Bruges — The Venice of the North.
I must thank the movie In Bruges for sparking my interest in the city. Bruges has been on my Travel Bucket list ever since I saw this movie.
So when I decided to explore Brussels in 2019, I had no excuse not to spend a day exploring Bruges.
At first, I decided to take the train from Brussels to Bruges, as I like trains and Europe’s train system if far-better than the United States. However, I felt a day-trip with a tour group would be a safer route. I also found the tour group option a bit cheaper than trying to navigate a new city on my own.
I love my independence and I’m not afraid to go solo. However, I had only one day to explore, and didn’t want to waste it asking for directions.
I used Viator to book a tour. GetYourGuide is my alternate, but they didn’t offer the trip I wanted for the price I wanted to pay. Viator offered a slew of options, including a Ghent and Bruges Day Trip from Brussels.
My experiences with multi-city day trips are that you spend more time looking out the window of the bus than visiting the actual place you spent all day traveling too. After an atrocious multi-city tour of the Cotswolds in 2014, I decided I would only book single city day trips.
I booked a tour with Buendía Tours because they offered:
- Smaller groups — 10 people or less
- An English-speaking guide — my command of French and Dutch isn’t good
- An early morning departure, thus allowing more time to explore.
- Roundtrip from Brussels — believe me, this was hard to find. Many tours took you to Bruges, but you had to find your way back. Those tours were cheaper, though.
I would say the best part was the cost $35 — I booked before arriving & pre-paid using U.S. currency, but the inclusion free chocolate tasting and a free cup of hot chocolate put this tour over the top.
Traveler’s Note: Buendía Tours offers predominately Spanish-language tours. You must request an English-language tour guide, and those tours are on certain days at certain times.
I met my tour guide the morning of the tour and was happy to find our group was kept small — only four people. The weather was a bit cool with some lite rain, but all-in-all, a beautiful day to tour one of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Our group consisted of a couple from Australia, a recent college grad taking his gap year before entering law school, and me. An #Awesome group of folks happy to spend the day exploring.
We rode to Bruges on a Spanish-speaking tour bus, but our tour guide, Jamal, made sure we got the relevant information about times and safety stuff.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by the mass of tourists from countries around the world — Japan, China, Canada, The Philippines, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, and yes, the good ole USA. I love how travel has become more cost-effective. I just hate that everyone travels at the same time of year!
After a long bus ride, nature was calling. And of course, there was a cost to use the toilet.
Traveler’s Tip: Always keep a few coins in your pocket for public toilet use. There aren’t many free public toilets in Europe. And the attendees in Bruges don’t make change, so don’t bring €10 and expect them to give you change. In fact, they won’t even let you into the toilet. However, if you can make it to a museum or restaurant, use of their toilets is generally included in the cost of admission or meal.
After the comfort break, Jamal took us a wonderful walking tour. He explained the architecture, some myths and legends, and also little tidbits about Bruges and Belgium.
First up was Lovers Bridge.
A legend tells the story of a young and pretty girl named Minna who was in love with Stromberg, a warrior of a neighboring tribe. Her father did not agree with her love and arranged her to marry a man of his choice. Minna escaped and ran into the forest. When Stromberg finally found her, she died in his arms of exhaustion. The lake was named after Minna and the bridge by the lake was considered the bridge of love, in her honor.
Another legend states, “if you walk over the bridge and kiss your loved one, it will become eternal love.”
Uhmm, I walked over the bridge and kissed my passport? I guess it works because my love was travel is indeed eternal. Haha.
As we walked, Jamal told us the story of why there are so many swans in Bruges and how they came to be so revered.
In the late 15th century, Archduke Maximilian of Austria imposed new taxes on the town. The people rose in revolt against the taxes. The captured Maximilian and locked him up in House Craenenburg on the Market Square.
There he watched the people torture and behead Pieter Lanchals, Maximilian’s trusted councilor. The Emperor eventually escaped and took his revenge. Lanchals, known as Long Neck, had a symbol of a swan on his escutcheon.
As punishment, Maximilian forced the people of Bruges to care for white swans for eternity. If they failed to do so, Bruges would fall in decay, never to be able to hold its head above water again.
And that’s why the swans in Bruges are so revered. Now is this a true story? Who knows?
But after hearing the story about the Tower of London’s ravens, I have no reason not to believe the Bruges swans story.
After photographing the swans, whom I swear were actually posing for photos, we were treated to our chocolate tasting.
Hershey doesn’t hold a candle to the chocolate I tasted in Bruges. #YUMMMY
And yes, I treated myself and bought €15 worth of chocolate. I even splurged and bought some for my co-workers back home. Unfortunately (for them), the chocolate didn’t make it back to the States.
Okay, it didn’t even make it back to the tour bus. #Scrumdiddlyumptious
Yep, I ate it all. But I’ve been told “it’s the thought that counts.”
Hahaha. Even my chocolate memories are #StillScrumdiddlyumptious
The tour continued and Sint-Janshospitaal was next on the list.
The Hospital of St. John’s is one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospital buildings. The hospital grew during the Middle Ages and was a place where sick pilgrims and travelers were cared for. The site was later expanded with the building of a monastery and convent.
The Red Light District was next. Well, the remains of the Red Light District. Not much left except some signage explaining the history of the area.
Well … that was a letdown.
In the choir space behind the high altar are the tombs of Charles the Bold, last Valois Duke of Burgundy, and his daughter, the duchess Mary. The gilded bronze effigies of both father and daughter repose at full length on polished slabs of black stone. Both are crowned, and Charles is represented in full armor and wearing the decoration of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
We passed by the Zeus, Prometheus, and Pegasus sculpture by Belgian artist Jef Claerhout as we made our way to the Gruuthusemuseum.
In the sculpture, the naked Leda is sprawled in the carriage and is embracing Zeus in his form of the swan. The carriage is taking off up into the sky by Pegasus, a mythical winged horse, with Prometheus as the driver who is contemporary dressed for the occasion.
In Greek mythology, Zeus, in the form of a swan (those darn swans again) seduced the mortal woman Leda. Leda, in case you don’t know the myth, was Helen of Troy’s mother. Helen, considered the most beautiful woman in the world, sprang from a swan’s egg.
Onward to the Gruuthusemuseum, a museum featuring applied arts and located in the medieval Gruuthuse, the house of Louis de Gruuthuse.
We walked through the fish market, where Jamal explained how the market was originally the site where public punishments and executions took place. Over time, it became a fish market.
Here I found a few decently priced seafood restaurants and I planned to head back after the tour. I was prepared to spend at least €25 to €40 for lunch because I knew a traditional Belgian waffle wouldn’t hold me over.
Our walking tour ended in The Markt of Bruges in front of The Belfry of Bruges, one of the city’s most prominent symbols. The Belfry features a narrow, steep staircase of 366 steps, accessible by the public for a €12 entry fee.
Friends who visited Bruges told me the view was amazing from the top of the tower. I wanted to go to the top, but I also knew my legs would never recover from the climb, nor the descent back down.
After the 2.5-hour walking tour, which was educational and interesting, we were free to do our own thing for the next 3.5 hours.
I decided to eat before exploring the town a bit more. As tempting as the Belgium Waffles were, I needed a meal that was more food than sugar.
I headed back to the fish market, and apparently, so did every tourist in the city. The reasonably priced restaurants were full and the wait was too long. I headed back to The Markt.
I came across De Lange Muur Bvba, a lovely Chinese food restaurant. The place wasn’t busy and I didn’t wait long for a table. I settle for the set menu, which was €15.50, plus €2 for a coke. I didn’t order any water since it cost €5. The food was hot and delicious. The chicken soup I had was the best soup I’ve ever tasted, and the spring roll was good too. The Sweet and Sour Chicken had flavor but nothing special about it. Customer service was good, though it lagged at times.
Grade: “B+” for effort; “B” for customer service; “B++” for food.
With a full tummy, I was back out exploring. Admission to the museums wasn’t included in the tour price. Although we did receive discounts, I decided a photo safari was a better used of the two hours I had left before I needed to be back at the bus.
Plus, the museums were packed with tourists, and I wanted to avoid the crowds as much as possible.
I visited the Town Hall and a few other places in the city. Bruges is a very lovely city and I simply enjoyed walking around, snapping photos of everything I could photograph.
I also consider a canal boat tour. The €10 cost was reasonable, but by the time the queue had dwindled, the rain returned and it was too chilly. I saw a few folks bundle up and tighten their coats around them while they slowly drifted down the canal. I’m sure it’s a fun ride when the weather is warm. #NextTime
Finally, I went searching for souvenirs. For each of my adventures, I buy myself a shot glass, a keychain, and a magnet. For others, I usually buy a mass of keychains. Yes, I find those 25 keychains for €15 deals.
Sidenote: In Paris, I bought 50 of those €.25 (€12.50 total) Eiffel Tower keychains & handed them out to my co-workers. They were so appreciative. And then one co-worker, who shall remain nameless (*cough, April, *cough) went to Paris and discovered my little secret. She was 30 seconds into her little “I can’t believe you only spent twenty-five cents on my gift” rant when I asked her “how many did you buy?” Her reply, “Oh I bought about 30 and handed out 20, but that’s not the point.” Hahaha. The joy I get when my travels inspire others.
In Bruges, don’t expect to find many deals on cheap souvenirs. The souvenirs are the same prices no matter which shop, so no need to waste time haggling. Just find what you want and get it.
I ended my exploration as I usually do — in a book store. True, the majority of the books weren’t in English, but it’s a book store. I’m an #AvidReader, and social convention dictates I must visit a book store in every city I travel too.
It was time to head back to the bus. I got back a few minutes early. While I waited for my group, I had just enough time to grab a Belgium Waffle for the ride back to Brussels.
The rest of my group arrived and we boarded the bus. We talked about our individual exploration all the way back to Brussels. Looks like we all had a wonderful time …