“You must go to Brugge.”
“Have you been to Brugge?”
“You can’t miss seeing Brugge!”
These were the reactions I received after telling people I was spending August in Belgium house-sitting. It seemed that in Belgium, all roads led to Brugge, the little Unesco World Heritage town known for it’s medieval, historic architecture and maze of canals. So when my friend Vera (a fellow ESL Teacher in Vietnam) came to visit me in Brussels, we decided we better follow the advice and see the charming town for ourselves!
A simple 1 hour train ride from Brussels, we were dropped us off at the central station in Brugge on the outskirts of the old town. It felt like there was a mass exodus at the Brugge stop; families and couples spilling out of the train and onto the platform. We all methodically walked out of the train station and straight to the tourist office. I was a bit peeved the tourist office made you pay for a map, but I guess if you have such a popular city, and most people need maps, it’s an easy way to make some money.
With our map in hand we became oriented and took off on a path into the historic center, along with the rest of the crowd. As we walked down the street, it seemed quiet and peaceful. The architecture leading to the center was simple and we had yet to really reach the canals. We read the map again and found a way to stay off the main roads and take the pedestrian trails deeper into the city.
Soon we heard the sound of horses clomping thru the streets and people magically appeared to be everywhere. The streets were lined with chocolate shops, little cafes, gift shops, lace shops, bars, waffle vendors, and post card stands. Tourists walked around with cameras and lined up to ride canal boats and to eat at nice outdoor cafes. The canal boats were bursting with people buzzing around the canals and under the quaint stone bridges. We took a moment to stop on one of the bridges and watch all of the boats go by, and that’s when it hit me; it felt like Disneyland.
I had this weird déjà vu moment as I stared at the long line of people waiting to get on the canal boat and the families eating at the outdoor cafes. Kids were on sugar highs from waffles and chocolate, and the architecture seemed almost unreal.
We followed the main street towards the Central Square where a cathedral and town hall with tall spires towered over the city as if it were the castle in the Magic Kingdom. The street leading to the Square was bustling with people, buses and horse carriages. It was so full, we barely had a place to walk. We dodged and swerved around people as if it were Penn Station on a Friday at 5PM. We entered the Central Square and were overwhelmed with the amount of people and activity. A music concert took up the main part of the square and the perimeter was filled with quaint outdoor cafes. I seriously looked around to see if Mickey was there somewhere entertaining kids.
The medieval architecture was stunning, and certainly Brugge had more of it intact than any other city I had been to in Belgium, however I found it hard to really connect with the town. It had been manicured so well for tourism that it felt as if it lost its local identity.
We decided to attempt escaping from the crowds in ‘Tourist Land’ and headed toward ‘Local Land’ near the river on the outskirts of the city. It was a long walk but slowly as we took every step further from the center and further from the train station it became quiet and practically empty. Occasionally we’d see someone working on the exterior of their house, or watering flowers, but the noise of horses, boats, and buses were gone.
We arrived at the Northeast outer ring of the city and found two simple cafes, a big grassy knoll and an old windmill. Perfect for the lounging we wanted to do; time for an afternoon nap after our own waffle sugar high died down. I loved this part of Brugge. I watched locals come out with their dogs and interact and was thoroughly entertained by watching all of the bikes peddle by on the well groomed trail which ran along the river. Here is where I really felt the Flemish culture.
It was getting close to 5PM and we knew that we needed to catch the 6PM train back to Brussels, so we slowly left our grassy knoll and wandered back towards the train station taking the back streets along the eastern side of the old historic town. Once again, it was relatively quiet and we weren’t bombarded with the shops or the horse and carriages. Instead we simply enjoyed the architecture and feel of this part of the city. The people of Brugge really do take a lot of pride in their homes as each one seemed pristine and post-card perfect.
As we came closer to the train station soon the buzz of tourists started again. It felt as if we were all doing a mass exodus towards the train station; the ‘park’ was closing for the day! Kids were worn out and hanging on their parents, people consulting their maps to ensure they were going the right way to the station. Once again, I had this feeling of exiting the Disneyland park and heading back towards the train station. I wondered to myself – would “It’s a Small World (after all)” be playing at the central Brugge train station?
This Disneyland déjà vu was only broken when I was able to walk outside of the tourists areas; and when I did, Brugge allowed me to get a peak inside it’s ‘real’ life. The life without makeup. It was wonderful, quiet, simple, and stunning. If you are planning a trip to Brugge, don’t miss out on seeing the real Brugge.
Love Brussels Food?
One of my good friends & former Brussels expat, Alison, spent years researching the Brussels food scene – including waffles! She wrote a guide to the best food in Brussels – a must have item if you are traveling to the region!
The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities
Most of my photography was done outside of the tourists areas as we walked through the quieter neighborhoods:
View Photography of Brugge, Belgium
By Betsy Talbot September 16, 2010 - 1:35 am
Hi, Sherry. We went to Brugge on a day trip via bus from Paris a few years ago. I’ve never been to Disneyland, but I get what you’re saying. It is a lovely little place, but it is completely made for tourism.
Our favorite part was the tour of the canals via boat and then going to a pub to try a few of the many varieties of beer available. The people watching is not as exciting as you would hope since the locals are so outnumbered by tourists. I would imagine that if you stayed overnight you would get a different vibe since most of the tours are just for the day – though after watching the movie “In Brugge” I’m not sure I want to hang around at night! 😉
By Colleen McGuire September 16, 2010 - 7:59 am
Lovely photos! I hadn’t compared Bruge to Disneyland in my head, but I can see how you came to that conclusion. I agree, the neighborhoods by the river are where you can see “the real Bruge.” Husband and I also found “the real Bruge” inSt. Salvator’s Cathedral – http://bit.ly/cjm9ry
Finding the personal stories of a city really make your travel experience come to life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
By Mark H September 16, 2010 - 5:27 pm
Sherry, you seem to have a great skill in getting to the heart of a town. I think the recent movie has made this town even more ridiculously popular yet it has a special elegance. Did you track down any lace-makers? I watched in amazement as retired ladies in a courtyward in a quiet sidestreet speedily and skilfully wove and knotted tens of little wooden handles connected to thread into wonderful patterns – quite mesmerising.
By Molly September 17, 2010 - 10:26 am
Funny thing about the medieval architecture — most of it was built in the 19th & 20th centuries.
By Sonya September 18, 2010 - 11:42 pm
Thanks Sherry! Brugge is a charming, lovely place.
By Michael Hodson September 20, 2010 - 10:35 am
Truly great photos, as usual. How did you take the one of the horse drawn carriage? Shutter speed? Follow the carriage with the camera? Lovely background blur.
By admin September 20, 2010 - 10:47 am
It’s a panning shot – so I set the shutter priority at around 25 and then pan with the movement of the main subject…the horse in this case! That’s how I did most of my motorbike photography in Vietnam too! It’s fun to practice!
By Michael Hodson September 20, 2010 - 10:49 am
I have a really hard time keeping the main aspect in focus on shots like that. Obviously need to do some major practice. Such a nice effect. So your shutter speed in this one was 1/25th?
By Alison September 22, 2010 - 11:18 am
I totally agree with your impression of Brugges. Every time someone comes to visit us they say they HAVE to visit it. While I agree it’s pretty, to me, there are so many other prettier Flemish towns that seem much more authentic. I’d much rather spend a day in Leuven or even Ghent; half the tourists and just as many pretty buildings.
By Sheena October 1, 2010 - 2:04 pm
Nice share1 I hope i can visit this place. It looks like a fairy tale town straight from the books, it’s gorgeous!
By Barbara at Hole in the Donut Travels October 4, 2010 - 3:10 am
Great that you escaped the artificial “Disneyland”portion of the town and looked for the real heart and soul of Brugge. Lovely photography.
By Roy | cruisesurfingz May 5, 2011 - 12:57 pm
Ok, I need to go to Brugge!
By Nancy D. Brown May 20, 2011 - 1:30 pm
I loved Brugge, Belgium; the chocolates, waffles and horses.
By Emy February 1, 2017 - 8:12 am
I advise going in the off season, you get to experience the lovely place without too many crowds. It’s actually quite peaceful in January/February.
By Sherry February 11, 2017 - 3:35 pm
great advice – I”ve never been there at that time of year.