IN August, 2019, we had a few days in Bruges, Belgium, between house sits. We’re always looking for ways to slow travel, even in the most touristy spots. And there are plenty of slow travel highlights in Bruges. Even though we were in Bruges for only five days we had no interest in chasing down every “must-do” tourist attraction. We were able to be there without feeling that we were somehow missing out.
You can, of course, check out the usual tourist traps of Bruges. We certainly did the obligatory canal cruise and Belfry tower climb and don’t regret it. But if you’ve been travelling a while you might be a bit tired of the museums and other tourist treadmills. So here are some ideas about how to enjoy Bruges without standing in the queues.
When I say Bruges I’m specifically talking about the old town, the heart and centre of the city. The city of Bruges has a population of about 120,000, and about 17 per cent live in the 9th century city centre. Bruges was an immensely wealthy commercial centre in the 13th and 14th centuries and in the 20th century has become a very popular tourist destination. The city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
So here’s my five slow travel highlights in Bruges.
If you are looking for sophisticated cuisine Bruges is likely to disappoint. You won’t find too many innovative and surprising taste adventures. The traditional dish served at every restaurant and cafe we visited was carbonnade flamande — beef and beer stew. It was usually served with fries and salad. Very tasty but certainly not a novel or unusual meal.
On the recommendation of a local we went to an amazing restaurant, the Zwart Huis, located in an beautiful, historic building off the main Markt Square. The decor is a stylish mix of dark wood hues, stunning glass and brass light fittings framed by the beautiful leadlight windows. The service was warm and friendly and the music was mellow jazz and blues, at a volume which didn’t interfere with the ability to converse. The Zwart Huis regularly hosts live jazz bands and we would definitely visit again given the chance.
As a big fan of vegan food (though not strictly vegan) I found the lack of options in Bruges a bit wanting. So we had a couple of steamed veg and rice meals at a Thai restaurant near our accommodation.
That said, if you like chocolate, waffles and beer you will be in paradise. There’s a chocolate and/or waffle shop every few metres in the shopping streets with a liberal sprinkling of nougat, marzipan and halva specialist shops. Having had my fill of halva a few weeks previously in Amsterdam I did my best to avoid these shops. But we did stop to indulge in some chocolate and a waffle covered in fruit and cream. And they were delicious!
The beer culture was a bit lost on us because we are non-drinkers but the bars were packed so others were clearly enjoying it.
We have visited so many historic old towns across Europe – in France, Croatia, Switzerland, the UK, Slovakia and the Netherlands. Bruges was one of those stand-out towns that we really loved. Smaller and less frantic than cities like Amsterdam, the “Venice of the North” is beautifully maintained and restored.
There’s no better way to check out the slow travel highlights of a place than by walking. It is a pleasure to walk around Bruges’ tree-lined canals with waterbirds including swans, ducks and geese; old houses, pubs and cafes; and lots of surprise courtyards and squares filled with funky little shops and eateries. If you like to stroll around window shopping and just soaking up the ambience of a place, you’ll love Bruges!
The city has a thriving horse-drawn carriage business. We saw many happy customers relaxing in the back of carriages. The regular clip-clop of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones brings a vibrancy to the city that is a perfect complement to the ancient canals and lovely, restored buildings
It takes about an hour to walk around the city centre beside the canal at a fairly leisurely pace. And every little side street is a fascinating foray into local architecture and the life of Bruges.
3. Adorning yourself
Belgium has been the world’s premier diamond production centre for about 500 years. Rough cut stones are shipped to Antwerp where they are transformed into beautiful baubles that are worn around the world. But the diamond polishing technique that set the trade on its way was developed in Bruges by a local goldsmith.
If you love diamonds take a stroll down the many shopping streets and you’ll find plenty of diamond shops to drool over.
For our more limited means we discovered a wonderful and unique jewellery experience in Bruges – making our own silver rings. Run by Richard of Rebel Rebel, an ex-pat jeweller from Birmingham UK, these workshops are a real treat. Richard guided us through the fine art of jewellery making from stamping the silver to soldering and polishing. For most of the afternoon we worked on our rings with a father and daughter from the US and produced a really sweet memento of our time in Bruges.
If this is something you’d like to do you better snap up the opportunity. Richard and his wife plan to move on in the next couple of years.
Bruges is one of those places that kind of hums with music. From the rousing clang of the Belfry bells to jazz-blues restaurants like Zwart Huis and some pretty talented buskers, it has a wonderful ambience.
One of the most unusual concerts I’ve seen was by Luc Vanlaere , who has been giving free concerts regularly since 2010. A harp obsessive, he builds, plays and composes for harp. As well as the concert harp with which most of us are probably familiar, Luc has a number of replicas of ancient instruments and several harps from Asia.
His music is beautiful and complex. And incredibly calming. Before the concert began he urged his audience not to feel embarrassed if we felt like dozing off. His music is meant to be relaxing. I took him at his word and had a peaceful little nod while he was strumming his harps.
At 45 minutes the concert was a great way to spend part of an afternoon.