Special: 10 things to do on a romantic getaway
The charm of Bruges unfolds along its canals, liquid lanes that run through it and around it and that have brought Bruges to be nicknamed the "Venice of the North”. The same channels that remind us of the illustrious history of the town which, thanks to its waterways, became one of the most important merchant centres of trade and textile manufacturing in Europe during the 14th century. To this day Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) has an intact medieval old town, one of the few in the world, protected by Unesco since 2000.
Ancient bridges, archaic facades, pointed cusps reflected in the placid waters where dozens of swans swim along (they are the symbol of the city), fiery red roofs and fabulous atmospheres, every corner of Bruges offers unique architectural frescoes. Especially if visited during autumn, when the gardens along the canals, the secular trees and the ivy that hugs the medieval facades, boast flaming hues and shades.
Carmine red fronds against the blue sky. Blood orange autumn ivy enveloped by mist . A carpet of golden yellow leaves floating on the water. Gothic buildings, spires and towers that are reflected in the channels at twilight. Whether you visit it on a dazzling sunny day or behind a veil of haze, Bruges never loses its magic aura. A long weekend is perfect for exploring this gem, getting lost in its flawlessly paved medieval streets, admiring the masterpieces by Hans Memling, trying chocolate delights, even enjoying a hot air balloon ride. Here are 10 tips for a dreamy weekend amongst churches, museums, boutique hotels and good food.
1. Stroll through the streets of the historic center
One of the delights of Bruges is strolling along the charming streets of its medieval old town, which is very well preserved. It miraculously escaped the bombing of both world wars and to this day is still is a succession of picturesque lanes, bridges and canals, picture-postcard views, squares dotted with beautiful gothic palaces and elegant boutiques.
Emblem of Bruges’ beauty and most photographed spot in town is the Rozenhjoedkaai, best admired sitting at the Klein Venetie cafe, perhaps at dusk, when the medieval houses and the tower are reflected in the still water. Don't miss the Brugse Vrije, the Stadhuis (the town hall with its elegant Gothic façade) the Vismarkt (fish market) and the Hof Arents park and St.Bonifacius bridge.
2. Visiting the Groeningemuseum and Museum St-Janshospitaal
The Groeningemuseum, enclosed in a series of lush courtyards, is one of the most lauded museums of the city due to its valuable collection of artworks, including paintings by Flemish primitives such as the Madonna with Canon Van der Paele by Jan van Eyck, the Triptych of Bruges’ Judgment by Bosch and the Death of the Virgin by Van der Goes.
A few meters away you’ll find the Museum of St-Janshospitaal, in a beautiful restored chapel of a 12th century hospital, famous in Belgium and in the world as it hosts six masterpieces by Hans Memling.
3. The Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed and the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk
Bruges is dotted with Churches scattered around its old town, but two above all deserve a visit thanks to their peculiarity. The Basilica of the Holy Blood (Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed) is a short walk from the Markt (the main square of Bruges) and is famous because it houses a phial that, according to beliefs, contains a few drops of the blood of Christ, brought here after the Crusades of the 12th century. Jealously safeguarded behind the flamboyant Tabernacle, it gets taken out every day at 2 pm for the faithful who gather along to admire the relic. The Church of our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), whose Bell Tower soars over the city's low houses (it’s 115 metres high), guards a Madonna and child by Michelangelo (1504), one of the few works by the artist outside Italy.
4. The Begijnhof and the Lover’s Lake
As you stroll through the city, walk to the edge of the old town and reach the Begijnhof. It was founded in 1245 as the residence of the beguines, unmarried women who had emancipated themselves from the Catholic Church and who lead a chaste and pious life, without taking the vows. Today it is home to the nuns of the order of St Benedict and the place still has a magical atmosphere, thanks to its whitewashed façades and the silence that surrounds it. Walking out from the Begijnhof you’ll find yourselves in one of the most enchanted spots of Bruges, known as the Lover’s Lake (Minnewater). During its commercial heyday, this angle of water was where ships unloaded goods such as wool, wine, spices, and silks. You can sit on the walls that surround the lake and contemplate its gorgeousness, sprinkled, during autumn, by a rainbow of colours that make the foliage a feast for the eyes.
5. Tour of the canals by boat and balloon flight
Taking a tour of the canals, besides being an extremely romantic thing to do, offers a priceless vision of the city from ‘below’ and allows to see hard-to-reach corners and channels of the old town. The trip lasts half an hour and boats depart from the channels around Rozenhjoedkaai every 15 minutes. If you want to enjoy Bruges from the opposite perspective, a hot air balloon ride over the city will give you a unique and unrepeatable experience, and you’ll be able to admire from the sky the best preserved medieval centre in Europe.
6. The Markt and the Belfry
The Markt is the nerve centre of the city, dominated by the Belfry tower and embellished with richly adorned medieval palaces. Cheerful and colourful, on Wednesday morning the square hosts the market which fills with stands selling food, flowers and plants.
Bars and cafes around the square are mostly touristy, whereas its definitely worth hiking up the 13th century Belfry Tower, whose bell is still rung by hand and from whose height of 83 meters you can enjoy the urban compact medieval centre of Bruges carpeted with red roofs.
7. The District of Sant'Anna and the Windmills
Definitely off the tourist paths, the ancient district of St.Anne is a great alternative to the crowded routes of the centre. You can walk its streets on foot or by bicycle and reach the Kruispoort, the door of the Holy Cross and from there take the road along the canal dotted with windmills. Two of them, the Sint-Janshuismolen and the Koeleweimolen are still working (they transform cereals into flour) and open to the public. Once seen the windmills, you can go back inside the narrow maze of streets into the neighbourhood and visit the Church of St.Anne and the Kantcentrum (Lace Museum), where you can observe (every afternoon from 2 to 5) the lace-makers at work.
8. Chocolate, Beer and Fries
The Flanders have their gourmandises and Belgium is famous for chocolate, beer, waffles and frites. In Bruges there are two museums dedicated to these delis: the first is the Frietmuseum, in honour of the potato, where you can follow the story of this tuber from the Incas all the way to the Belgian fryers. The second is Choco-Story, the Chocolate Museum that traces the history of the cocoa bean from the Aztecs to nowadays and includes a final demonstration of the production of the pralines followed by a tasting. If you fancy purchasing some chocolate, the finest shop in town is Chocolate Line. For beer lovers, don't miss the De Halve Maan, an artisanal brewery founded in 1856 on the ancient foundations of a 1564 brewery.
9. Bruges by night
To fall head over heels for Bruges, and if all the recommendations above have not yet convinced you, then you can just wander around the city at night. Empty, quiet, sleepy, the city shrouded in darkness is fabulous, moonlit or illuminated by the dim lights of the lanterns and the buildings reflected in the black waters. To enhance the experience think of swans, white as snow, waving along the dark canals.
10. A night at the Hotel Heritage
A stay in a fairytale town cannot be complete without spending at least one night in a dreamy hotel. And when crossing the threshold of the Hotel Heritage (www.hotel-heritage.com) it is immediately clear why it was awarded Best Boutique Hotel at the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2014 and is part of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux association.
A few meters away from the Markt – and thus in a privileged position for sightseeing - within a beautifully and restored building dating back to 1869, the property is sumptuous without being ostentatious, outstanding in the details and welcoming like a luxurious private home.
The harmonious mix of fabrics, stucco and antique furnishings make the commons spaces, such as the beautiful living room in front of the crackling fireplace, a cuddle for the senses and echo the care and attention to fabrics that so often characterizes the Flanders region. The elegant bedrooms, all unique, are the apotheosis of classic luxury combined with absolute comfort. Impeccable services and an always present always smiling staff, led by owners Johan & Isabelle Creytens, whose natural vocation to the art of hospitality makes each guest feel just like at home.
For a unique evening amongst golden gilded ceilings and crystal chandeliers, stop in for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant Le Mystique, for a full on fine dining experience. The food, delightful and executed with great technique by young Chef Gregory Slembrouch, pays homage to Belgian tradition in a contemporary manner albeit maintaining strong influences and ingredients from all over the world. The food surprise and entertains, thanks to creations that dare yet satisfy the palate as a result of balanced flavours and textures; make the most of their international wine list by matching each plate to a carefully selected glass of wine chosen by the talented sommelier.
If you want to discover Bruges and all its treasures, the best way is by buying the Bruges City Card that allows free access and discounts to all the main sites of interest in the city, discounts for public transport and bicycles, a tour guide in 6 languages with advice from the experts, beautiful itineraries traced out for you to do on foot or by bicycle and a map with all the useful information regarding the city.