Whether youíre a connoisseur of ale, a casual lager drinker, or the neophyte acquaintance of a die-hard beer geek; whether you want a quick draught, a evening of tasting, or a trunk-load of new bottles to bring back, Bruges has something for you.
Bruges, or Brugge, is a small Belgian city near the North Sea coast. As the capital city of the province of West-Vlaanderen (West Flanders), this medieval town of 120,000 (45,000 in the old city) has undergone many changes in its 1100+ year history. Originally settled by Vikings in the late 800s, Bruges became an important international trading and port city in the 12th-15th centuries. By the 16th century, however, the major route to the ocean - the Zwin - had become too clogged with silt, and competition from the ports at Antwerp along with a declining textile market all combined to cripple the economic vitality of the city. By the middle of the 1800s, Bruges was the poorest city in Belgium. It wasnít until recently in the 20th century that Bruges was rediscovered by tourists as the "Venice of the North". This renewed interest, in conjunction with new harbor facilities of Zeebrugge, now makes Bruges one of the most-visited spots in Belgium year-round.
Tourists from all over Europe, but especially Britain, France, and Belgium, flock to the city to enjoy the sites. By car, Bruges is 1 hour from Brussels, 2.5 hours from Amsterdam, and 3 hours from Paris. For those travelling by train, Bruges is serviced from Brussels regularly, and the train station is within walking distance to the old city. Bruges itself is tourist-friendly, and almost every shop and restaurant has at least one person that speaks English, French, Flemish, and/or German. Most signs are written in Flemish, and menus are usually written in Flemish, French, and English.
When is the best time to visit Bruges? Always and never. Excuse the flippancy, but the answer depends on your travel preferences. Iíve visited three times: twice last November (once on a weekend, once on a Wednesday), and once this May on a Saturday. Unfortunately, the weather was consistent - gray and rainy - all three times, though it was warmer in May than November. Belgium, especially near the coast, is a damp and rainy country much of the year. Late spring through early fall should increase your chances of better weather, but do pack an umbrella. Of course, in better weather and particularly in the summer, the number of tourists in Bruges increases dramatically. Last November I was surprised at the number of people wandering the streets, despite the wind and rain, regardless of the day of the week. This past weekend, despite the rain, the city was absolutely teeming - I canít imagine the place in July and August when the sun is shining.
A few things to note about scheduling your visit. In the off-season, especially during bad weather or weekdays, some attractions, tours, etc., may be closed. Certain days, such as Monday-Wednesday can be closed days for tourist-related establishments, including bars. During the tourist season, most hotels in Bruges will not allow a Friday-only or Saturday-only booking (except maybe at the last minute, which is unlikely), so plan accordingly. Staying in the downtown area is convenient because you can walk everywhere, but comes at a premium. Staying out of town is cheaper, and there are several public garages in which to park during the day, though youíd better have a good map and a D.D.
The Belgians here have a penchant for offering products and running establishments that can be summarized by one word: comfort. As in comfort food - chocolate, beer, french fries, beef stew, waffles. As in comfortable surroundings - small pubs with a roaring fire in the corner, old wooden tables, oiled wood paneling, and small, curtained windows with views into the rain-slicked cobbled streets. After walking around in the rain and wind, sitting down to some Belgian ales with a bowl of stew and fries could only be made better by taking a nap in front of the fire.
Right, letís talk beer! Bruges is a good beer city - thereís just no other way to say it. Most restaurants have a modest selection, but if Belgian beers are new to you, every menu will be heaven. For those seeking more exotic fare, there are places for you, too. In Bruges, you can find everything from Florisgaarden Chocolate to Westvleteren 12. Hereís a short list of places to keep you busy, all with links in: <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places-Find.asp?CityName=Brugge&xState=&xCountry=Belgium>Places -> Belgium -> Brugge.
The Bottle Shop. This beer and bottled-water store boasts over 500 beers, 300 different bottled waters, and all sorts of breweriana (though I never saw 300 waters). There are only one or two people working, and Iíll admit Iíve not purchased anything here, as I feel the prices are a bit too high. But, they do have one of the better bottle selections in town and if youíre looking for something new, youíll most likely find it here (but NOT Westvleteren).
Bier Paleis. My favorite beer store in Bruges. There are two parts to this store. The left side (looking at it from the street) is a sort of convenience store containing cold drinks, snacks, touristy souvenir items, some breweriana, and 150+ beers with appropriate glassware. The right side contains beers, glasses, and breweriana and seems to be run by the guy who buys all the beer (the owner?). Anyway, this is the only place Iíve been able to buy Westvleteren (3.75/bottle), and the last time I had to ask because he had it in the back. See their website for international shipping, too. This place is also conveniently located about 2 blocks from where I normally park, so I never have to lug my brouvenirs too far.
Cafe Vlissinghe. This pub was pointed out to me on a boat tour of the canals. It is the oldest pub in Bruges, and dates back to 1515. We stopped here last time, after wandering around the streets, to rest our feet and have a beer. The selection isnít huge, but I suggest the Tripel Karmeliet. The have food, too, and my wife and her cousin enjoyed the apple strudel. See the website for a brief history. The outdoor seating is rather neat for a pub, as it feels like youíre sitting in someoneís back yard in a quiet neighborhood. Not a must-see, but if you have the time and the inclination, stop in and enjoy a mid-afternoon quaff.
Staminee de Garre. Easily the most difficult establishment to find in Bruges, but well worth the effort. This old two-story pub sits at the end of Diagon Alley, oops, de Garre, which is between the Market Square and the Information Center. The trick is to look for a gated doorway on the side of the building, rather than looking above the crowd for the typical alley-break in the buildings. My wife and I visited in November on a Sunday morning about 11:45, and got the last table in the joint. Classical music in the background, decent crowd noise, and quite a bit of smoke. Three to four beers on tap, including the exclusive Tripel de Garre, made especially for them - and many, many beers in the bottle. Get there early, maybe for a pre-lunch aperitif, or risk being asked to leave because there are no tables available. Knowledgeable and friendly staff. You get a small dish of cheese with your beers, but no other food here.
Hotel/Brasserie Erasmus. Great place to have a mid-afternoon beer, or to enjoy lunch/dinner. Food prices are a little high, since itís near the market square, but the beer menu is nice. Eight to 12 beers on tap, with a nice bottle selection. Book a room upstairs if you like.
ít Brugs Beertje. The crown jewel of the Bruges beer scene - a small, cozy pub on Kemelstraat with over 300 beers from which to choose. Rotating selection of 4-5 taps, the rest in bottles. The secret to this pub - get there before it opens at 4pm. We tried to enter on our first trip last November, and it was packed. On the second November trip, the place was closed (Wednesdays). Finally, in May we waited outside the door at 3:50pm and were the first ones inside. I am not exaggerating when I say within 15 minutes, there was not a single empty place in the joint. Granted, the place isnít huge, but this just shows the popularity of the bar. The selection is wonderful, and we sampled Girardin Framboise, Brugs Blond, and Achel 8 Blonde. The only downside, besides getting a seat, is the smoky atmosphere. It tends to detract from aroma ratings. But, if you get a table, stay and enjoy a long afternoon of tasting before heading off to find a restaurant where you can enjoy some mussels and fries.
So there you have the best of Bruges from a beer-loverís perspective. There are plenty of other distractions here as well: shopping for lace or Belgian chocolate truffles; taking a horse and carriage ride or canal boat tour; visiting museums and churches; or simply strolling through the narrow cobbled streets over centuries-old bridges while admiring medieval architecture. Whatever your preferences, chances are Bruges has something youíll enjoy, no matter when you visit.