Nearly 200 years ago, Bruges was considered one of the world’s first major tourist destinations. Wealthy Brits would sail over the North Sea in the late 19th century to discover exactly what made Belgium’s premier destination so special. Two centuries later and people continue to flock there in droves - with visitors hailing from much farther afield than just the UK.
The enduring city, spelled Brugge by the Belgians, attracts roughly two million tourists a year and shows no sign of slowing down thanks to a well-balanced mixture of medieval charm and modern flair. Often referred to as the Venice of the North, Bruges puts up strong competition against Amsterdam when it comes to in-demand canal-based cities – and in Bruges, there’s not a red light district in sight.
But unlike its Italian and Dutch rivals, the canal traffic here in the capital of West Flanders is considerably less congested, allowing the scenery - and its visitors - more chance to breathe. Even the inhabitant swans of the waters go about their business undisturbed, co-existing merrily alongside their human admirers enjoying the popular canal tours. These tours are, of course, a real must, providing the perfect way to take in the beguiling landscape as you swiftly drift under those famous bridges.
The rustic structures are so intrinsic to the magic of the place, it’s little surprise to learn the city’s name is widely believed to be derived from an old Dutch word for bridge. It’s on these bridges you’ll find your best picture opportunities, with several of them regularly drawing in newlyweds searching for a romantic setting on their big day.
Your guide on the boat, which costs 8 euros (as just about everything does, handily) will also point out key locations used in the 2008 Colin Farrell movie In Bruges, which might be good to watch before your trip to whet your appetite. The entertaining film certainly captures the eerily gothic side of the city, which still boasts most of its medieval architecture, but doesn’t even skim the surface of its irresistible romance and warmth.
To experience that, you’ll have to switch off your DVD player and hit the cobbles. You could spend all day wandering around the markets and roads and still struggle to find an area that wouldn’t be postcard-contender material. Horse-drawn carriages trot past, adding an extra dash of luxury to the setting as you take in the sites.
With the city center a modest size - only 20,000 people live there - you’ll easily be able to explore by foot. But save some energy for the iconic Belfry Tower, which stands grand at 272 feet in the city center and is visible from just about everywhere. A trip to the top, up 366 often narrow steps, is no mean feat, but worth it for the unbeatable view that awaits you - as long as you’re not too scared of heights.
However, even the mighty Belfry manages to be dwarfed by Our Lady’s Church, which at 400 feet is not only the tallest building in Bruges but also the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. Here Michelangelo’s famous marble sculpture Madonna and Child sits proudly on display, providing the city with arguably its most important piece of art.
Sober cultural activities are all well and good, but it’s advisable to allow plenty of time for beer-drinking too. In Bruges beer is less of a pastime and more of an art form. You’re likely to see more of the stuff than you are water, in spite of a canal on every corner. And don’t worry if beer isn’t your drink - the locals will almost certainly have at least one you’ll like. With hundreds of different brands waiting to be tasted, it’s impossible to try them all - but no doubt you’ll have fun trying.
Every pub offers a variety of exciting beers - in every flavor imaginable. Coconut? Sure. Cherry? Coming up. And chocolate... yes, thanks to the chocolate beer the city even manages to combine its two biggest exports. To add to the fun, just about every Belgian beer is also served with its own individual branded glass, which come in all kinds of wacky shapes. One minute you’re drinking - and spilling - out of a glass horn, the next sipping out of what is essentially a large egg timer.
The best way to learn more about Belgium’s favorite drink is the Halve Maan brewery tour, where the (delicious) local beer Brugge Zot is brewed. In addition to an interesting insight into the workings of the brewery, you also get a trip to the roof, again steep, which offers a view second only to the Belfry, as well as the chance to taste the only unfiltered glass of Brugges Zot you’ll get anywhere in the world. Beware though, the beer in Bruges is built like the bridges - strong. Many are more than 10 percent alcohol but don’t taste like they are, so you may find yourself drunker more quickly than you expected.
Pace is key.
Not beered out yet? The Wall of Beer is also a necessity. It delivers exactly what it promises: an actual wall of beer. Bottles of countless brands are displayed by the entrance to Bruges’ most enchanting beer garden, which overlooks one of the central canals. Here you can sample many kinds of Belgian beer in helpfully smaller glasses, allowing the chance to do a bit of cautious comparing without ending up under the table.
With this in mind, it’s little wonder the city has become such a popular destination for bachelor parties from Europe in recent years. You’ll no doubt spot them - after most likely hearing them first - dressed up in costumes in large groups stumbling rowdily from pub to pub. All part of the fun.
As mentioned, the only other export that comes close to Bruges’ beer industry is its chocolate-making.
Elegant chocolate shops are everywhere, causing the distinctive aroma of Belgian cocoa to be the - most welcome - dominating smell as you wander the high street. Bruges would even have Willy Wonka worrying about cavities, as every kind of chocolate lies beautifully presented in the pristine windows, begging you to come in and try. Leave plenty of room in your suitcase for gifts - the only issue will be narrowing down what to buy.
With its beautiful scenery, bustling nightlife, rustic charm - and, of course, enough beer and chocolate to last a millennium - it would seem a safe bet that Bruges has another two centuries to look forward to as one of Europe’s most beloved tourist spots, making it ideal for couples, families and groups of friends looking for something a little different. And that’s surely enough to raise a Belgian glass to.
Plan Your Visit
Getting there: The nearest major international airport is Brussels; a train from Brussels Airport to Bruges takes about 90 minutes. Bruges is also easily accessible from other major European cities, usually via a change at Brussels. Paris and Amsterdam are each about a three-hour journey.
Where to stay: Centrally located in a characterful building near the Belfry, Martin's Brugge Hotel offers double room from 75 euros a night
What to do: Halve Maan Brewery Tour, 8.50 euros; Belfry Tower, 8 euros;
canal boat tours, 8 euros.