There's something about this time of year which puts me in mind to travel. I don't know whether it's the idea of exploring snow covered cobbled streets, Christmas markets or just the feeling of being somewhere different but I always get the urge to book a city break as we edge ever closer to Christmas. I'm currently badgering James for a trip somewhere, possibly Geneva but he hasn't bitten. Yet.
Our trip to Bruges was no different except we were working to rather unusual time constraints. Visiting with some friends we made the last minute decision that we would book no overnight accommodation to save on costs and would do a 'there and back again' type trip in a 24 hour period.
I had always wanted to visit Bruges, being drawn in by the idea of a Medieval-fairyesque town with plenty of Christmas markets to explore at this time of year and I was not let down. Gorgeous cobbled streets, twinkling lights, more shops selling hot chocolate than you could shake a stick at...it was amazing.
The only downside really was that it was an incredibly busy time. Once the Christmas markets arrive it's the place to go and pretty much everywhere you looked there were people jostling for space, trying to take pictures or queuing outside shops. I don't think you could ever avoid that on a weekend in November and December so my advice would be to either visit midweek or at another time of the year (I'm angling for a trip in the spring next time!)
But first to the journey...we decided to catch the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk as we could take our car and it would only be an hour's drive from Dunkirk to Bruges. To make sure we got the most out of our time in Bruges we took the earliest crossing we could and although it was grey and misty outside meaning there was little to see, we all mostly slept for the 2 hour crossing (something we certainly wouldn't have been able to do if we'd taken our children with us!)
The drive was fairly straightfoward, if a little wet which didn't bode well for what was to come but when we approached Bruges and passed through Smedenpoort (Blacksmith's Gate) I was a goner. Come sleet and hail, wind and snow, I was in love with this little town.
Naturally we were working to a time limit so we parked as quickly as we could in a nearby multistorey car park and then walked the short distance into the centre of the town. We also had a strict budget to stick to which meant that we perhaps didn't see as many things as we would like to but that's just another great excuse to return.
So what to do with less than 24 hours in Bruges?
Check Out The Markt
The historic Markt is right at the centre of Bruges and is a large open square surrounded by pretty Medieval buildings, including Provinciaal Hof, a hugely impressive building which is strangely just home to the Post Office! You will find horse drawn carriages in abundance here as well as an ice skating rink in the winter months, a huge Christmas tree in the centre and plenty of little cafes and coffee shops to retreat to when the cold weather begins to nip.
Take A Tour of the Town
You can hop aboard a boat trip which will take you around the canal or opt for a horse drawn carriage, which is what we did. I thought it was a very sweet way to see streets we might otherwise have missed with our short time to explore, but it was very slow moving; the cobbled streets are narrow and people tend to just wander across without paying attention! That said our driver was wonderful, spoke great English and took a lot of pride in telling us about the town. The carriage took us to one side of town where we got off and had a short walk around and then brought us back again.
See the Views
13th century Belfort stands 83 metres above the square and although it's pretty much your standard church inside (if you know what I mean by that?!) if you have the energy to climb the 366 steps to the top then the view is said to be something else. The queues were out of the door when we arrived so we had a cursory glance inside and had to forgo climbing to the top of the tower.
Wander The Christmas Market
Of course the whole point of us visiting Bruges was to see the Christmas Market and it wasn't a disappointment. There was a huge range of stalls selling all kinds of trinkets and treasures and it felt a little bit more authentic than just heading to Manchester or Birmingham in the UK, although I'm sure a lot of the the items were very similar. I bought Meg some gorgeous sheepskin slippers which seem so much nicer just for knowing they were bought in Belgium.
Enjoy a Waffle and a Hot Chocolate
When in Bruges...there are chocolate shops everywhere you look so unless you happen to be a master chocolatier just pick one and enjoy the spoils!
Where to Eat?
At lunchtime we picked a random restaurant just off the Markt called the Cafe Francais as it was where we happened to be when 12pm rolled around but for around 20 euro per person I would definitely avoid this in future. The food was fine but it was incredibly busy and I think a lot of the restaurants around the square would likely be the same; they are catering for the hoardes of tourists who want a quick something to eat and don't know where the locals go...anywhere off the main market square is going to be the same! For dinner we went instead to one of the wooden huts selling food and that was cheap and cheerful, just what we were after.
What about the weather?
The weather was as you might expect for the time of year, cold with on and off showers. I would have loved to see some snow but you can't have everything can you?!
Would we go back?
Absolutely. I would love to visit in a different season as although we went for the Christmas market it was incredibly busy. If you can handle the crowds then Christmas is obviously a very magical time to go and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Bruges as an option for a winter weekend break. You just have to be prepared for the tourists.
Would we do things differently?
We loved the atmosphere, the charm of the town and the way it was illuminated for the season and I would happily go back again. Although I enjoyed our adventure I would want to book overnight accommodation as I feel like we only really scratched the surface of what Bruges and the surrounding area has to offer and I would love to explore it more fully.