- Joanne Herd
15 things to see and do in Bruges
The first time I visited Bruges, Belgium I had no idea what was there or how beautiful it was. All I knew was there was a sculpture that I wanted to see, so I went.
During college I spent a semester in Florence, Italy and took an entire art history course on the paintings and sculptures of Michelangelo. One day my professor showed us a photo of Michelangelo's Madonna and Child. This sculpture is the only one that left Italy during Michelangelo's lifetime, and it can now be found in a church in Bruges.
For some reason the sculpture fascinated me, and I had to go see it.
I thought I knew European geography, but I'll be completely honest and say that when I booked the hotel I really thought Belgium was where Switzerland is. I was a bit confused why the train trip would require an overnight train to Paris and then a connection.
Then I checked a map and realized just how far I was going!
But I decided it was worth it. While most other students were hopping on a Ryan Air flight every weekend and jetting off to see another European capital, I spent my weekends exploring Florence and all it had to offer.
Since I was only doing one weekend trip it might as well be a big one!
If you're not familiar with Bruges (or
Brugge in Flemish), it's often called the Venice of the North because of its canals. It was a wealthy trading city and shipping port in the Middle Ages, and in the 1400s it was one of the most important commercial centers of Europe.
Beautiful homes, churches and government buildings were erected, the arts flourished, and the wealth of the city grew.
But everything changed in the 16th century when the city's connection to the sea silted up, and Bruges was cut off from the maritime trade that made it so wealthy.
For the next 200 years Bruges was a poor, impoverished city, passed between various regimes and largely left alone. Then in 1892 author Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called “Bruges la Morte”, describing the city as a sleepy yet mysterious place. Accompanying his words were 35 pictures that piqued readers curiosity, and suddenly Bruges became a tourist destination.
During WWI and WWII Bruges was spared much of the bombing that decimated some of Europe’s beautiful old towns, and as a result the ornate medieval architecture survived largely unscathed.
Due to the city's outstanding beauty the entire Bruges Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. As soon as you start wandering through the city you'll see why!
Read on for my list of things you should see and do when you visit.
Wander the Old Town
The Old Town of Bruges is full of beautiful streets and alleys, with lovely shops, cafes, and restaurants. I suggest that you pick a direction and just start walking. Bruges has a compact city center, so you really can't get lost.
I also find that some of the prettiest places are found when I'm not looking for them.
The Markt Square (Market Square) is the heart of Bruges. Along its borders you'll find many medieval buildings now housing bars, restaurants and coffee shops.
It's also where you'll find the Belfry Tower, the ornate Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Courts), and the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. These two men played leading roles in the Flemish resistance against the French in the 1302 Battle of the Golden Spurs, and it's in large part due to them that this part of Belgium speaks Flemish, not French.
The Belfort (Belfry tower) dominates both the square and the city skyline. You can climb the 366 steps to the top of the 83 meter (272 foot) tower for some of the best views of the city.
As you make your way to the top you can stop at the treasury (where the seals and documents of the medieval city were kept) and also see the music drum and keyboard that operate the tower's carillon. The 43 bell carillon is played multiple times per week by the city's carilloneur and is quite impressive to hear.
The Market Square may be the heart of Bruges, but the Burg Square is its soul. For centuries this has been the center of power in the city, and the local government is still housed in the 14th century Gothic Town Hall.
Surrounding the square are numerous landmarks. From the Romanesque Basilica of the Holy Blood to the Classical Palace of the Liberty of Bruges (the Bruges City Hall) and the Baroque Deanery, the square is a tour through the architectural history of the area.
The Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk)
The tallest tower in the city (even taller than the Belfry) is the 115.5 meter (379 foot) brick tower of the Church of Our Lady. Inside the church is a valuable collection of art, including countless paintings, sepulchres, and the tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold.
Also in the church is the reason I visited Bruges - Michelangelo's Madonna and Child.
The church is beautiful, and the museum is well worth a visit. Please note that while the church is free to enter, the most famous works of art, including the Michelangelo sculpture, are in a section only accessible by paid admission.
Minnewater (Lovers Lake)
One of the most romantic and photographed areas of Bruges, the Minnewater is a great place to get away from the crowds.
Legend has it that water nymphs ("minnen" in Dutch) lived in the water, and that's where the name came from. The abundance of trees and greenery offer a lovely respite from the rest of the city.
The Begijnhof, or Beguinage
The Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard was founded in 1245. A beguinage is a community of women who follow principles of poverty and simplicity. They aren’t nuns and don’t take binding vows, which means they are free to leave at any time if they decide to.
Many women who joined the community were single or widowed and wanted to live pious lives without joining a convent or monastery. Beguinages exist in many northern Belgian and Dutch cities, with the most famous being in Bruges.
If you visit in the spring you'll get to see all the daffodils blooming between the trees.
Basilica Of The Holy Blood (Heilig-Bloedbasiliek)
On Burg Square next to City Hall is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The church dates from the 12th century and houses one of the city's most sacred relics, a vial believed to contain the blood of Jesus Christ.
The relic of the Holy Blood is said to have been collected by Joseph of Arimathea, and was brought back to Flanders from the Holy Land during the crusades.
The lower chapel, dedicated to St. Basil, is a rare example of Flemish Romanesque architecture. The upper chapel, which houses the relic, was built in 15th century Gothic style with 19th century neo-Gothic decoration.
Rozenhoedkaai (Rosary Quay)
For the most famous view of the city, make your way to Rosary Quay. This picturesque spot, where the Dijver and Groenerei canals meet, was once the place where rosaries were sold.
Today it's the perfect place for a photo, no matter the weather. But if you prefer it without the crowds make sure to go early in the morning.
When we checked in to our hotel (the Hotel Heritage, which I highly recommend!) the lady at the front desk gave us some suggestions for things to do. One of her recommendations was the Historium.
We decided to go, and we were surprised how much we enjoyed it! It is a story-based museum, following the story of one of Jan van Eyck's apprentices through a combination of film, sets, and special effects.
You can add on a virtual reality experience, which allows you to fly through medieval Bruges and see what the city would have looked like at its height in the 1400s.
If you’d like you can also climb the Historium tower, which gives a unique vantage point over the city and is one of the few locations where you can take a photo of the Belfry from above ground level.
If you decide not to climb the tower it's still worth going out onto the balcony of the exhibit area. It's one of the best spots to take a photo of the square below.
Take a boat tour of the canals
You should definitely see Bruges from
the water, and the way to do that is on one of the city's canal boat tours.
These tours run from multiple points in the city. They all cost the same amount, and they all run the same route. So when you're ready to take the tour just go to the closest location and buy a ticket. The tour will return to the same place it departed from.
Tours are around 30 minutes. You can also hire a canal boat on an exclusive use basis for a special occasion. When we were there we saw a wedding party taking a cruise through the canals, people were applauding the couple from every bridge.
Take a horse drawn carriage tour
I've always wanted to take a horse drawn carriage tour, but I never had until we took one in Bruges. It was a whim, I decided we needed to try it so we did!
It was so much fun. You go slowly enough that you get to see the sites, and you can travel through streets that aren't open to cars. We took the tour from the Grote Markt (Market Square). It makes a loop of the city from the square out to the Minnewater and is a great way to familiarize yourself with the city.
Shop for lace, tapestry and chocolate
Flemish tapestry and Belgian lace have long been celebrated exports of Bruges and the surrounding areas. Today there is no shortage of shops selling both. If you're looking for something to take home and remember your trip you should take some time to visit a few of the shops.
Belgian chocolate is also world famous, and it can seem like there's a chocolate shop on every corner. We stopped in a few, including Chocolate Line, which was recommended by our hotel.
If you're a chocoholic you'll find more than enough to satisfy your cravings. You can even do a chocolate tasting private tour if you want to learn the ins and outs of chocolate making.
Eat waffles and french fries (but maybe not together)
As you walk through the streets you'll smell waffles everywhere. The Belgian Waffle is called that for good reason! They're very popular, and you can get all kinds of toppings on them. I have yet to try a bad one, so stop somewhere convenient and try a fresh one.
There's a lot of debate about whether the french fry is actually French, or Belgian. I can tell you that the Belgian fries are amazing. You don't need to go anyplace fancy, some of the best can be purchased from the stalls at the foot of the Belfry.
You'll be charged extra for sauce, but it's worth it. I love the curry ketchup, but if you want to try your fries the way the locals eat them you'll need to get the mayonnaise. Or for something really good try the mayonnaise and the curry ketchup together!
Drink a beer or hot chocolate
Belgian beer isn't really my style, but we did have to stop and try one at one of the many restaurants on Markt Square. I wasn't sure what to order, so the waiter said he'd bring “something special”.
And special it was. I've never been served a beer like it. While it was good, the truly special part is how it's served.
The beer is called Kwak, and it's served in the most unique glass I've ever seen, complete with a wooden holder to keep it upright. In the 18th century the brewer saw an opportunity to sell more beer by serving it in a glass that a coachman could easily hold with his thick gloves, and that could also be easily hung from the coach.
The Kwak glass was born, and the wooden stand was later added to hold it upright when it wasn’t hung from coaches anymore.
If beer isn't your style, try one of the local hot chocolates. We went to the Old Chocolate House, which we stumbled upon with no idea it's known as the best place in Bruges for hot chocolate.
Go upstairs to their tea room, where they'll present you with a menu of the most decadent hot chocolate option you've ever seen. Start with a base of white, milk, or dark chocolate and add whatever you'd like, or try one of their specialties like the Tiramisu. You can also get single source chocolate as well.
The Bottom Line
There's so much to see and do in Bruges you could easily spend a week or more. It's a popular spot for day trips and cruise ship shore excursions, but to really experience the city I recommend going for at least a weekend, if not longer.