Café Vlissinghe, Possibly the Oldest Pub in Belgium
It is the oldest café in Bruges. Possibly the oldest in Belgium. Opened in the same year Thomas More visited Bruges, Café Vlissinghe has survived wars, revolutions, and hordes of British tourists. And now it has come back from the dead following a global pandemic.
Café Vlissinghe lies down a quiet side street in the Sint-Anna district of Bruges. You enter by squeezing down a narrow passage and up a few ancient stone steps. There are records in the city archive that date it back to 1515, making it the oldest café in town. It feels like an ancient Flemish café that hardly changed over the years. But the true story is a bit more complicated.
© Visit Bruges / Jan D'Hondt
Like many buildings in Bruges, Café Vlissinghe is a fake. Maybe not as fake as Disneyland Paris, but not as authentic as it looks. The building began as an inn with a large garden at the back where horses were put out to graze. But the interior was largely reshaped in the 19th-century when Café Vlissinghe was acquired by the local brewer Leon De Meulemeester. He renovated the dilapidated interior in Flemish Renaissance style, installed antique furniture and decorated the walls with dark portraits of solemn locals.
© Wikipedia / Marc Ryckaert
De Meulemeester wanted to create a meeting place for the city’s artists, sculptors and actors. He encouraged local societies to meet in the café, including an art association, a choir and a group of coin collectors.
The guidebooks often mention an old Renaissance chair in the corner where the painter Anthony Van Dyck liked to sit. It was also Pieter Paul Rubens’ favourite perch, the story goes. But it seems more likely that the owner invented the connection for the benefit of gullible English tourists who poured into Bruges, the Venice of the North, in the late 19th century.
It might not be as old as it looks, but Café Vlissinghe is still a charming old Flemish café. It is fortunate to have a large garden at the back where locals come to play bowls and other traditional Flemish café games. Now that café terraces are open again in Belgium, this is the perfect spot to drink a Brugse Zot under the trees.
© Stad Brugge / Matthias Desmet