Tips for Chocoholics in Brussels and Bruges

Mme Dumon in her chocolate shop, Bruges, Belgium
In Bruges, Madame Dumon and her children make top-notch chocolate daily.
By Rick Steves

Belgians are connoisseurs of fine chocolate. You'll be tempted by chocolate-filled display windows in nearly every town. While Godiva is the best big-factory/high-price/high-quality brand, plenty of smaller family-run places offer exquisite handmade chocolates.

Belgians take chocolate seriously, and rightly so: It's an essential — and delicious — part of the economy. While Belgium's chocolatiers rake in the euros today, their customers are just the latest in a long line of chocoholics.

In 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma served Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortés a cup of hot cocoa (xocoatl) made from cocoa beans, which were native to the New World. It ignited a food fad in Europe — by 1700, elegant "chocolate houses" in Europe's capitals served hot chocolate (with milk and sugar added) to wealthy aristocrats.

Europeans created the first chocolate bar in 1847. By the 1850s, the process of making chocolate candies was developed, and Belgium, with a long tradition of quality handmade luxuries, was at the forefront. In 1876, a Swiss man named Henry Nestlé added concentrated milk, creating milk chocolate. And in 1912, Swiss confectioner Jean Neuhaus invented the Belgian praline in Brussels. Later innovators perfected the process, among them the Greek-American chocolatier Leonidas Kestekides, who started his internationally renowned company in Belgium.

Belgians divide their confections into two categories: Truffles have soft, crumbly chocolate shells filled with buttercream, while pralines are made of a hard chocolate shell with a wide range of fillings — totally different from the sugar-and-nuts French praline.

Chocolate Shopping in Brussels and Bruges

The heart of Brussels is its main square, the Grand Place. For many, the best thing about the Place are the heavenly treats sold at a handful of venerable chocolate shops on or near the square. Each has a mouth-watering display case of chocolates and sells 100-gram mixes (six or so pieces) for about €10, or individual pieces for about €1.50. Godiva and Mary are at the high end (higher in both altitude and price); the cost goes down slightly as you descend to the other shops.

  • Godiva is synonymous with fine Belgian chocolate. Now owned by a Turkish company, Godiva still has its management and the original factory (built in 1926) in Belgium. The shop on the Grand Place was Godiva's first (est. 1937).
  • Mary (pronounced "mah-ree") was founded in 1919 by the first woman chocolatier, Mary Delluc. She shot to stardom when the royal family began favoring her chocolates. Today, the store and its treats' packaging are faithful to her original designs.
  • Neuhaus has been encouraging local chocoholics since 1857. Their main store is in the Galeries Royales St. Hubert. Neuhaus publishes a good little pamphlet explaining its products. The "caprice" (toffee with vanilla crème) tastes like Easter. Neuhaus claims to be the inventor of the praline.
  • Galler proudly serves the less sugary dark chocolate. Its top-end choice, 85 percent pure chocolate, is called simply "Black 85" — and worth a sample if you like chocolate without the sweetness. Galler's products are well-described in English.
  • Leonidas is where cost-conscious Bruxellois get their fix, sacrificing 10 percent in quality to nearly triple their take. White chocolate is their specialty.

Bruges — one of Europe's most delightful medieval towns — is also a chocoholic's Mecca, especially along Katelijnestraat, which sports a half-dozen shops within a few steps. Locals rarely buy chocolate along here (as the prices are marked up for tourists), but this is one convenient place to shop.

All of the following chocolatiers are proud of their creative varieties and welcome you to assemble a 100-gram assortment of five or six chocolates.

  • Dumon: Some of Bruges' smoothest, creamiest chocolates are at Dumon. Try a small mix-and-match box to sample a few out-of-this-world flavors, and come back for more of your favorites. Chantal is enthusiastic about her pralines — but warns that the Tonka variety is such strong chocolate that its banned in the US.
  • The Chocolate Line: Locals and tourists alike flock here to taste the gastronomique varieties (pricey at about €8.40/100 grams) concocted by Dominique Persoone — the mad scientist of chocolate — and his son Julius. Their unique creations mix chocolate with various, mostly savory, flavors. Even those that sound gross can be surprisingly good: Havana cigar (marinated in rum, cognac, and Cuban tobacco leaves), Saké (bitter ganache, seaweed, and Japanese rice wine), and the green-hued Brasil (cilantro, chili, Cachaça rum, and lime). The kitchen — busy whipping up 80 varieties — is on view in the back. Enjoy the window display, refreshed monthly.
  • Pralinette: The eye-catching colors and designs of these chocolates make it almost impossible to just glance in the window and then keep on walking. Each praline by chocolatier Fangio De Baets and his small team is a tiny artwork (and priced accordingly at €7.90/100 grams). The attached café has a terrace in back, where you can enjoy coffee drinks or hot chocolate right on the canal.
  • The Old Chocolate House: This combination chocolate shop and tearoom is proud to be a family business (started by Françoise Thomaes), and the many photos of family members and regular patrons give it a homey atmosphere. The tearoom is not so much about tea as about hot chocolate: You can choose from about 20 varieties. Even locals come her to savor some of the best hot chocolate around (they have waffles, too). Pralines cost about €4.40/100 grams.
  • Confiserie De Clerck: Third-generation chocolatier Jan sells his handmade chocolates for about €2.20/100 grams, making this a bargain. Some locals claim his chocolate's just as good as at pricier places, while others insist that any chocolate this cheap must be subpar — taste it and decide for yourself. The time-warp candy shop itself is so delightfully old-school, you'll want to visit, regardless.

The standard price for midrange pralines is about €45 per kilogram (or €4 for 100 grams). Swankier and "gastronomical" places (like The Chocolate Line or Pralinette) charge significantly more, but only aficionados may be able to tell the difference. On the other hand, if a place is priced well below this range, be suspicious: Quality may suffer.

If you're looking for value, don't forget to check the supermarket shelves. Since the country is the largest producer of raw chocolate, Belgium's stores always have a wall of quality chocolate. Try Côte d'Or Noir de Noir for a simple bar of pure dark chocolate that won't flatten in your luggage.