For a small city, Bruges packs a punch. Dozens of museums, historical monuments, cafes and pubs surround the city center and spread to the outskirts of town. There’s something to see at every turn so if your time is short, plan carefully. You might be tempted, like I was, to simply sit on a bench in Markt Square and watch the modern world go by in the shadows of spectacular Gothic architecture, but I only had a day and I knew I had to be on the move. Luckily, some sightseeing decisions were made for me: I fear heights at a debilitating level so climbing the 83-meter high medieval Belfry tower was out. It was the second week of January so several restaurants and museums were still closed for the holidays, and my visit fell midweek so any weekend-only events were impossible. I arrived in the late afternoon and spent the evening walking around, orienting myself to the city, and planning for a busy day ahead. Here’s what I did on my one day in Bruges.
It sounds strange until you realize it’s a combination of two things—sight-seeing and running. I booked a tour with Go Running Tours, an outfit that provides tourists with a local guide to accompany them on a run. The guides talk about local history and point out landmarks both popular and lesser-known. My guide Nicholas picked me up at my hotel for our 9-kilometer circuit around Bruges. Nicholas was full of knowledge, had a runner’s energy and best of all, he let me set the running pace—which was slow—and we stopped frequently so he could point out sites of interest. I made a mental note of which places I wanted to return to later in the day, and I also crossed some sites off my list because sometimes nothing can top seeing the sites of a new city on an early morning run. These latter sites included Minnewaterpark and the Lake of Love, the statue of Jan Van Eyck, and one of the city’s four remaining windmills on the edge of the old city. This is a perfect tour for anyone who is a runner, no matter what level. Nicholas said he has run with slow, casual runners like me, marathoners in training, and everyone in between. I recommend one thing based on my experience: book your run for daylight hours. I booked mine for 7 a.m. without realizing the sun came up much later than I’m used to so most of our jog was entirely in the dark. This of course made it hard to see the sights very well, but I also found it difficult to run smoothly. Bruges cobblestone streets are beautiful but not especially runner-friendly, especially in the dark.
Waffles and Chocolate
After all that exercise, a Belgian waffle was in order, but just to be civilized, I had a light lunch first at a lovely bistro called Soup. I ordered the tomato soup, which was fresh and delicious and came with a side of dense brown bread and an orange. A side note: Flemish food is heavy-duty. Pork knuckle, beef stews, and steak frites dominate many menus, so Soup was a nice prelude to some of the meat-centric meals I ate later on in Brussels. I had my first Belgian waffle of the day at Chez Albert, a small storefront that cranks out freshly baked waffles topped with Belgian chocolate, caramel, strawberries, thick whipped cream, or even nothing at all to truly appreciate the deep pockets and soft sweet chewiness of this delicacy. I waited a respectable amount of time, like an hour, before I went hunting for chocolate. Word on the street (actually, online) was that The Chocolate Line was the place to go for chocolate, and in this case the word on the street proved credible. The Chocolate Line is like an edible museum. I watched as one of the chefs sculpted an elaborate chocolate puppy, and I browsed some of the shop’s most famous chocolate flavor creations, including Cola, Wasabi, and Bacon. Earlier, my running guide Nicholas had told me his favorite chocolate shop in Bruges was Dumon Chocolatier. It was nearby, so I popped in and found they also had some zany flavors as well as somewhat lower prices.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
I’m often drawn to tourist sites with grim undertones, which was why I was disappointed I couldn’t make it to Retsin’s Lucifernum, which is run by a self-proclaimed “vampire,” bills itself as an art gallery, book store, and café, has a small 19th century cemetery in its back garden, says on its website that its dress code is Black & White / Smoking, has gushing reviews on Facebook, and is only open on Sunday evenings from 8 to 11 p.m. My same sense of the macabre drew me to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is a beautiful sample of neo-Gothic architecture. The main attraction here, however, is a vial containing a sacred cloth stained with Jesus’ blood. Legend says that Joseph of Arimathea wiped the blood from the body of Christ after the Crucifixion, and the Holy Relic made it to Bruges by way of Constantinople during the Crusades. Shortly after the year 1400, the Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood was founded with the sole purpose of keeping the relic safe. The upper chapel where the vial is kept is worth a tour for the architecture and décor, and weekly masses and choir performances are held here.
If you have time for only one pub in Bruges, make it Herberg Vlissinghe, who in 2015 celebrated their whopping 500th birthday. An ancient cast iron stove warded off the cold winter rain, and they served a house beer and hearty fare guaranteed to thaw you out. I had also hoped to sample one of the strong 11% beers brewed by De Garre, a tucked away pub that took me ages to hunt down (facing Chez Albert, it’s two doorways to the right, through a red doorway that says “Cookie’s.” Walk straight back to DeGarre). Unfortunately, they were still closed for the Christmas holidays. My next beer stop was De Halve Maan Brewery. It was a stop on my running tour earlier that morning and Nicholas showed me their famous beer pipeline, a two-mile underground pipeline that extends from the brewery to the bottling plant outside the city. The project was completed in 2016 so that huge delivery trucks no longer have to squeeze down Bruges’ narrow, cobbled streets. I returned to De Halve Maan later with my husband and although we didn’t take the 45-minute brewery tour (9,00 euro; includes a beer at the end); we enjoyed the fireplace in the chalet-like dining room, sampling beer and snacks from the lunch menu.
Salvador Dali Museum
Since Nicholas had given me a crash course in history, I decided to forego the Historium. And because my Bruges visit was sandwiched in between Paris and Amsterdam, I needed to pace myself with art museums. And frankly, my ankles were starting to throb from pounding the cobblestones on my morning jog, so I really had to decide how I wanted to allot the time I spent on my feet. I opted for the Salvador Dali Museum, small and compact but highly visual and interesting. Besides Dali’s signature surreal art, there was a serious does of erotica, which I hadn’t known he was so fond of. This is certainly not the definitive Dali collection, but I passed an interesting hour inside. To be completely honest, now that the pain in my ankles has subsided and I don’t have a museum-a-day on my upcoming agenda, I somewhat regret missing the Memling Museum inside Sint-Janshospitaal (Old St. John’s Hospital), and the survey of Belgian art at the Groeningemuseum. Another regret: the Frietmuseum, dedicated to the production of the miracle that is Belgian fries, was closed for the holidays.
Officially called the ‘Ten Wijngaerde’ beguinage (a beguinage is a home for religious women), this was a stop on my running tour and even in the dark predawn morning, I knew I had to come back. When I returned in the daylight, it was even more picturesque. Tall trees created stripes of shadows in the garden, which was surrounded by pretty whitewashed stone houses, and people strolled quietly on the paths intersecting the grounds. The first inhabitants here, when it was founded in 1245, were Beguines: pious, unmarried women who wished to live spiritual but also independent lives. It was a safe haven for widows (whom Nicholas said were unprotected from men during the Middle Ages when their own husbands left for battles), and to this day offers homes to women who wish to remain single. Since 1927, it’s been home to a community of Benedictine nuns and there’s a beautiful Gothic church on the grounds, as well as a house museum featuring lacework, paintings, and a collection of Delft tiles.
Bruges is deceiving. It appears small at first glance until you peel away the layers of culture, history, food and art, and realize you could spend days or even weeks just tapping its surface. It’s a bewitching city too, with the medieval architecture, a labyrinthine system of canals, and horse and carriages clop clopping down the pretty cobblestone streets. I loved Bruges so it’s no wonder that many others love it too. I feel very lucky that I was there during a low tourist week, but with smaller crowds also came fewer options, since many businesses were still closed for the holidays. In other words, your experience may be very different from mine if you visit in the spring or summer (one waitress told me the week between Christmas and New Year’s is crazy too), but it’s such a beautiful city that I recommend it no matter what time of year.