Beer and bratwurst is to Bruges what bread is to butter. So if you like your beers heavy and your sausages supersize then this is the city break for you.
Then, of course, there’s the architecture. Think Hans Christian Andersen meets soaring fairytale towers meets gothic fantasy and you have some idea of the unique charm of Belgium’s most well-preserved medieval city.
Not forgetting its meandering canals, straight from a chocolate box scene, that have seen the Flemish city earn the title of the ‘Venice of the North.’
Put all these elements together and you have the recipe for a picture-perfect weekend of rich dining and even richer culture.
We visited for a long weekend as part of DFDS’s annual Christmas cruises from North Shields to the Belgian city. Arriving on a Sunday, it gives you the chance to see the city at its peak when thousands of tourists flock to its markets at the weekend but, not leaving until Tuesday afternoon, means you can explore this city’s cobbled streets on week days when an eerie calm descends over its gothic steeples.
Your first stop on any trip to the city at this time of year will inevitably be the festive markets, which sees a giant ice rink take up residence in the Market Square surrounded by chalet-style stalls. Everything you’d expect from a market of this ilk is there,: warming glühwein, the aforementioned big bratwursts from neighbouring Germany, traditional Belgian waffles that will get your mouth watering and gifts - with the added bonus of being surrounded by towering buildings which have spanned the centuries.
Head inside one of these grandiose buildings, the Historium Brugge, and the interactive visitor attraction will transport you back to 15th century Bruges in a series of themed rooms, complete with special effects.
While there, make sure to check out the Duvelorium, a cafe devoted to golden blond Duvel and its beer contemporaries. This is a paradise for ale enthusiasts - woe betide if, like me, you ask for wine, you won’t get it!
Even if beer’s not your tipple, there’s always the views to enjoy. This cafe’s balcony is a prime spot for a bird’s eye view of the market, which is essentially the beating heart of Bruges, and its constant stream of visitors and clip clop of horses and carts.
Most of the main tourist attractions are a stone’s throw from here: it’s a compact city which is easy to navigate with a map on foot.
Take a stroll down Wollestraat, past its countless chocolate shops and waffle stops, and you can pay a visit to the Torture Museum.
Not for the faint-hearted, this museum showcases a range of quite-frankly terrifying instruments from a breast-ripper, to an iron mask of shame, to a male chastity belt. There’s detailed descriptions with each, just to make sure you have a crystal clear image of how these bizarre implements were used to torture. Take for instance the Iron Maiden, a form of capital punishment which dates back to the Medieval age. It’s a 7ft tall wooden box in which the accused would be placed and then pierced with spikes, adjusted so that no single vital organ was harmed, thus prolonging the agony. Nice!
Just to ramp up the terror, it’s housed in one of Europe’s oldest prisons, a subterranean space where you can almost hear the clanging chains of past inhabitants.
After that gory eye-opener you’ll need something to make you feel better. Cue the chocolate museum.
Head back through the Market Square and Choco-Story is housed in the sixteenth-century Huis de Crone building on Sint-Jansplein.
Over its three floors, this town house tells the story of one of Belgium’s biggest exports and how it starts life as cocoa in South America, while also tracing the history of this sweet treat, right back to the Maya and the Spanish conquistadores.
Make it through all the exhibits and you can watch a demonstration of how Belgium crafts its world-famous praline chocolates - and, yes, you get to taste them.
Though there’s admission charges for the museums, around 7/8euros, some of Bruges’s best attractions are free.
Follow the winding paths of its canals, and the intricately-designed buildings that hug them, for some of the most spectacular views in Europe, ones which have helped this rich tapestry of a city become a World Heritage Site of UNESCO.
Drinking in Bruges
There’s more booze than you can shake a stick at in Bruges and, because it takes its beer seriously, every bar offers a lengthy range of ales.
•We stumbled across a great cellar bar Le Trappiste in Kuipersstraat, just behind the Market Place which, as well as offering craft beers from Belgium, serves beers from around the world, on tap and in bottles.
Sitting under its vaulted 13th century ceilings is a great spot to try one of its beer flights, which gives you the chance to try a bit of everything.
•Also worth a punt for a pint is 2Be - The Beer Wall in Wollestraat. This is a quirky bar that does what it says on the tin and features a literal wall of beer, while the bar serves a vast range of Belgian beers that change weekly. Make sure to drink your pint in the canal-side beer garden which offers one of the most exceptional views of Bruges you’re likely to find.
Eating in Bruges
Food is a hearty and multicultural affair in Bruges with plenty of restaurants offering global fare.
•For traditional Belgian dishes try Bistro Zwart Huis, an atmospheric candlelit jazz restaurant which offers choices such as Flemish beef stew with the obligatory fries. They like their fries in Belgium, particularly with lashings of mayo.
•Mussels and more can also be found at Arthies. While its menu is traditional, there’s nothing usual about its decor. You won’t struggle to find it with its giant red rooster outside. Once inside, the offbeat features continue with garish retro lampshades, flip flops on the walls and Hawaiian-style tablecloths.
Where to stay
•We stayed in the Novotel Brugge Centrum, one of the city’s more modern hotels, which is a ten minute walk from the Market Square.
How to get there
•You can sail from North Shields to Amsterdam with DFDS where coaches transfer you to your hotel in Bruges.
Prices for the DFDS Bruges four-night Christmas shopping trip start from £229 per person, based on two people sharing an en-suite cabin on board.
The December departures include two nights on board, return coach transfers from Amsterdam to Bruges (approx 3hrs 30 mins) and two nights bed & breakfast in the 3 star Novotel Brugge Centrum
Daily overnight departures are offered and crossings take 15 hours. A range of restaurants, bars and on board entertainment is provided throughout the journey.
Christmas cruises to Amsterdam are also available, priced from £120 per person.
Book at www.dfds.co.uk