A City a Day: In Bruges (A Guide)

When we were planning this trip, we had a real dilemma about whether to go to Bruges or Ghent (or both!). We didn’t have much time to explore every city since we only had a little over a week off from school, so we really had to prioritize. We had already planned one day in Luxembourg and one day in Brussels, so we decided to book ourselves for two nights in Ghent to give us a buffer day. If we made it to Ghent early in the morning and had all day to explore, then we could see Bruges the next day. But if we arrived late from Brussels, then we’d have to skip Bruges and use that extra day to enjoy Ghent.

Luckily, we planned everything out really well and could fit in both Ghent and Bruges – I am so happy we did! Pretty much everyone I had spoken to said that Bruges was a must-see, but one of the girls we were travelling with had already been and said it wasn’t that great. Her friend, who was currently living in Belgium, had recommended Ghent as a better, less-touristy option. While Bruges was definitely more crowded and more catered towards tourists, it was worth the visit. It is very small and easy to see within a day or two.

It is very easy to get from Ghent to Bruges. It was about a 30 minute train ride and only cost us €6 each way. To get to the main center from the train station, just follow the crowds and go towards the towers you see in the distance. Along the way, you pass some beautiful parks.

Center of Bruges in Relation to Train Station

Main Center of Bruges

‘t Zand Square Fountain

Near the concert hall, you will find one of the beautiful main squares with the ‘t Zand Fountain. It is a lovely square to people watch and enjoy the day, or to grab lunch with a nice view. Although, from what I understand, we REALLY lucked out with how nice of a day it was… it’s not common to be sunny here. So be prepared with a jacket and an umbrella, just in case.

After enjoying ‘t Zand, head back towards the center in the direction of the towers in the distance. Bruges is rather small, so it only takes about a 10 minute walk to get anywhere. We didn’t even use a map while we were here until we needed to go back to the train station.

As you wander around, you will find the many famous canals of Bruges. There are many canal boats that give you a short tour of the city, and it runs at about €8 for 30 minutes. We are glad we invested in the journey, it was very beautiful and informational.

Since we didn’t know if we were going to make it to Bruges or not, I didn’t do any research beforehand. However, we were easily able to wander around the city and come across the main sites.

Near the Market Square, you will find the famous beer wall. If you like beer, this is definitely worth a visit! They have a long wall dedicated to Belgian beers with their accompanying glasses. They have a small bar where you can do beer tastings, and a lovely patio where you can sit next to the canal and sip a cold one, watching the boats go by. They also have a large store with souveniers and tons of beer that you can stock up on. Don’t miss this! I was dying to do a tasting, but there was a long line and we wanted to make sure we saw everything else.

A short walk from the beer wall is the Belfry tower and main square of Bruges. It is such a picturesque square, and it is definitely worth spending some time at. We had lunch at one of the restaurants along the side that advertised 3 courses for €15. It was good, but nothing to rave about. We repeated the delicious waterzooi and stew that we had tried in Ghent, I highly recommend them both!

After lunch, we ventured up into the Belfry tower. Be prepared for a line! We probably waited at least 30 minutes to get in. And a warning – the steps to go up this tower are extremely narrow, so if you are afraid of this sort of thing you should probably re-think going in. It is one way up and one way down, so often someone has to squeeze tightly against the wall to let other people pass in the opposite direction. It is definitely a trek! But there are some very nice views at the top. Another thing, once you get to the top the wind is INSANE. Don’t wear a dress… =X

Near the main square is a Godiva store, so we decided to check it out. You can never go wrong with Belgian chocolate. I asked the lady for her recommendations, and ended up with the following. The latter was an actual cherry (with the pit inside) covered in chocolate and sprinkles. It was a nice change from the fake type you can get back home in a box!

That afternoon, we wandered aimlessly through the charming streets and then took a walk through the park back to the train station. Something about rivers makes everything prettier!

So, what’s the verdict? Bruges or Ghent? While I loved Bruges and was glad that we made time for it, I think I honestly prefer Ghent. It just had a smaller town charm, and lots of life wherever you looked. And the views from the Belfry in Ghent are just breathtaking.

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A City a Day: Ghent, Here Be Dragons! (A Guide)

Stars indicate main attractions. At the bottom, you will see Backstay Hostel, a short walk from the center.

For food and drink recommendations, scroll to the bottom! 🙂

When we were planning this trip, we weren’t sure whether we should go to Ghent, Bruges, or both. We had all heard great things about Bruges, but one of the friends that was with us had said that Ghent was better and less touristy. Following her advice, we decided to book two nights in Ghent to give ourselves a buffer and allow ourselves to possibly go to Bruges for a day trip on one of those days. Ghent is less than 2 hours away from Brussels by train.

We stayed at Backstay Hostel Ghent, which I would highly recommend to anyone. It was one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, with every floor in a different theme. They even had a cinema room! We never got to check it out, but it seemed pretty cool. The beds were also very modern looking, and each bed had a little compartment near the pillow with 3 personal plugs. They also provided complimentary lockers which was a nice touch. Oh, and their breakfast! It was probably the best breakfast I’ve ever had at a hostel, you could make your own waffles and hard-boiled eggs in addition to the usual lunch meats and cereal. Fantastic! And it is only about a 10 minute walk to the center of town.

The main center. You can pretty much get anywhere in the city within 10 minutes by foot!

Our first stop was St. Bavo’s Cathedral, which is famous for the art it houses including the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (as shown in the movie Monuments Men). You have to pay an extra fee to see the painting and the audioguide is included. Only one of my friends went inside, and she said it was very interesting. The rest of the cathedral is very beautiful, and you can go down inside of the original crypt and see some other timeless art pieces along with some really old books.

Inside St. Bavo’s

Like in the other cities we visited (Brussels and Luxembourg), everything was under construction so we couldn’t get a picture of the exterior. It’s crazy, I’m thinking that maybe they try to build everything in spring before all of the tourists come in summer? Who knows.

Stolen from Wikipedia, just to show the outside of St. Bavo’s which we didn’t get to see.

Just across the small square, you will find the Belfry Het Belfort van Gent, a large tower topped with a dragon. It is one of the most important buildings in Ghent and symbolizes their independence. A dragon was placed at the top of the tower in the late 1300’s to watch over the city and also the precious documents held within. Today, the dragon at the top is not the original. If you go inside, though, you can see one of the originals on display.

The Belfry, with the golden dragon at the top.

Once you get to the very top, you are graced with some absolutely amazing views of the city. It is a tight squeeze to get through some of the areas, especially if there are a lot of people, but it is definitely worth it. The best view is the side the goes towards Saint Nicholas’ Church.

Saint Nicholas’ Church. It was such a beautiful day!

View from another side.

Just some lovely buildings near the Belfry that I couldn’t help but take a picture of.

If you’ve been throughout Europe, you know that there are more Cathedrals than you can count. It can be quite difficult to remember them all, they just all start to blur together. You have to start taking note of unique characteristics of each one if you want to remember them, but the reality is that you really only remember the truly spectacular ones. For me, that includes the amazing Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Notre Dame in Lyon, and the Notre Dame in Paris. Saint Nicholas’ Cathedral is one of those that I think I will always remember for the grand looking exterior. Inside it is nice as well, but there’s something about this medieval architecture that is really impressive.

Saint Nicholas’ Church

If you continue down the street and to the right, you reach the Graslei area of Ghent. The first street will take you down an avenue with tons of restaurants and shops, and the second street on the right will take you down the waterfront. Both are worth exploring! The buildings are all so beautiful. My descriptions don’t do it justice, so here’s some candy for your eyes:

We found a restaurant in the Graslei area, and unfortunately I can’t remember it’s name 😦 But it was near the Pizza Hut! They recommended me a local beer called Petrus, which I highly recommend! I loveloveloved it! Strangely, I couldn’t find it anywhere else.

We ordered the local specialties that I had read were really worth trying: waterzooi and stoverij. The waterzooi was AMAZING. It is a local specialty from Ghent, supposedly Charles V’s favorite dish! I don’t blame him. If you leave Ghent without trying this deliciousness, you’ve failed at life. You can get it with either chicken or fish. I tried the fish, which I guess is the original. The sauce is a very creamy, rich sauce that is sure to please even the pickiest of eaters.

Fish Waterzooi, topped with gray shrimp (another specialty in Belgium). I can not even tell you how amazing and mouth-wateringly delicous this was. I want more. Now.

Stoverij, a decadent beef stew. I never ordered this while I was in Belgium (I just ordered waterzooi repeatedly because I loved it so much), but my friends really liked this dish. I had a taste and it seemed tasty, but very, very rich.

Chicken Waterzooi. Same delicious sauce.

After our delicious meal, we went about exploring the city some more. We crossed the river to explore the Kraanlei neighborhood.

Here, you will find the Castle of the Counts Gravensteen, a cute little castle built in the 1100’s. We ended up not going inside, but it comes highly recommended on most travel sites.

Gravensteen Castle

One thing you should definitely do while in Ghent (well, I suppose anywhere, really) is to stop in the little shops on the way to see what they offer. I ended up picking up some local tea and chocolates that I just couldn’t say  no to. That’s one of my favorite things about travelling. I always ask the shopkeepers what they recommend, and it’s so easy to do that here because everyone speaks English!

After exploring the Kranlei Neighbourhood and Patershol district (it has nice reviews on TripAdvisor, but there was nothing going on when we were walking around), we went back towards the center of the city and happened across Vrijdagmarkt Square. It is adorned with lovely buildings, a statue, and a plethora of great-looking restaurants. We were still full from our lunch, so we decided to find a drink somewhere nearby.

We found a little bar called Cafe Afsnis right next to St. Jacob’s Church. It had a lovely interior, kind of old-fashioned with candles and wood. The bartender was extremely friendly and helpful and encouraged me to try a passion fruit jenever, a popular liquor in Belgium. It was delicious! The smell was unbelievably tropical, yet not too sweet. She also recommended a nice beer.

After our rest, we decided to just wander around a little bit more to see if we had missed anything. Ghent is very small, and even in a day we were satisfied with what we saw. The beauty of Ghent is just aimlessly wandering around and seeing what surprises it has in store for you.

View from St. Michael’s Bridge

St. Michael’s Church

Street Art visible from St. Michael’s Bridge

View of St. Nicholas’ Church from St. Michael’s Bridge

We headed back to the hostel to freshen up, then headed back out that night to find some bars that we had heard were really good.

We went to the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (see address below) and enjoyed some good drinks. The bartenders were great at recommending local beers! We then went to Hot Club De Gand, but we arrived a little too late because it was packed due to a live band playing. It looked like a really nice place, though, and is definitely worth the look. We ended up at ‘t dreupelkot nearby, and it is a must-stop! It is a very small bar, and also very popular. It is famous for having tons of flavors of jenever, including cranberry, cactus, fig, licorice, strawberry, passion fruit, etc… the list goes on! Great prices and definitely worth the visit.

We felt like dancing, so from there we headed back towards our hostel and (thanks to the recommendation of some locals) visited the popular Sint-Pietersplein, where all the young people go out for drinks and dancing at night. We went into the first club we saw and stayed all night! They had one of the best DJ’s we had ever heard, he played all of the classics and hits. We also met some very friendly people, I highly recommend checking this area out! But go in groups – we were told that it isn’t too safe to wander around on your own at night here.

From my research, here are the highest-rated food and drink places:

  • Gentse Stadsbrouwerij Gruut: Grote Huidevettershoek 10 – Local favourite dishes and home-brewed beers.
  • t’Klokhuys: Corduwaniersstraat 65 – eat waterzooi!
  • Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant: Groentenmarkt 9 – beautiful waterfront terrace, great beer pub.
  • Hot Club De Gand: Groentenmarkt 15b – cozy concerts, outdoor seating with candles, nice lounge
  • Dulle Griet: Vrijdagmarkt 50 – selection of 250 different drinks
  • Groot Vleeshuis: Groentenmarkt 7 – old butcher’s hall turned restaurant and cafe
  • ‘t dreupelkot: Groentenmarkt 12 – tons of flavors of jenever! Very popular, worth a visit. Try the cactus flavor, it tastes like a margarita!
  • De Trollekelder: Bij Sint-Jacobs 17 – great locals bar

One thing that I really wanted to do that we didn’t have time for is the Museum Dr. Guislain, a mental-health museum (psych was my major!) housed in an old asylum. How cool is that?! It is located a bit outside the city, which is why we didn’t have time, but if you’re a nerd like me… check it out! And tell me how it is!

Another museum with good reviews is the Huis van Alijn in the Kraanlei neighbourhood. It only costs €5 to go in and displays everyday things from life in the last 100+ years.