Whatever season you’re visiting, a good pub crawl is a great way to explore the city of Bruges. Whether enjoying some excellent beer or a drop or two of the Low Countries’ particular firewater, jenever, being in a pub goes hand-in-hand with the experience.
The general standard of bars within the canal ring of the old city is high, so you wouldn’t go far wrong purely by choosing at your convenience. However, with some unique and special places to be found which surpass the every-day venue, you can elevate the experience even further, with little additional effort, indeed just by following the map below:
Upon arrival in Bruges my first thoughts for a drink don’t tend to wander further than a beer in 1. Café Vlissinghe, a bar dating back to 1516, which I have written about in detail (follow the link above).
The walk to Vlissinghe from the train station is a brisk 20 minutes and takes in all the main sights of the old town: Minnewater park with willow tres and scores of swans, the begijnhof, Sint Jan’s hospital, the grand square and Belfort tower, Burg square, then up to Van Eyck square, site of the old medieval port. Once you’re done gawping at the scenery, it’s a short canal side wander from there to Vlissinghe itself, tucked neatly and inconspicuously down a quiet side alley.
Indoors you’ll find an a preserved medieval interior with wooden beams and suitably crusty paintings. Everything is informal, low-key and relaxed, just what you’d want for an early afternoon/lunchtime drink. In summer the garden terrace is a great spot but in winter with its steam heater and a bowl of French onion soup, the interior is warm, cosy and welcoming. You’ll find a couple of locals propping up the bar, but take a seat at one of the chunky old tables, and while you sup a bottle of the house beer or Fort Lapin tripel brewed just 10 minutes walk away, you can read the pamphlet about the pub’s history or even…weirdly…download their app! Say hello to Freddy the Jack Russell, if he’s still about.
Once you’ve fed and watered you may wish to drop into 2. In De Reisduif, a local’s spot only a few minutes walk away for a still intact local experience. No glossary of a thousand beers, no Aussie accents and even a few people aged over 35. Intimidating? Perhaps it may be at first, but this is true no-B.S pub going of the kind that has been around for centuries: low-key chit-chat and social relaxation. This one is optional depending on your preferences, but the next one isn’t.
Retrace your steps towards Burg square and visit 3. De Garre, Bruges worst-kept secret. For a short while, having an alleyway location seemed to throw some tourists off the scent – or at least leave them traipsing around like headless chickens – but since we now all have phones with GPS and up-to-date information, it’s not exactly difficult to find. If you find yourself walking over some shoddy, uneven cobbles, you’re nearly there. Try the door.
This place fills up quickly in winter so don’t be surprised if your attempt to find a table is unsuccessful. However, as it is a 3-storeys tall hidey hole, during the summer you may find it easier to gain seating, when people prefer drinking on the terraces in the main square (if you prefer doing that you probably don’t need to read this guide: just go off and do it).
De Garre’s unique selling point is the house beer, an 11% tripel, deliciously smooth as well as complex, and is served with a bowl of gouda to help it slip down. The bespoke glasses and stylish type face add to the experience (even if it is superficial). De Garre also have a very good range of other beer and seasonal variations on tap, but it’s difficult to see past a glass of this, which is difficult to find elsewhere apart from in 75cl bottle form.
In winter, with the fire going and cheer from an excited crowd, this place develops a great atmosphere. Sometimes pubs with several floors can feel a bit detached – if you choose the wrong floor – but this place makes you feel like you’re all part of the same thing.
Depending on if you’ve eaten or not, you may wish to have a break for lunch at this point, and as you’re central there’s plenty of options I won’t bore you with here.
If you’re a tickbox checker or simply have to visit breweries on your visit to any city, please be aware at this point of the three nearby options: the permanently busy and competent Halve Maan Brewery (which brew Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrick), Bourgogne des Flandres mini-brewery cum brasserie which specialises in sour ales and is a little touristy and expense, and the above-mentioned Fort Lapin, a small brewery with a taproom open on Saturday afternoons only, which would work well before or after a visit to Café Vlissinghe.
After lunch, I recommend having a further beer somewhere before taking a break for a few hours. Belgian ale, the good stuff at least, starts at 6% and explodes upwards from there. A mid-afternoon snooze at your apartment, hotel or hostel will serve you well for the evening to come.
On balance, if done as part of a crawl I recommend trying the taster flights of beer at 4. Bourgogne des Flandres, particularly if you get a spot by the canal side where you can watch the world – and the conveyor belt of tourist boats – go by. The brewery specialises in traditional sours and lambics but if you are wincing at that prospect rest assured there is enough of a variety that you’ll find something you like.
Right – time to drink some water for heaven’s sake, otherwise you’ll be waking up with dry mouth every hour of the night. And don’t forget some food. But first….
There is no finer option for a pre-dinner drink, than the jewel in Bruges’ pub crown, 5. ‘t Brugs Beertje, another well-known about but nonetheless exceptional and timeless venue that locals still visit at opening times and during the brief lull in tourist traffic post-Christmas. It is a quintessential cosy Belgian café which I have also written about in full (please follow the link) which is superb purely in its ordinariness.
Even though it must be tempting to gentrify the place in response to tourism – knock through a few walls here and there – they have sternly resisted, so the front room still feels like you’re in someone’s lounge and the back room still feels like you’re drinking clandestinely in someone’s parlour. Quite honestly, if you wanted to sack off the idea of a pub crawl at this point and spend all night here, I wouldn’t blame you. Amazing choices on tap, friendly staff when it is quieter, and a thorough – if higgledy piggledy menu of bottled beers to explore, not to mention Flemish tapas (think cured meats, cheese and pickles) to nibble on. It sets you up pretty darn well.
But hey, you’re in Bruges for a good time, not a long time right? So after a couple in here let’s move on.
You might want to take a break for dinner at this point to line your stomach. Again, I’ll leave that to your choosing.
Once fed, I’d head to 6. Bieratelier, one of the newer venues but with good character that still feels like a ‘Bruges place’ (you’ll see what I mean) and very helpful staff. The bras attached to the ceiling always hint at a level of excitement that I’ve not personally witnessed yet.
Nearby is 7. The Vintage, a popular venue with locals which puts out a terrace in summer on a small square near the concert hall, but in winter is a cosy biker’s bar who will give you a free drink if you slip them a nipple – bikers and gender politics don’t mix, but alcohol and exhibitionism definitely does.
So, it’s getting late at this point – time to decide how your evening is going to end. If you’re travelling as a couple or just fancy a quiet once, then grab a table in 8. Café Rose Red, just off the main square. A Stephen King/Twin Peaks influence directs the choice of décor, with dozens of upside-down roses adorning the characterful wooden beams. This bar specialises in Lambics but in general the beer choice is superb – even a seasoned explorer of Belgian beer will find something new and exciting.
The atmosphere is romantic and brooding, and a good way to spend a long time exchanging lingering looks by candlelight, or simply slowly dissolving into the scenery with the company of a good drink.
However, if you’re wanting a lively end to the evening I recommend Le Trappiste or Comptoir des Arts, both cellar bars that get rowdy when the backpackers are in town, or ‘t Poatersgat, a basement bar that attracts a young crowd and stays open at a time to suit.
By this point you’ll have consumed a minimum of 8 beers – probably more like 10, which over the course of a full day should have felt like a nice amount rather than hideous excess. The servings are small, the beer is exquisitely brewed, so if you have kept hydrated another fabulous day in Bruges awaits, with not too much of a headache to endure as a consequence of this crawl
I also recommend the below venues in case location/situation demand a change of plan:
Retsins Lucifernum (only Sat + Sun)
An impossible to put-into-words camp gothic cocktail parlour with an owner-curator.
A slightly more eclectic take on a brown café, alternative but still with a similar feel.
A slice of local life with a bit of attitude, a counterpoint to the tourist-friendly places.
A brown café/Estaminet with a brooding atmosphere and highly traditional décor.
If you like rock bars this is the best option in central Bruges.
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