In Bruges? On a job? In fucking Bruges?
I have to admit I’d never heard of Bruges until I watched the brilliant film, In Bruges. But in the film it looked like a cross between Venice and Cambridge, all beautiful canals and narrow, cobbled streets between ancient buildings.
It looked beautiful. And I knew I wanted to go (despite the dark storyline of the film!). So when I decided I wanted a short weekend break at the beginning of the year, somewhere we could get to by train, I had two options: Paris or Bruges. I’m going to Paris later in the year anyway for the Paris marathon so Bruges it was!
Firstly, Bruges is so easy to get to from London. The Eurostar leaves St Pancras station and takes you to Brussels in two hours. Within ten minutes, another train left the same Brussels station to whisk us to Bruges in under an hour. We exited the Bruges station, looking for a bus, to see one right in front of us that dropped us off practically at the door of our hotel in less than ten minutes. All that in the same amount of time as you would leave to get to the airport before your flight.
Well – in theory anyway. It would have been, had we not missed the Eurostar. You see, in all the fun of Christmas and New Year, I had forgotten to look at the small print of our tickets and hadn’t realised we needed to check in 30 minutes before the train left. And when we arrived we realised that the system physically could not allow you through after check-in had closed – which we ended up missing by approximately 1 minute. Luckily there was no need to panic, as Eurostar allows you to change to the next available train – two hours later – for £30 each so that’s what we did before heading to a restaurant for a big brunch. Not ideal, but not a disaster either.
Once finally in Bruges, we were staying at the Pand Hotel. As a member of the Small Luxury Hotels group, we got a free room upgrade automatically, but were asked if we wanted an additional upgrade to the master suite for a reduced price of €40 a night. Given I’d paid for the hotel a few months before I immediately said yes! The room was huge and beautiful (although I have to say that the other rooms also all look beautiful and we didn’t really need huge so I imagine we would have found the other rooms equally as nice without the extra upgrade!).
We dropped our bags and set out to explore before it got dark. Our hotel was on a small side street immediately off the main canal, and almost as soon as we stepped outside we seemed to be at the main spot for tourists taking selfies! The centre of Bruges, especially on that first night, was one of the more touristy places I’ve been recently, absolutely heaving with people despite the fact it was winter and therefore apparently off-season. It felt as busy as Oxford Street in London or Sol in Madrid. But this was confined only to a very small area, between the main square and the canal. As soon as you ventured into the more residential streets north of the square, the streets completely emptied out and we had it all to ourselves.
There is not a huge amount to do in Bruges other than wander around and explore so it is the perfect place to visit for a short break when you need a rest – no need to dash around trying to tick all the attractions off your list! So this is how I’d recommend spending a short break in the town:
Visit a chocolate shop and drink hot chocolate
The chocolate shops in Bruges are amazing. Even if you don’t like chocolate you’ll want to peer in the window to see the whole huge array of different shapes, sizes and colours. We saw tools – a hammer, chisel and screwdriver – made out of chocolate, a gigantic chocolate Santa, and a miniature scene of tiny people mining for chocolate… All in chocolate. We bought some to take home, but mainly just gorged on hot chocolate. There is one little shop, just of Simon Stevinplein, called The Old Chocolate House. Downstairs, they sell lots of chocolate and cups of delicious hot chocolate to take away. There is a cafe upstairs but it was always full when we went in, with a queue downstairs. Instead, we bought cups to takeaway for just €2 and sipped on them through gloved hands as we walked. It was so good we went back every day.
Taste all the different beers
On the subject of eating and drinking, Belgian beer is famous world-wide and Bruges has its fair share of pubs with a huge array of different beers. One, Brugs Beertje, has over 300 different beers you can try! We went twice to Le Trappiste, descending down steep stone steps into an underground bar set into the stone of the building, perching at the beer to choose our beers from a list on a chalkboard. James chose a paddle – for €15 you can pick 5 beers of your choice to try. If You’re not sure what kind of beer you like, perhaps you’re not usually a beer drinker, this is a great idea!
Mussels / moules are a traditional Belgian dish. They are in season between September and December so if you’re visiting Bruges then, you have to try them. We were just outside that time – but I love mussels so wanted a big bowl anyway! We went to Poules Moules for a late lunch after some googling (and I later overheard the receptionist at our hotel recommending it to another guest). The place was almost empty (it was 3pm) but it was small and cosy so still had a nice atmosphere and we were given a table by the fire. I tried moules Belgian style – cooked in beer – and although they were good, they were not as good as the traditional moules which are cooked in white wine. James had a Belgian stew which was absolutely delicious (we went halves). You have to book in the evening but I would definitely recommend eating here one night.
Visit the brewery
On the subject of all things beer, the de Halve Maan brewery in Bruges has been open over 150 years and is still run by the same family. It is a working brewery with a restaurant, bar and shop, and it runs tours of 45 minutes long. There’s no need to book unless you are a large group, just turn up and buy a ticket, and there are tours in a number of different languages. The tour took us around the brewery, showing what happens on site today, and also how the beer used to be made – the building is part working brewery, part museum. Towards the end of the tour, we were taken up onto the roof of the brewery, for views over Bruges, to see the huge brewery chimney, and to see the new building, where the bottling now happens. This was my favourite story of the whole tour. We were on top of this building, looking out over Bruges, looking at the rooftop of a modern building a long way in the distance. The tour leader told us for for decades trucks had taken the beer from the brewery to the bottling plant. But the constant heavy trucks on the old cobbled streets of Bruges were causing damage and residents were getting annoyed. So the brewery built a pipeline between the two buildings – a few kilometres of pipe under the city pumping constant amounts of beer to the bottling plant. And the best bit? It was crowdfunded! And those who donated the most will receive a bottle of beer every day for the rest of their lives to say thank you. How cool is that?!
Climb the tower
The Bruges Belfort tower in the main square plays a central role in In Bruges, involved in one of the comedic scenes (where an extremely fat couple walk towards the tower, and Ray tries to tell them that perhaps they shouldn’t….) and one of the more devastating scenes at the climax of the movie. So of course we had to go up! First, there was a really long queue. It didn’t look that long when we first joined it but it moved incredibly slowly as there was a one-in, one-out policy to avoid congestion. I think we stood in the queue for almost an hour.
Eventually we made it to the front desk, paid €10 each and began to climb the stairs. They were very steep, very narrow, turning very tightly, and getting more so as we ascended. There were no handrails and as we got nearer the top it became more difficult to squeeze past people coming the other way. Not for the claustrophobic! Or for the very fat – I am sure the couple in In Bruges wouldn’t have been able to fit in the stairwell, nothing to do with physical fitness! On the other hand, there were plenty of little kids skipping up and down and regular rooms off the stairwell which would be a good place to take a break and catch your breath!
We made our way right to the top, stepping out into a bit of a shock as the freezing wind whipped around us. It was far too windy and cold to stay for long so we looked out at the view and then made our way back inside, quickly warming up as we descended!
Go for a walk
As a small town, Bruges is a great place to wander around and explore. Get lost in the old town, taking small little side streets, and you’ll be rewarded by beautiful buildings and hidden canals. Or walk (or run!) out to the main canal, where a series of windmills stand along the bank of the canal. We went out for a run, a great way to explore a slightly different part of Bruges, combining exercise with sightseeing!
This we did really well. Our room at the Pand Hotel was huge and very comfy, and the hotel had a lovely bar and library with a roaring fire. So we spent one evening after dinner sipping drinks in front of the fire with James beating me over and over again at chess. And then another afternoon just reading our books in our hotel room. And both nights we were there we both slept for 12 full hours! As we didn’t feel the need to run around visiting every single church and possible sight in Bruges we were able to fully relax and enjoy ourselves – just what we needed after a busy Christmas and New Year and so we had a lovely long weekend away!
Need to know:
Stay: Pand Hotel – rooms from £150 a night
Eat: Poules Moules (for the best mussels and stews), Brasserie Raymond for delicious steak, Den Gouden Harynck for a michelin star meal with a really good weekday menu.
Drink: Le Trappiste!