Bruges is beautiful. It's small, but there's a lot to see and do. I spent my first day wandering around the city, letting my feet take me where they would. After having explored so many European cities, I wasn't concerned much about getting lost. A map in my purse added to my peace of mind... But I knew Bruges was small and surrounded by a large canal, so I would be aware if I reached the outskirts of the city. Bruges is a proper tourist city, but it has managed to keep its small-town charm with the locals in mind rather than existing for the tourist.
Fun fact: Tourism in Bruges has increased 10% since 2008 when the film In Bruges was released.
My hostel was amazing, and I was given a cool "tourist" map of the city when I arrived. The map told me that I shouldn't use the map, but that I should try to "Act Like a Local" because "Yeah, yeah, we know, Bruges is like a romantic movie: full of lovely canals, swans, medieval houses and pretty churches. But wake up: it's a place where people live and we don't drive in horse carriages. Time to start acting like a local!" Oh, and give them a break on the spelling and grammatical errors - English isn't their first language.
How to Act Like a Local according to the "Use It free map of Bruges for Young Travellers"
1. Throw away this map: it's much more fun to get lost in the little medieval streets of Bruges without knowing where you're going.
2. There's only 20,000 people living within the old city walls. that means that on really busy days, there's more tourists here than locals. So stop asking us the way to the Belfry. Just look up, and you'll probably see it. If you want to know the way to Chocostory (Chocolate museum), Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady where Michelangelo's 'Madonna with Child' is housed) or Begijnhof (Nunnery), ask the guys driving the horse carriages or the tourist boats: they get paid for it.
3. Use your bicycle to run over tourists. It's what we do as well. Kamikaze bicycles are for rent all over town.
4. If you don't want to die on your bicycle: watch out for those horse-carriages. Most horses don't know the traffic rules.
5. If someone from another city - Ghent for example - claims to be 'more authentic' than Bruges smile and walk away. They're jealous.
6. West-Flemish, the dialect in Bruges, is the most powerful dialect around. To summarize it: just pronounce only half of the sounds. For example, "pannenkoeken met chocolade" should be pronounced as "pannekoe'e me cho'ola". Ask help from any real local.
7. Invite us for a beer: "Hoa je mee e pint'che schell'n?" (literally: "Let's go peel a beer") Ask a local for the exact pronunciation. No one else in Belgium will understand you.
8. Never steal a Belgian beer glass. It's annoying, and only tourists do it.
9. The local symbol of Bruges is a bear. Nobody cares. But incidentally, the word "bear" is also used for everything that is good. Try the pronunciation of "berecool", "beresjiek" and "eht bere joene" with a local.
10. Take a chill pill. The Bruges population is really relaxed. The best place to enjoy life horizontally is in our pretty parks.
11. Always complain that Bruges is dead. There is no graffiti, no skating, no good shopping area, and there is no decent music club in the city center. (Ithaca's European cousin?)
12. If somebody else complains about the same things, shout "kerel, oed je mulle!" (= shut up) and say that it's not true. There are lots of great bars! Great music scene! Great young people!
13. Drinking in public places is allowed in Belgium. So feel free to buy a beer from the nightshop and pick your view on a nice-looking canal or in one of our pretty parks. However, the sale of alcohol in Bruges' nightshops is forbidden between 23:00 and 7:00 from May till September. The city council says it's because of too much drunk tourists, but the bar owners just think of it as good business.
14. Women's rights are important. Guys buy rounds of beer, and so do the girls. Make sure to always ask what your friends would like to drink, or you will end up tipsy but lonely.
15. Choose the right football team. Usually Club Brugge (blue and black) is the better team and Cercle Brugge (green and black) is the proud underdog. But over the last years things aren't as clear anymore. Cercle had some really successful years, and Club hasn't won national championships since 2005. But basically, both of them sucked, the last year.
16. Don't believe the Swiss - we have the best chocolates in the world. However, most young Belgians just buy big bars from the supermarket. We only eat the top-quality small ones (called pralines) when we visit our sick grandmother or something. If you have the money for souvenirs, go ahead and give us one too please!
17. Hide this map. Some of the places mentioned here are really the last hidden secrets in Bruges, and we like to keep them that way. So pretend that you're a local (by saying only 'bere' for example) when you visit spots like the De Kalvarieberg (football bar), Medard (cheap pasta and waffles) or Cafe Vlissinghe (the oldest bar in Bruges).
Questions to piss off the locals:
*Oooh, I know this tower! It was built for the movie 'In Bruges', wasn't it?
*When does Bruges close?
*Where is McDonald's?
*Why is no one wearing their lace uniform?
I visited most of the tourist hotspots and recommended places on the map. My second day, I did an In Bruges walking tour with a local eccentric and South American tourists. It was fun and interesting, and even though we visited most of the places I had come across on my own the previous day, it helped me get to know the town even better. After the tour, I hung out with the guys from Uruguay and Argentina, climbing the belfry, having lunch, visiting the nunnery and getting lost on our way to the old city gate - we actually ended up outside the city! But I knew my way around by that point and navigated us back into the safety of the city where I was nearly run over and given the death stare by a cycling local.
The country of Belgium seems to be split by culture bound by language - If Belgium were to be dissolved between France and the Netherlands, French-speaking Belgians would prefer to join France, and Flemish-speaking Belgians (Bruges) would rather join Holland. It adds to an interesting culture.