Already famous for its chocolate-box good looks – and made more so by the 2008 hit film In Bruges – Belgium’s West Flanders capital is absurdly pretty. Cobbled streets? Check. Open, pedestrianised squares framed by handsome medieval buildings? Check. Historic gabled houses, Gothic and Baroque churches and stone bridges crossing glassy canals? Check, check, check. Heck, even the McDonald’s is charming.
This is a city, too, that was almost made for winter; when we wheel our cases from the train station into the centre of Bruges one crisp December evening, it is eerily beautiful, cosy lights appearing gradually through the mist as if beckoning us onward. They know how to do Christmas decorations, too – there are trees, wreaths, ribbons and twinkling fairy lights everywhere you look, but all of it as tasteful-looking as Bruges itself. “Gaudy” simply isn’t in their vocabulary.
Here’s how to spend a long wintery weekend in this Flanders showstopper.
Hit the Christmas markets
Bruges’ Christmas markets are, like many a market, hit and miss. Among stalls selling strokeably soft scarves and elegant watches, there are one too many purveying poo emoji hats to be in good taste (and the music choices are wild – you’re as likely to hear pumping techno as you are a croon-worthy holiday favourite).
Still, the two iterations in the Grote Markt and Simon Stevinplein squares respectively are imbued with enough cosy festive cheer to be worth a good stomp around, and also provide plenty of filling, warming food and drink options to feast upon, from classic frites and tartiflette to booze-spiked hot chocolate and knock-out Belgian beer selections. (There’s a €2 deposit for glasses, so if you fancy taking home a souvenir, you can always forgo the refund and stash one in your bag.)
Swing by the rink
As part of Wintergloed, or Winter Glow, Bruges’ Christmassy festival, you’ll find a pop-up ice rink in an idyllic setting on the Minnewater (otherwise known as the “Lake of Love”). Don some skates (€7) or, if that looks like too much work, simply relax with a mulled wine at the accompanying Winterbar Vorst and enjoy the stripped-back, wooden Scandi aesthetic.
Climb the Belfry
Bruges’ famed Unesco-listed Belfry is not for the faint-hearted – nor those with a fear of heights – with its 366 steps set in an almost continuously winding staircase. But its rooms showcasing the history of this magnificent 13th century structure, which used to hold the town’s most important documents, charters, seals and coffers, plus phenomenal 360-degree views from the top, make it worth the climb. Time it well and you can even see the huge music drum in action, as it plays a distinctive tune using the tower’s 47 bells on the quarter hour. Entry €14.
Explore by boat
One of Bruges’ most beguiling aspects is its network of canals, a delightful place from which to view the city by boat. There are five departure points dotted around the city where you can buy tickets for €12 a pop. Board a petite open-top vessel on this half-hour tour and find out more about the city’s history while seeing some of its most photogenic architecture from the water as your captain-slash-guide gives a brief history while moving seamlessly between multiple languages.
Take yourself for a walk
Unless you intentionally get off the beaten path, it can be very easy to get stuck wandering the same handful of streets and squares in Bruges’ compact centre. Thankfully, the tourist board has compiled a list of walking routes – amusingly titled “Oooh! Bruges” – which take you further afield. We tried out the Silent Nostalgia route, which leads us on a compelling tour of the St Anne’s Quarter, taking in churches we’d never have spotted – here’s looking at you Sint-Annakerk – and finishing up in the city’s oldest pub, Cafe Vlissinghe, a cosy bolthole dating from the 1500s. The best bit? Discovering how quickly the crowds thin out the second you get off the main drag and start exploring.
Catch a free recital
A wonderful surprise comes in the form of Luc Vanlaere, a local musician who puts on free 40-minute harp recitals four times a week (Wednesday to Saturday; 3pm, 5pm, 6.30pm) in the Old St John’s Hospital. It’s first come, first served, with room for 40 or so people at a time. The lights go down and the audience are treated to a performance featuring harps and instruments from all over the world – including ones Vanlaere has invented himself – on which he plays solely his own compositions. It is one of the most delightful ways to idle away three quarters of an hour; donations are welcome at the end, and there’s also the chance to buy some of the music.
Grab a bite…
Outside of chocolate and chips, Belgium may not have the most note-worthy cuisine, but there are plentiful places to dine out in style in Bruges. For nuanced and elegant small plates in contemporary, designy surroundings, try Quatre-Vins – it offers tasting menus of three, four, five, six or seven courses with prices to match; favourites included the crab with seaweed, and a melty butternut risotto.
For a whacky yet tasty selection in a more homely, cosy atmosphere, bijou Bistro Amand serves up a vast array of dishes – there’s an entire page inexplicably dedicated to spring rolls, for example – cooked by a single, hard-working chef in the open kitchen. Specials included venison with chocolate sauce, while my pasta dish of prawns, courgette and mushrooms enveloped in a rich herb butter packed an unexpected flavour punch.
…And a beer
It is a matter of simple fact: the Belgians have perfected the art of beer. Try as many as you can (or dare) at one of the city’s many cafes, with a cornucopia of choice when it comes to the classic blonde beer. Bruges still has two working breweries which you can visit: De Halve Maan and Bourgogne des Flandres.
Indulge in some art
For a city of its (relatively small) size, Bruges offers a hefty slice of culture, with 13 museums and attractions accessible at a discounted price when you buy the Musea Brugge card. One of the best is the Groeninge Museum – a perfect-size gallery resplendent with Flemish art including works by Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Rather than some of the bigger players that can feel a little overwhelming, the whole thing only takes an hour to 90 minutes to have a good nose around, making it a cinch to comfortably fit into a day’s activities. Elsewhere, Stadhuis (the former town hall) provides an overview of the city’s history in architectural splendour, while Sint-Janshospitaal (Saint John’s Hospital) is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition, Oog in Oog met de Dood (Face to Face with Death) inspired by Hugo van der Goes’s painting, “Death of the Virgin”.
Bruges is easily accessible by train from the UK; take the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi, then catch an onward intercity train to Bruges using Eurostar’s “any Belgium station” ticket; from £34.50 one way.
The three-star Martin’s Brugge hotel has comfortable, good-value rooms located conveniently 50m from the Central Market Square; doubles from €89, room only.