I have to admit, if it hadn’t been for Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, I might never have thought to visit the city.  McDonagh chose the location because it was “stunningly cinematic”, but also because its fairytale charm contrasted so perfectly with the story’s allusions to hell and purgatory.  The setting is fundamental to the film and incredibly captivating.  Within minutes, I was sold; Bruges was somewhere I had to go.  Luckily for me, there’s cheap flights a’plenty from Edinburgh to Brussels, and so, determined to put off the Scottish winter for as long as humanly possible, my boyfriend Stuart and I took a quick weekend break away in October 2014.

So, was Bruges really as beautiful as it seemed on the big screen?

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In short, yes.

The city is a masterpiece of beautifully preserved medieval architecture, interrupted only by narrow, cobbled streets and gently winding canals.  Setting foot into the city, you really feel as though you’re stepping back in time, or into a dream – albeit one laced with the occasional bus tour of Asian tourists.  Your neck begins to ache as you stare up at the countless beautiful buildings, some of which are like little gothic castles, others like colourful gingerbread houses.  Because it’s so small, the city is perfect for exploring on foot – though with its size comes the assumption that there’s not an awful lot to do or see.  I was surprised, in the end, by how much we managed to pack in to a weekend.  Here’s a few recommendations for making the most out of your time:


Take a canal cruise

Yes, it’s incredibly touristy.  Yes, you will be crammed into an impossibly small boat like a bunch of sardines.  But what better way to see the city known as the Venice of the North than by water?  The guides are great, with a wealth of knowledge and great sense of humour – their banter will keep you entertained even if history’s not your thing, and it’s hard to complain when the thirty minute cruise costs less than eight euros!  You can jump on the boats from various points in the city (as a tip, the less central your departure point the smaller the queues!), and regardless of where you get on you’ll be taken on a stunning route, passing by the old cathedrals and by the beautiful….park, where swans and ducks have somewhat taken over ownership of the water.  It’s also fun passing under the local people’s houses, having a wee peep in the windows and imagining what it must be like to live somewhere so very pretty.  This guy seemed pretty chilled:

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Climb the Belfry

Bruge’s Belfry is unmissable; it dominates not only the main market square but also the whole skyline and can be heard from anywhere in the city.  Keeping with tradition, every quarter of an hour the air is filled with the sounds of the 47 bells still in operation and it’s pretty damn impressive.  We were there on a Sunday, and the bells seemed to chime continuously, giving the whole city an uplifting energy which was somewhat surprising for a day of rest.  Having come to love the Belfry like a friend, we decided to climb the 377 steps to the top.  This sounds like a harder challenge than it actually is, as there’s several levels at which you can stop to catch your breath or check out some of the old bells and machinery.  As you get further up, the stairway gets considerably narrower, and people with mobility issues – or claustrophobia – might find this difficult.  I’m not the best with tight spaces but other than a couple of instances where I get stuck in a corner letting people past (why is it always me??), I found it pretty easy going.  In fact, the only traumatic moment was when the bells started going off beside me, and I just about leapt out of my skin!  I’d say it was all worth it though, if the view is anything to go by:

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Take a trip to the brewery

Belgium is famous for its beer, and with good cause – there’s estimated to be at least 700 varieties to choose from, and though we gave it a fair attempt, you could spend a lifetime trying to sample them all.  We decided to visit De Halve Maan brewery, the only place still brewing in Bruges, and for only 7 euros each were given an excellent tour of the historic building, as well as a nice, cold pint of Bruges Zot to relax with at the end.  I’d recommend this tour to anyone, regardless of whether you drink beer or not.   Though some things have changed over the years (for example, they no longer roll the barrels directly onto canal boats in order to provide a door-to-door delivery service – sob…), much has remained the same and it’s great to see this historic tradition continued.  There’s a fair bit of climbing involved in the tour, as you have to go up several ladders in order to get to the roof, but it’s well worth it for the excellent views over the old city.

One thing that was surprising to learn was that most of the key ingredients which go into the Halve Maan beers are not actually grown in Belgium, but countries further afield such as the Czech Republic and Slovenia.  So what exactly does it take in order to be classed a ‘Belgian’ beer, when clearly the title is so coveted?  The answer, it seems, is destined to remain a secret.  “I’d love to know what these other companies are doing, in order to call their beers ‘Belgian style’”, our guide told us, coyly.  “There is not one Belgian style of beer.  You cannot just use the title ‘Belgian Beer’, it must be earned.”  Whatever the secret, if the taste is anything to go by, it’s one worth keeping…

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Sample the Belgian Chocolate

You can’t visit Belgium without being tempted by the world renowned chocolate.  It’s physically impossible.  I’ve tried.  In Bruges, the range of artisan chocolatiers to choose from is almost overwhelming – though for a sweet tooth like me, it’s also a bit of a dream come true.  You could easily spend hours just admiring the window displays, checking out the intelligently crafted chocolate creations.  To learn a little bit more about the chocolate-making process, we visited the Choco-Story Chocolate Museum on Wijnzakstraat.  Spread over four floors, this cute little museum takes you on a self guided tour through the history of chocolate, from its Mayan origins to its present day production.  It finishes in a room which (dubiously) tells you about the health benefits of eating chocolate, before you are led into the factory itself and given a demonstration in the production process.  By the time the pralines had cooled, we were practically salivating; thankfully, free samples were given, otherwise there may have been blood shed.

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Explore Lake  Minnewater

Minnewater is a beautiful canalized lake in the heart of Bruges; it’s fondly referred to as the ‘Lake of Love’ because of its romantic setting, and it’s said that sharing a wee kiss on the bridge brings you good luck.  We gave it a go; lottery tickets are yet to prove this theory…Minnewater is also home to another legend, said to explain the hundreds of swans which have made the water their home.  According to the fable, in 1488, Pieter Lanchals – whose surname also means ‘Long Neck’ – was executed by the townspeople of Bruges.  Lanchals was a loyal server of Maximillian I of Habsburg, and in retaliation for the villager’s actions, the King forced the people to keep swans on the lakes for eternity.  Today, the swan is one of Bruge’s most recognised symbols, and whether you believe the legend or not, there’s something very majestic about their presence.  The park is a great spot to hang out in and just watch the world go by – I’d particularly recommend going in Autumn; the colours are just unreal:

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About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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