else. Each day you’re in Bruges, go a different way out of your hotel. Wander. It’s pretty much impossible to get lost in Bruges: so long as you don’t cross the main ring road (you can’t without realising) then you’re never far from the centre.
I own an old guidebook of Bruges which I love. I think I picked it up for about a pound in a National Trust bookshop a few years ago. I want to share with you how it starts. I’m not going to comment on it any further because I think it speaks for itself. It speaks right down to my heart, that’s for sure.
I went back to Bruges many times, and the beginning of it all was quite simple: I had seen a street in the sunlight. I had stood and watched the golden summer light upon the gables… I had been filled with the light and the warmth and the friendly silence of that street; and I knew that … the street would remain constant to my affection.
And at the end of the chapter he continues:
So I go back to my street in sunlight and in rain. You will not see it mentioned in this little book. If I were to tell you its name, you could find it on the map. But there is no need; for you will find your street, your bridge, your own corner in this town of infinite grace. And that will be your Bruges.
-Verkest, M. 1952, New Illustrated Guide to Bruges. Bruges: L. de Reyghere.
2. The Old Chocolate House
MariaStraat 1, 8000 Brugge
Every time I go to Bruges I seek this place out- it’s never where I remember so it usually takes a couple of days for me to locate it! The signs outside claim to sell the best hot chocolate in town, Belgium, the world… I guess that’s what first caught my eye about the place.
Downstairs is a chocolate shop. It’s not the cheapest chocolate but it is tasty. They have the typical Belgian chocolate models, a range of confectionary, conserves etc as well as a counter where you can choose from a wide variety of bitesize chocolates- building a box of your choice or taking a pre-packed one. It’s upstairs I love though. Up these steep stairs you see a teashop advertised. Up you go, not feeling particularly invited in but usually just desperate for a cuppa or a bite to eat. You’re greeted by two small rooms, about the size of our downstairs lounge, decorated in a sort of shabby chic- possibly more shabby than chic- way. Floral table cloths (but plastic if I remember correctly), framed old photos of random children… its neither particularly beautiful nor particularly ugly. Kinda like your great grandma’s front room if she’d been on lots of travels and picked up one random item on each journey.
The menu consists almost entirely of hot drinks and waffles. I think there may be a few other desserts thrown in out of politeness. Don’t be tempted, go straight for the hot chocolates. Again they’re not cheap, but stuff it you’re on holiday, treat yourself to the most expensive one- the one you REALLY want. You have to choose dark, milk or white chocolate. I’ve had all three (not together, I promise!). Genuinely, just go for the one you like the most. The white one is pretty sweet, the dark isn’t too bitter, they’re all yummy. Have a waffle too. Cancel your dinner reservation now while you can still move.
Hot chocolate comes served in a HUGE mug of hot milk, with a small plate holding a chocolate “tulip” which holds even more chocolate chips. Go on, eat one. Then chuck the whole lot in your milk- yep the tulip too. Frantically stir and stir until it’s all melted. Then taste. Aaahhhh you suddenly remember why you come back to this place. The waffles are thin- not the American style ones but much much flatter and presented in a flower shape. They’re so light and so tasty you’ll wonder why you ordered those hot cherries and cream (called slagroom by the Belgians, I always find that word funny) but they’re so tasty too you can’t stop eating them. Oh heaven, I’m starting to wish I was there now.
So the Old Chocolate House is most definitely one of my top five places to visit in Bruges. Every time I go it is ALWAYS a case of my eyes being larger than my stomach, I can’t help it, but I always leave feeling full and happy.
If you fancy visiting the Old Chocolate House (and I’m writing these as much for myself as I am for you- as I said I can never find this place), stand in Grote Markt, in front of the Belfort. Take the road on your right in the corner- not the one which leads behind the Belfort, but perpendicular to it: Steenstraat. This is a busy shopping street so have a mooch in some shops while you walk! Walk through Simon Stevinsplein on your left. Simon Stevinsplein is the former Friday Market of Bruges where the slaughterhouse once stood. Check out the statue of Simon- a celebrated mathemetician- as you pass through the square. The road in the far corner is Mariastraat, where the large Dumon Chocolatier store is on the corner. The Old Chocolate House is on Mariastraat, on your left: “The place to be to drink the best hot-chocolate”, as the canopy says.
3. Brouwerij Halve Maan
Walplein 26, Bruges 8000
The first time I went to the Half Moon Brewery in Bruges was on New Year’s Eve 2011-12. We’d booked ourselves on to a tour which was timed to finish at 1.45, 15 minutes before they stopped serving food. It was risky, but our plan was to have a large hearty meal there, then just have street food whenever we were hungry during the evening in order to avoid the excessive prices of restaurants on New Year in Bruges.
The tour is great- you book on to a tour in a choice of languages and the tour guide, although clearly not a native English speaker, was fluent and even showed an appreciation for the typical dry sense of humour the Brits of our tour have with a few jokes thrown in for good measure. I think it was the first brewery tour I’d ever been on (having since become quite a brewery connoisseur) and I was really impressed by the interesting information, the friendly group and the enjoyability of it all. I think it was when we booked our tickets a few hours in advance we were first told the view from the top of the brewery was better than the Belfort view. We laughed about it at the time, thinking it was some ridiculous claim to pull the punters in. We were wrong, they were right. I would 100% recommend the view you get from the top of the Brewery during that tour OVER the one you get from the Belfort. And I would not make that claim if I didn’t genuinely mean it. I’m not posting a picture because I want you to go and decide for yourself. Needless to say we both really enjoyed the tour, and the promise of free beer at the end wasn’t one to be ignored. The beer from the Halve Maan is good. The quadruple is very good. Make sure your hotel is within walking distance. What a way to start New Year’s Eve.
Having finished the tour and taken our table in the restaurant (a place I at first found uninviting, I don’t know why, I guess it has a bit of a canteen feel about it) they made a point of asking if we were eating- not because they wanted to rush us but because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss us out. What great service.The food was delicious too. I remember saying half way through “OH MY GOD I’M STILL SO EXCITED BY THIS”. It’s a seasonal menu and pretty much everything contains their own beer. They seemed to have perfected this.
We’ve been back to eat a few times since and every time the food has been just as good. I now find the restaurant a lovely place to go- weird how my first impression changed, maybe it has something to do with the beer I know I’ll get soon 😉 To find the Halve Maan stand in Grote Markt, in front of the Belfort. Start off by walking to the Old Chocolate House: the perfect excuse to stop off there for a hot chocolate! Nothing like lining your stomach. Carry on past the Old Chocolate House on your left, following the road to a slight right past the Church of Our Lady and over the pretty bridge. After the bridge take the second road on your right- Walstraat- which will lead you to a small square. Cross the square diagonally and the brewery is right in front of you.
4. A Church
Church of our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk), Vrouwekerkhof Zuid, Bruges 8000.
Saint Salvator’s Cathedral (Sint-Salvatorskathedraal), Sint-Salvatorskoorstraat 8, Bruges 8000.
Basilica of the Holy Blood, Burg 13, Bruges 8000.
I’m a big fan of churches. That probably sounds weird seeing as I’m not religious in the slightest, but I do like visiting churches and cathedrals wherever I travel- I think it’s the grandeur and the history. Because of this I’ve visited a few of the churches in Bruges, and there are plenty. They can kind of sneak up on you- you’re just wandering along the streets minding your own business when BAM, there’s a massive church in front of you and you wonder how on earth you didn’t see it coming.
I’ve written and re-written this part of the article several times as I’ve tried to choose a favourite but it keeps changing and I just CAN’T choose. Therefore I’ve decided my fourth favourite place in Bruges is a church, any church, and I’ll write a little bit about each of the ones I’ve been to.
The Church of our Lady, often mistaken as the cathedral of Bruges, is a lovely ornate church dating back to the 13th Century. It’s tower is the tallest structure in Bruges, and is also the second tallest brickwork tower in the world which apparently you can climb although I can’t remember doing so. It is famous for housing many pieces of famous artwork, including a white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. It really is a beautiful and elaborate gothic style church with high vaulted ceilings and dramatic arches which is always busy with tourists and worshippers. To find the Church of our Lady follow the directions to the Halve Maan Brewery above and you’ll come across it just before.
Saint Salvator’s Cathedral (also known as Saint Saviour’s) is the main church of Bruges, the oldest parts dating from the 9th Century, although it has been damaged and refurbished a few times throughout the years and so is in the style of 14th Century gothic. This church has a lighter, airier feel than the Church of our Lady. Some people find it bland and cold but I find it calming and relaxing. The pulpit is amazing as is the organ which you can completely miss until you’re on your way out because it’s above the entrance doors. Saint Salvator’s is hugely impressive from the outside, and although some people are disappointed by it’s inside I still find it a beautiful and peaceful church. To find Saint Salvator’s stand in Grote Markt, in front of the Belfort. Take the road in the corner on your right- leading behind the Belfort: Hallestraat. At the bottom of the road turn right onto Oude Burg. Follow the road past the widening of Simon Stevinplein, past Poules Moules and you should spot what could be a church ahead of you. The road changes to Sint-Salvators Koorstraat and all of a sudden you’re there.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a 12th Century church hiding in the corner of Burg square. I say hiding, there are so many amazing buildings in Burg square it just seems to blend in to the incredible architecture but if you take the time to check it out it really is another beautiful building with these pointed arches above the windows, gold painted statues and what surely must be one of the most ornate facades in Bruges. The lower Saint Basil chapel is a cold, dark Romanesque style brick chapel which is full of atmosphere and is like no other church I have visited. The much more elaborate upper Chapel of the Holy Blood is a complete contrast- with beautiful murals completely covering the walls and ceilings and a beautiful golden altar. You can also view a vial said to contain a cloth with the blood of Jesus, called the Relic of the Precious Blood. It is available to view a couple of times a day so be prepared to come back if you want to see it. From the Belfort, take the perpendicular road to your left: Breidelstraat. This leads to the Burg. The Basilica is tucked away in the corner on your right.
Other recommended churches I’ve not been to are Jerusalem Church and Saint Anne’s Church.
5. Minnewater Lake
I kind of have to include this place, it’s a bit spesh to us because it’s where Carl proposed 🙂 but even without that personal reason to visit it’s still a lovely peaceful park and lake. Minnewater is often referred to as the Lake of Love, as “Minne” is the Dutch word for love. This isn’t the real meaning of the word but its still nice, and the area certainly lives up to its pseudonym.
Minnewater Lake is a large lake with a small city park located in Southern Bruges close by the the train station. If you arrive in Bruges by train do take the time to take a short diversion through the park instead of following the shortest route into the centre, it’ll add maybe five minutes on to your walk but it’s worth it. In Minnewater you can see beautiful lawns, flowers, plants, surrounding buildings, bridges, swans (a symbol of Bruges) and of course a lovely lake. Following the main paths of the park is pretty, but there are also some beautiful hidden paths and benches which you have to delve a little deeper to discover. The park- and especially the long bridge at it’s end- can get busy during the day but is also pretty and much quieter during the morning or evening. It’s meant to be absolutely beautiful at sunset.
From the bridge you get a wonderful view of the Bruges skyline with its towers. At one end of the bridge is the Poertoren (literally the Powder Tower): a small 13th Century tower which was previously used to store gunpowder, a remnant of the old city wall and seen right at the beginning of the film In Bruges. They kept the gunpowder there to scare off any hostile approaches to the city. To get to Minnewater Lake from the Belfort follow the route to the Halve Maan Brewery. Once in the Brewery Square: Walplein; keep pass through it until it thins to a road. At the end of Walplein turn right onto Wijngaardstraat, which widens to a pretty square where there are usually a lot of horse drawn carriages as well as swans. Carry on over the bridge and either take what appears to be a residential alleyway called Minnewater ahead of you (which eventually widens out to a park footpath) or follow the road to the left onto Arsenaalstraat, taking the small pathway on your right just before you cross the water.