Whenever someone found out our next assignment was going to be Brussels, nine times out of ten that person would ask, “Oooh, and are you going to visit Bruges?” (And no, we have not yet seen the movie In Bruges — but it is on the to-watch-soon list.) Friends of ours who have served in Brussels twice recommended that we go to Bruges to get it out of our system, then just send visitors there and revisit Ghent multiple times ourselves. As I’m writing this a few weeks late and we’ve been to both Bruges and Ghent, I completely agree with what they said, but more on that later.
Our second weekend in town, we took the train to Bruges for the day. I had bought tickets online earlier in the week, getting the special online “weekend ticket” for Grant and myself (if you go roundtrip between Friday evening and Monday morning, there’s a 50% discount) and an under-26 discount ticket for Laura. The trains work more like NJTransit than Amtrak in that you don’t get a ticket for a specific train but can take any one you want (with the caveat that with our tickets, the travel had to be within that weekend timeframe). This made planning a lot easier! We easily took the metro to the central train station, found the track for the train, and got on when it arrived. We were early enough that it wasn’t very crowded, which was good. The ride to Bruges was a bit over an hour and then we were there.
Once in the Bruges train station, getting to the old part of town couldn’t have been any easier: we just followed the crowd. I picked up a map at the info center, then we joined everyone else in the picturesque walk through a park to town. We weren’t disappointed, as Bruges is beautiful (despite the hordes of tourists). The Grote Markt, or main town square, is definitely something to see. We stopped there to snap a few pictures before walking down smaller streets to get to some of the canals.
As a general rule, we usually avoid doing the super touristy things when traveling and prefer to do a lot of walking and getting a feel for the place on our own. But everything I had read said that a canal tour is a “must” in Bruges, so I suggested we do that right away, before the lines got long. At eight euros, the half-hour ride is not inexpensive (and we were squished like sardines on the boat itself), but it was worth it. The boat driver spoke number of languages and provided some commentary about the surroundings throughout the tour, so we were able to get a good feel for Bruges and a better sense of the layout of the town.
After the boat ride, we stopped to get some waffles to snack on before tackling the Groeninge Museum, which houses Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece, The Madonna with Cannon van der Paele, among numerous other wonderful works. But seriously, it is worth going just for this one painting. The museum is closed on Mondays and when we went was eight euros for adults and six for those under 26. The ticket price also includes the nearby Arentshuis.
Following the museum visit, during which I tried not to linger too long but inevitably made the others wait for me numerous times, we decided to get something to eat. We had scoped out some potential places near the museum and now went back to examine their menus. The place we originally had wanted to go to didn’t have any outdoor seating left (and it was a beautiful day!) so we looked around a bit longer before deciding just to sit inside. It was possibly the best decision of the trip, as the inside was tastefully decorated and much quieter than if we had sat outside. Not to mention the food at Gruuthuse Hof was fabulous. Laura and I had the fixed price tourist menu and Grant enjoyed his first moules frites of our time here. Grant and I also ordered a local beer, Brugse Zot, which is now one of my favorites.
During our lunch, we watched as the waiter had to turn many people away because, as is the case with many restaurants in Europe, the kitchen closes in between lunch and dinner. One is usually able to get a drink at any time, but food is another story. So if you’re in Bruges and want to go to Gruuthuse Hof (and I highly recommend you do), make sure you get there early enough! Even better would be to make a reservation ahead of time, as by midway through our meal, all of the tables had been reserved for dinner that night.
To round out our Bruges trip, we walked around some more, visited churches, checked out an outdoor concert, and walked through some truly lovely places. The only thing we missed that we had wanted to see is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child sculpture in the Church of Our Lady. We made it to the church, but the section with the sculpture had closed for the day (it requires a fee), so we didn’t actually get to see it.
Bruges is adorable and well worth a visit if you’re in Belgium. It is so easy to get to on the train from Brussels that there really is no excuse for not taking a day trip out to see it!