A few months went by before we were able to take our second trip to Belgium. We made sure to find a city with a little more character than “Manneken Pis.” We landed on Bruges, a medieval town with narrow cobblestone streets lined with guild houses and the faint smell of chocolate in the air.
Bruges, located close to the North Sea, is known as the “Venice of the North” due to its multiple canals winding through the picturesque city. Our weekend agenda included plans to visit nearby windmills, aimlessly wander through the city streets, and take a boat tour through the canals. And oh yeah, keep trying Belgium’s local flavors. We haven’t even talked about Belgian chocolate or waffles yet!
But first, Bruges’ nickname makes me wonder, why do we consider Venice the baseline to define so many cities?
Sure, Venice is iconic with its seemingly endless canals intertwining through the city. I’ve visited Venice once before with my sister and loved the city. Maybe it’s the number of waterways in Venice that sets it apart from the others?
There is no shortage of cities with the nickname “Venice of the…“. We’ve visited a handful, too. In France, we’ve visited Annecy, nicknamed the “Venice of the Alps.” We have also explored two other cities that share the name “Venice of the North” nickname with Bruges: Stockholm, Sweden, and Ålesund, Norway.
With so many cities called “Venice of the…”, it seems like the nickname is a little overused. What if we switched the narrative? We could call Venice the “Bruges of the West” or the “Stockholm of the Sea.” But I digress.
We started our weekend by visiting the local tourism office in Bruges. Jordan had found a city-sponsored promotion to receive 50 euros in vouchers by staying in Bruges for two nights. The vouchers were good to use for several different museums and tours throughout the city, including things we already planned to see and do! After picking up the vouchers and a local map, we set off to explore Bruges.
We initially planned to rent bikes but realized quickly after arriving that rental shops were few and far between. It was a crisp fall day, so we didn’t mind spending it on our feet instead. Our first stop took us to the city’s outskirts to view old windmills. Bruges only has four windmills remaining today, each between 200-300 years old. But previously, Bruges was home to several windmills, some that even helped create the city’s perimeter wall.
Along our walk to the windmills, we passed tree-lined streets starting to show off their fall colors. We walked over bridges and waved to the people on canal boat tours beneath. As we continued towards the city’s edge, we stopped seeing cafes and storefronts and moved through sleepy residential streets.
We walked alongside another canal full of swans and followed it to the city center on our way back from the windmills. The streets started to liven up as more tourists enjoyed the sunny day. We started to hear church bells ringing along the way, but these weren’t ordinary bells. They weren’t ringing at the top of the hour, and they weren’t simple “dings.” These were coordinated sounds to the rhythm of familiar songs. We learned that Bruges employs a carillonneur, a person who rings the bells, to play music on the 48 church bells. After trying to “name that tune,” we stopped for lunch at a local fry restaurant (we can’t get enough frites!) before heading towards De Halve Mann brewery for a tour.
Next to the windmills was a shady walking path bordering another canal. We strolled along the walkway as cyclists and runners passed alongside. Each windmill was perched at the top of a tiny hill, making them appear grander than they were. We inspected each windmill closer before stopping at a park bench to relax in the shade.
De Halve Mann brewery piqued Jordan’s interest as the 500-year old brewery still operates in the original building in the middle of the city. Their most recognized beer, Brugse Zot, translates to “the fools of Bruges.” Kind of a mean name, right? The brewery doesn’t think so! Brugse Zot instead pays tribute to a nickname the city’s residents embraced after being called fools by Maximilian in the 13th century.
All of the beer is still produced in the original building today, but there’s a catch. The brewery can’t bottle it all on-site! De Halve Mann brewery built an underground pipeline over two miles long to transport beer from the brewery to a secondary bottling plant outside the city. This pipeline can transport over 1,000 gallons of beer per hour, but they are not worried about anyone illegally taking beer from it. The pipeline frequently cycles through beer, water, and a cleaning solution, and it’s unlikely someone would be successful.
The most impressive thing about the pipeline is that funding came entirely from the brewery’s fan base. Some donors even received free beer for life. Now that is dedication!
That evening, we went to a local restaurant that specialized in a local stew of the region. I wasn’t the biggest fan, but I just don’t think I like stew. Afterwards, I found a bar that was located in a 800 year old medieval cellar. I thought it would be cool to take Jordan there, and it was not too far of a walk. While enjoying our drink at the bar, we experienced major second-hand embarrassment.
We watched as an American walked up to the bartender and asked, “So are you going to find a seat for me, or what?” The bartender was taken aback from the man’s aggressive tone and told him he could help, but the man had to put a mask on first. After all, masks are required indoors. The next few minutes can only be described as chaos. The American refused to oblige to the request and the situation became heated. He started saying things that I will not repeat on the blog. His face was as close to the bartenders face as it could be without touching. After a few tense moments and repeated requests from the bartender to leave, the American finally left the bar. Jordan and I spent the next few minutes of us profusely apologizing to the bartender on the behalf of all Americans.
The following day, we started with a canal tour to use some of our vouchers. The canal tours had entry points throughout the city, making lines short and easy to jump right on a boat. The guide tailored his tour to whoever was on the boat, saying the same information in French, English, and Dutch in our case. The guide navigated us through the complex waterways, pointing out unique facts along the way. We even got to see Europe’s smallest window. Exciting, right?
We spent the rest of the day wandering through Bruges and used the last of our vouchers at the Bruges Beer Museum. This interactive museum allowed us to touch, taste, and smell all the ingredients that go into making beer. After satisfying our senses into the world of beer, we decided to indulge one last time before heading to our train.
It was finally time for a famed Belgian waffle. There were competing waffle stands across from each other, one selling rectangular waffles and the other selling a waffle on a stick. We chose the waffle on a stick, as it was smaller and we weren’t that hungry. We could dip each waffle in one type of chocolate and select one topping. They even had gold flakes as a topping (for extra, of course). I chose a waffle with milk chocolate and hazelnuts. Jordan chose milk chocolate with coconut flakes. In one go, we were getting the best of both worlds, Belgian chocolate and Belgium waffles!
If we want to be technically correct, there is no such thing as a Belgian waffle in Belgium. It was a tough pill to swallow as I learned my coveted Belgian waffle maker was a sham.
And here’s why. Belgium has two types of waffles: the Brussels waffle and the Liege waffle. The Brussels waffle is traditionally rectangular shaped with square pockets for toppings. This waffle is what the competing shop was selling across from the waffles on a stick. The Liege waffle is small and circular, made from a thick batter with pockets of sugar. Neither of these waffles is a traditional breakfast waffle we enjoy in the states. There is no butter or syrup in sight. Instead, the waffles are enjoyed on the go and bought at waffle stands throughout Belgium. Best enjoyed as a snack or dessert, waffles are topped with sweet options like chocolate, ice cream, or nuts.
But why do we know it as the Belgian waffle? Waffles were first introduced at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels and then again at the World’s Fair in Seattle and New York the following few years. The waffle introduced at these events was a variation of the Brussels waffle. This variation is what we know and love in America today, with deep squares and a light batter. At the World’s Fair in New York, the waffles started to gain popularity due to a native Belgian, Maurice Vermersch. He rebranded the Brussels waffle to the Belgium waffle, as he thought Americans might not know where Brussels was located.
In short, the waffle we know and love is the Belgium waffle because the promoter thought Americans weren’t smart enough to know where Brussels was. Was he right?
We haven’t tried the Liege waffle yet, but we have enjoyed a couple of Brussels waffles. Even though I still prefer my waffles in the morning with syrup, these snacks are worth indulging in, especially when topped with Belgian chocolate!
And why is Belgian chocolate just so good? One of the reasons Belgian chocolate is widely considered the best is because the country has been creating chocolate before anyone else. Even Switzerland learned some critical secrets of making chocolate from Belgium. While this should call for bragging rights, it’s a little complicated. Belgium gained access to cocoa plants back in the 1880s when it colonized Congo. Not getting into the history of it all, part of Belgium’s success is because they have had longer than any other country to learn how to process the cocoa beans and transform them into tasty chocolate.
Many chocolate houses today are still family-owned, with recipes passed down from generation to generation. Chocolate, candy, and macarons filled the storefronts, enticing us to come in if only for the free smells. We made sure to check out both local and more commercialized chocolate houses while in Bruges. There was every kind of chocolate combination available in every shape and form. Truly a chocolate lovers paradise!
We even saw ruby chocolate, the first new chocolate type in almost 90 years. It’s naturally pink in color and only introduced to the world by a Belgian chocolate house a few years ago. Allegedly it takes like berries, but we didn’t buy any to try. Even without buying ruby chocolate, we may have gone a little overboard.
I don’t have a huge sweet tooth, as I prefer salty snacks (like fries!) to sweets. At one local shop, we found chocolate-covered peanuts, which have long been my favorite. Chocolate-covered peanuts are the perfect sweet and salty treat. I have fond memories of when my granddad would send me quarters to do my laundry along with a couple of bags of chocolate-covered peanuts. We couldn’t resist leaving the store without buying a small bag to try.
At another chocolate shop, we bought pre-packaged bars with tasty combinations like dark chocolate with lavender, dark chocolate with hot pepper flakes, milk chocolate with caramelized hazelnut, and milk chocolate with salted caramel. Two months later, this chocolate is still uneaten. We will get to it when the sweet tooth hits us, which will make us enjoy it even more. It may also have something to do with the opened bag of mini Reeces our friend Tanner bought us.
With our bags stuffed to the brim with chocolate, it was time to head to the train and back to Lyon. Luckily, trains don’t usually limit the number of items we can bring on board (unless we ride on a budget train). I loved our weekend in Bruges so much more than our weekend in Brussels. If you get the chance to go to Belgium, skip Brussels and head to Bruges. You won’t regret it!
Check out more of our photos from Bruges below! The best thing about this post is that I could use Jordan’s photos in the main post.