You’ve landed in Brussels. Here’s your Top 5 must-do list:
- Eat frites (fries!)
- Eat a Belgian waffle
- Eat Belgian chocolate
- Drink Belgian beer
- Leave Brussels for at least one day
You’ve got this. The first four you can do on any square block of the city, and a day trip to Bruges is the perfect way to complete the fifth. I actually had more than one well-traveled friend tell me to skip Bruges altogether because it’s “too perfect.” I ignored them, and you should too. Like too many shoes or too many beers, too perfect is not a problem by any definition I’ve ever seen.* (Note: Too many Belgian beers, on the other hand, can be a problem. The beer here has a much higher alcohol content than you’re probably used to.)
*If you must heed the advice of my friends, alternate day trips include Louven and Ghent. But don’t bother visiting either on a Sunday. Everything will be closed.
For the purposes of this tour, let’s take the last part first.
11 Hours in Bruges
8:58 AM – Hop the train from Brussels Central Station. There are three train stations in Brussels, so pay attention. You can buy a 10-ride rail pass at Central Station that can be used to go to any city in Brussels for 77 Euros, which is cheaper than three round trips to Bruges, and they can be shared.
10:00 AM – Arrive in Bruges. Walk through Koning Albert Park toward the city center. Stop to admire the swans and take in your first legend of the city. At the end of the 15th Century, the people of Bruges revolted and captured Emperor Maximilian and his top advisor, Lanckhals. The emperor escaped, but Lanckhals was not as fortunate. He was beheaded. So Maximilian decreed that until the end of time, the city would keep swans in all it’s lakes and canals in honor of his of Lanckhals. Why? Good question. The Dutch word for “long neck” is “lange hals.” Congratulations! You just learned something! Let’s celebrate with a drink!
11:00 AM – Take a brewery tour. De Halve Maan has “only” been brewing in Bruges since 1856, but beer has been made at this location at this site dating back to 1564. Book online for a tour in English, French or Dutch and see the pipeline that pumps beer under the streets of the city for 5 kilometers. More than 1,500 beers are made in Belgium, so they know what the fuck they’re doing when it comes to hops and barley. The tour is worth it for the free beer alone, which you can enjoy along with a stunning view from the roof. Which reminds me, the tour involves many steep, winding staircases, so leave the weak and lazy members of your group downstairs in the bar.
12:00 PM – Don’t Move. For lunch, stay at De Halve Maan for a delicious bite. Belgians don’t just drink beer – they cook with it! Or step right outside and head into any number of the nearby cafes. This is Europe so settle in to enjoy a long meal. Some Belgian waiters have a reputation for being less than friendly, so don’t take it personal. Like most places in Europe, American-style tipping is not expected, but extra change is appreciated. Keep it under 10 percent.
1:30 PM – You’re on a boat! Hop on a boat for a 30-minute canal tour and get a feel for the city for only 8 euros. They pack you in like sardines, but it’s worth it to take in views you can’t get from land. There are five boat launches around the city and they are easy to find. You can get a similar tour from a horse drawn carriage, but it’s four times the cost. A small tip of lose change in either case is appreciated.
2:00 PM – Go to Church. This is Europe, after all. The Church of Our Lady asks a museum fee of 6 euro to see its prized possession: Michelangelo’s marble Madonna and Child from 1505. More frugal Christians can head over to the Basilica of the Holy Blood and see a some of Jesus’s blood in a fancy vial for free! Donations are optional.
3:00 PM – You’ve earned a treat. It’s time for dessert. A waffle? Chocolate? How about both? Go.Fre will dip a waffle on a stick into your choice of chocolate and topping. A classier stop — in fact, the classiest chocolate stop possible — is The Chocolate Line, by famed chocolatier Dominique Persoone. Gaze at the massive twirling edible display through the window. Then step in to choose your chocolate based on country of origin, or from the bizarre combinations including wasabi and fried onion.
4:00 PM – Leave no tchotchke behind. Bruges’ most famed product you don’t eat or drink is lace and you can load up in any gift shop. The city center has two shopping streets, Steenstraat and Zuidzandstraat, where you can find local shops with Belgian brands next to more typical chain stores such as H&M. For local wares, try Okaidi, Bershka, Pimkie or Juttu.
5:30 PM – aka Beer:30. It’s well past time for another beer, if you haven’t figured this out on your own already. Overachievers can use that 10 euro of beer money to climb 366 steps to the top of the Belfry to see the skyline. We laughed at the thought and toasted the view we had from the brewery over another local Brugse Zot beer.
7:00 PM – Dinner is served. You did make a reservation, didn’t you? I recommend booking ahead if you want to visit one of the six — six! — Michelin-rated restaurants in the area. Two of them — Den Gouden Harynck and Sans Cravate — are located in the city center. Or to dine like a commoner, try Lion Belge, a local favorite operated by a father and son. Make a reservation online and check out the rotating menu. If you really want to impress the locals, try the baked eel, fresh from the canals.
9:00 PM – Haul ass. Give yourself at least 30 min to walk back to the train station or call an Uber for the 8 min drive back to catch the 9:00 PM train back to Brussels. You’ve got frites, waffles, chocolate and beer waiting for you.