For some of us, the last thing we want to do is step back in time. The time of crispy teased bangs courtesy of Aqua Net, old, immature boyfriends, what. the. HECK. was. I. wearing moments, and other not-so-great memories we wished we could lock into an air-tight vault deep in the pit of our closet where even dust bunnies turn a blind eye.
But, Bruges, Bruges is the exception. Bruges is the place you will want to go way back, back into time.
Known as the “Venice of the North,” the meandering canals, curvy cobblestone streets, and medieval architecture are only a few reasons why Bruges is the sight to park your family’s luggage for a few days. Brimming with magnificent gothic churches, and majestic castles nearby, it will be no surprise if your little ones expect to see a king and queen walking through the historic square, as they chomp down a cupful of crispy pomme frites.
But, before you run off to pack your bags, be sure to check out these helpful insights to prevent your fam from losing their marbles, and your euros.
The most convenient thing about the town of Bruges is that it can be mastered on foot or bike. It is easier and faster to get around walking than it is to drive, as you can imagine parking is a nightmare and is expensive. If you opt to rent a car for castle-hopping or to take a quick jaunt to the French coast, there is an Avis rental car a brisk 20-minute walk from the historical square. Unless you are there during a festival, you shouldn’t have a hard time booking a rental at the last minute. Just make sure you book it online in advance (even if it’s the night before) instead of walking in.
Chocolate and Tchotchkes
As you skip through the city, you will notice the beautiful window displays of hundreds of shops that dot the thoroughfares. It is easy to be lured in, especially the chocolate shop displays. We had to shield my step-son Chris’ eyes more than once from the tantalizing chocolate scenes. We literally went into a chocolate coma here. Belgian chocolate is phenomenal. Best to pack those trademark black yoga pants for yours truly. Don’t care about being fashion forward, the French think Americans are schleppy anyways.
Just beyond the well-trodden paths, there are many quainter mom and pop shops that beckon for your euros. Despite being a busy touristy town, we found many of the local shop-keepers were patient and enjoyed engaging in conversation.
We found it well worth it to spend our souvenir money off the beaten track. Unless you have special requests for magnets, shirts, and the like, we found it more affordable to buy chocolate as souvenirs. For only €10, you could get three generous-sized boxes of chocolate. We definitely saved euros going this route.
Foodie and Booze Haven
Bruges and Belgium as a whole are known for their amazing waffles, pomme frites (one-of-a-kind French fries), quality deli sandwiches; and delicious cheap wine and beer. These items will be your go-to essentials during your visit to Bruges. You say you don’t drink alcohol often? Well, does the fact that it’s often cheaper there to drink alcohol than water or soda change your mind? Thought so.
- Waffles – Not your average American waffle, it’s tastier and a tad crisper. Some waffle locales carry a hefty price tag, so make sure you scout around. If you go a few blocks out from the marketplace square or the main thoroughfares, you’ll find the budget-friendly options.
- Pomme frites – McDonald’s french fries can’t compete. Belgian fries are always thick-cut, hot, and double-fried. I never met a fry there that I didn’t like. BONUS: They’re cheap and convenient eating, coming in a portable paper cup with a side of seasoned mayo for dipping. Great option for the kids to eat on the go.
- Deli – Honestly, the best food we ate in Bruges was at the sandwich shops and patisseries. The variety of artisanal bread, top-notch cheeses, and high-grade meats had my family thinking we could survive on sandwiches the rest of our lives. At the Patisserie Prestige, you choose freshly made bread from a line of wicker baskets. Once you’ve selected your bread, you head to a mouth-watering cheese and meat display where you can learn in detail about these sliced to order goodies. This option was, by far, the most cost-effective way to dine out. For three hungry hippos, we never went above €20 total for our meal, including Mama’s wine and the boy’s sodas.
- Beer – Coming from an extremely occasional beer drinker, I was pleasantly surprised by how tasty the Belgian ales were. The Flanders region, where Bruges is located, is known for sour ales, whose styles include Lambics, Guezes, and Flanders Red and Brown ales. They’re fruity, with a sour cherry linger, but are an acquired taste. If you’re more traditional, try the easy-to-drink Leffe Blonde or the Westmalle Trappist Tripel. You won’t regret those options, the World Cup Beer tasters surely didn’t. Both beers have been doused in awards for years.
- Wine – Now, we’re talking my language. While I aim to drink loads of water while I’m traveling, because oftentimes I average 18,000 steps a day, and get severely dehydrated, the wine just calls my name. The number one reason being that it is cheaper to order the house red vs. a glass of water! I’m not kidding. You just died and went to heaven, didn’t you? Nearly, every restaurant offered a generous portion of the house red and was €2-3 compared to €4-5 for a super-small bottle of water. Many places only provide the bottled water option, and not tap. Some Americans get upset at this, but it’s an accepted cultural practice in many places. Recommendation: To save a buck, make sure you buy a few liters of water at the local convenience store and stock it away in your stroller. (I would steal sips here and there while dining out, just be mindful).
Medieval Architecture and the Arts
Capturing the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation since 2000, Bruges is the crème de la crème of medieval towns in Europe. You would be content walking this city for days and never feel the need to drop a dime on a museum ticket. Hey, the best things in life are free, right? But, there is one museum that made our “to-see” list. Keep reading.
Bruges’ buildings are remarkable, including the Church of Our Lady, whose brick spire reaches 401.25 ft, making it one of the “world’s highest brick tower.” The sculpture Madonna and Child, located in the church above, is believed to be the only sculpture of Michelangelo’s to have left Italy within his lifetime. Church of our Lady is only one of the many cathedrals, St. Salvator’s Cathedral and Basilica of the Holy Blood were family favorites too. While most of the churches in Bruges are free to tour, it is a nice goodwill gesture to drop a euro or two in the donation box.
For my artsy padres, Groeningemuseum will impress the harshest art critics with their sizable collection of medieval and early modern art, including works from world-renowned artists Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.
Groeningemuseum Dijver 12, Brugge
Adult ticket (19 and up): €12 | Children under 19: Free
- If you’re on a diet, you will soak your shirt salivating as you walk past about 50 chocolate shops, tons of waffle places, and Belgium’s only museum dedicated to its golden fries (yes, samples are involved). Leave the diet at home. I promise you’ll walk off the calories.
- If you can’t handle the crowds, don’t come here in the summer. It is beautiful here at that time, but if you can’t handle waiting a bit longer for your food or waiting in a line in the heat, wait until fall or later. I’ve been to Bruges when it was a winter wonderland and it was just as postcard perfect, minus the crowds and higher hotel prices.
- If you are traveling with a nanny or another kid-watcher, there are some amazing historical pubs parents should check out. Le Trappiste is a lovely 800-year-old cellar turned bar, with dreamy lighting, that would love to offer you a Belgian ale during your 30-minute “mommy and daddy break.”