Bruges – quaint cobbled streets, cosy canal-side bars and the epitome of romance? Or an overpriced, overcrowded city full of tourist tat? Probably a bit of both. But is it too busy or too beautiful? Here’s my verdict.
In the beginning
In the 13th Century, Bruges was one of Europe’s most important cities with a population greater than London’s. Cloth, lace and spices were traded and a lot of people made a lot of money. Up sprung gorgeous houses, churches and waterways.
But then disaster struck – the city lost its access to the North Sea when the Zwin silted up and, useless as a centre of international trade, its residents scarpered to nearby Antwerp (read my view of Antwerp here).
Bruges became a ghost-town as its architectural delights remained, with no-one to enjoy them.
21st Century Bruges
Fast-forward 800 years, and not a lot has changed – despite being Belgium’s 6th biggest city, with a population of 120,000, there are few residents in the centre. One thing that has changed is the visitors – rather than attracting international merchants, Bruges has become one of the world’s most popular tourist cities.
Some stay in Bruges itself, some come from cruise-ships calling at Zeebrugge and some come on daytrips from elsewhere in Benelux. One thing they have in common is that they only spend time in the centre of Bruges which is tiny anyway – the city is operating at, or even beyond, its capacity.
The one thing I wanted to do in Bruges was to climb the belfry in the main square, Markt. This featured prominently in one of my favourite films, In Bruges. You can climb 366 steps to the top of this gothic belltower and enjoy panoramic views of the city.
We had a look on Friday afternoon but the queue was massive. With better things to do than wait in a line for two hours, we said we’d come back again in the morning.
When we got there the next day, the queue was almost twice as long as the previous afternoon. We admitted defeat and resigned ourselves to admiring the view from the terrace of a bar in Markt. To paraphrase Colin Farrell in the film, why climb for the view when you can see it from a bar?
Colin is right. You can’t enjoy the belfry if you can’t see it. Plonk yourself down at a bar in Markt, and enjoy the view with a glass of Duvel.
Horse drawn carriage
These pick-up in the middle of Markt – look out for the taxi rank-style queue of affluent tourists. Half-hour guided rides around the cobbled streets of the medieval centre cost €39.
There seems to be a continuous one-in, one-out stream from morning until night, although the poor-old horses are given a ten minute rest on every trip.
Canal boat cruise
If you don’t fancy paying €39, for €7 you can take a half-hour cruise around the canals. We paid for our trip at a kiosk by the bridge on Wollestraat, and then queued for twenty minutes to board.
The canal cruise market is a slick cash-generating machine, as a series of boats are jam-packed with about 30 people and follow each other in a procession of the sights. A hell of a lot of revenue is earned by the boat companies, but a ride is worth it to see the best of the city from the water and to learn about its history from your driver/tour guide.
It won’t cost a penny to walk the streets, and its easy to escape the throngs the further away you get from Markt.
Our apartment was on the outskirts of the medieval centre – on our walks to Markt, we were struck by how quiet the streets were. Few people live out here and those who own properties rent them out to tourists.
Bars and restaurants
I’d heard good things about Staminee de Garre, but having arrived at this almost-impossible-to-find bar, there was no room at the inn. All tables were occupied, upstairs and down, so we left empty-bellied.
Our favourite bar was T’ Brugs Beertjes, but unless you get there at opening time (4pm), you won’t get a seat. I felt like one of those old alcies you see waiting outside the local Wetherspoon’s for it to open.
As for restaurants, if you don’t book a table you’ll be eating at a kebab shop. Service and quality are poor, and prices are high – this is an expensive city and a captive market. People say “eat where the locals eat”, but I doubt many locals bother with central Bruges’ restaurant scene.
One solution is to avoid anywhere recommended in guidebooks. Our best meal was at The Olive Tree – a Greek restaurant that relies on recommendations and doesn’t bother displaying a Tripadvisor certificate. The quietest bar we came across was the imaginatively named The Pub, despite it being only a couple of minutes’ walk from Markt – a friendly place for a beer, but not in Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.
Some people say go to Ghent instead – it’s a bigger and livelier city, people actually live there and it has a similar medieval centre. But they’re missing the point – it’s not in the same league as Bruges. (Read my view on Ghent here).
There’s no getting away from the fact Bruges is very busy, but it’s busy because it’s ridiculously beautiful – arguably the most picturesque city in Europe.
If you bear in mind it’s going to be rammed, are prepared to queue and remember to make restaurant reservations, you’ll fall in love with this open-air museum.
As Colin Farrell’s character said, Bruges: it’s just like a fairytale.
Good post – you must have got to that popular bar very early – the clock says ten past one!
Most picturesque city in Europe? That is open to serious challenge! I will be interested to see if readers offer their own alternatives. Restricting myself to Northern Europe my suggestion is Delft in the Netherlands or Tallinn in Estonia!
We popped in for one on the way back to the train station, honest!
Yep, we loved Tallinn too but I think Bruges beats it with its canals. Not been to Delft, but I imagine it’s a bit like a poor man’s Bruges without the crowds?
I liked Bruges, Delft is different and yes, I suspect less busy!
Funnily enough I just rewatched ‘In Bruges’ last week! It does look very beautiful, but having never been to Bruges, Delft or Tallinn, I’m unable to offer any other suggestions for most picturesque in europe. Although, from pictures alone, Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic is somewhere I’ve always thought looked stunning.
Great film, we watched it again a few days before we went to get us in the mood. Prague’s another contender…
🙂 well I just watched The Brothers Bloom last night, a chunk of which was filmed in Prague, and I did think it looks like a beautiful city. I really need to get to these places rather than just watching them on film.
Hoping to visit Bruges soon! Thanks for the tips. Seems to be such a beautiful place despite the crowds!
I reckon winter would be the best time to go with fewer people and it’d look lovely with frozen canals. Enjoy!
Heading there next month – wonder if it’s quieter in December or busier for Christmas Markets? We shall see!
Our canal cruise guide said the tourist season ends once November starts, so it should be a bit quieter for you. You’ll love it!
seems for sure worth to visit 🙂
It certainly is – one of the highlights of a trip to Europe!
I really liked Bruges but agree with a lot of your points. We ended up self catering part of the time as a lot of the restaurants seemed very overpriced and touristy – though had a good meal at the De Halve Maan brewery restaurant. If the crowds in the centre get too much try the parks with windmills round the edge of the city and boat trips up the canal outside town to Damme, both much quieter.
We didn’t have time to go to that brewery restaurant, but I heard good things about their beer stew. Next time I go, I’ll be happy to live on fries!
I didn’t realise the place was so popular! You review reminds me a little bit of Venice, with the city being overrun by tourists with ‘locals’ living elsewhere. Looks beautiful to battle the crowds for, though!
You’re right – just like Venice and Dubrovnik too, tourists seem to outnumber people actually living there.
Plus I was in Bruges in November – I don’t think I could have coped with it in high summer!
After a quick google, Ghent looks just as beautiful – maybe a better option?
Have a look at the last paragraph – Ghent is very nice, but I don’t think it’s quite in the same league as Bruges. Maybe try them both on a two-centre break?
I can understand why the season ends in November, Rich. We were there then in freezing fog and I couldn’t even see that tower, or you know I would have climbed it! (no online booking?) What I could see was charming but I did shiver a lot. 🙂
Our canal cruise guide said when he was a boy, the canals froze every winter and people would skate on them, but it hasn’t been cold enough to do that for 20 years. When was it you went? 🙂
More than 20 years ago 🙂
I agree with you about Bruges being incredibly beautiful but very touristy. I loved it, and it’s located so close to Ghent and the coast that it’s easy to escape when the crowds get too much!! I visited De Halve Maan brewery a couple of years ago, and during the tour we went up to the roof, and the view from there was better than from the belfry, and we got a free drink as well…
Damn, I’m beginning to regret not going to that brewery now! Sounds like their food and the views are a Bruges highlight. To be honest, their beer (Brugse Zot) was the only beer I wasn’t a big fan of.
Bruges has always been on my list for the picturesque canals you describe. It has escaped me so far on my trips to Europe, but I hope to make it there soon (as well as the rest of Belgium). Your description reminded me a lot of how I felt when I was in Venice – while it was touristy and overcrowded at times, if you could escape the masses and find some off the beaten path adventures, you could find the true charm of the city. Looking forward to trying the same tactic in Bruges some day! Thanks for sharing your tips!
I agree, but at least Venice stretches far and wide. You can easily get to Castello or Mazzorbo to avoid everyone in San Marco. But Bruges is so small, it’s difficult to escape. It’s a gorgeous city though – I hope you get there soon!
True, that is a good point. I will keep that in mind when I visit!
Great guide with lots of useful tips. Chocolate shops will always be my lasting memory of Bruges. I seem to remember there was one on every corner! And it is just the best chocolate ever. Chocolate, beer, waffles with hot chocolate sauce- what is there not to like about Belgium?
I agree totally, it’s a magical country with some superb cities and you can’t go wrong with choccie and beer!
Great blog, agree on a lot of points: very busy indeed, but people do live in Bruges you know, even in the city center! As for the horsedrawn carriages: we wish they would be abolished!
As locals, we do also visit restaurants, there are some where we hardly even encounter tourists 😉 Réliva is a nice place, which even has a vegan menu.
Ghent is only a half an hour train ride away, and also has a nice historic center (Gravensteen, etc.), but can also be very busy, as it also a University city with thousands of students.
We ate at a place called Artie’s – it was €15 a starter and €25 a main, and was one of the worst meals we’d ever had! I wish I’d have found your blog before I went!
Now I really must go to Bruges if for no other reason than to get a picture of me under the ‘De Kat’ sign! Although I know there are plenty of other great reasons to go!
My wife’s called Kat too, so a pic of that sign was a must for her, too!