Your guide to Bruges from our Honorary Secretary
When most people think of Bruges, their mind automatically goes to chocolate and lace. However, Bruges is so much more than that. In order to help you make the most of your time between Congress sessions, here’s a little guide to help you enjoy your stay.
What kind of tourist are you?
Where better to hold a world-class scientific meeting than Bruges, with its historic ties, Instagram ready canals and all the sights within easy walking distance of the Oud Sint Jans. The host city has so much to offer, why not stay for the weekend and take it all in at leisure? Here’s a few ideas for your trip to Bruges.
The History Buff
The sights of Bruges start almost as soon as you get off the train. Designed by Jozef Schadde, who also designed the Belgian Stock Exchange building, the station was Bruges’ second train station, built in 1886. Cross the road walk through the greenery of the Minnewaterpark towards the Begijnhof. The Begijnhof was constructed in 1245 as a community for devout and celibate women known as the Beguines. Today, it is still the home of the nuns of the Order of St Benedict and open to visitors daily.
Walk a little further towards the city centre past the horse head drinking fountain and the tourist horse carriages along Wijngaardstraat and you will soon find yourself on a crossroads, surrounded by souvenir shops and waffles. If you can resist, continue onwards towards a T-junction and turn left onto Katelijnestraat. You can make a brief stop at the Godshuis Spanoghe on your left, an almshouse built in 1680, if you need sanctuary from the streets. Otherwise, carry on and cross the bridge with the canal view of our Congress venue, the Site Oud Sint Jan which is also home to the 11th Century Old St John’s Hospital Museum with its fascinating pharmacy (closed Mondays).
To your right on Katelijnestraat, is the first of Bruges great churches with one of the few sculptures by Michelangelo outside Italy, the Church of Our Lady Bruges (Onze Lieve Vrouw Brugge). Take a little diversion on the path that runs behind the building and under a small arch. Turn back and look up and you will see the ultimate status symbol; a private bridge from the home of the Heren van Gruuthuse or Lords of Bruges. The Gruuthuse were a prominent medieval noble family, its most prominent member being Louis de Gruuthuse who was also made Earl of Winchester by Edward IV in return for hosting him during his exile during the Wars of the Roses.
Return back to the main street and continue along Heilige-Geeststraat and you will reach the second great church, the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal, Bruges’ Gothic cathedral. After your visit walk right along the Steenstraat that runs to the front of the cathedral. In a short while, you will reach the main Market Square, with its many bars and restaurants. On entering the square, to your right you will see the Belfry. You will hear the bells throughout your visit playing traditional and sometimes less traditional tunes. For a view of the city, climb the 366 steps to the top.
For less lofty ambitions and if you have children with you, visit the Historium Bruges opposite that offers an immersive tour through Medieval Bruges. If you carry on past the Belfry to your right towards Burg Square. Here you will find the City Hall Museum, more horse carriages and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The relic of Holy Blood is the centrepiece of an annual procession held in May.
Take your time and a 10min walk further along Hoogstraat, crossing another canal before turning left Molerimeers. Take a side street to the left for a diversion to see the St Anna Church, a small church, modestly dressed on the outside but beautifully adorned on the inside. If you return to Hoogstraat and continue onwards, you will arrive at the Jeruzalemkerk, a quirky 13th century chapel imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Leave the chapel and continue on Peperstraat eastwards towards one of the city’s best preserved city gates. For a break from the medieval buildings, continue along this canalside park and visit the windmills that stand on the border of the historic city. There are four windmills with one open for visits.
Turn left at Snaggaardstraat, cross the bridge and turn left again along Spiegelrei. You can follow the canal back towards the city centre, passing Jan Van Eyck Square on your way. The street then becomes Acadamiestraat. Before you turn left onto Vlamingstraat, look straight across at the Huis Ter Berze, continental Europe’s first stock exchange! Keep following Vlamingstraat and you will arrive back at the Market Square.
Bruges is packed with restaurants, bars and patisseries. Where do you start? Well, why not with one of Belgium’s great exports, chocolate. The many branches of Dumon are hard to ignore, with high quality wares temptingly on display. For less conventional flavours, try The Chocolate Line on Simon Stevinplein. Dominique Persoone is as rock-and-roll as chocolatiers can get and the flavours include wasabi, bacon and henna. Yes, henna. Simon Stevinplein on the weekend is also a good spot of a bit of street food and cafes and restaurants abound. If eating chocolate isn’t enough, visit Choco Story for the full low down on the history of chocolate.
Second only to chocolate in its association with Belgium is the ubiquitous waffle. But not all waffles are equal. There are two types of waffles. Lieges waffles are the style we are probably more used to, sold in packs in overpriced UK foodhalls or the duty free at Brussels airport. These are sweeter and more dense in texture with a softer bite. Best eaten fresh, you can pick one up from Ice Bar Oyya on Noordzandstraat which also does a nice line in ice creams or the Wednesday morning market which is held outside the Concert Hall weekly, just 5 minutes from the Congress venue. The second type of waffle is the Brussels waffle. The ideal is a crisp shell enclosing a light and fluffy interior. It’s light enough to take a basting of sweet toppings. The best vendor of these (in an extra large format) is Lizzie’s on Sint Jakobsstraat to the north of the Market Square. If you can’t decide or are greedy enough to want to try both, head to Chez Albert on Breidelstraat just off the Market Square. By the way, waffles are never eaten for breakfast but are an afternoon snack!
Bruges cannot be mentioned with reference to beer and the Brouwerij De Halve Maan should be high on your list to visit. In fact, it is the venue for our Joint Gala Dinner with BARD. What better way to see the Brewery and sample its produce than to come to the Dinner? Not only will there be traditional Flemish bar games and Belgian food but you can dance the night away to a live band. For more beer related entertainment, there’s the Beer Museum on the Market Square or visit the 2BE bar with its wall of beer exhibit situated on Wollestraat, probably one of the most photographed canal views of Bruges.
Pick up a breakfast at Carpe Diem on Wijngaardstraat, which has its own bakery. The wood panelled rooms and brass can be a nice refuge from the passing tourist groups and the traditional breakfast baskets of pistolets and coffee is a good way to start your day. For delightful pastries or a sweet breakfast, the popular spot is Aux Merveilleux de Fred, also on Sint Jakobsstraat. It is indeed merveilleux, as you can watch fresh stroopwaafel being made by hand whilst scoffing the delicate merveilleux and cramiques specialties under the chandeliers in this luxurious setting. Okay, granted it’s more north French than Belgian in origin, it’s still worth visiting.
Eating or drinking on the Market Square might be good for the view, but the prices and quality of food are inversely proportional. For nearby casual eats, try Sint-Ammaandstraat that runs westward from the Market Square. Try the Potatoe Bar for croquettes, another delicious Belgian snack. Speaking of potatoes, did you know the Belgians were the originators of “fries” but were mistaken for being French by our transatlantic cousins? If you want to know more, then head to the Frietmuseum. If you’re more interested in eating the little guys, then what could be more Bruges than to queue at one of the green huts that sit outside the Belfry and serve the crispy critters until late most nights.
For more formal dinners, the world is your oyster as long as your bank balance is as full as your waistband will be. For Michelin stars, there may be 11 one star restaurants, many around the city centre but the only two star is De Jonkman. It may be 15min by taxi from the city centre but the market menu of 67euros for three courses is pretty good value for the standard of cooking on offer. More centrally, Patrick Devos offers a creative menu in a beautiful period setting.
There is a twice weekly market held outside the Concert Hall on Wednesdays and Saturdays with food stands as well as household goods on offer.
The Art Lover
If the historic beauty of Bruges is just enough to tickle your aesthetic taste buds but you’re searching for more, look no further than the Groeningemuseum and its extensive Flemish collections (www.bezoekers.brugge.be). If ceramics, textiles and silverware are more your thing, then the Gruuthuse Museum, housed in the previously aforementioned mansion house of the medieval Herens de Gruuthuse, is the museum for you.
If that all seems a little too long ago for you, visit the Salvador Dali Exhibition at the Cloth Halls at the base of the Belfry. If it’s a modern take on classic art that you want to see, visit the Museum Sculpta, where 18th and 19th century Flemish paintings have been rendered into 3 dimensional plaster murals.
Although Antwerp maybe more famous for its diamond industry these days, it was Bruges that had a diamond market long before. The Diamant Museum Brugge is one of only 5 diamond museums worldwide and offers a diamond polishing demonstration as well as showing you the history of diamonds in Bruges.
On my first visit to Bruges many years ago, lace shops were as plentiful as chocolate shops are today. However, if you want to see this craft now, the only place to go is the Lace Museum, housed in an old convent lace school on Balstraat, about 10 minutes’ walk East from the Market Square. Demonstrations of the craft take place every afternoon except on Sundays.
BAPS Honorary Secretary