Delicate chocolates and lacy Florentines, rows of gingerbread-esque houses, swans silently gliding in canals, and chunky cobblestones as far as the eye can see.
If you want your European trip to have a fairy tale feel, look no further than Bruges. This small Belgium city is the epitome of romance and quaintness; even cynical travelers can’t help but fall in love with its charms. Bruges is clean, safe, easy to navigate and – best of all – affordable. Here’s how to experience the best of Bruges on a budget.
Timing is Everything.
Not surprising, Bruges is busier on the weekend, when couples head there for a romantic retreat. Come during the week, when crowds and prices are lower. Still want to travel on the weekend? Head to nearby Brussels. When the bureaucrats head home for the weekend, hotel prices plummet by up to 50% on Friday and Saturday.
Stay For A Few Days.
Burges has a wide selection of bed and breakfasts, inns, and guesthouses, but most charge an extra 10-20 Euros for a one night stay. Be sure to read the fine print – some B&B’s include breakfast at no extra charge, while some add an extra 5-10 Euros.
When you’ve found your dream accommodations on Expedia or Orbitz, take the time to look at the property’s website. Many places offer complimentary wine or chocolates when you book directly with them. If the prices are about the same, this is a great way to end up with some extra treats. On our last visit, we had a box of 15 pieces of assorted chocolate waiting in our room!
Let Yourself Get Lost.
Bruges is a city for walking! Wear sturdy shoes for those cobblestones! It’s hard to get lost, as you can always stare at the bell tower in the city center to get re-oriented. And if you want a more structured way to see the city, the Rick Steves Belgium guidebook offers an excellent self-guided walking tour of the city, with comprehensive background reading for each site and plenty of practical advice to plan your visit.
First Class Freebies.
The majority of Bruges’ many attractions and historical sites are free or very reasonably priced. Here are three of my favourites:
— The archaeological dig in the basement of the Crown Plaza. Ask politely at the front desk: if there’s no conference you are free to visit their basement, which showcases the results of an archaeological dig when the hotel was built.
— The Basilica of the Holy Blood. This humble church dates back to the 1100’s and is at once both peaceful and eerie.
— Church of our Lady. The last place you’d expect to see a Michelangelo – and probably the only place where you can see one without a frantic crowd around you.
Dining on a Dime.
My favourite place for lunch in Bruges is Carlitos, where a small glass of wine is 2.50 Euros and a thin crust pizza from the wood oven is less than 14 Euros for 8 pieces – big enough for sharing. Make sure you try their chili oil on the pizza. One of my favourite lunches in all of Europe!
At dinner time, you’ll find a lot of places close earlier than the rest of Europe. Bruges is not a town with a bustling night life! But at Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, locals-young and old-mix with tourists and students well after dark. The huge beer menu is helpfully mulit-lingual and the staff can help recommend a local brew to try. A table d’hote costs about 26 Euros. My favorite combination includes Trappist cheese croquettes for an appetizer (cheese! glorious cheese!), a savory beef and ale “Carbonades” stew for the main, and crème brûlée made with dark beer for dessert.
Whether it’s your first time traveling alone or your tenth visit to Europe, Bruges always gives you exactly what you’re looking for – charm, history, architecture, relaxation, rejuvenation, and romance. While prices are high in much of the continent, a visit to Bruges proves you can still have a luxurious experience on a tiny budget.