FTF gives you the top ten reasons why Bruges, Belgium is a great international travel destination for the family looking for a European short break.
A “short break” is a European concept. When another country is only a two-hour airplane ride away, making spontaneous plans to immerse yourself in another culture for seventy-two hours can be made, well, spontaneously. For Americans the notion takes a little more planning. After all, very few families can fly to a foreign country for the weekend. However, it is possible to combine the impulsiveness of a short break with a more traditional vacation. Belgium may be the place for you.
One fantastic city in which to try out the idea of a short break is Bruges, Belgium. It is easily accessible from both London and Paris via the high-speed Eurostar trains. Once in the city, though, prepare to be dazzled, for Bruges is in many ways still a medieval town. In 2000, it was added to the UNESCSO World Heritage Sites list and remains one of Europe’s most cultured cities.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Bruges may not be on the top of your “places to go” list, that you and your family will be pioneers. Tourism is definitely what keeps this otherwise sleepy small town afloat. Spring and summer is probably the prettiest and busiest time to visit. My family was there once in mid-February and it was chilly, but still beautiful — and definitely less crowded.
The travel section of any bookstore will have any number of books on Bruges so you can plan your time and not miss anything. To get the flavor and the mood of what a short break will give you here are 10 child-friendly reasons to spend time in Bruges.
Bruges is small and can be easily “toured” in two days. No need to panic that there will be enough time to do and see everything. What makes it such a great place is that a lot of “doing” Bruges has to do with just sitting and watching and enjoying the view. One incredible sight is the cobblestone Town Hall or Burg Square at dusk and, in the distance, the imposing Helig Bloedbasiliek (this church houses a vial containing the blood of Jesus). Another is the panorama from the 13th-century Belfort in Markt Square, well worth the few euro and energy required to climb up the 366 steps.
9. Getting there.
If you are starting out in London, the most fun way to get to Bruges is to take the Eurostar train to Brussels. From London’s St. Pancras International Terminal, it takes only 1 hour 51 minutes, and part of that is spent going through the tunnel under the English Channel. From Paris, the Thalys high-speed train to Brussels is even quicker. Bruges is an hour ride away on the local train. (Contact Rail Europe to view schedules and booking information, and children’s discounts.)
8. Boat tours.
Canals, no longer used for transportation, but which offer a wonderful water-eye view of the old buildings and bridges crisscross the town itself. (Bruges means bridge in Flemish.) Boat tours are available in all languages. Children especially enjoy these rides, which can be closely followed by some of the more aggressive, Belgium swans. (Our son is still teased by his siblings because of the lovesick swan that actually appeared to fall madly in love with him to the delight of the other tourists in the boat.) It is also the best way to see what is apparently the “smallest window” in the world.
7. Horse and Buggy Ride.
Lines begin forming early at the Markt for this half-hour treat. When the horse stops for water and a snack, get off the carriage and wander into the Begijnhof. Centuries ago it housed women, much like a convent, but since the early l900’s it has been home to Benedictine nuns. In the spring, the whole square is a sea of yellow daffodils; perfect photo opportunity.
Well, this might not be what the kids are hoping for, but the size of these world-class homes to some of the greatest examples of Flemish and Northern Renaissance art will delight Art History buffs. The Groeningemuseum is so small that it has to rotate its famous collection of medieval art. The Memlingmuseum, named for the artist Hans Memling, displays his impressive work, as well as others in a very accessible space. It is possible to take time to walk through these galleries as well as the lace museum and the Branwynmuseum (which has ceramics, porcelain, and a collection of carriages and sleighs) before the kids begin to complain. As most of them are situated off the main canal, it is also reasonable that parents can take turns sitting on the edge of the canal people watching with the uninterested or too young members of the family.
Surprise, you do not have to travel to Italy to see a sculpture by this amazing artist. His “Madonna and Child” is on view in the church Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk. This same site houses the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy. Kids may enjoy seeing the urn on top of Mary’s tomb which contains the heart of her son, Philip.
The art of cooking French fries is one that has been perfected by the Belgians. Buy them from stands that are open from morning to night in the main Markt square. Ask for the topping of your choice, grab a small fork, and savor every bite.
The shops specializing in Belgian chocolate are three or four to a street. It is possible to sample chocolates non-stop in the course of a days wandering. Kids will love choosing their favorites; eating them straight from the bag; only to walk into the next store and start over.
Besides the kid-friendly frites and chocolate, Belgium is world-famous for its food and Bruges is no exception. Bruges is home to Trappist beer and if you’re comfortable with it, teens are welcomed into bars at age 16. Wonderful mussels (moules), onion soup, and fondue can be found in most restaurants. Also not to be missed are the Belgian waffles served with any number of fruit toppings and whipped cream. This is a great afternoon snack if little tempers begin to flare.
What trip is complete without the constant begging for special souvenirs? Well in Bruges, there are an impressive number of shops catering to tourists. Lace objects of all kinds (keychains and bookmarks are great gifts), small porcelain dolls with realistic faces (the one sticking its tongue out resonated with our 4-year-old) and pretty snow globes are readily available. For adults there are beautifully intricate tablecloths, napkins, and clothing in all sizes and shapes.
At the end of two days, return to the more hectic daily life of other European cities realizing that this was one short sojourn that no one in the family will ever forget.
Where to Stay:
There is no shortage of lovely small hotels, but sometimes with a family it is hard to find connecting rooms. Visit the Intercontinental Hotels Group site for family-friendly hotel options at their Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and other brands.
Where to Eat:
These places were wonderful at our visit, but a struggling world economy and shifting tourist interests means they may not be in business at your visit. However, it’s hard to go wrong when dining in Belgium.
Brasserie Georges, (Vlamingstraat 58) –is great for lunch.
The Pieter Pek, (13 Sint-Jacobstraat) — has an award-winning onion soup made by the owner’s wife as well as fondue. Save room for dessert where the kids will have a wonderful time spearing fresh fruit and dipping it in, yes, more chocolate.
Ter Berg, (Burgstraat) typical Belgian food is served in a warm, friendly setting.
Taverne Curiosa (Vlamingstraat 22) has a touristy feel, but there is something fun about eating downstairs in the dark panelled cellar.
De Snippe (Nieuwe Gentweg 53) is an elegant restaurant heavy on fish and game entrees.
Halve Maan (Walplein 26) is a brewery pub for sampling the local beer and casual food.
How to Prepare:
Although not critically acclaimed, school age children and older may enjoy watching the Martin McDonagh film, “In Bruges” from Focus Features. Director McDonagh, a noted playwright and Oscar winner for his live action short movie “Six Shooter” (starring Brendan Gleeson), filmed the comedy caper film starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes in late 2006-2007. The crew filmed throughout the picturesque city and the tourist office Movie Map of filming locations can be downloaded here.
For more information, visit the website of Toerisme Brugge of their office: In&Uit – Toerisme Brugge, PO Box 744, B-8000 Brugge (32/188.8.131.52; Email : [email protected]). For general travel information and special events, check out www.visitbelgium.com.
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