Why you should care
Because it’s Belgium’s sweetest city — and not only for its chocolate.
Medieval times are synonymous with war, plague and religious fanaticism. Yet that doesn’t stop us from romanticizing them. Renaissance fairs and Game of Thrones have made us yearn for horse-drawn carriages, echoey castles and mysterious encounters in dark pebbled alleys. But fear not: There’s no need to build a time machine to make your dream come true — just visit Bruges instead.
This medieval marvel is only the sixth-largest city in Belgium, and yet it gives poor Brussels a run for its money in both looks and charm. Brussels might be home to some big-league European institutions, famous sculptures and a zoo, but otherwise it’s kinda boring. Whereas Bruges, well, it’s just so charming. Imagine an endless spiderweb of alleyways opening to squares flanked with gorgeous medieval buildings, and a circuit of canals and mossy bridges that once granted the city the title “The Venice of the North.” The serpentine waterways are the most picturesque way to discover the city.
The city is renowned for its cafes and chocolate, with dozens of meticulously decorated chocolatier windows.
Once you’ve gotten your aquatic bearings, you can visit the major landmarks by foot or bike. “What strikes you the most is the architecture,” says Skaistė Aleksandravičiūtė, a visitor from Lithuania. “It seems too pretty to be real.” The beating heart of the city is the Markt — a busy square lined with gabled guild houses. The 13th-century Church of Our Lady is also a must-see, with its tall medieval brick tower and hidden treasures, including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.
And Bruges is not only a feast for the eyes. The city is renowned for its cafes and chocolate, with dozens of meticulously decorated chocolatier windows. But chocoholics be warned: Some sellers are tourist traps flogging cheap imported chocolate. For the real deal, make sure the sign says “homemade.” Bruges is likewise heaven for beer snobs. Most of the city’s breweries are open to the public and offer generous tastings of their local brews; otherwise, be prepared to pay around $5 a beer — and you may want to grab some Belgian fries beforehand, to line your stomach. Hidden among chocolate shops are vintage stores, hipster coffee bars, music bars and artist squats. It’s also legal to possess up to five grams of cannabis (but we didn’t tell you that). An average stay costs $120 per night.
You’ll pay $25 for a box of chocolates. And the Markt square shops, canal restaurants and charming gondoliers will happily help you empty your wallet. For locals, avoiding this touristy, “expensive, Disneyland side of the city” can be a bit of a “nightmare,” says Yvannoé Kruger, a French art curator who has lived in the city for a few months. When he first moved, he required the help of a friend to steer clear of potential tourist traps.
But if you arecrowds and all? Splurge on a 30-minute horse-and-cart ride (about $30 for 30 minutes) and take a step back in time to a medieval wonderland.