Okay well it’s a big part of it, of being in Belgium for that matter, but Bruges is a gorgeous, romantic city and is perfect for a couple days to escape the hustle bustle of a major city like London, Paris, or even Amsterdam. Today I’ve got Bruges on my mind because it is the 2-year anniversary that my husband proposed to me there. It happened along a picturesque canal and we celebrated afterwards as any Belgian would do with many strong beers. Let’s just say it was an early night. Bruges is located a little over an hour northwest of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and only about 2 hours on the train from London or Paris (3 from Amsterdam) which makes it an easy weekend destination if you’re visiting one of those cities. It is pretty small so you don’t need more than a couple of days there to get a real feel for the culture. The local language is actually a dialect of Dutch (Flemish) but most people know English. French is not really spoken here despite it being the language in Brussels and other parts of Belgium.
In addition to wandering the quaint, cobblestoned streets and getting lost along its many picturesque canals, here’s a list of 5 things you should do in Bruges, most involving food and/or beer. Don't say I didn't warn you.
- Have an authentic Belgian beer at Staminee de Garre. Tucked away down a small alley off the main square, this tavern is quite hidden and tough to find but well worth searching for. The atmosphere is cozy yet lively and is filled with a good mix of locals and visitors alike. Most notably, this watering hole serves up its own Belgian tripel on draught and is the only place on the planet that you can have it. It is delicious but packs a punch at 11% abv, so expect to be cut off after 3. You can thank the bartender later for that. (Staminee de Garre, de Garre 1)
- Check out the scenic main square, Markt. Despite being very touristy, this square is still a must see with its Dutch step-gabled buildings, horse-drawn carriages and dramatic medieval facades. If you've seen the Colin Farrell movie In Bruges, this is where the famed belfry resides. As with any main square, there is no shortage of cafes, restaurants and shops. Bruges tends to clear out in the evenings so come back here at night when the buildings are beautifully floodlit for a quieter, more romantic experience.
- Indulge in a true Belgian waffle. When many people think of Belgium, the first thought that comes to mind is waffles and rightfully so. You can almost always smell the sweetness in the air with street vendors selling the doughy delight on practically every corner you turn. What we know as a Belgian waffle in the States doesn't really exist here although some places try to appease the tourists by offering the decadent toppings. You can expect the real thing, also known as a Liège waffle, to be about a quarter the size, slightly crisp and sticky on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside and best eaten plain or simply topped with powdered sugar. No maple syrup. No whipped cream, ice cream or fruit. Make sure you stop at Chez Albert to get one (or two, or three...) and don't be surprised if you find yourself searching for a Liège waffle maker when you return home. Note: I later learned that other types of waffles can be found in Belgium, like the Brussels waffle, which is closer to what we Americans know. But I did not come across this type at all on my trip, just the lovely Liège variety. (Chez Albert, Breidelstraat 16)
- Order Mosselen-friet (or Moules Frites) for dinner. Considered the national dish of Belgium, this meal consisting of mussels and fries is easy to find in these parts. The mussels are plucked locally from the Flemish coast and come served in the pot in which they were steamed. There are a variety of broths they can be prepared in—from basic and buttery to garlicky to one of white wine—but no matter what you choose you cannot go wrong especially when paired with fries made the Belgian way—double-fried in duck fat. Sounds intimidating but tastes amazing. And don’t worry, you can always get a side salad to help balance out your meal. A great place to enjoy mosselen-friet is at Brasserie Chagall, a small candlelit restaurant with a cozy fireplace that makes you feel like you're having dinner at a friend's home. Reservations recommended. (Brasserie Chagall, Sint-Amandsstraat 40)
- Take a load off at Café Rose Red. Adorned with red roses hanging from the ceiling, this bar is one of the best to sample a wide variety of Belgian brews. Yes, I'm encouraging you to have more beer because I mean why not? When in Rome... Anyway the atmosphere is casual, rustic and cozy making it easy to spend hours in. It's a perfect place to escape from the cold or wet weather and they have a great patio for when it's nice. The charcuterie plates are on point and are the perfect snack to balance out all the beers you will have. If the long beer list has you mixing up your saisons with your sours, the bartenders know their stuff so don't be afraid to ask them what you should order. (Café Rose Red, Cordoeaniersstraat 16)
Proposal or not, Bruges is a memorable place. I had no idea what to expect as far as Belgian culture goes and I was pleasantly surprised. Delicious food, friendly people, and pretty surroundings. Belgium easily went from being a place lower on my list of travel priorities to one that I cannot wait to visit again. In the meantime, I've picked out a liège waffle iron at Sur La Table. Wish me luck...