The city of Bruges (also spelled Brugs, Brugge or Brugse) in western Belgium is known throughout the world as one of Europe's most lovely and well-preserved medieval cities. Renowned for the artwork in its many museums and churches, Bruges is also known as "the Venice of the north" because of the canals that criss-cross the city. The canals of Bruges actually bear a closer resemblance to those of Amsterdam, and the windmills that ring the city also give it a Dutch feel.
With all these attractions and its convenient location less than an hour’s drive west of Brussels, Bruges is typically overrun with tour buses and crowds in the summer. Maureen and I decided to visit Bruges in the winter, which is a good way to avoid the crush and experience a more intimate side of Bruges. To combat winter chills, it also helps that Bruges is home to some of Belgium’s best beer bars and restaurants.
Well into the early 1900s, Bruges was still home to more than 30 breweries. At the time of our trip in early 2000, there were just two remaining and now there is just one after the historic De Gouden Boom brewery was acquired by Palm Brewery in 2004 and production was shifted to Palm's Steenhuffel site.
DE HALVE MAAN BREWERY
The last active brewery in Bruges is Huisbrouwerij de Halve Maan (the Half Moon brewery). The brewery and its comfortable tavern are located in a quiet part of the city next to the Beguinage of Bruges, a convent dating back to the 13th century. The brewery was founded in 1856 by Henri Maes in a building with a long history of making beer. According to the Bruges city archives, a brewery named "The Moon" was located on the site in 1564. The Maes family (including many named Henri) has continuously owned and expanded the brewery since its founding, and the current manager, Xavier Vanneste, is a fifth generation descendant of the founder.
Outside De Halve Maan brewery
At the time of our visit in 2000, de Halve Maan was making two beers under the name Straffe Hendrik, or "strong Henry." These beers were bought by another company, Liefmans, in 2002 and are now made elsewhere. In 2005, the brewery began brewing a golden blond ale named (Fools of Bruges), which has won several awards including the Gold Medal in the Belgian and French-Style Ale category at the 2006 and 2008 World Beer Cup competitions.
De Halve Maan gives tours year-round of the working brewhouse and a small museum of historical artifacts. The guided tours, which finish with tastes of the beer, are every hour during the summer and twice a day in the winter months. The brewery also has a spacious and attractively decorated tavern that we found to be a wonderful place to enjoy Brugse Zot beer. The tavern offers a small selection of pub food, and in summer months there is also outdoor seating in a small beer garden.
Enjoying a warm fire in de Halve Maan's tavern
Huisbrouwerij de Halve Maan
8000 Bruges, Belgium
No stay in Bruges would be complete without a visit to the city’s famous beer bars, some of which offer lists with hundreds of beers. These include Brasserie Erasmus (Wollestraat 35) with a list of 130, Staminee De Garre (De Garre 1) with 127, and the leader with 300 beers, 't Brugs Beertje.
ENJOYING BELGIAN BEERS
‘t Brugs Beertje is the place to go for hard-to-find beers but is also a must stop for its atmosphere, very similar to that of Amsterdam’s brown cafes, except that the smoke-stained walls are crammed with beer signs and posters from across Belgium.
The ornate bar area is filled with assorted glassware to accompany the various offerings. With limited space for tables in the main room and small back area, you can be guaranteed of a lively, and noisy, crowd at most any time.
't Brugs Beertje
8000 Bruges, Belgium
For a quieter place to savor fine beers with the locals, I highly recommend stopping by Café Vlissinghe, the oldest pub in Bruges. Located 15 minutes northeast of the Burg just past the Sint-Annarei canal, entering Café Vlissinghe is like stepping back in time to the 16th century. In operation since 1515, Vlissinghe’s interior has been lovingly preserved with Epoque furniture, a Van Dyck armchair and beautiful lamps, portraits and porcelain displayed throughout. The bar is a work of art in itself with its ornate woodwork and curtains.
The current co-owner, Bruno Chinitor, purchased the pub in 1998 after having worked at Vlisshinghe once a week with his father for many years. Although the beer list doesn’t number in the triple digits, there were plenty of dubbels and tripels to choose from. Café Vlissinghe has everything you need for a great neighborhood bar, but I think I also felt at home because of the connection to my hometown in New York, Flushing, which is the English translation of the Dutch Vlissinghe.
Bruno behind the bar at Cafe Vlissinghe
We're a long way from Flushing, Queens
(notice my Mets hat!)
8000 Bruges, Belgium
With its proximity to the sea providing a bounty of fresh seafood, Bruges is a great place to try one of Belgium’s national dishes, moules frites (mussels with fries, served with mayonnaise -- never ketchup!). We asked Bruno for his recommendation for the best place to have moules frites in Bruges and were directed to Breydel-de-Coninck, an unassuming restaurant located on the street between the Burg and the Markt. The restaurant is named after Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, two leaders of a Flemish uprising against the French in 1302. Bruno was right on the mark -- Breydel’s menu featured a long list of different kinds of Moule Casseroles, heaps of mussels steamed in various combinations of seasonings and broth, including several featuring beer. We started our dinner with vissoep, delicious chowder, and moved on to mussels accompanied by Brugs Blond. Our terrific meal was also very reasonably priced.
WHERE TO DINE
For a more formal experience with beer cuisine, with an accompanying difference in cost, try the renowned Den Dyver bier-restaurant. Den Dyver, which was recommended to us by frequent visitor Tony Forder of Ale Street News, specializes in ‘Cuisine a la Biere’ -- regional Flemish dishes incorporating and then served with fine beers. The setting harks back to Old Flanders, with wood-beamed ceilings, a large brick fireplace and plush red leather chairs. Owner Guido Van Denbussche, who runs the restaurant with his son Felipe, served us and offered guidance on the various dishes and beers. We enjoyed roast duck in a delicious sauce made with a trappist ale. Be forewarned that Den Dyver may not be for everyone, though -- in addition to the somewhat higher prices, the pace of the service is more like it is in France so be prepared for dinner to stretch on for a few hours. Den Dyver is also open for lunch, including a 3-course prix fixe Cuisine a la Biere menu.
Restaurant Den Dyver
WHERE TO STAY
We highly recommend staying at Die Swaene hotel, which is conveniently located in the center of the city. This elegant small hotel overlooks a canal and is just a short walk from the Markt. Full breakfast is included, and while we did not dine in the hotel's restaurant it is reportedly excellent.
DIE SWAENE, Steenhouwersdijk 1, 8000 Bruges
- PHONE: (32) 0 50 34 27 98
- FAX: (32) 0 50 33 66 74