Our first European adventure as a couple, back in 2013, took us to five countries in two-plus weeks, beginning with a couple days in London, then Bruges, Belgium for a night, then onto Amsterdam before flying to Stockholm, Sweden, and then finishing with a flight to Ireland for the final nights. Bruges was a stop we’d squeezed in, too tempting to pass by on our way to The Netherlands. So we’d booked a one-night layover.
We arrived in the early afternoon and stopped our hotel briefly before heading out into the town, guidebook in hand, plenty to see and not a lot of time to see it. Bruges tops many a list of most charming European cities, and also lands on most Best European Christmas markets lists, and it’s easy to see why. The city is small and manageable on foot, with photo ops at every turn. The picture-perfect Markt, the colorful and quaint plaza that is the heart of Bruges, surrounds visitors with its iconic gingerbread-style buildings. It almost feels like Christmas even in July.
It was drizzling. We carried umbrellas and switched back and forth between opening them for cover, and then, testing the air with our palms, folding and putting them away because either the rain had stopped entirely, or at least had weakened to a fine, almost unnoticeable mist. A short while later it would turn a little heavier and the umbrellas would come out again. Still, the netting of mist made for some nice photos, the lights from storefronts glowing through the wet haze, the cobblestoned streets glistening.
We walked around the Markt, taking photos, people-watching, turning in 360-degree circles and letting the square swallow us. The roofs made me think of Legos. Tourists rode through the plaza in horse-drawn carriages, hooves clopping over the stones, bells jangling from the horses’thick necks. We sat at on outdoor table and ordered Belgian fries and talked. Later, in her travel journal, Christine wrote that it “felt like a date.” After, we bought Belgian chocolates at The Chocolate Crown—Christine had salted caramel and called them the best she’d ever had (something she would later say again and again in other European cities on later trips).
We had a lovely evening—the Markt plaza, the canals and boats, the chocolates and street music—but all these years later the memory feel fleeting. We’d later spend three nights in Amsterdam and then four in Stockholm, another four in Ireland. On this trip, Bruges was a flicker of passing light. A tease. We told ourselves later, looking back on the trip, that in the future we’d avoid one-night stays in cities. It had felt like we’d just been passing through, rather than visiting. We made a vow that two nights would be the bare minimum (a vow we’d come to break once or twice), that a place had a different feel when you woke up in that city and knew you’d be going to bed there too. With just the one night, you’re arriving sometime during the day and leaving the next morning after checkout. There’s a pit stop feel to the place, and, later, looking back, you don’t remember it the way you remember the other cities you’d experienced.
And the rain. If you spend two weeks in Europe, in the summer, it’s going to rain at some point, and if you’re rolling the dice with one-night stays, you’re increasing the chances that your one night in a particular place could be met with rain. There is no second chance. No day two.
It’s tempting to add these one-night quick-hits. Europe has so much beauty, so much charm, so many places to see and experience, places that might only be an hour or two away from your route, that it’s impossibly tempting not to book just one more stop. Instead of doing three nights here, let’s cut it to two so we can squeeze in one night here. Tempting, but try not to stray. I have had love affairs with cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Venice. Full-on relationships with San Sebastian, Spain and Madrid, and Paris, and Montpellier, France. I’ve loved them all. Bruges, though—Bruges feels more like an interesting acquaintance. The one you’re curious about later on, the one you wish you’d had more time to get to know. Maybe even the one that got away.