Bruges is one of Europe’s most picturesque and romantic cities, with an irresistible charm all year round. But visiting Bruges in the lead up to Christmas makes it even more enchanting.
Furthermore, getting from London to Bruges on the Eurostar is easy as pie, which also means there is a very good chance you may return home with heavier suitcases than intended, thanks to some amazing Belgian beer at prices you only can get locally. Or at least that was the case (literally) for us as there are no alcohol restrictions on the Eurostar so it beats flying any day.
What makes Bruges so charming though is the pastel coloured medieval guild houses that line the market square. In fact, they were gorgeous in the sunlight but became even more mesmerising once dusk approached and the twinkly Christmas lights that covered them were lit. That, coupled with romantic canals, handmade chocolates, hearty meals in cosy pubs and a vast variety of quality beer, I’ve got nothing but praise.
We spent some time in the Christmas Village (Kerstmarkt Brugge) in the Bruges Market Square (Grote Market), overdoing our selfie game to the picturesque backdrop and roaming through the stalls who were selling winter hats, Christmas decorations and lots of booze. Attempting to blend in with the locals, we tried our hand at the Chouffe Coffee Liqueur with whipped cream, it was very sweet but also felt pretty special at that moment considering the setting.
The main square is also the heart of where the tourists roam. This is likely due to the beautiful backdrop of the Belfry of Bruges, made famous in the movie In Bruges (2008). Also on the Market Square, you will find the “Historium”, a historical experience which takes you back in time to medieval Bruges. There are also horse-drawn carriages, restaurants in colourful guild houses and an ice rink for the winter season. In fact, at the foot of the Belfry are the “world’s most famous chippies” known as frietkoten, something we discovered making our way home late at night after too many Belgian pints.
There was also a second set of markets (Simon Stevinplein) – these stalls were selling more clothing and decorations, and it was there we befriended Mattias and his local friends who welcomed us to a game of “nails”.
Here’s the gist…you stand around a large tree stump and each take turns to hammer your 9-inch nail into the stump whilst in a circle. If your nail gets hammered in first, you must buy the next round of nails, if your nail goes in last, you buy the next round of beers. The first is definitely much more appealing to the latter considering the cost was 3 Euro to 20.
The markets on Saturday were also much busier than during the daytime on Friday – perhaps this was because this was the first weekend they were open and so the locals were very active in town as well. The Bruges Christmas markets run November 23, 2018 to January 1, 2019.
We stayed at the adorable bed and breakfast La Maison Zenasni, which I highly recommend. A huge mansion set only a few blocks from the main square, you can’t help but ooh and ahhh as you enter. They even had our names on a welcome board when we arrived, a nice personal touch.
There are only 3 rooms in this antiquated wooden palace, each decked out with their own theme – we had the blue room. We fell asleep staring at the large chandelier hanging from the high ceiling, bathed in an old cast iron bathtub and woke on Sunday morning to church bells outside our large open window, Jamie’s favourite part. The only downfall was the lack of toiletries and that there was no mounted shower head.
Breakfast was included and we dined along with the other guests on a huge wooden communal picnic table, the massive glass window showered us with natural light, as we devoured a spread of delectable cheeses and pastries, attempting to cure our hangovers.
But enough about the accommodation, let’s get onto the beer!
Our first stop was Café Vlissinghe, the oldest bar in Bruges originally built in 1515. Hidden away from the market and the masses of tourists, this Flemish gem was super cosy, with an old stove keeping the small Inn very warm. In the summer months, the large garden in the back seems ideal for a delicious beer outside in the sun.
Jamie tried his hand at the guest beer which was a Julius Blonde, and I went with the Vlissinghe house beer. We snacked on chunky salami and tasty cheese before Jamie was told off for feeding the very adorable Jack Russell. I’m not going to say “I told you so.”
We moved on from there to a sports pub called The Monk who have a pretty good array of beers on tap to try. Here we chatted to friendly James, an Englishman from Hastings trying to hide his accent behind his Flemish after 11 years in Bruges, about which beers we should try and what restaurants he favours in town. I couldn’t resist Chimay Blue’s dark rich flavour while Jamie went with his mate’s suggestion of Cherry Chouffe, a new favourite that made its way home with us.
Everywhere we went we picked out a new beer which would come with its own glass custom from the brewery. It means you can literally choose your beer by the glass you want to drink from (like a horn for La Corne or an hourglass with a wooden holder for Kwak), that is, if you’re open to experimenting with new varieties and taking a risk. Jamie was shocked, on the other hand, to learn that most beers are at least 8% ABV but still taste delicious, something he admits isn’t the case ‘back home’ in England.
At Cambrinus, an old pub with over 400 beers, we met another English beer coinsurer, from Lincolnshire, who swears that Westvleteren, a brewery founded in 1838 at the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Vleteren, Belgium, is one of best beers in the world. They had it in the bottle there for about 19 Euro, so we booked in for lunch the next day to try carbonnade, the famous Flemish stew made with beef/lamb and beer and ordered a tasting paddle of their best draft beers. The portions were huge and hearty – we tried the fried cheese, carbonnade and homemade meatballs – and the staff were very friendly. Just make sure you book ahead or expect to get turned away.
Another option is to try the Bruges Beer Experience. Interactive and educational, you are taken through the history of brewing all the way through to learning about global beer varieties. For us, it was a great way to escape the rain. Using an iPad, you walk around the venue to either read or listen, and at various points you can quiz your knowledge or participate in multi-sensory learning by smelling hops, tasting notes or pairing foods. Entry is 9 Euro or 15 Euro including 3 beer tastings at the end, which is worth it!
There are a few breweries right in the heart of Bruges, so we tried our hand at Bourgogne des Flandre. It’s located in a beautiful setting right on a canal, which I’d imagine provides wonderful views in the summer. We thought it wiser to stay warm inside and try a paddle tasting to sample all the Flemish beers. Luckily, Jamie and I have opposite tastes so we quickly split the beers in half after discovering our preferences.
Finally, to our favourite pub T’bruges Beertje. The trick for this small tasting house is to skip the overcrowded front room, keep walking past the toilets, and you’ll find even more tables in the back. I loved the vibe of the whole place, covered in various beer logos and adverts. If it wasn’t full of tourists you’d want it to be your local. They have about 300 beers in bottles and are very friendly and open to discussing your tastes and finding the right beer. In fact, they had such a variety of Christmas beers that we decided to embrace the season and get stuck in.
While scouring local reviews for a top-notch restaurant for our anniversary dinner, I settled on Park Restaurant. Their set menu of 70 Euros includes wines, so wasn’t too bad for the value. The reviews raved about owner Axel and the personal service offered. I couldn’t agree more. Set in a huge old townhouse down a quiet street away from the heaps of tourists, classically decorated, tall candle lights, white table clothes and all.
With that said, there were some gaps that make it clear why they haven’t received their Michelin Star just yet…the menu never changes aside from small touches – the butter was served in paper rather than handmade, and the walls are filled with European celebrities who have visited over the years. But hey, it’s a model that works.
Overall it was a comforting, old-fashioned dining experience with great service, tasty food and a charming ambience but was it worth it for the hefty price tag? Maybe, just to meet Axel. He gave us good recommendations on where to go on from there (see Late Night).
But a cut above was Bistro Christophe. This contemporary Flemish restaurant was on many of the top foodie blogs of Bruges, so naturally also made it onto my shortlist. When James at The Monk also recommended it, I felt we had to give it a go, even if that meant two expensive meals back to back.
The service was excellent, but the food even more heavenly. We split the chateaubriand and were over the moon with the quality of the cut and the accompanying sauces with a bottle of Caruso & Minini Terre di Giumara Frappato – Nerello – Mascalese wine.
Thanks to the recommendations of Axel land our friends from Surry who bumped into at the Bruges Beer Experience, we were in no shortfall of post-dinner options. In fact, there was a good mix of basement style bars catering to students and higher-end cocktail joints.
Both evenings we ended up chatting away over a few whiskeys to the friendly staff at Comptoir Des Arts, a fun and casual basement bar where you can check out live jazz. Across the street at ‘t Poatersgat, things were a bit busier with a much more student vibe. Hidden behind a concealed hole in the wall, go down the stairs to enter this casual dive bar, with a big select of beers on draft, and easy place to lose the time. Some say it’s a must for Bruges!
BAR”N is a cute modern yet cosy cocktail bar near the main square. This was recommended by some friends, and a fun atmosphere to start or end the evening as it closes at 2.
And finally, there’s Groot Vlaenderen, a classy cocktail bar in a beautiful brick building, expect it to be crowded but with a vast array of cocktails – with the price tag to come with them. Service was slower than desired but the drinks made up for it.
When taking the Eurostar to Bruges, you must change over in Brussels. That’s not necessarily a bad thing!
We left Bruges after checking out of our B&B and made our way over to Brussels for a few hours. This was a great call as there’s still tons to do.
- Visit the Brussels Christmas Markets for lunch
- Take a photo of the famous statue Manneken Pis
- Wander around the Grand Palace
- Taste a variety of beers in the massive Delirium Village, with 8 bars and fun atmosphere
- Eat huge bowls of delicious Mussels at Chez Leon
We also made the right move of ignoring all the tourist beer shops like the Bottle Shop where prices are extremely inflated and stopped off at Carrefour grocery store to stock up on our Delirium and La Chouffe to take back to England, for literally a fraction of the cost.
Overall it was an amazing trip together. We tried many Christmas beers and old favourites like Delerium, Chimay and Kriek but also some new varieties that are now up in my books, such as La Chouffe and Trappist. Drinks aren’t that expensive either, expect to pay about 4 Euro for a very strong beer, however, dinner can put you out a bit more with starters between 10-15 Euro and mains 20-30.
I can’t wait to go back!