Most tourists visiting Belgium will head straight to Bruges, and who can blame them. While anyone hoping to find Colin Farrell will no doubt go home empty-handed, Bruges more than makes up for that with its suspended-in-time medieval wonderland of cobbled streets, fairytale bridges, and winding canals. But the oft-ignored capital of Brussels (90km away) is also worth a look for its cafe culture, great shopping and striking Art Nouveau architecture. Combine both cities for the best of Belgium.
Bigging up Brussels
At the heart of Brussels is the spectacular Grand Place, a former market square. Central Brussels is divided into the grungier Lower Town, a warren of narrow streets, and the more upmarket Upper Town, where green Ixelles invites roller bladers, cyclists and farmers’ markets, while St Gilles kicks out a more bohemian vibe. Both boast some of the city’s most beautiful Art Nouveau architecture. The trendy Sainte-Catherine quarter is the perfect place to experience Brussel’s cafe culture. Arty types should visit Art Brussels in April, where the works of more than 2000 artists from 170 contemporary art galleries across the globe bring a diverse collection to the capital. (artbrussels.be).
As Belgium’s most popular tourist destination, it’s not uncommon to find yourself baulking at a £17 bill for a small bowl of mussels. But head to Amandsstraat where the locals go to eat, and you can be filling up on pastas and paninis for £2.60 apiece. Also worth a try is the City Card (bruggecitycard.be), which, for £29, allows you to visit as many attractions as you can in 48 hours (it’s £26 if you’re 26 or under). Finally, for a bargain bowl of Belgium’s most famous gastronomic achievement – its friets – make a stop at the Frietmuseum (frietmuseum.be). As well as learning the ancient art of friet-frying, you can enjoy discount portions – traditionally fried in beef and horse fat.
Bruges Beer Festival
On February 4-5, you can sample as many of the 270 beers from 67 breweries as can be reasonably attempted at the fifth annual Bruges Beer Festival. Consider it a practice run for Oktoberfest. Outside of the festival, there remains plenty of opportunity to sample the country’s vast array of ales, ranging from fruit-flavoured to that brewed by Trappist monks. On Blekersstraat in Bruges you’ll find Café Vlissinghe – the town’s oldest bar, built in the 1200s. In Brussels, check out The Musee Bruxellois de la Gueuze (cantillon.be), a brewery making traditional, almost wine-like lambic beers.
Bruges: the best bits
Bruges’ centrepiece is the vast Markt square, framed by medieval buildings and overshadowed by the Belfort tower. Take a seat at one of the many restaurant terraces and watch the world go by. Check out the sombre church of the Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek) and Flemish art gallery Groeningemuseum (brugge.be) before taking a stroll around the
city or a boat trip along the canals.
For a taste of local fare, try Waterzooi – a watery broth served with chicken or fish. It’s a national favourite. Meat dishes covered in thick sauces tend to be the order of the day, and of course you can’t leave Belgium without sampling mussels and chips.
Both Brussels and Bruges live up to Belgium’s reputation as world-leading purveyors of fine chocolate. Some of the best chocolate retailers include Galler, who supply the Belgium royal family, and chocolatier Pierre Marcolini.
Haul yourself up the 366 steps to the top of Bruges Belfort tower for panoramic views of the town. In Brussels, snap iconic statue Manneken Pis (Dutch for “little man pee”), and the bizarre Atomium, perhaps the capital’s most iconic monument that renders the atomic structure in steel. Visitors can take escalators up to the steel spheres, for an unbeatable view of the city below.
Flights, buses and trains (eurostar.com) run direct from London to Brussels. Bruges is only an hour from Brussels by train. Alternatively, catch a ferry from Dover to Calais and drive across the border.
When to go: Both cities can be enjoyed any time of year.
Currency: £1 = €1.16
Accomodation: Dorm beds start at about €17 (just under £15). Budget doubles start from €55 (£47). For Bruges, we like Hotel Ter Reien by the canalside, from just £48pn. (hotelterreien.be). In Brussels, try Hostel Grand Place in the heart of the city (and just 20m from the famous square) for £17pn. (hostelworld.com).
Language: Flemish; French.