The cobblestones of Bruges set a fairytale scene that’s backed by a soundtrack of horses’ hooves and chiming bells. Step off the train, and you immediately step back in time, to an era when carriages were the main form of transport and market sellers flogged their goods down narrow streets.
Today, there’s still an old-world charm that permeates the city, from the old-fashioned chocolate shops piled high with truffles, waffles, and sweet treats, to the Gothic architecture that characterizes the main squares. Horse and carts still clatter through the laneways in between modern trams and buses, while contemporary wine bars rub shoulders with vintage pubs and breweries.
At just one hour away from Belgium’s capital, Brussels, Bruges makes for the perfect day trip, which means there’s plenty of tourist footfall. However, if you know where to go and what to look for, there are a number of great sights and experiences that really give a unique insight into the city – sans tourism. Here are some of the best.
1. De Haalve Man
It’s no secret that Bruges is a hub for beer making. In fact, frothy, homemade concoctions are one of the things it’s famous for, but De Haalve Man (Walplein 26, 8000) offers something a little different. As the only remaining brewery in the city that still creates its produce inside Bruges old walls, it harks back to the days before globalization and the introduction of macro-breweries set on the outskirts of town.
Not only will you get the chance to sip some homemade beers, you can also take a wander around the on-site museum, which delves into the beer making process and the history of the craft. You even get a free taster at the end!
2. The Frietmuseum
Fries are pretty much a national treasure in Belgium. Their tasty secret? They’re fried twice to give them that extra crispy texture. You can learn all about this delicious (but probably very unhealthy) method for cooking fries at the first and only museum of its kind in the world, the Frietmuseum (Vlamingstraat 33, 8000). As well as covering the commercial production of fries in Belgium and around the world, the museum highlights the potato-growing process, the evolution of Belgium fries over the years, and even the health benefits of the humble potato (did you know tucking into raw potato can help arthritis?).
If you’re not already full from the Frietmuseum, you can head straight on over to Dumon (Eiermarkt 6, 8000), a charming chocolate shop set in a 400-year-old building.
Belgium (and Bruges, in particular) is famed for its creamy, melt-in-the-mouth chocolates and, while there’s a museum you can explore to discover more about these national sweet treats, Dumon offers a slightly more personal experience. Situated just off Markt Square, it is a cute addition to the city’s chocolate scene, where you can sample some of the handmade chocs, watch the process behind the treats, and maybe even get to meet Madam Dumon herself.
4. The Ramparts
Though Bruges is characterized by its cobblestone streets and olde-worlde city ambiance, there are still some green spaces you can escape to. The Ramparts is a 6km park that sprawls out around the old town, featuring ancient towers, medieval gates, and plenty of natural spots to kick back and relax in.
A walk around this park takes in the well-preserved windmills at Kruisvest as well, and makes you feel like you’re a million miles away from the busy city centre.
5. The Begijnhof
In the backstreets of Bruges, you’ll find a quiet place away from the crowds that was made especially for catching some peace and quiet. The city’s Begijnhof, (Wijngaardstraat, Bruges) a garden complex home to manicured lawns, traditional houses, and a Benedictine convent, dates back to the 13th century, when it was used as a religious place of residence for single women who worked for the church but weren’t nuns. Today, the complex offers unprecedented peace and quiet in the heart of the city, where you can learn all about the practices of the begijnhof from the nuns who still call it home.
6. The Historium
Occupying an impressive neo-Gothic building in the famous Markt Square, the Historium (Markt 1, 8000) offers visitors a peek into Bruges life from the past – we’re talking the 1400s.
Unlike other museums, this is a wholly interactive experience, where each room is made to look like a scene from the past, with accompanying smells, music, and sounds (in the traditional bathhouse, there’s the persistent waft of candles, soap, and incense).
The story that links the displays together is charming, too, taking visitors through a fictional love story based in the heart of the city. This is definitely a novel way to explore the history of Bruges.
So we’ve covered beer, chocolate, and fries, but we haven’t touched on lace yet – a huge industry that has prospered in Bruges for centuries. At Kantcentrum (Balstraat 16) you can learn more about this intricate craft, its important past, and its significance in the present day.
Set inside a group of pretty, interlinked cottages, the centre displays current lace collections, as well as a little shop for picking up a souvenir or two. The main attraction takes place in the afternoons, though, when experienced lace-makers get to work and show their students and onlookers how things are done.