Spend a weekend with waffles, beer and medieval masterpieces! But which city is best? Everyone recommended Bruges – they were wrong! Stay in Gent! The secret is the university…
This is the picture, I had in my head, before I went on a trip to the 3 cities: Bruges, Gent and Brussels. My sister, my mom and I had been planning this trip for 5 years, but something always came up. Finally it happened. But not quite as idyllic as imagined…
First of all – all guidebooks says; don’t take a car, take the train. So we hired the biggest car ever! Second: it rained every day and was very cold. Third, we stayed two nights in Bruges and one in Brussels by advice, but Gent turned out to be our favourite city, and finally our hotel in Brussels was very bad and felt unsafe.
But these things happen, and here is my hard earned advice for a good weekend roadtrip!
Be aware of the tourists! We were very overwhelmed by the huge amount of tourists on a rainy day in October – you could hardly get around. But there is good reason: Bruges is the most complete and overwhelming medieval city, I have ever seen in France, Netherlands, Germany and Belgium! And the entire historic center is a UNESCO site.
Landing in Brussels, it takes about an hour and a half to drive to Bruges. There is a lot of traffic, so don’t drive in rush hour and make sure to have gps or you will be circling the roundabouts. In Bruges, we had a nice spacious apartment very close to the center by Burg called Breydelhof for two days. It does not have to be that close to the center, since the distances are very short. I would recommend a B&B in the newer part of town, where the lady on our hotel told us the locals live.
In 1500 Bruges was one of Europe’s leading cities due to the Hanseatic trade an the artists flocked to the wealth and good opportunities creating an abundance of masterpieces. There are many thing to see and remember to check the museumpass to 20 Euro. The Groeninge Museum is a very small museum, but with a fine collection of Flemish Primitives. The entire new department was closed, but the few open rooms still had Bosch, Van Eyck and Hans Memling.
The Basilica of the Holy blood was built in 12th century in Burg Square. Since 1400 The Noble Brotherhood of the Holy Blood has been keeping an eye on a crystal shrine containing the blood of Jesus (allegedly!) A very austere looking guy will watch you contemplating this relic. I have during my travels seen so many catholic relics and healing water and what not. I just don’t get it!
The Bruges Belfort has 366 steps to the top, but the view is worth it. Notice the iron chests midway. The phrase “to be in a key position” comes from the 10 officials with keys to the chests, which contained the city’s treasures: its laws and documents! The Memling museum use to be a medieval hospital. They have a large number of Memling’s painting, but the most important work is the Shrine of St. Ursula containing her remains. The beautiful decorations on the sides show her and all her virgin friends being stabbed. Also check out the Onze-Lieuwe-Vrouwekerk, where you find the only Michelangelo outside Italy – “Madonna with child”.
The old historic center is on the UNESCO list and is what Bruges is known for. But there is also a nice quarter just around Jeruzalemkerk and Langestraat. Find a place to live here, if you have to stay in Bruges. The advantage of staying in the city is, that in the early morning and late evening the daytourists are gone and with lighting on the old houses, it is very atmospheric. But one night is enough!
My sister does all the food bookings. 6 months in advance we had booked a table on Hertog Jan – 3-star Michelin in the countryside outside Bruges. It was worth coming to Belgium just for this!
If you are not into potatoes with coffee or paté with cola, I recommend getting a table at Lieven in the city. Or you can just live on beer and chocolate! It is a must in Belgium, and Bruges has 52 chocolate shops!
From Bruges to Gent is 30 minutes by car on a Saturday morning, when the traffic was low. It was pouring down, but we immediately liked it and we quickly realized why: The city has a university meaning it’s full of young people.
The most important art work in that entire region is the Van Eyck brothers altarpiece: The adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It is exhibited inside the Sint Baafs Kathedral. Just the fact that the piece still exist an survived iconoclasm, Napoleon and WWII is incredible. It is the highlight of the so called Flemish Primitives. Take the free audio guide to really understand this masterpiece, and remember to go around it and see the angel with parrot wings on back. Some is under restoration – try and see if you can spot which panel!
Another top sight is the so cool castle in the middle of everything. Build by Philip of Alsace, the castle is a show-off-piece. Inside is a rare gun collections, and you can learn more about torture- everyone’s favourite subject. We didn’t go in…
There is much to see in this little town. The old post office at the old corn market is beautiful decorated inside. The New market hall is build VERY close to the old churches and the belfry and has caused a lot of controversy. The museum SMAK comes highly recommended, but unfortunately we didn’t have time.
Because it is a city full of students, it is more lively during the workdays than in the weekends – I presume many students go home to get their parents to feed them and do their laundry. So many cafes and restaurants will be closed on a weekend. The area of Patershol is where to go!
The city offers a big vegetarian and vegan food scene. We had lunch at Plus+ and we wished we had the vegetarian chili at Le Botaniste. We had good cake at a place called Julie’s House, but you have to wait for a table.
Some people love Brussels, but many don’t like it and I am one of them. Of course the fact that it rained, we had a bad hotel and we only had one day matters, but it still felt like a very hard and brutal big city – in a bad way. There were many beggars and whole families living on the street and we saw many broken car windows. Even though I didn’t like the city, I will probably come back to Brussels to see Waterloo!
But you might find it different and there are of course some good things: Half of the city’s population are foreigners which of course gives great food, great museums and La Grand-Place is a UNESCO site.
“The most beautiful theatre in the world”, Jean Cocteau called La Grand-Place, and it is the top sight. It is a UNESCO site and is beautiful -especially in the evenings. Most of the buildings is from 1600, because the square was bombed by the French in 1695 and only the facade of city hall from 1400 remained, but everything was rebuilt five years later. The square was a meeting point since 12th century and it was here they held tournaments and processions. A lot of Belgian and in particular Brussels’ old grandeur was built by Leopold II with money from exploitation of Belgian Congo.
Les Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts was worth it. Even though the Modern Museum was closed and any pictures like Cranach’s Adam and Eve were out because of water damage to the building, this was a fantastic museum. It contains Magritte Museum with a huge collection of drawings, magazine covers, photographs and of course pictures by the Belgian surrealist. (Note there is also another Magritte Museum, where he use to live.) It also contains the museum of Old Masters with a fine collection of Breughel, but also Jordaens, Rubens and the must-see “Death of Marat by David.
And of course everyone flocks to the Manneken Pis. There are several stories about him, but one says that he pissed on a bomb and saved the city! He has many different costumes, but I am glad we caught him naked. There is also a female version and a dog version! Come early since he is small and on a corner, so it gets crowded.
There is of course also the EU headqaurtes and the atomium built for the world fair in 1958, but we didn’t have time.
I recommend booking a table in advance. We had a really good dinner at Little Asia that serves Vietnamese food. The owner writes cookbooks and the place is mentioned in Michelin guide. For lunch go to Beli– a lebanese place near the art museum. Both delicious low key places that seems family owned.
Fries are of course also what Belgium is known for. They eat them with mayonnaise (I also had this in Netherlands) There is a very popular truck behind the Eglise Notre-Dame de la Chapelle. .
The area around Place du Grand Sablon is filled with antique shops, have a nice but expensive flea market in the weekends and some nice places to eat. Also go to the area called Ixelles.
All in all, we walked 45 km on those 3,5 days. Which is a little less then usual.
Do you like Brussels?