We spent my 30th birthday in Bruges, Belgium and I have to say that I absolutely fell in love with the city. I would consider it one of Europe's hidden gems, except that the number of tourists let me know that the secret (apparently) is out.
Bruges combines the best of what Belgium supposedly has to offer - the beer, the lace, the waffles and the chocolate. So let me talk a bit more about these things:
The beer. Over lunch, Truman had a beer that I would in fact consider one of the better beers I have ever tasted. However, I am a girl that tends to judge a book by its cover and while Belgium brewers may be the best of the worlds, Belgium's beer label designers lack vision and aesthetics. Then again, taste in beer, and taste in visual designs are subjective and therefore I may have it all wrong. Also, if you travel to Belgium you should buy your beer supply at a local grocery store, rather than one of many of Bruges specialty beer shops, as they charge three times the price.
The lace. Admittedly, I didn't spend much time getting to know the history of Bruges' lace. However, I will say, that I admire the art and enjoyed walking by some elderly ladies, that were sitting out in front of their shops crocheting the lace. However, if you would cut the tourist lace stores by half in number there would still be way too many.
The waffles. Little piece of advice - stuff your face with waffles in the morning. There are hardly any lines and the waffles are fresh, fluffy and warm. I was too full all day from all the other things I ate and didn't get around to try a waffle until closing time. The dry, re-heated waffle I got was probably the saddest and most boring part of my birthday weekend.
The chocolate. Oh my! I don't know how many chocolate stores Bruges exactly has, but I know there are 63 listed on trip advisor. So it is safe to say, that one can get completely overwhelmed by the selection of chocolate. And because we are lazy, laid-back tourists we casually glanced at most of them in passing, but in the end picked one (I thought we picked this one by gut feeling, but later Truman showed me the huge poster in the neighboring window saying that we had picked a golden chocolate award winner, whatever that means. It is safe to say that this huge poster may have subconsciously tricked us into entering the store). Two pieces of cabernet sauvignon pralines and one piece of cannabis (thought I am being adventurous, but turns out it only contained your ordinary hemp seeds) praline later, I will say that I can highly recommended the store of master chocolatier Dominique Persoone, "The chocolate line". Oh, and in case you won't make it to Belgium any time soon - they do have an online store.
When you look up "Things to do in Bruges", then you will definitely read about the canal tour, horse carriage tours, the chocolate museum tour and brewery tours. As I said before though, we are super chill non-touristy tourists and so we skipped all that and discovered Bruges by foot. Thanks to having a 16 month old we got up early and had a significant head start on all the other tourists. I definitely recommend discovering the city in the morning, going back to your residence for an extended nap after lunch and come back out in the late afternoon. This way, you will pass the biggest tourist crowds and get to explore the city in a more intimate manner.
Lucky for us, every few minutes a horse carriage was zipping right by us (they actually go quite fast through the city) and Smilla was amazed and entertained by it every single time. It kept her happy and content without ever paying to actually go in the carriage.
We stayed in a tiny, wonderful brick townhouse, that we found on "Air Bnb" and I will most certainly recommend it. It was truly lovely, but the pictures on the webpage do not do it justice at all. Either way, staying in the city center is recommended. Bruges is quite small compared to major European cities and can be explored easily within a day or two by foot, or bike. Ah, bicycles! These are everywhere in Bruges. I truly love how the Belgians and the Dutch embrace their culture of riding bikes. I was amazed seeing fairly young children, breezing right by me, making their way through the tourists with ease and confidence. It was also wonderful to witness all the young families with their babes out and about on two wheels.
Another nice thing about visiting Belgium is that there is hardly any language barrier. The official languages spoken there are Dutch (flemish), French and German. As a German native, with rudimentary French skills, I could easily understand most signs. For anything else, English was understood and quite fluently spoken by pretty much anyone we talked to.
For me, the real beauty of Bruges lies in its size. The cozy atmosphere. The beautiful brick buildings alongside the water. The charm of the people on their bicycles. It's just an enchanting town.
Here are some places that we went to, or that we scoped out and that we would highly recommend to anyone visiting Bruges:
"Sansevieria Bagelsalon". An odd mix of antiques, 1920's gramophone music and some very young, very hipster, very friendly people were surrounding us at Sanseveria. As the name suggests their menu consists of bagels. Really good ones. We tried a breakfast bagel with scrambled eggs and lox, as well as one with blueberries and white chocolate. Great coffee, fresh squeezed juice and steamed milk for Smilla. The perfect way to start your day. It is a tiny place and everyone is basically squeezing in together, which I thought was great and made me feel very much at home.
"Le Pain Quotidien" located on Philipstockstraat 21 is your place to go for a healthy, organic breakfast or lunch choice. We had breakfast there on our second morning and I very much enjoyed my fresh squeezed beet, carrot and kale juice, as well as the amazing fresh bread and homemade jams. Very child friendly - despite one or the other loud scream coming out of our little sunshines mouth.
If you are in the market for a local specialty "Mules Frites" (mussels and fries) than award winning "Poules Moules" is the place to be. The inside is rustic chic, the outside seating offers a perfect position for people watching. The waiter will pair your dish with the perfect beer or wine and while it is not cheap, it is very very delicious and fresh.
You may find yourself in Belgium, but wanting that perfect Asian noodle dish? Try "Marco Polo" noodle bar for a slightly cheaper, more casual dinner downtown. I had the vegetarian dumplings, as well as the vegetarian Wan Tan soup and enjoyed both of it.
We also saw this wonderful place called "Salade Follie", that advertises healthy, fresh options. Unfortunately, we were so busy stuffing our face with not so healthy options, that we never made it there during our 36 hour stay. However, we checked out the menu and glanced inside and thought it was a great place.
I didn't do much shopping, as I don't do much shopping in general lately, but I did enjoy strolling through the craft & flea market on the traditional "Vismarkt" (Fishmarket). And because I turned thirty I gifted myself with a few great fiends at my favorite Belgium store "Dille & Kamille". You know you are seriously adulting, if a grandmother-style enamel milk pot is the best present you could think of for your birthday. Oh, along with the vintage metal dustpan and broom.