'Oh god, oh god, oh god... no, no, no, no, no!' Probably not the words anyone's partner wants to hear, but when it comes to riding pillion on a rickety tandem down Bruges' cobbled streets, the control freak in me just can't be contained. Death-defying cyclepades aside, Bruges' beautifully preserved medieval architecture, guilty pleasure-esque cuisine (chocolate and chips, anyone?), and centuries-old beer culture make it the ideal destination for a weekend break. I hopped on the Eurostar to explore it with my husband and two dear friends for my 35th birthday, and it definitely made inching ever-closer to 40 more bearable. Here is my humble guide to the fairytale city...
1: Take a canal tour
Known as The Venice Of The North, the best way to see Bruges is by boat. Exploring this city really is like stepping into a fairy tale: think weeping willows, beautifully preserved medieval architecture, cobbled pathways and bridges, and soaring towers. Gliding around in a canal boat only adds to its dreamlike quality. There are five docks from which to take the tour and, due to local licensing laws, all the boat operators offer the same trip for a totally reasonable €8. The city’s official website says tours run from March to mid-November, but we went at the end of February and the boats were running all day.
2. Drink beer
Alongside Germany, Belgium is famous for having one of the longest brewing histories in the world. In fact, beer is so synonymous with the country that in 2016, UNESCO inscribed Belgium’s beer culture on its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity: it is an integral part of the country’s daily life. It is a culture steeped in tradition, knowledge and skill, and Belgians promote responsible production and consumption (side note: I don’t think we saw a single drunk person on our trip). We did the XL Tour at the local De Halve Maan Brewery, which has been run by the Maes family for centuries (the current site has been open since 1856). I’ll confess, I’m not really a beer fan, but even I was impressed by the passion and commitment behind the product. At the end of the tour, we tasted three of its beers: a refreshing unfiltered Bruges Zot that is only sold on-site, a Dubbel and a deliciously chocolately (and dangerously so at 14%) Tripple Staffe Hendrik. A must-do.
€19pp, 2.15pm daily; https://www.halvemaan.be/en/brewery-visit
3. Eat, pray, drink chocolate
Belgium and chocolate go hand in hand, and the chocolate in Bruges doesn’t disappoint. Also, it’s everywhere! Alongside Switzerland, Belgium is one of Europe’s primary chocolate producers. Brought to Europe in the 1600s from Mesoamerica, by the 18th century hot chocolate was a favoured drink among the Belgian middle and upper-classes. Strolling around Bruges, there are chocolatiers on every street, offering chocolate in every form imaginable. We stopped at The Old Chocolate House for a cup of its famous hot chocolate and, while it was indeed delicious, the service was somewhat lacking. I bought two takeaway cups in quick succession (#sorrynotsorry) and while waiting for the second to brew, asked to use the loo and was briskly told it was for customers only. This was after spending €4. I asked for my money back and stropped out. Namaste, bitches.
4. And waffles… and chips... and all the food
Basically, Bruges is one big guilty pleasures choff-fest. Prepare to roll out a kilo heavier than when you arrived. We joined the long but fast-moving queue for waffles at famous stall Chez Albert, and weren’t disappointed (pillow-soft with just the right amount of crispiness around the edges, topped with melted dark chocolate and whipped cream). High-fat foods aside, we had an amazing dinner at Kok Au Vin: confit beef with beetroot and goats cheese to start (mackerel and kohlrabi for pescetarian me), an innovatively moreish cod, fennel and mushroom linguine, and an electrifying yuzu, coconut and pineapple pudding. So much flavour, so much texture, so much care and thought put into each and every plate. We also had a delicious, if rather staid, dinner at Bonte B: the cod with truffle gravy and mash was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, but the atmosphere was tense and too quiet to properly relax. If you want something more casual, Vino Vino is a fun, lively tapas bar with an unassuming typed menu that belies just how inventive the food is. The Asian-inspired aubergine fritters were so good we ordered them twice. And if you’re after a nightcap, then On The Rocks is a Bruges institution. Yes, it smells of petrol (your guess is as good as mine), but the owner Tony is a real character with the voice of an angel (we were treated to some operatics) and the drinks are reasonably priced and good.
5. Climb Belfry Tower
I have a confession: we didn’t actually climb the Belfry Tower. I know, I know, who goes to Bruges and doesn’t climb the Belfry blimmin’ Tower? But I’d recently had steroid injections in my knee and 366 steps up a narrow staircase didn’t seem like a good idea at the time (listening to my body = yoga in action my friends). Standing at 83 metres tall, it houses a carillon with 47 bells, which ring out melodically around the famous square beneath it. Once you get to the top you’re rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views, which I was a bit gutted about missing, but the view from the top of the brewery was good enough for me. Get there early (it opens at 9.30am) to beat the crowds.
6. Visit the churches
Put simply, Bruges' churches are majestic. As an atheist, I find it hard to get excited about churches and generally find them pretty eerie places to be, but the Church Of Our Lady has an original Michelangelo sculpture (Madonna And Child), while the Basilica Of The Holy Blood is alive with colour and holds a vial containing a cloth with what is said to be the blood of christ.
7. Cycle to Damme
Belgium is famous for its waterways, and its flat terrain is perfect for leisurely canalside cycles. We hired bikes on the Sunday and it was one of the highlights of our trip. We rather ambitiously thought tandems would be LOL-worthy; in reality, I lasted less than one minute on the back before the control freak in me said no. Then the chain came off our friends’ one, so back to the bike shop it was to swap the tandems for regular bikes (who’s laughing now, eh?) and cycle the canal path 6km north-east from Bruges to the little village of Damme for lunch. Although bitterly cold, the sun was shining and the route is lined with windmills and farms. Once in Damme, we raced to the nearest place we could find for food and warmth (the feeling had completely gone in my hands by this point), and stumbled into the welcoming De Damse Poort: relaxed, laid back vibe with amazing local produce and delicious wine. One helping of fried sole and frites (for me, a mammoth tomahawk steak for everyone else to share) later, along with copious glasses of fizz, wine and beer, we merrily pootled back along the canal to Bruges, completely immune to the -15C wind chill. Definitely worth doing if you have the time.
Bike hire €10 for 4 hours, http://www.brugesbikerental.be
8. See the windmills
We incorporated a little tour of Bruges’ famous windmills on our way to Damme, but you can also walk along the ramparts and take them in en route. Belgium is famous for its rich mill history, with Bruges having 23 windmills in the 16th Century. Nowadays there are four remaining, between Dampoort and the Kruispoort. Sint-Janshuismill is the oldest mill (built in 1770) and a vibrant pink. It’s still used to grind flour and has a museum too.
9. Timetravel at the Begijnhof (Beguinage)
Step back in time to 17th Century Bruges and take a tour around the former homes of the ‘beguines’, emancipated laywomen. Nowadays, the nuns from the Order Of St. Benedict live at the beguinage, but the white-fronted houses remain beautifully preserved with peaceful surrounding gardens. Again, we took in the beguinage on our DIY cycling tour, but you can visit daily for just two Euros.
10. Stay in a ‘tall’ house
We decided to save money on accommodation (all the more for food and beer) by eschewing hotels and instead stumbled across a wonderfully restored traditional Flanders-style ‘tall’ townhouse on AirBnB. With three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a spacious living room, an open-plan kitchen and dining area and a roof terrace (we didn’t brave it on our trip: it was far too cold to hang around outside), there was more than enough room for the four of us. The owner Kevin and his partner have an amazing eye for design: think stripped-wood floors, exposed beams and brickwork, minimalist Scandi-style furniture and all the mod cons (WiFi, speakers, TV with Netflix if you fancy a night in, proper coffee maker etc). Just be careful coming down the spiral staircase, especially after a few Bruges Zots!
Kevin’s house is available from £137 a night; click here to book