Bruges is my favorite city in Belgium. Every time I visit I find something new to love! I have now been in every season, but I continue to be called back to enjoy its charm, history, great food scene and beauty around every turn. Here is a quick guide to what to see and do in Bruges – you’ll see why I love it so much!
HISTORY The name Bruges/Brugge comes from the word “bridge,” which makes good sense as there are over 80 bridges in Bruges. It is not only one of the oldest cities in Belgium, it is also one of the oldest in Europe! It originated in the late 9th century AD and became an important center of trade by the 12th century. By the 14th century it had developed into the original stock exchange and financial center of the world, with each country establishing a hub and banks within the walls. It operated for hundreds of years until its collapse in the 18th century. It is only the seventh largest city in Belgium by population but used to be an epicenter of world commerce. Thanks to its many canals it is known as “Venice of Belgium.” Bruges also boasted some of the best weavers and spinners in the world! You will notice textiles in many of the shops around town.
LOCATION Bruges is located in the northwestern most corner of Belgium in the Flanders region, about four miles from the border with The Netherlands. Only one hour’s drive from Brussels, it would make a great place to stay if doing a road trip from Brussels to Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Leuven and back to Brussels in Flanders. You can get to Bruges by car or train, as well as bus. I recommend driving because there are plenty of great places to park around the city, I don’t love Belgian trains, and the entire city is walkable. While you walk, take note of the classic Belgian architecture that is unique to this region of Europe: stair-step roof top faux-facades and colorful buildings, cobblestone streets and tons and tons of bricks! Buildings often have dates on them and interesting statues built in, so keep an eye out for those as well!
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WHAT TO DO
EAT! There are so many great places to eat in Bruges – cafes, restaurants, and quick bites to grab waffles or frites to go! Definitely do all of those things and be sure to grab local Belgian beers as well. There are also great bakeries and candy shops – so much fun shopping! Here are a few of my favorite eateries:
- That’s Toast – breakfast
- Vlamnick ’14
- Bohemian Burgers
- Bistro Den Amand
- Chez Albert – Gauffres
- The Potato Bar – Frites
- Ikigai – ramen
- Mozart – ribs
- Nomad – brunch
- De Republiek – tapas
- Reliva – haute, organic farm to table
- De Plaats – vegetarian
- Atelier Flori – wine bar, ambiance, vegan options, small bites
And don’t miss Neuhaus, my favorite Belgian chocolatier! There is a Neuhaus store in every major town in Belgium, and the factory is just outside of Brussels (a must-see!) but at the stores you can get your fix with a delicious made-to-order ice cream inspired by their famous pralines. It’s amazing!
BOAT TOUR! Take a little boat tour through the canals of the city early in your trip and you will be glad to have an overview of the architecture and history at your fingertips to appreciate it better from a unique perspective on the water! The tours are in several languages and are about €12/adult and €7/child. Worth it!
HISTORIUM! I recommend visiting the Historium in the famous Markt square. The Historium is located in the old market building and has been made into a multi level museum and full immersion experience taking visitors back in time to when Bruges was at its peak of world importance. It is a fun way to learn about the history of Bruges. It is fun for the whole family – there is just one part I would be prepared for with children for when you walk through the “baths” section of the tour…there are bare bottoms! Although by now, if you live in Europe, your kids are used to seeing that! It is on the pricey side to visit but I would argue it’s worth doing once, at the very least to learn about the history early on in your trip and get a fantastic view over the city! €15/adults and €12/children unless you add-on the virtual reality experience (we didn’t). The tower is an additional €8 – again, worth it but the area is quite small and narrow and not for those afraid of heights!
Inside the Historium
View from the Tower
HORSE AND BUGGY TOUR! You can also take a rickshaw or guided horse drawn carriage ride through the city from Markt Square (€55, cash only). This is a charming way to see the city in an intimate way with your own guide.
MUSEUMS! There are many museums in Bruges, some are more popular than others. Here is a list worth scouring out if you are a museum lover!
- Gruuthusemuseum (13th century): houses unique artifacts from Bruges history, furniture, tapestries and sculptures. Audio guide available.
- Historium: take a trip through time with this immersive and historical experience, and climb the tower for a greaat 360º view of Bruges.
- Belfry (1486): climb the ancient tower, see treasure chamber and musical carillon.
- Bruges Beer Experience: an interactive museum with the history of Belgian beer and tastings.
- Groeningemuseum: the most famous art museum in Bruges, featuring the greatest Flemmish artists over the last 600 years.
- Artenshuis: art museum dedicated to the life and works of British-Belgian artist Frank Brangwyn, plus temporary exhibits.
- Brugse Vrije (Liberty of Bruges) (12th century): learn about the history of this building and see the incredible mantel on display.
- Torture Museum: A collection of over 100 torture and execution devices housed inside one of Europe’s oldest prisons.
- Frietmuseum: Learn the history of fries in this fun, unique museum!
- O.L.V. ter Potterie (13th century): hospital and church on the water with impressive silver treasury and miracle sculpture, beautiful interior.
- O.L.V.-kerk Museum (inside Church of Our Lady) (13th century): full of artistic treasures, with the ‘Madonna and Child’ of Michelangelo and the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy.
- Diamantmuseum: This is Belgium’s only museum dedicated solely to diamonds!
- Sint-Janshospitaal (11th century): oldest hospital in Europe housing artwork and historical info.
- Staduis (City Hall) (1376): You can tour the beating heart of the city at City Hall!
WALKING TOUR! I love to DIY my own walking tour but you can do this or hire a guide – private or group – to walk the streets of Bruges. This is by far the best way to appreciate the city. Below in “What to See” are some of the must-see spots!
WHAT TO SEE
I recommend curating your own walking tour based on the following sites so as not to miss the best of historic Bruges! You could easily rack up 15-20,000 steps if you wander for the whole day. The fun part (and my favorite part) is knowing how old each of these places are. I’ll be sure to label each of their dates!
Markt Squre (10th Century)
This main square is truly one of the most colorful, grand, and photographed places in Belgium. With the iconic architecture, towers, statues and open space, it is the central meeting point of all of Bruges. On one corner is the Belfry of Bruges, mentioned earlier, and on the other is the Historium, both with towers you can climb. The green awnings cover many eateries and there are also shops here to peruse. Several streets branch out from the Markt, most notably Steenstraat, Wollestraat, and Breidelstraat. In this square you can pick up a walking tour or hail a horse and carriage for an extra special and informative trip through the city.
Another good starting point for a tour through Bruges, the Rozenhoedkaii corner is a great place to pick up a tour boat and take the iconic reflection shots over the canal. There are also plentiful cafes and it is common to see people hanging out, people watching, or snapping photos.
BELFRY OF BRUGES (1486)
Climb the Belfry! You can purchase tickets at an electronic kiosk for entrance time to climb the great tower in Markt square, hear the beautiful bell songs of one of the largest carillons introduced in the 1500’s to the tower with bells that continue to ring since the 1700’s. The music changes periodically, and the views from the tower are fantastic. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site! Tickets cost around $14 to enter.
Bonifacius Bridge (1910)
This bridge may look old but it was actually built in the early 1900’s! In the same style as other bridges spanning the Bruges canals, Bonaficius is in a beautiful location near the Church of Our Lady of Bruges and the Gruuthusemuseum. Don’t miss this picturesque spot!
Basilica of the Holy Blood (1134)
This ancient church was designated a basilica because of its historical and religious significance. It houses the relic said to contain a cloth with christ’s blood. It is free to enter, but inside a donation is suggested to walk past the relic, which is always being venerated during opening hours. Although it is small, its architecture and unique history make it mighty in Burg Square!
Vrugse Vrije (1700’s)
This is one of my favorite spots in Bruges. From the Blinde-Ezelstraat (below) you can walk underneath the ornate courthouse that is reminiscent of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. You emerge onto the Burg Square.
Before walking under the Vrugse Vrije, take a look down the canal from the Blinde-Ezelstraat street bridge, Huidenvettersplein. This is one of the iconic reflection spots in Bruges!
City Hall (1376)
Once in Burg Square, City Hall stands out like a glittering, shining beacon. I love the ornate gothic architecture. Remember you can tour Stadhuis Brugge to learn more about area art and history!
Meebrug (1390) & Peerdenbrug (1600’s)
These two beautiful bridges can be viewed from the boat tour, but you can also walk across them for lovely views of charming Bruges.
Ten Wijngaerde (13th century)
This enormous complex with over 30 buildings used to house religious women and nuns (known as a Beguinage) for over 600 years but today is a Benedictine convent. There are gardens and exhibits you can see today.
In Minnewater Park, Kasteel Minnewater is a unique and distinct castle in Bruges that is now a restaurant. Have you ever wanted to have a meal in a castle? This is your chance! See below for more info on the surrounding park.
STREETS OF BRUGES
One of my favorite things to do in Bruges is just wander. The streets are so charming and there is always something unique to see. Pay attention to the architecture, colors, dates on the buildings, and of course, symbols!
De Dijver Park
This is a lovely place to see canal reflections, people watch, and it is near most of the main attractions.
This is a proper city park with beautiful walking trails and plenty of space for a picnic, bike riding, running, and various special events.
This large park is located east of the Fish Market in Bruges. This is also one of the areas the “Wintergloed” light walk happens during the Christmas holiday markets.
Koning Albert I-park
This is a lovely and simple park with flowers and fountains near the main road R30 circumnavigating the city. You can stop here and feed the ducks!
Hof de Jonghe
This sweet little park in the north part of the city is home to sheep that roam – go say hello!
Christmas Market 2021
Bruges is known for its celebrations and the Christmas markets are usually no exception. This past year there were many covid restrictions, but since the markets were cancelled in 2020, Bruges was ready to do whatever it took to have markets, restrictions be damned! The sad thing this year is that half of the season had terrible weather, and a new wave of covid was spreading (Omicron) so the markets were on the sleepy side. Still, the Wintergloed light display was beautiful, and there were three areas to wander around the city and find markets. We enjoyed seeing the city decorated for the holidays, eating yummy market treats and doing a little shopping!
Having enjoyed the inner old city of Bruges to the fullest, you may want to wander to the outskirts of the circular canal on a hunt for old windmills! It would be super fun to do on a bicycle…see here for more info!
Keep an eye out for the free harp concerts across from Our Lady Church. Luc Vanlaere plays during the week at 3, 5 or 6:30 PM and can last as long as 40 minutes!
Something unique to do is watch the 2008 film In Bruges starring Colin Farrell and use this guide to help you find all the filming locations!
If you are a fan of the supernatural, you can find a ghost-walking tour in Bruges. You will hear spooky stories at various locations based on legends…ooOOoOoOoOooh…
If you’re looking to enjoy the coast, head to Knokke or Zeebrugge beach, about 5 miles outside the city. The beaches in Belgium are sandy, can be windy, and are quite crowded in the summer. But they are vast!
Remember we learned that Bruges is famous for lace. Keep an eye out for beautiful lace and tapestry displays in shop windows and take home a special piece as a souvenir after your memorable visit to Bruges!