“It really is a great pity to be in Bruges and not to explore it.”
“They are fortunate who visit Bruges for the first time when the city is quiet.”A Wayfarer in Belgium, Fletcher Allen (1934)
“Bruges, the silent, is now no more. So that I consider Bruges to be quite vulgarized.”Some Old Flemish Towns, George Wharton Edwards (1911)
“To those for whom the past possesses elements of romance, of mystery, and of fascination that our more prosaic and orderly modern world lacks, Bruges offers endless opportunities for enjoyment.”The Spell of Flanders, Edward Neville Vose (1915)
Last year, a news article in the UK caused a little stir as the Mayor of Bruges, Dirk De fauw, complained that his city was becoming overrun with daytrippers and he was growing frustrated with how shops which used to sell other products were switching to peddling Belgian beer and souvenirs to meet the demand of the visitors coming in from cruise ships.
That it seems is the ongoing saga which has been the state of Bruges over the last one hundred and fifty years. Even back before World War I, experienced travelers were lamenting the growing crowds of people “carrying little red-backed Baedekers and evidently intent on seeing all the sights”. Today those would be Lonely Planet or Rick Steves guides. For sure today when you visit Bruges, you will be sharing it will hordes of rubber-necking day-trippers.
The mayor of Bruges is trying to slow down a machine which started all the way back in 1870 when the councilmen of Bruges foresaw the opportunity to bring Bruges out of its long slumber with a monumental restoration plan. At the time, Bruges was a ghost town compared to its heydey in the 13th and 14th centuries. Bruges was known as the “white city” because when it declined in importance from the 15th century forward, the easiest way to hide and preserve the decaying brick façades was to cover them with white plaster. Today, you still see remnants of that, mainly in the several Godshuizen which are located around the city. Also the architecture of the buildings were more neo-classical or having straight mouldings.
The mastermind of Bruges’ touristification, if I may make up a word, was none other than Louis Delacenserie, the architect famous for Antwerpen’s iconic Centraal Station. Drawings were made up of three neo-gothic façade styles, which incorporated the stepped-gable mouldings that personify the Flemish-gothic style today. The white plaster was stripped away and several buildings were re-faced according to these drawings. Also during this time, the Provinciaal Hof on the Grote Markt was built and the Gruuthuse was remodeled.
Even though Bruges is not the authentic “well-preserved medieval city” it proclaims to be, it is a remarkable city and there is none like it. What is authentic is the charm and the history if you are willing to do a little research or hook up with a real tour guide. The history can be elusive though if you are only relying on your horse and buggy driver or canal boat guide. While these are great one-time experiences for the views, in terms of history, you are likely to hear the same trite facts which are almost so obvious, they are funny. “There is the littlest street in Bruges…” Stop. Waiting for the enlightening history of the street. Why is it small? Who lived there? Is this where the brothels were (not that I am looking for brothels)? Nothing… Arrrrgh.
If there is one spot that represents the myth of Bruges, it is the Bonafaciusbrug. This little bridge is one of the most beautiful and busy spots in the city. Good luck getting a picture without people. It is possible, but requires a lot of patience. This bridge dates from the early 1900’s and is one of the youngest “medieval” sites in the city. Nevertheless, it is undeniably a gorgeous spot which never ceases to fill me with wonder.
It might sound like I am being negative, when in fact what I am trying to do is to help readers connect with the city in a better way. If you go to Bruges with only the mindset of a “well-preserved medieval city”, you really miss out on a fascinating part of Bruges history. Bruges was well ahead of its time in regards to tourism. It is refreshing now to hear that Bruges wants to preserve it’s “well-preserved” condition by slowing down the expansion of the beer bottle and souvenir selling market and no longer advertise themselves as a day trip city. I couldn’t agree more. Bruges is a place best experienced over at least two nights and one full day.
With that said, when I visit, I always try to reach into the past and imagine a time when its cobblestone streets were covered in grass and moss, when little old ladies sat in doorways making lace, and when the prevailing sounds were wind and bell chimes, but with the “modern” version of today’s beautiful neo-gothic architecture.
Every February brings the excitement of the Bruges Beer Festival and an opportunity for another chance to not only explore more of the beer culture in Bruges but also find my time machine mentality and explore Bruges the way it should be explored. You see, Bruges can be crowded with tourists, but it is a city that also sleeps, and with the right strategy, one can practically enjoy it all to one’s self.
In my previous Dionysian Bruges post, I focused on some of the great places to drink beer in the city of Bruges. All of those places are still there and still highly recommended. This year, I decided to see what else I could find and add to the list.
But before that, here are my recommendations for a visit to Bruges.
itsabrewtifulworld’s Tips for Bruges
- Don’t just day trip it. Best case is two nights with a full day in-between. Hotels are not cheap, but a few that I have had good experiences with below 150 euros per night are Hotel de Swaene, Pand 17 Guesthouse, and ‘t Putje.
- In good weather, rent a bike and explore the whole city within the ring and also ride to Damme.
- The best time to explore Bruges and get lost is in the morning hours before 8:30am. I have never seen an unsafe neighborhood within the ring of Bruges. I particularly enjoy the neighborhood around the Jerusalemkerk. In the late Spring and Summer, daylight hits at 5am, so plenty of time to enjoy the city to yourself.
Dionysian Bruges, the Sequel
The following map includes places from both Dionysian Bruges blog posts.
Literally meaning “The Pothole” in Dutch, this beer bar may very well become one of my favorites in all of Bruges. You enter the bar as you would enter a cellar from the street level. The inside is cozy and has the classic cellar bar feel. The selection is decent (especially for the tourists). Here is a recommendation. Skip the banana-flavored beer. The bartender says people order a ton of it but it’s the worst thing on the menu. Oh yes, I tried it and you have been warned. This hideaway is highly recommended on your beer itinerary.
Cambrinus is not technically just a beer bar. It is also a restaurant which makes it extremely busy in the evenings. Expect to need reservations if you want to eat and if you are traveling alone, most likely you will be seated near or at the bar. But it is definitely geared towards the beer drinker.
Taphouse De Zandloper
Literally meaning “The Hourglass” in Dutch, this bar feels a bit more like a locals kind of place. It sits on a quaint square just off of the ‘t Zand a few meters from the Concert Hall and adjacent to Restaurant Hotel ‘t Putje. The sign in front advertises 18 beers on tap, all of which are pretty standard fare for a beer veteran like me. But I like this neighborhood between the Concert Hall and St. John’s Hospital and this little corner just feels local.
Of all the bars I have listed in both posts, this is the one that feels most local. Even the name volkscafé or people’s cafe seems to imply that it is for locals. If you want to experience a brown beer bar in the city center, this is the one.
Brugse Bier Festival 2020
As I mentioned in my previous Dionysian Bruges post, the Brugse Bier Festival is for me the start of my travel year. It is getting a reputation as one of the best beer festivals in Belgium. That may be true to some degree mainly because it is located in Bruges. But that fact also means that it gets extremely crowded. The festival has gone thru several variations of venue and none of them have been optimal for the crowds. In 2020, the venue was on the ‘t Zand square in front of the concert hall in a large tent structure. This to me felt like the best venue so far for this festival and I hope the organizers finally stick with something. Definitely buy your tickets in advance to skip the long line. The Brugse Bier Festival is not an international craft beer festival. Most of the breweries are known established Belgian breweries with only a few exceptions. The highlight this year was a new line of beers called Brugse Beer. Beer is the Dutch word for bear.
Bruges will always be a place close to my heart. I hope the beer culture in Bruges starts to level off where it is. I think there is already a fantastic assortment of beer bars, cafes, and breweries to enjoy Belgian beer to its fullest. In the spirit of the Mayor of Bruges, I don’t want to see more and more new places popping up and watering down an already rich culture. Bruges teeters on the boundary of authenticity and “Disneyland”, much of it because of the course that city leaders set into place 150 years ago. Therefore, I implore the visitor not to feed the touristic monster. Rather, make Bruges authentic with your own romantic spirit by connecting with its past. Explore the city beyond the main sites and along the way have one or two of Belgium’s finest beers.