Let me count the ways. Belgium maintains a centuries-old love affair with beer and brewing, meaning you have among the highest concentrations of good breweries anywhere in the world. Not only that, but a huge proportion are independent and brewing beer to an exceptionally high standard.
Unsurprisingly, with all this beer around people need somewhere to drink them in.
Although Belgium has arguably the finest tasting beer on Earth, its pub scene is more erratic.Brussels itself contains dozens of terrific bars right in the centre, and that shouldn’t be understated – the density of truly fantastic bars is a match for anywhere in Europe.
Traditionally, Belgium has gone in for ‘brown cafés’, very no-nonsense local bars with wooden furniture and some beer ephemera on the walls. Often these places would have no music playing (not all day anyway) and just be about drinking, smoking, reading a paper and talking. Brown cafés may be a Flemish/Dutch creation but the concept of a room with chairs featuring beer is hardly a novel one, and you will find the same sort of thing all over the country.
The modern pub scene allows any owner to dip into periods in history for inspiration, and Belgium has an advantage too, being so cross-cultural. You can find spinoffs of brown cafés, jazz-themed bars, art nouveau style, Gothic, Hanseatic era, or just a place where someone has become obsessed with collecting marionettes. Characterful drinking venues are in abundance.
Outside of Brussels, the fun continues, though not to the same extent. Bruges has a strong but perhaps overstated reputation for beer and bars, though there are still half a dozen bars of genuine note, and two central breweries, De Halve Maan and Fort Lapin, a growing and terrific small brewery on the ring road. Leuven has a formidable reputation for nightlife with the Oude Market being one of those places claiming to have the largest density of bars in one area. However, in terms of the places themselves, these are more day-to-day places, not special, and few feature on here. Ghent is another sizeable city brewing its own unique style of beer, and has a cluster of bars by the waterfront that make for a very very atmospheric night out.
You will need to pace yourself, as blonde beer generally starts at 6% and upwards, dubbels 7% and upwards, tripels at 8% and upwards and quadrupels 9% and upwards. However, you’d be surprised once you get through a few just how strong your fortitude is!
Going out in Belgium drinking the finest beer will give you that warm golden glow of merriment and satisfaction that makes it all worthwhile.
Ratings Key (0-10)
A: Choice and/or quality of drinks
B: Style and décor
C: Atmosphere and feel
D: Amenities, Events & Community
E: Value for money
F: The Pub Going Factor
Bars marked with (*) will take you to our full profile write-up!
|t’Brugse Beertje *||Bruges||10||10||10||7||6||10|
|Café Rose Red||Bruges||8||8||8||6||5||8|
|Goupil Le Fol||Brussels||8||10||10||7||7||10|
|La Porte Noire||Brussels||8||7||8||6||6||8|
|A La Becasse||Brussels||8||8||8||5||6||8|
|A L’Imaige Nostre Dame||Brussels||7||8||9||7||6||9|
|A La Mort Subite *||Brussels||7||9||8||5||4||8|
|Moeder Lambic (Centre)||Brussels||7||9||8||5||4||8|
|La Fleur en Papier Dore||Brussels||6||10||9||6||4||9|
|Au Bon Vieux Temps||Brussels||6||9||8||5||4||8|
|Au Daringman *||Brussels||5||9||10||7||6||9|
|Café Den Turk *||Ghent||8||8||8||6||6||8|
|Pot Au Lait*||Liege||8||10||10||7||7||10|
|Taverne St Paul||Liege||8||9||10||7||6||9|
|Au Delft *||Liege||8||8||8||7||8||8|
The best thing that could add to the experience of wandering around the beautiful medieval city of Bruges is lively nightlife, and in that respect, Bruges doesn’t disappoint. However, bear in mind Bruges is a small city and so doesn’t have the breadth of bars, clubs and pubs you can expect in the capital. Nevertheless, you will find some historic venues and traditional pubs, along with romantic venues and canal side brewpubs, which add enough variety to keep things interesting. Bruges is now a very touristy city, but it doesn’t take long to wander off the beaten path, where you can still find one or two traditional bruin kroege– brown cafes, with their stock audience of older local folk, where the true Flemish pub atmosphere can be found – and the prices dive towards affordable.
While Brussels is routinely criticised – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly – one element you cannot criticise is its bar scene, which is undoubtedly among the best in Europe, arguably the world. Being Belgian, the drinks situation is already sorted, meaning that virtually anywhere you decide to visit will offer high quality beer and jenever. However, why settle for anywhere at random when there is such a magnificent choice? Once of Brussels quirks are its Impasses, alleyways around the old centre where you can find a host of great pubs tucked away. That’s just for starters. The brown café, synonymous with Amsterdam, also holds sway in Brussels, where you can find a clutch of traditional atmospheric venues based around the simple, successful format of cosy old brown wood and interior character developed with age. Similarly, you can also find ultra-modern venues with cutting edge beers. Nightlife continues until the early hours of whenever, and shows a city – downtrodden in places – at its best.
Often overlooked by travellers en route to Bruges from Brussels, Ghent has a magnificent ensemble of Gothic architecture in the city centre, and a charming cultural centre still frequented by locals rather than tourists. Nightlife can be sleepy and found in pockets on the wrong day, but on weekends and in high season you’ll find it packs more of a punch than Bruges. There are some terrific institutions in the city centre, and a gaggle of peculiar venues owned and run by eccentrics, which is great to see in an increasingly corporate atmosphere. Gent is also known for a unique beer style – Gruut – beer flavoured with spices in addition to/or in replacement of hops, and its central brewery is well worth a visit.
A smaller town, Leuven’s nightlife congregates around the central Oude Markt, which, largely to attract tourists, is one of those places that likes to call itself “The longest bar”. In actuality, you will find a clutch of undramatic, samey café bars on the square, which while popular, do not fit in with the purpose of our guide. Nevertheless, there are some outstanding venues to explore which go to further lengths to add character and atmosphere to the experience of getting drunk.
Liège’s cultural attractions are limited, and aesthetically, the city is messy, sometimes ugly. They decided to place many of the uglier hi-rise buildings near the river, which haven’t dated well, and the city generally lacks attractive focal points. Nevertheless, it has its highlights with some attractive hilly suburbs and the buildings around the Outremeuse which have genuine historic value as well as being distinctly Belgian. Nightlife could be more widespread for a city of its size, but what nightlife there is is well-congregated and drums up a decent atmosphere. There are some terrific traditional brown cafes and the outstanding Pot Au Lait, which, along with a plate of Boulet Frites at Café Lequet almost justifies a trip to Liège in itself. One other plus of being a bit of a dump, the prices in Liège are a fraction of what you can expect to pay in Brussels or Ghent.
pop. 87, 304
One of the true surprises, Mechelen boasts architecture to rival Bruges and Ghent with a medieval stone gate house, beautiful historic centre with art nouveau mixed in with stepped gables, and ornate civic buildings, along with an enormous skyscraper. The nightlife is competent, with some local brown cafés and canalside pubs where you will find better value, on account of the city being virtually tourist free for much of the year. Visit Mechelen.
A seaside destination, with the classically careworn and past-its-best look that most North Sea resorts have. Resolutely working class in places with some truly throwback venues – simple, smoky boozers, which contrast the bright, but bland café bars nearer the promenade.