Ah Bruges! Cute cobbled streets, picturesque canals, a fascinating history, cosy restaurants, gargantuan churches, chic chocolate shops and, well, basically, staggering beauty everywhere you look.
The problem is… absolutely none of this matters to kids.
Bruges may be romantic, it may be gorgeous, it may for some represent the epitome of aesthetic Northern European architecture… but boy can it be a hard slog when travelling with children. Those cosy restaurants? Ha! Try getting a table for a family of six in there. That chocolate? Delicious, but honestly our adorable little treasure brats are just as happy with a Kinder Bueno. Those cute gabled buildings and ancient churches? Frankly, they don’t care.
Don’t believe me? Well, consider this: even the official website for Bruges Tourism doesn’t have a specific section or ideas for families / visitors with children. As wonderful as it may be, Bruges is clearly not a city that markets itself as a family travel destination…
… which is a pity, because Bruges is home to one of the best cultural attractions for kids that we have visited in recent years – the Concertgebouw.
Listed as one of the 1001 buildings to see before you die, it may be somewhat of an understatement to say that architecturally-speaking, the Concertgebouw divides opinion… An enormous cubist-influenced polygon clad with almost 70,000 red terracotta tiles, this is a structure that emphatically dares to be different, and it’s easy to see why the contrast between this imposing building and the quaint, medieval beauty of its surroundings continues to cause debate. But whatever you think about its outward appearance, here’s the thing:
When you go inside, it all makes sense.
The Concertgebouw is, first and foremost, a concert hall for classical and high-end world music. But it is also much, much more than that. Its voluminous, light-filled foyers and public spaces are filled with visual and sonic art installations, and this is where it becomes interesting for kids.
The Lyrebird kids’ tour of the Concertgebouw
Grab the Lyrebird activity pack from reception and watch your little ones fly off on a self-guided kids’ tour all the way to the very top of this remarkable building. Their route is clearly marked by a series of orbs hanging from the lofty ceilings and dotted with fascinating contemporary art. Along the way, kids can gaze and listen to some giant bells buzzing like bees(?!?), marvel at a “sound poem” showcasing this unique architecture (seriously, don’t miss this – it is wonderful), watch the visiting orchestra rehearse in the main auditorium, and create all sorts of weird sounds in a series of engaging hands-on activities.
However, by far and away the greatest exhibit in the Concertgebouw tour is Bruges itself. Remember that controversial architecture? Well, whilst it may look like an alien mothership from the outside, the inside is cleverly designed to remind you that this cutting-edge celebration of music and art is firmly embedded in the very centre of this historic city, at the heart of this ancient community. At almost every turn, clear and coloured glass windows not only let the visitor see out over Bruges, but frame these images quite wonderfully. These are giant, real-time portraits of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, and the effect is spectacular.
Onwards, upwards the Lyrebird flies to the very rooftops of the building where, of course, the views are at their very best. But even up here, music and sound are at the heart of the exhibition: an installation of twenty-one bells originally cast for the Bruges Belfry are just begging to be played. By now overflowing with inspiration and brimming with creativity, let your kids’ musical inventions soar like the Lyrebird up, up, up over the rooftops of Bruges. (Fair warning: this is probably not the greatest musical performance that the Concertgebouw has ever hosted. :o) )
Once you’re safely back down at ground level, don’t miss out on an enormous hot chocolate in the centre’s trendy café and pluck up the courage to perform on the grand piano in the foyer (a Fazioli!). Depending on how well they did during the tour, your kids may even receive one of the Lyrebird’s feathers to take home with them as a souvenir (don’t worry – he’ll grow another one).
Afterwards, I regretted not making a full video of our visit, but anyway this one from the Concertgebouw website does a far better job of recreating the inspirational ambience of the experience than I ever would have. Weirdly, at the time of writing this article, this video has been watched only 550 times despite being published nine months previously; this seems to be a remarkably poor return for an attraction of this sort of quality in a major tourism destination such as Bruges.
Which only re-confirms my initial suspicion: the Concertgebouw Tour is a family-friendly hidden gem of an attraction just waiting to be discovered by cultured kids.
Go see it, experience it, immerse yourself in it… before the world finds out.
Other (more mainstream) ideas for kids’ activities in Bruges:
- Horse and carriage rides. Expensive and tacky, but kids will enjoy it.
- Canal boat rides. Busy and cramped, but a fun way to see what makes Bruges unique.
- The Chocolate Story. We unexpectedly enjoyed this somewhat old-fashioned tourist-oriented museum on the history of chocolate. Not a bad way to spend an hour.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION ON VISITING THE BRUGES CONCERTGEBOUW
(As of May 2019)
- Website: here.
- You’ll find it at ‘t Zand 34, 8000 Brugge, Belgium. Only ten minutes walk from the main train station and five from the Grote Markt (main square).
- Opening hours are surprisingly limited: Wednesday to Saturday afternoons from 2pm to 6pm and Sundays from 10am to 2pm. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
- Tickets cost €8 (€4 for young people aged between 6 and 26, free under 6).
- Guided explanations are available in English, Dutch and French.
- We’d recommend the tour for any ages, but it is perhaps optimally suited for kids aged between 5 and 14.
- Expect to linger for around 1.5 hours; we loved it so much we stayed longer.
Daisy the bus visited Bruges on a Home Exchange in January 2019.
(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr