If you’ve seen the 2008 Colin Farrell film, you’ll have visions of a very dark and dreary Bruges. In reality, it’s full of photogenic sights. The Gothic architecture will impress you as much as the thick hot chocolate; you don’t get UNESCO World Heritage Site status for nothing. Its cobbled streets, winding, swan-inhabited canal, and over 50 bridges, make it a perfect city to explore on foot; while hearty food and ridiculous amount of different beers ensure you won’t run out of fuel.
I first visited the Belgium city about seven years ago. I was browsing online for a little weekend break to surprise my boyfriend with for his birthday, and Bruges was interesting-looking and cheap. We liked Hoegaarden and Leffe, so it was the promise of plenty of that, that mainly clinched it for me. On that July trip, we stumbled upon a massive flea and antique market spread over the t’Zand square and surrounding streets. It was brilliant! Full of well-priced gems; far too much to carry back on the train home. It turned out to be Zandfeesten, the annual market which takes place three times a year, in July, August and September. It was so good, we vowed to head back the following year by car. We’ve just returned from our third Zandfeesten trip and it’s still a joy to visit, with a new beer, restaurant or pretty narrow street discovered each time. Here are some of my highlights:
For excellent burgers (meat and veggie options), giant onion rings and a good mix of craft beers and gin cocktails on the menu, pop to Jilles. OK, so not particularly (at all) Belgian, but sometimes you need a burger in your life, and here they are generous, but not ridiculous, and clearly made with fresh, good quality ingredients. I had ‘Greektown Jimmy’; Adam had the spicy ‘Royal Margaret’. Meal for two, including drinks: €47.40 Jilles, Braambergstraat 10, Brugge.
For a special occasion, I highly recommend De Stove. The memory of Louis Armstrong’s Happy Birthday being blasted out of the speakers, while Adam’s dessert (indoor firework and all) was placed before him, will remain with me forever. As it happens, the three courses we ate before that were sublime too. This place specialises in fish, and boy was it good! We tried the tasting menu (€52 pp) and left with big smiles and happy pot bellies. The restaurant has a max capacity of about 20, so one to book ahead. Four-course tasting menu for two with coffee and petit fours, including a bottle of champagne (Birthday boy treats) and water: €167.50. De Stove, Kleine St Amansstraat 4, Brugge..
For traditional Flemish cuisine, head to De Vlaamsche Pot. It was here I had one of the best meals of my life. It was so good I was most looking forward to heading back on our recent trip, and very disappointed to find it closed for the duration. The Flemish rabbit stew, served in your own personal Staub cast iron pot, and fries delivered out of a massive bowl to your plate by the waiter, would be my last meal request. So good, I bought a tea towel as a little memento. I can’t remember the price, sorry, but it’s worth every Euro cent :). De Vlaamsche Pot, Helmstraat 3-5, Brugge.
For picturesque canal-side views off the beaten track, and regular swan visits, head to Punta Est. Early evening when the place is doused in sun, there is no better place to sit. It’s not a bells and whistles kind of place; just a good selection of beer, in a nice, relaxed location, with friendly waiters who don’t mind you getting the backgammon out and settling in for a couple of hours. They also serve food, but we’ve never ordered more than the nachos there, so I can’t vouch for that. Punta Est, Predikherenrei 1, Brugge.
For a tasting session of Belgian beers, visit 2be. Worth a visit to walk past the beer wall of Belgian’s bottled beers and matching glasses, alone – of which there are hundreds! There’s a canal-side terrace, where you can watch the tourist boat tours go by, or a sunny spot next to the entrance. Draught beers are available in taster-size glasses, so you can sample a few, and you’ll find novel additions, such as the coconut beer served in a coconut shell glass. 2be Bar and Beerwall, Wollestraat 53 Brugge.
For quite possibly the best hot chocolate (available in dark and milk), as well as all manner of flavoured ganaches, filled chocolates, florentines, waffles, etc., pop into Crevin. I doubt there’s a bad chocolate shop in Bruges, but this is the one I’ll be heading back to. Great service, reasonably-priced, very good quality chocolate and take out cups of hot chocolate to sup on next to the canal. Confiserie Crevin, Rozenhoedkaai 1, Brugge.
For a night cap, and a chance to taste some of Belgian’s delicious wines, I recommend Est. We came across it by chance; attracted by the glow from within and the empty table for two outside. The service here was excellent; very friendly and passionate about Belgian wine. Looking forward to heading back for another glass of the Aldeneyck pinot gris (pictured) and pinot noir. Est Wijnbar, Braambergstraat 7, Brugge.
For take-homes and gifts, The Bottle Shop is worth a visit. Yes, it is touristy and you’ll find some of the more well-known Belgian beers a little cheaper in CarreFour, but, the selection here is brilliant, both of beer (over 600 types) and gin. It’s here I tasted and subsequently picked up a bottle of the Belgian Blind Tiger gin (a new favourite), and we stocked up on some harder to find glasses and bottled beers to take home. The Bottle Shop, Wollestraat, 13, Brugge.
Zandfeesten: seeing as this is the main reason for our last three visits, I must include this; albeit reluctantly, because it does feel like a hidden gem – the prices are fair, haggling is relaxed and welcome, and the quality and choice, excellent. Taking place one Sunday in July, August and September – the next dates for 2017 are 6th August and 24th September; but, the dates change each year, so check with Visit Bruges before you book – it’s a sprawling maze of unwanted treasures and antiques. Everything from old waffle irons, to 70s novelty cocktail stick dispensers, to antique furniture; vintage food tins, to silverware sets; old wooden toys, costume jewellery, lace, vinyl, and general bric a brac. And when you need a mid-explore energy boost, there’s the made to order, sweet, buttery, rolled up pancake-y treats served out of a mobile oven – you’ll see it – and cafes lining the square to settle in for a coffee and spy what everyone else is buying. The official base is t’Zand square, but the market spreads out to the surrounding streets from 6am to 6pm.
That’s my only recommendation for dos. There’s a chocolate museum, beer museum, Dali museum, churches, horse and cart and canal boat tours; green spaces to picnic in, and plenty more I haven’t discovered yet. I’ll leave you to discover your own favourites.
Getting there: You can catch the Eurostar there, changing at Brussels; but the best way, in my opinion is by car (especially if you coincide your visit with Zandfeesten). The DFDS ferry from Dover to Dunkirk is less than £100 return (cheaper than the Dover to Calais), takes two hours, and then it’s a 45 minute, easy drive to Bruges centre.
That’s it! I’d love to hear about tips you have for Bruges, for my next visit. Likewise, if you’re planning a trip and have any questions, send me a message.