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36 Hours: Bruges, Belgium

A Weekend in Bruges: Beyond Cobbled Lanes and Medieval Canals

Jock Fistick for The New York Times

The Dijver canal.

Published: February 23, 2012
THE portrayal of Bruges in the 2008 dark comedy “In Bruges” was of a fairy tale city so dull it nearly drove Colin Farrell’s character mad. “Maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in Bruges,” he concludes in the closing scene of the film (the sanitized version, that is). In reality, the charming capital of West Flanders in northwestern Belgium is indeed tranquil, with swans gliding along medieval canals and cobblestone lanes dotted with lace shops and quiet cafes. But Bruges now has much more to offer. Ambitious restaurants are run by talented young chefs, and creative chocolate shops stock the confections of experimental chocolatiers. New and renovated museums are opening their doors and, after dark, local beer pubs offer mind-boggling selections of rare Belgian beers from the region’s celebrated breweries. Hell? Hardly.
36 Hours in Bruges, Belgium
Jock Fistick for The New York Times

On the roof of the Sound Factory, a new interactive museum at the Concertgebouw building.

Jock Fistick for The New York Times

Hertog Jan, recently awarded a third Michelin star.


3:30 p.m.

Much of the enchanting city center is truly reminiscent of a fairy tale, with stone footbridges spanning picturesque canals and cobblestone streets curving past turreted manor houses. To see the prettiest parts of this medieval wonderland, wander along the Dijver canal, which snakes through town, making sure to end your stroll at Markt, the main square dominated by a 13th-century belfry. The energetic can spiral up the bell tower’s 366 steps for a view over the city, but first exercise the panoramic capability on your camera at ground level: the neo-Gothic courthouse, the belfry itself and the quaint gabled buildings ringing the square.

5 p.m.

With the absurdly high concentration of chocolate shops in town, it may seem as if every other storefront is peddling piles of pralines and trays of truffles. When succumbing to this temptation, seek out Bruges’s most innovative spots like Dominique Persoone’s shop, the Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein 19; 32-50-34-10-90; thechocolateline.be), packed with creative confections and fanciful flavor combinations like bitter ganache with vodka, passion fruit and lime. At the newcomer BbyB (Sint-Amandsstraat 39; 32-50-70-57-60; bbyb.be), however, the emphasis is on taste without tricks. Opened in October 2010, the sleek, all-white store is stocked with simple bars of fine Belgian chocolate wrapped in Pantone-style numbered boxes; try No. 15 with milk chocolate, hazelnut and babelutte (a regional caramel-like candy) or No. 50 with dark chocolate, tonka beans and lemon.

8 p.m.

The latest buzz in the world of Belgian gastronomy surrounds neither chocolate nor beer, but rather the elegant little restaurant Hertog Jan (Torhoutsesteenweg 479; 32-50-67-34-46; hertog-jan.com). In November, it was awarded a third Michelin star, becoming only the third restaurant in the country to earn this honor. If you can snag a table in the minimalist dining room, expect a parade of beautiful, pared-down plates from the chef Gert De Mangeleer, ranging from sea scallops with veal marrow, thin slices of Jerusalem artichoke and tiny dollops of herring eggs, to luscious Limousin lamb served candied with turnips and lemon myrtle. The five-course set menu is 115 euros, or $150 at $1.30 to the euro, excluding drinks.


9 a.m.

Start the day as the locals do, at the street market on ‘t Zand square. Skip the bric-a-brac vendors and head to the northern end of the square to shop for Belgian cheeses, smoked herring and freshly baked loaves of raisin-and-nut bread. Then buy a bag of fresh mini-boterwafels, sweet butter waffles (3.50 euros), from the stand on nearby Hauwerstraat, and munch on them on the way to the Beursplein produce market.

10 a.m.

This early in the morning, crowds have yet to pack the museums, so take your time admiring paintings by the Flemish Primitives, a group of influential artists who flourished in the city in the 15th century. Start at the Memling in Sint-Jan Hospitaal Museum (Mariastraat 38; 32-50-44-87-71; museabrugge.be), where six captivating works by Hans Memling adorn a small chapel. Then cross the canal to the Groeninge Museum (Dijver 12; 32-50-44-87-51; museabrugge.be), which reopened in 2011 after major renovations. Studying the stunning realism of Jan van Eyck’s “Madonna With Canon Joris van der Paele” in person is worth the price of admission (8 euros) alone.

1 p.m.

Avoid restaurants in the historic old town where prices and quality reflect a reliance on tourists rather than repeat customers. Instead, head to Tête Pressée (Koningin Astridlaan 100; 32-470-21-26-27; tetepressee.be), a stylish lunch-only spot (with an adjacent deli selling takeout) that opened in July 2009 in the residential neighborhood of Sint-Michiels. One hint that this place is intended for locals: the menu is only in Dutch. Take a seat at the long counter framing the open kitchen anyway, because the friendly chef Pieter Lonneville will happily translate. But really, you can’t go wrong with anything on the three-course prix fixe menu (33 euros). A recent lunch featured deconstructed pheasant stew with endive and grilled squash, and a wedge of pear clafoutis served warm with fresh figs.

5 p.m.

Style mavens who can’t make it to Antwerp, the capital of Belgium’s avant-garde fashion scene, will be thrilled to discover the boutique L’Héroïne (Noordzandstraat 32; 32-50-33-56-57; lheroine.be). This unassuming shop stocks an outstanding collection of the country’s most progressive designers, from established labels like Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester to young talents like Christian Wijnants. Racks are packed with beautifully draped silk print dresses, asymmetric jackets, voluminous wool capes and thick, knitted scarves: understated, cool pieces without a logo in sight.

7 p.m.

After a filling lunch, dinnertime will very likely roll around before your stomach starts to rumble. (Chocolate nibbling might also be a culprit.) But that makes this a fitting time to indulge in another regional specialty: Belgian fries. Here, the twice-fried, thick-cut fries are practically unrecognizable from America’s favorite fast-food side, especially when topped with a generous dollop of mayonnaise or curry sauce. One of the newest fry shops in town, Chez Vincent (Sint-Salvatorskerkhof 1; 32-50-68-43-95; chezvincent.eu), delivers piping-hot fries with a fresh side salad (3.50 euros for a large order) and views of the neighboring Sint-Salvator Cathedral through the bay windows in the upstairs dining room. And yes, it also has ketchup.

9 p.m.

There’s no shortage of beer pubs in town, but there’s also no reason your first and last stop for a beer should be anywhere but ’t Brugs Beertje (Kemelstraat 5; 32-50-33-96-16; brugsbeertje.be). This venerated spot is undeniably gezellig, a Dutch word that perfectly encapsulates the cozy, homey feeling of the pub. Novices who can’t tell a dubbel from a Duvel can rely on the knowledgeable staff to help select a brew from the hundreds of choices on the beer menu. Connoisseurs will delight in sifting through the fantastic options, which include St. Bernardus Tripel, La Rulles Estivale and Orval Trappist ale (most beers, 3 to 3.50 euros).


10 a.m.

Let your inner carillonneur ring at the Sound Factory (’t Zand 34; 32-70-22-33-02; sound-factory.be), a new interactive museum inside the contemporary Concertgebouw (Concert Hall) building (admission 6 euros). Compose a symphony on the rooftop — inspired, perhaps, by the lovely views across town — with a touch-screen exhibit that puts control of (recorded) chimes from the city’s various church bells at your fingertips. Then descend the staircase through an eerie auditory installation to the fifth floor, where the highlight is the colorful artwork-cum-synthesizer titled “OMNI.”


When the streets start to swell with tourists, the best way to escape is on two wheels. Rent a bicycle at the train station (8 euros for four hours) and pedal northeast along the wide canal that circles the city. A gentle, 30-minute ride meanders down a leafy bike path, through green parks, over a wooden footbridge, and past the city’s four remaining windmills. On the return trip, take a short detour to Begijnhof, a quiet courtyard ringed with whitewashed cottages that were once home to Bruges’s beguines — a religious order of single and widowed women that dates back to the 13th century. Today, Benedictine nuns live here, and a respectful order of silence is in place along the shady path, ensuring that these well-trodden cobblestones are among the most peaceful in Bruges.


Opened in November 2009, the Grand Hotel Casselbergh (Hoogstraat 6; 32-50-44-65-00; grandhotelcasselbergh.com) has 118 stylish rooms and a modern silver-tiled facade that stands out among the quaint gables. Doubles from 125 euros (about $160).

Wedged between a quiet cobblestone lane and the Dijver canal, the elegant Hotel de Orangerie (Kartuizerinnenstraat 10; 32-50-34-16-49; hotelorangerie.be) boasts 20 cozy, romantic rooms with antiques, floral-print décor and canal views. Doubles from 200 euros.


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