I arrived in Bruges – the “Belgian Venice” – on an early autumn day. The Northern sun cast its gleaming velvet light on Gothic buildings which seemed to float on canals, and ancient Bruges greeted me with jangling horse bells and clomping horseshoes on old alleys paved with medieval tiles.
Bruges was a robust harbor city between the 12th and 15th centuries, as trading vessels from throughout Europe came offering pepper, cinnamon, chili and agricultural staples to trade for Flemish wools and cottons. Canals connecting Zeebrugge with the center of Bruges were the crucial transport network of the town during its golden days and now contribute to this well-preserved floating city’s status as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Bruges – Belgian Venice
The medieval city of Bruges entices with well-preserved architecture and delicious chocolate, fries and beer
An outdoor museum
Bruges boasts some of the most unique museums in Belgium: The Fries Museum (Frietmuseum), Chocolate Museum, Beer Museum De Halve Maan, Diamond Museum and Groeninge Museum, which displays art by painters who lived and worked in Bruges from the 14th to the 20th century. In fact, the town itself is an outdoor museum that exhibits architectural masterpieces and countless bridges crossing centuries-old canals. Highlights include Beguinage Castle, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the Church of Our Lady, the Saint Salvator Cathedral, Mariastraat Cathedral, the Tomb of Duke Charles the Bold, the City Hall of Bruges on the Burg Square, St. John Hospital and Begijnhof Monastery.
My journey to discover Bruges began on a canoe packed with dozens of visitors from all over the world. The canoe pilot and a tour guide led us along Groenerei Canal, the main route for exploring Bruges. The canoe snaked through floating buildings along river banks, crossed beneath curved stone bridges and sometimes turned down narrow canals, revealing modest rooms looming behind old green shades. On each of these 30-minute trips, the canoe driver took us to the outstanding constructions of Bruges and told us of the golden age and fall of the town as well as the miraculous revival of this outdoor museum since the turn of the 20th century. Like a short film rolling through the memories of the narrator, a Bruges of the past and present revealed itself to me.
I left the canoe at a wharf sprinkled with flowers at the other end of town. There stands the Church of Our Lady, home to the masterpiece “Madonna of Bruges” sculpture by Michelangelo, which was the only of his works to leave Italy during his lifetime. It seemed that all the ancient lanes in downtown Bruges led to this church. From here, visitors can branch out to admire other architectural masterpieces of Bruges, where every single fairylike gate is marked with UNESCO’s Blue Shield symbol, representing a commitment to protecting humanity’s cultural sites.
Joining the throng of visitors strolling along narrow and labyrinthine alleys, I crossed bridges that led to other jewels of Bruges in hopes of exploring all the wonders of the harbor town while the sunset fell.
Take a look at the ancient imperial capital of Hue
The kingdom of chocolate, fries and beer
However, there is much more to Bruges than its ancient buildings – no visitor should miss out on the city’s chocolate, fries and beer. Belgium is the kingdom of chocolate and Bruges is undoubtedly its heart, as numerous chocolate shops permeate the town with their sweet fragrance. In these stores, some of the finest chocolate of Belgium and the world comes in all styles, shapes and sizes. I also stopped by the Chocolate Story, a museum where all things related to chocolate were on display: cocoa beans, chocolate making tools, statues of Mayans – the first people to use cocoa – sculptures of chocolate, legends of the goddess of chocolate and the history of chocolate production. Stepping out of the museum, my newfound knowledge of chocolate only added to the irresistible appeal of this sweet obsession.
Bruges is a place where one will frequently encounter visitors strolling through the Old Quarter, carrying paper cones of salted fries served with mayonnaise and other delicious sauces, perhaps on their way to the unique Frietmuseum. However, the finest delicacy in Bruges for me was beer. The town is the home to various renowned beer brands of Belgium such as Bruges Tripel, Bruges Blond, Bruges Babbelaar, Brugs, Bruges Straffe Hendrik, and many more. The beer I loved the best was a dense concoction brewed by monks that resembles golden honey and is stored in drum-shaped oak barrels.
After a long day spent exploring, I stopped by a beer pub by St. John Cathedral for Cloister Beer and lamb ribs while Bruges was draped in the dark blanket of falling sunset. As the sunset gleam faded away, light from church belfries and the window panes of old castles cast a warm glow. Another side of Bruges emerged, as visitors began flocking to Market Square in the downtown to continue their explorations of the town’s nightlife.