Bruges on a Budget
The city of Bruges has to be one of my favourite cities I’ve visited in the past year. A medieval city, chocolate, canals, and a curse dating back to the 15th century – what’s not to like? Hey, you can even see the blood of Christ if you want! But before you think about applying for a loan from the bank to visit this extraordinary place, you can actually do Bruges on a budget!
Bruges is probably most famous with our generation due to the movie “In Bruges”, a little black comedy, starring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, with dialogue that would make my mother blush. To be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot of the movie, except for violence, swearing and random midgets. However, I do remember thinking the setting of the movie was quite pretty, so having some time off over winter, we decided to visit.
“It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f*#@ing thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f*#@ing fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*#@ing thing, eh?”
(Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, 2008).
Whilst I might not use those exact words, the first thing that struck me about Bruges, is how breathtakingly beautiful it is. From the canals to the cobbled streets, the churches to the horse-drawn carriages, as soon as I stepped off the bus, I realised that Bruges is definitely my ‘thing’.
Bruges: Where to stay
To cut down on costs, we stayed at Charlie Rockets Hostel; a funky hostel, that used to be a cinema, with a bar and restaurant downstairs, in a great and central location. This hostel offers private and dorm rooms (which we opted for the private – I don’t do dorms) and also breakfast. There’s always a crowd in the bar/restaurant and they are one of the stops for the ‘In Bruges’ walking tour and pub crawl (if you are into that sort of thing).
Cost for 3 nights: €165 (you can probably find cheaper accommodation, but again, I don’t do dorms).
What to do in Bruges
A great way to see a lot of Bruges and have some great insight into parts of its quirky history, is to do the ‘In Bruges’ walking tour. They run every day (departing from different meeting points depending on the day) for 2 hours. That’s a lot of walking, sightseeing and history to be done for little cost! Our guide Nicola was fantastic; he knew his history and all the movie scenes from In Bruges, and presented the tour with comedy and passion.
One of the best parts from doing this tour though (and all you budget conscious peeps focus now!), is that he knows the city in and out. Being a student himself, he knows where to get the cheap eats or which vendors to avoid and he happily passes on all this knowledge to those on the tour. We got to taste locally made chocolate, hear some funny stories from the movie and about the town and even meet some quirky locals. He also was able to get us into the Beer Museum for free and took us to the bar, where they serve 16 different draft beers for only €2/glass! Doing the walking tour is a great and cheap way to see the city, and still have plenty of time to do sightseeing/eating/drinking afterwards. You can read more and find out about their schedules here.
Cost: Well, it’s free, but they work on tips. So really, this all comes down to how generous or stingy you are. Please don’t be one of the stingy ones though!
What to eat and drink in Bruges
Now, while we are talking about beer, the Beer Museum is definitely worth a visit for those who are interested in the history or production of beer (it’s actually pretty cool, as each person is presented with an iPad to enhance and accompany the interactive displays), however, if you are only interested in tasting beers and are on a strict budget, you can surpass paying the entry to The Beer Experience, and head straight to the bar to get those cheap aforementioned drinks. Now, those who know me personally, know I can’t stand beer, but I even found one there that didn’t make me want to immediately spit out onto the person handing it to me! (for the non-beer drinkers, it was the Rodenbach Rosso – a fruity beer, that tasted like a berry cider). When you go inside, head straight upstairs and enter the bar through the gift shop. This saves you paying for entry and having to do the tour.
Cost: €2 per drink, nibbles are also offered (but we never bought any)
If you still need to wet your whistle, walk down the small alleyway opposite the Beer Museum and head into De Garre. This hidden gem is not your usual run-of-the-mill bars, and the drinks aren’t as cheap as in the Beer Museum. However, if you can handle it, they serve the ‘Garre’ a beer with 11.5% alcohol (which is strong, right?)! In fact, the beer is so strong, they keep tabs on you and will only serve you a maximum of 3 Garres. They offer plenty of other drinks, all served in their own special and unique glass and accompanied with cheese. Fun fact: Did you know that each beer should have its own individual glass? This tradition still runs strong in De Garre. The 3-story bar was packed the whole time we were there and seemed to be so throughout the night.
Cost: €3 – €6 per drink
Now with all this walking and drinking, you are probably getting a little hungry right? For some cheap eats, you can check out places around Sint-Amandsstraat and Markt. When we were there, they had the fast-food vans selling hot chips, stew, burgers, etc for decent prices. We ate at Pasta Presto, where boxes (like the ones I always link to Chinese noodle takeaway boxes) are filled with pasta and sauces of your choice, starting from €3!
The Brasserie Medard also was said to be cheap, but was either closed or booked out when we tried to eat there. If you want to treat yourself, visit #Food (or is it Hashtag Food, I don’t know), a modern restaurant with some really great flavoured options on the menu, and their desserts were divine! For the Canberra readers, imagine some of the new-up-and-coming restaurants in Braddon or New Acton, and you’ll get the idea. There are also waffle (goffre) vans and stores throughout the city for those with a sweet-tooth (I may or may not have had more than one each day… with chocolate… and cream).
Cost: Depends on what you are after, but you can spend anywhere from €2 on a waffle to lots on a meal. As long as you know that you can get cheap food, you don’t need to settle for something expensive or touristy if you don’t want to spend the money.
One warning I must say is that oddly, during one of the nights we were there, all the restaurants we visited were closed by 8pm. This was particularly heartbreaking for my brother and I, who had just gotten accustomed to Spanish dinner times (hello midnight!) and were running from restaurant to restaurant, trying to find somewhere open. In the end we had to “settle” for waffles (hello 3rd one for the day!).
For chocolate, you won’t have difficulty finding places to tempt those tastebuds. Yours truly, aka Princess TimTam, is not ashamed to say I taste-tested the chocolate all over Bruges! In the end we stocked up at Chocolaterie de Burg as they were the ones we were introduced to on the tour and their chocolate tasted fantastic and had decent prices. We did spot some rather risqué chocolateries close to Markt, however call me a prude, but as much as I love chocolate, I had trouble with the idea of eating sexual body parts or karma sutra positions.
Cost: Taste-testing is free; you just have to look like you might buy (and our advice is not to hit up the same store twice!). In the end, it will probably cost less on your wallet, and more on your waistline, but really it’s up to you.
What to See in Bruges
Now thankfully walking is free, and probably a necessity, if you have the same large appetite as I do! You can walk all over Bruges and take plenty of picture-perfect snaps. In our 2 days, we managed to do plenty of walking and sightseeing, including vintage shopping and visits to the Begijnhof (Beguinage), the Basilica of the Holy Blood and the Belfry.
The Begijnhof (Beguinage) is essentially a monastery for the Benedictine sisters. Founded in 1245, it was a place for devout women to live like nuns, but without having to abide by all of their strict vows. Many of the 15th century houses are still standing and you are able to walk through the village and admire the peace and tranquillity there at your own leisure. Be aware that no male visitors are allowed past 6:30pm.
As you walk your way back from the Begijnhof to the centre of town, you can admire the architecture and beauty Bruges has to offer. But be warned, you can admire all you like, but be careful to watch where you are walking, or crossing the roads for that matter, as you could easily get ran over by one of the many cyclists or horse carriages that frequent throughout the city at all hours. There were many close calls during the two days we were there, and each time I can safely say it was my fault for being too distracted by “all the pretty colours” and not focusing on where I was walking!
Cost: As long as you aren’t run over, Free!
Next stop for some interesting and affordable sightseeing is the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Burg square. Before you enter, take a moment to admire the Romanesque and gothic architecture. The intricate gold statues against the stark black façade is impressive, and seems to be the perfect place to hold what is said to be the remaining relic of Jesus Christ’s blood. Feeling squirmish yet? Not one to shy away from blood and guts, I couldn’t resist to get a closer look. To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed but still quite intrigued about the story of how Joseph of Arimathea preserved some of the cloth used to clean the body of Christ, which was then somehow passed onto Count of Glanders Diederik van de Elzas during the second crusade, who then brought it to Bruges in 1150. Whether you are a believer or not, it’s a sight to see, and the inside of the church is quite stunning.
Cost: Free (although they do encourage a donation if you want to go up and see the vial).
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Next stop, is the Belfry; the impressive medieval tower, with its 47 bells providing a soundtrack to your visit, overlooking the city. For those of you who want to get to the top of the Belfry, the lines can be long and there are lots of stairs to the top (366 to be exact – think of it as a way to work off one of the waffles eaten throughout the day)! It’s also important to note, that while they may not close until 5pm, they won’t permit entries up to that point (to ensure that those who enter will be done by the time they close).
If the sign states they close at 4:15, they will cut off the line earlier, as only 70 people are allowed in at the one time. Don’t leave it to the last minute like we did (thankfully we made it inside before they closed the doors on the poor souls who didn’t take their advice and come back another day). There are impressive views at the top, and some historical facts and artefacts to see on the way up or down).
And of course, a visit to Bruges would not be complete without seeing at least one of the famed swans. I have to say, this story was one of the reasons I fell in love with Bruges. Long story short (and according to our tour guide), in the 15th century, after being forced to watch his own men be beheaded by the locals, disgruntled and vengeful Emperor Maximilian placed a ‘curse’ on Bruges, stating that “until the end of time” Bruges is to have no less than 58 swans in the city, otherwise the city will flood. Not a city to mess with curses, the people of Bruges have avoided the curse by having far more than the 58 swans. There’s even a paid official whose job it is to track and count the swans (don’t worry, they have tracking devices, so he’s not counting the same swan twice)!
There’s plenty more to see and do in Bruges than what I’ve already mentioned. You could easily spend a few days here and not be bored. We also visited the Sound Factory (although for €6, I wouldn’t place it too high on the must see list) and, if you happen to find yourself in Bruges on a Sunday evening, I highly recommend the mind-tripping visit to Lucifernum. Don’t forget ladies, you can also kiss the frog and hope that you may find yourself a prince. Despite having a prince of my own, I still had a go. I mean it’s always good to have a back-up, am I right?
To read more about the sights of Bruges and get visiting information, click here.
If you get the chance to visit, definitely put Bruges on your itinerary. As you have read, there are plenty of things to see and it can be done on a budget. Accommodation is probably the most costly part of it (and with Airbnb gaining popularity, hopefully it will open up more affordable options). Bruges is undoubtedly one of the prettiest places that I’ve visited, full of character and good memories. If given the opportunity, I would return in a heartbeat.