A few years ago, Adam and I settled in to watch the movie In Bruges. If you aren’t familiar with the film, you should watch it. Really. Right now. It’s that good, and it will just take two hours of your time. Don’t worry—we’ll wait.
(If you need to cheat, we understand. This video shares some thoughts about the making of In Bruges from the perspective of the cast and the director. It’s a great overview if you haven’t seen the movie and a fun way to remember it if you have.)
Well, what did you think? Did it inspire you to go to Bruges? Because that is absolutely what it did for us.
In the movie, Bruges is depicted by one protagonist as a fairytale while another has… well, less complimentary thoughts about the Belgian city. While the storyline is captivating and the characters are beautifully developed, Bruges is really the star. We wanted to see it in person, and that’s why we made it our New Year’s Eve destination in 2018. Bruges is a relatively easy city to visit from the USA’s east coast as well as destinations like London, Amsterdam, and Paris, and it is a great alternative to the huge international celebrations those cities are famous for hosting. But is Bruges really a fairytale? And is New Year’s Eve in Bruges a place to put on your bucket list? Here is what we discovered about how to spend New Year’s Eve in Bruges.
What to Expect When Spending New Year’s Eve in Bruges
If there were one word to describe the days leading up to New Year’s Eve in Bruges, that word would be crowded. We took a train from Amsterdam to Bruges, and as we trudged from the train station to our hotel we were amazed by the sheer number of people headed in the same direction. Bruges is a very popular tourist destination; just 30 minutes from Ghent and one hour from Brussels, the city lends itself to travelers who are looking for a quick day trip. Combined with those who, like us, were looking forward to spending New Year’s Eve in Bruges, the crowds were at their peak, and there were many times when we were shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people. While the crowds were not unbearable, they were certainly present, and when thinking about your New Year’s Eve in Bruges it is important to know you will have plenty of company!Although the crowds will be out in force during the day and evening, there is one very easy way to avoid them if you want to have the city to yourself: go for a walk before they wake up. The bad news is you may find yourself rising a little earlier than usual, which may not be something you want to do on vacation. The good news is that the sun rises just before 9 AM in late December; we found that the streets were almost completely empty when we went out at 9 AM—a later than usual start for us, but still early for those resting in preparation for New Year’s Eve in Bruges. We had more than an hour of virtually deserted streets before we were joined by both travelers on day trips and other tourists staying in the city. If you want incredible, Instagram-worthy photos of Bruges without dozens of people in the background, set your alarm and plan on a morning walk.
New Year’s Eve in Bruges is a very festive time, and we found the city offered a great balance between the enthusiasm and anticipation that always comes before the start of a new year and the old-world charm you can only find in a historic city like Bruges. The city is beautifully decorated, with holiday decorations adorning buildings and streets throughout the city. When spending New Year’s Eve in Bruges it is very easy to get swept up in the celebration—and there is a ton to see and do!
What to Do Before New Year’s Eve in Bruges
New Year’s Eve is just a few short hours of the day, so if you arrive early you’ll be treated to attractions both indoors and outdoors. Here are some of the experiences we enjoyed as we waited to countdown to midnight.
Spend Some Time OutsideBruges sees its fair share of rain, but whether you are treated to blue skies or gray clouds it’s a good idea to visit a few spots outside. Winter is cold in Belgium, so take a warm coat, gloves, a hat, and a scarf or buff- and consider bringing an umbrella just in case. We were lucky enough to avoid the rain (for the most part!), and we found the weather to be quite pleasant and perfect for a walk around town!
At the southern end of the city, near the train station, sits a beautiful lake surrounded by well-manicured green space. Minnewaterpark is named after Minna, the heroine of a legend that tells of the young girl who died of exhaustion after running away from her father, who stood between her and her true love. The park’s Lake of Love and Lover’s Bridge are now part of one of the city’s most romantic areas.
► Queen Astrid Park
A lovely public park just minutes from the center of Bruges, Queen Astrid Park is a peaceful spot to walk through if you are looking for some respite from the crowds. Also featured in the movie In Bruges, Queen Astrid Park serves as Bruges’ botanical gardens and offers a playground for children; we also saw many people walking their dogs along the park’s paths.
► SwansSwans play a major role in the history of Bruges. In the late 15th century, Bruges fell under the control of Maximillian of Austria, who sought to quell Bruges’ reputation of independence by denying them the opportunity to host festivals and other annual celebrations within the city. The citizens revolted, rioting in the streets and ultimately capturing Maximillian. Even though he was imprisoned he did not change the policy, and the citizens captured and beheaded his best friend, Langhals—which translates to “long neck”—to force Maximillian to reverse his policies. The terrible deed worked, but with a consequence; because Langhals used a swan as his personal emblem, Maximillian determined the city of Bruges would be required to take care of 101 swans for eternity or else be condemned to rot away. That promise is kept today; swans are an ever-present part of the landscape and can be seen throughout the city.
When spending New Year’s Eve in Bruges you will be almost guaranteed to see some of the elegant, feathered creatures swimming or relaxing in the outdoors.
Visit a Few Museums
Whether it’s too cold or rainy to enjoy time outside or you are looking to learn something new before New Year’s Eve in Bruges, there are a few museums in the city that are worth a look!
► FrietmuseumIf you are a fan of French fries, you may be surprised to hear the snack doesn’t actually have roots in France; while several countries lay claim to them, including Spain, the Belgians believe they originated in their own country. Bruges is home to the Frietmuseum, which pays homage to the fried potato’s true heritage. During World War I, American soldiers mistakenly believed the strips of fried potato they loved, called frites in both Belgium and France, were invented by the French, whom they first saw enjoying them. They earned the name French fries from the American troops, and the name stuck. In addition to shedding light on the true origins of the beloved snack, the Fritemuseum also provides a nice overview of the history of potatoes as a food source around the world. It’s a quirky addition to the Bruges landscape and a fun way to spend 30-60 minutes.
More Information: Frietmuseum.be
► Beer Museum
The Bruges Beer Experience museum is a great place to learn more about the beer brewing process and, specifically, the brewing process as it related to the Belgian-style beers available throughout the city. With plenty of interactive exhibits that include sensory experiences and videos the museum offers an engaging experience that is particularly fun for visitors who don’t know a lot about the popular beverage. Additionally, the museum offers a bar and tasting room that is available even if you don’t visit the museum.
More Information: MyBeerExperience.com
Another favorite treat, chocolate, gets an in-depth look at Choco-Story. This museum focuses on the history of chocolate and its roots around the world before providing a great overview of the importance chocolate has in Belgium.
As visitors walk through the museum they are treated to samples at various locations, and before we left we had sampled everything from white chocolate to dark chocolate and a few varieties from around the world. The museum also features a chocolate demonstration area where a chocolatier shows visitors how gourmet chocolates are made—and offers samples of his or her work.
More Information: Choco-Story-Brugge.be
Take a Tour
One of the best ways to experience a new city is by taking a tour with a knowledgeable local who can answer questions and guide you to places you might not have otherwise seen or understood. We experienced a few tours during our trip to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Bruges.
► Free Tours
There are several free tours available in Bruges, and most of them depart from Markt, the main square. We took a free tour with Legends of Bruges and spent two hours walking through the city, and the chance to hear the stories behind some of the buildings and parks was a fun way to orient ourselves to Bruges and determine where we wanted to go when we had more free time. There’s no need to reserve a free tour in Bruges in advance; when we arrived there were colored umbrellas everywhere indicating tours preparing to depart, and they accommodated anyone who was interested in the tour. Just remember to save some Euro to tip the guide—they really do work just for tips!
More Information: LegendsTours.be
► De Halve MaanThe oldest brewery in Belgium offers regular tours, and the tour we took was among the highlights of our visit to Bruges. Starting with an overview of the beer brewing process, we had a chance to explore quite a bit of the historic building’s interior while listening to some interesting facts and stories specific to De Halve Maan. The tour requires visitors to climb more than 200 stairs over the course of the visit, but if you aren’t afraid of heights and don’t have vertigo it’s all worth it when you reach the rooftop and your reward of a bird’s eye panoramic view of Bruges. After taking some incredible photos and enjoying the view, the climb down was a bit challenging; two staircases are so steep you have to go down backwards, as if on a ladder, but don’t let that stop you from visiting. Plus, at the end of the tour you get a pint of Brugse Zot Blonde to enjoy, which makes it all worthwhile. Reserve your tour online in advance if possible; tours do sell out, especially with thousands of visitors in town to spend New Year’s Eve in Bruges!
Before leaving, be sure to find the spot near the brewery’s main entrance where you will see actual beer running through pipes below you. De Halve Maan is the only brewery in town that produces beer within the historic city limits, but it travels two miles away via an underground beer pipeline to be bottled. That’s another thing that makes Bruges so unique: it’s a city where beer flows beneath your feet!
More Information: Halvemaan.be
Check Out Historic SightsBruges is home to an incredible number of gorgeous, historic buildings. Before the sun sets and its time to count down to New Year’s Eve in Bruges, treat yourself to a walk through town to appreciate Bruges’ history. Many of these sites are covered on free tours, but if your visit doesn’t align with the tour departure times you can have a similar—and equally pleasant—walk by checking off a few of these sites.
Towering more than 270 feet above Bruges, the belfry has served the city as both a municipal building and a lookout point to watch for forces that might threaten its citizens. Today, the belfry provides unbeatable panoramic views of the city to visitors that climb more than 350 steps to the top. The line to climb the steps is often long, though; the stairs are steep and narrow, and there are limits to the number of people who can climb at once. Arrive early, before the belfry opens, to be one of the first admitted during your visit—especially since New Year’s Eve in Bruges attracts many people who also want to make the climb!
► Begijnhof Brugge
The Begijnhof Brugge is a quiet, calm community within central Bruges that currently houses Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. For centuries, though, the community was inhabited by the Beguines, widowed and single women who wanted a safe area to live and work. The women were committed to living pious lives by following the example set by the apostles. Today, as in the days when the Beguines lived there, the gates close at 6:30 PM; at that time visitors are no longer allowed to enter (including overnight guests who might be welcome by those who live there), but the residents may come and go as they please at any time of the day or night.
► Basilica of the Holy Blood
The gorgeous Basilica of the Holy Blood is more than just an ancient, historic church; it also houses a relic said to contain the blood of Jesus Christ. After the Second Crusade in the 12th century, Thierry of Alsace returned with what he claimed to be Jesus’ blood, which was said to be wiped away by a cloth by Joseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion. To this day its container has never been opened, but visitors can see the vial on display within the basilica.
► Smedenpoort SkullBruges is home to some great stories, and one of the more fascinating—and gruesome—is that of the Smedenpoort Skull on the Blacksmith’s Gate. In 1691, French troops convinced Bruges citizen François van der Straeten to help them enter the city; however, van der Straeten’s plan to help the enemy was discovered and he was pronounced a traitor. The locals captured and hanged him, and his skull was hung from the gate as a warning that traitors would not be tolerated. Today, a replica bronze skull is affixed to the gate; the original skull is housed in the city’s Archaeological Museum.
► Bonifacius Bridge
Walking across the Bonifacius Bridge will make you think you could be transported back to medieval Bruges. The tiny bridge looks like it leapt off an old painting from centuries ago, but it is actually one of the younger bridges in the city and has existed for just over 100 years. Still, the bridge certainly draws a crowd; during our first day in Bruges it took more than 5 minutes to cross it thanks to hundreds of people waiting in line for selfies. When we went back the following morning, just after sunrise, we were the only people on the bridge for a long time. If you want to capture a beautiful shot of the Bonifacius Bridge, arrive before the crowds!
► Bruges City Hall
Bruges has been governed from its city hall for more than 600 years, making it ones of the oldest city halls in Europe. While any visit to Bruges benefits from a chance to admire its incredible gothic architecture and Knights Templar statues, tours of the building’s interior are available daily.
► Church of Our Lady BrugesVisitors spending New Year’s Eve in Bruges won’t be able to miss the Church of Our Lady Bruges, whose steeple is the tallest point in the city. The church was constructed over two centuries, and it is well worth your time to visit. Inside, art lovers will find Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, a different interpretation of the Madonna more commonly found in similar statues. Instead of joy, the Madonna appears sad, perhaps a reflection of her son’s future struggles and sacrifice. The church also houses the remains of Mary of Burgundy, a duchess who died at just 25 years old days after falling from her horse.
► Old St. John’s Hospital
One of the oldest hospitals in the world is in Bruges. Old St. John’s Hospital was built in the 12th century not just to treat the ill but to serve as housing for travelers passing through the city. While the building no longer functions as a hospital or a hostel, it does offer tours that give insight into its long history and medieval medical practices.
For many people, vacation has to include a little retail therapy, and Bruges is a great place to indulge! Here are a few of our favorite shops that we discovered during our walk before New Year’s Eve in Bruges began.
► Christmas Markets
Even though you may be visiting to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Bruges, the lively Christmas markets will still be open. Bruges’ market is mostly confined to the Markt, where dozens of stalls sell everything from ornaments to arts and crafts, although some stalls spill out onto nearby streets as well. If you are looking for some unique gifts or a few last Christmas ornaments, the Christmas market is the perfect place to visit.
► 2be MoodshoppingJust before breakfast on New Year’s Eve in Bruges we walked through 2be Moodshopping and discovered lots of interesting souvenirs that varied from the typical hats, shirts, and magnets offered by most souvenir shops. By far our favorite area was the beer wall, which showcases hundreds of Belgian beers and their associated glasses as a tribute to beer culture in Bruges. We also loved the small shop upstairs with high-end collector souvenirs for fans of the Smurfs and the Adventures of Tin Tin, both of which have Belgian roots.
► Chocolatier Dumon
In the early 1990s, Stephan Dumon began producing small batches of high-quality chocolates in his hometown close to Bruges. Today, the Dumon family operates several chocolate shops within Bruges that sell exceptional chocolates to locals and tourists alike. The chocolates are fresh, locally made, impossibly creamy, and are just as beautiful to look as they are delicious to eat. If you are looking for some high-end Belgian chocolate, a box of pralines from Dumon will satisfy your sweet tooth and leave you making room in your suitcase to buy plenty to take home.
This chocolatier offers some truly decadent treats. In addition to the chocolates and pralines famous throughout Bruges, Pralinette also serves some of the richest, most delicious hot chocolate in the world. We stopped in for a takeaway cup to keep us warm on our walk, and the hot chocolate was presented by dipping a block of chocolate into a cup of hot milk. As the chocolate melted, the cocoa became richer and creamier. Chocolate spoons can be found throughout Europe, but Pralinette’s high quality chocolate makes it a treat worth seeking out.
What to Eat in BrugesNew Year’s Eve in Bruges can be a tricky time to find a meal. While most restaurants either close or offer a pricy, fixed-price menu that must be reserved weeks or months in advance, finding a great meal in the days before New Year’s Eve isn’t hard to do. Here are a few of the foods you should try when visiting Bruges.
If Belgium were to list its four main food groups, the first would be chocolate. You will find chocolatiers on almost every street, and Belgian chocolate is practically unbeatable when considering quality and taste. While Dumon and Pralinette were our favorites, you can’t go wrong as long as you are sure the chocolate is truly Belgian made. Some shops claim to sell Belgian chocolate but actually sell chocolate produced outside of the country. Look in the shop window before you enter; stores that sell true Belgian chocolate will display a sign declaring themselves to be part of the Belgian chocolate-making tradition.
► FritesSure, much of the world knows them as French fries, but you won’t see them listed by that name on any menu. Frites are Belgium’s second food group, and it’s important that you order them as frites, Belgian fries, or just plain fries—don’t label them as French! Crispy and hot from the oven, they are a standard side dish at most restaurants and can be purchased from vendors that solely sell the delicious snack. While you may not think of frites as a traditional or local cuisine, don’t leave Bruges without enjoying them—they are truly part of the experience!
Belgium’s third food group is unquestionably beer, and Belgian beer is practically an artform in itself. Many beers are served in a unique glass designed to enhance the drinking experience, and whether you prefer your beer light or dark there is something out there to suit your taste. We especially liked the Karmeliet Tripel, which was light and citrusy with a hint of sweetness.
Belgium’s fourth food group is mussels. Prepared in one of a few styles, a heaping bowl of steamed mussels served with—what else?—frites is a meal in itself. On average, Belgians consume approximately eight pounds of mussels per person each year, so the dish is beloved throughout the country. On New Year’s Eve in Bruges we went to Restaurant ‘t Minnewater for a late lunch; we were seated immediately, and the mussels and frites were outstanding. Served in a big kettle, the meal was incredibly filling and perfect for the hours before celebrating the new year.
► WafflesWaffles are not a traditional food in Bruges; several of our tour guides were quick to point out that waffles are a regional food and consumed in places like Brussels, but Bruges and Ghent are not especially known for waffles. Still, most tourists arrive in Belgium prepared to eat a Belgian waffle, and the city offers plenty of spots to enjoy some great ones. We had breakfast at House of Waffles, and the Belgian waffles were delightfully crispy and served with many topping choices. While I had a more traditional waffle with whipped cream and cherries, Adam’s Club BLT waffle was presented as a sandwich and was loaded with bacon. We also had some tasty waffles while walking through the Christmas market, drizzled with chocolate, Nutella, or caramel. Sure, waffles may not be traditional, but they are delicious—and if you are hoping to enjoy a Belgian waffle in Bruges, don’t miss the opportunity!
More Information: TheHouseOfWaffles.com
► Flemish Stew
Nothing is quite as soothing as a bowl of rich, meaty stew on a cold day, and Flemish stew is a filling meal to fuel your journey through Bruges. Flemish stew is beef stew typically served in a dark brown gravy with frites—or fries—on the side. Most menus offer a variation of Flemish stew, and it’s worth a try if you are looking for something traditional. We tried Flemish stew at Sint Joris, a restaurant with a great view of the main square. Although its location makes it appear a bit touristy, the food and service were excellent, and the beer selection was great, too.
What to Do in Bruges on New Year’s Eve
When it comes to spending New Year’s Eve in Bruges, you have two popular choices: enjoying dinner at a restaurant or joining the crowds at ‘t Zand.Restaurants typically offer special menus on New Year’s Eve, and many of them offer evening-long experiences that provide multiple courses, bar service, and dancing that lasts past midnight. Walking through the streets of Bruges in the hours before the new year we saw that most restaurants were booked to capacity. While most restaurants don’t publish their special menus until a few months—or even a few weeks—before the celebrations begin, it’s a good idea to do some research on them to see if there is a restaurant where you want to spend the evening. Reservations are mandatory and almost impossible to secure if you arrive in Bruges just a few days before New Year’s Eve. If you don’t secure a reservation, it’s quite easy to find a meal until mid-afternoon at restaurants and at the Christmas market.
We didn’t book a restaurant reservation because we wanted to experience New Year’s Eve outside, so we headed to ‘t Zand—Bruges’ largest outdoor public square. ‘t Zand is where the local celebration takes place, and it features everything from singing karaoke-style to fireworks. We first passed through the square at 9:30 and were surprised to find it completely deserted; aside from the stage, which was in place, there were no other people there to indicate a celebration might happen at all. By 10:30, though, the crowds were out and the square was packed with thousands of people—it didn’t look a thing like it had just 60 minutes before! From 10:30 until midnight ‘t Zand pulsates with the sound of people singing along with a group of song leaders who stood on stage. Some songs were in English, and many others were in local Flemish, but as US citizens who don’t speak the local language we never felt out of place. At midnight the sky exploded with color as fireworks erupted above us, a display that lasted for 15 minutes before the crowds dispersed to head toward the bars.
When thinking about how you want to spend New Year’s Eve in Bruges, think about the kind of experience you want to have. For us, we wanted to experience the local colors and culture that makes the city so interesting, so it was easy for us to decide on ‘t Zand. If you prefer to stay inside, though, a more formal restaurant dinner might be a great fit. No matter what you do, many bars are open through the night, so it’s easy to find a great celebration to enjoy!
Where Should You Stay for New Year’s Eve in Bruges?
Bruges is full of great hotels. If you are a fan of the movie In Bruges, the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce Hotel is centrally located and was used as a shooting location for the film. We stayed at the Novotel Brugge Centrum, which is closer to the train station but provided us with terrific accommodations in a comfortable room.
More Information: Booking.com/NovotelBruggeCentrum
More Information: Booking.com/Cruyce
We found our hotel using Booking.com, and we highly recommend it to compare the various types of hotels you will find in Bruges.
What Is Bruges Like on New Year’s Day?Like most of the world on the day after a night-long celebration, Bruges is asleep on New Year’s Day. Most restaurants and shops are closed, and it can be very hard to find a meal. If you plan to stay in Bruges for the day, it’s a good idea to have some snacks in your hotel to tide you over until some restaurants open in the afternoon and evening. Not all restaurants will be open, though, so if you have a favorite it’s important to check the hours in advance.
If you have a free day on New Year’s Day, it’s a great time to walk through the city and see it without the crowds—the streets were still quite in the late morning when we departed Bruges. Another option—the one we selected—is to leave the city entirely and experience another one. We took the train to Ghent, which was also quite empty, but we enjoyed walking around and seeing some different sights. No matter what you do on New Year’s Day, be sure to have a game plan. Whether you need to purchase snacks for your room, plan an itinerary to another city, or simply expect to sleep in, your choices will be more varied if you think about what you want to do with your time in advance.
Mapping Out New Year’s Eve in Bruges
Bruges is a small city with a lot to offer, so this map may help you to find the locations you want to include as you plan your own Bruges vacation itinerary.
Enjoy New Year’s Eve in Bruges!
So, is Bruges a fairytale or… well, the opposite of a fairytale? Although the crowds can be overwhelming, Adam and I agreed that fairytale is the more appropriate description. The beautiful architecture and delectable food are the perfect way to get you in the mood to celebrate the new year, and we had an incredible time singing and laughing with the locals until the clock struck midnight and 2019 was finally upon us. If you are looking for a fun place to celebrate a new year, Bruges may be your perfect destination.
Leave a comment below and let us know if you are planning to ring in New Year’s Eve in Bruges, Belgium—we would love to hear your tips!
Looking for more fun cities to visit in Europe? Here are a few more posts for inspiration!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited multiple locations in Bruges, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.