There are some towns that I'd happily return to again and again, and Bruges is one of them. Bruges (also known as Brugge in French) is a medieval town in western Belgium. It is small enough to easily walk around and while it does attract its fair share of day-trippers, if you linger for a night or two you will see the real charm of Bruges shine through.
I first visited on my "backpacking" trip to Europe after graduating high school. Even back then I fell in love with the cobblestone streets, the scenic canals and the chocolate.
Fast forward 20+ years (and after several more visits to Bruges), and my husband and I still enjoy going to Bruges. It has everything we look for: compact center so easy to walk around, charming architecture and gardens, great restaurants (even for vegetarians), and amazing local beers. Plus museums, boat rides and more! Plus we get to practice our Dutch. Bonus!
We spent two nights in Bruges as a "pit stop" on our way to England. We stayed at the Novotel which is within a 5-10 minute walk to most sights, restaurants and bars in Bruges. The staff were very friendly, the room was spacious and it was budget-friendly. Parking was next door and we got a discount for staying at the hotel.
Unbeknownst to me when I first made the reservation (I swear!), we were just around the corner from De Halve Maan Brewery - they are the main brewery in the town and their beers include Bruges Zot and Straffe Hendrik. You can tour the brewery which we had done before so didn't do again (fun tour with a great view of the city from their rooftop). Instead, we chose to have a traditional Belgisch lunch consisting of croquettes and fries. Croquettes are fried balls of deliciousness - I had the cheese ones and my husband had shrimp. The fries were Belgian fries (duh) which are fried twice to give a crunchy exterior and a soft interior. So yummy.
We then decided to have a wander - we didn't have any set plans (still jet lagged) but no plans often turn out to be the best days. We admired the views and buildings until we got thirsty for another beer. We found a cute cafe ('t Schrijverke) with a good beer list and took a seat to people watch. Just after we had ordered our first round, a horse and carriage pulled up. They were from the Bosteels Brewery and were "delivering" beer - everyone got free Tripel Karmeliet's (coincidently the beer my husband had just ordered)! Such a fun surprise.
After a bit, we decided it was time to get up and continue our walk. We were attracted by one side street - there was a memorial to political dissenters from WW2 - and then I saw a sign at the end of that road that said "brewery". Of course, we had to investigate. Turns out it was the Bourgogne des Flandres brewery/beer bar. This was new to us and such a fun discovery! We sampled their brews while sitting on a shady canalside deck. We must have been in countless photos as the tourist boats were constantly going past us (and we started waving - haha!)
The last stop of the day was something I had read about but then we sort of just stumbled upon - it was their Friday celebration at their fish market (Vismarkt). The fish market is Roman-style with large pillars and columns surrounding a courtyard interior. While it is a functioning fish market, on Fridays it turns into a tapas and drinks party. Local vendors sell tapas-style dishes, cocktails, wine and gin which you can sit and enjoy while watching the local (blues/rock) band play. It was great people watching and a way to get connected to what locals do during the summer. There were people of all ages - and some adorable pups.
Looking back on our 3-month trip, this was for sure one of my favorite days. I love having days truly "at leisure" where you can wander and explore on your own without relying on other people's opinions on Yelp or TripAdvisor. It may be "old school" but I like the spontaneity of having no plans. You never know what you will encounter.