Nicknamed “Venice of the North” (just like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and several other European cities), Bruges (or Brugge) in northwest Belgium is characterized by its canals, cobbled streets, and medieval buildings.
Since being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 2000, the historic center of Bruges has been gaining more attention and has become one of the most popular destinations in Belgium. The good news is, it’s an easy day trip from Brussels.
During my first time in the capital city, someone on Couchsurfing reached out to me and kindly offered to take me to Bruges for lunch and sightseeing.
It may be hard to believe that there are still people in this day and age who would offer such things without expecting anything in return, but the Couchsurfing community has proven to me time and again that yes, good people still exist.
For centuries, the canals of Bruges have conveniently linked the city to the sea. In fact, the name Bruges itself came from the Old Germanic word “brugj”, which means “mooring”.
The Golden Century
Its favorable location and excellent connection with the sea turned it into an important trade center of northwestern Europe since the early Middle Ages. Merchants from all over Europe settled in the city and the world’s first ever stock exchange was born in Bruges.
In addition to being a commercial hub, Bruges also became a political stronghold and a cultural center. The fine arts flourished, along with the impressive churches and ‘nation houses’.
However, Bruges’ golden century ended in 1482 following the sudden death of their beloved ruler, Mary of Burgundy, which was followed by long eras of war and regime change. International traders left the city, and Bruges’ canals quickly silted up. By 1830, when Belgium gained independence, Bruges was an impoverished provincial city.
Oddly enough, Bruges’ fortune turned for the better because of a novel called “Bruges la Morte” by Georges Rodenbach. His beautiful pictures and descriptions of the city began to spark readers’ curiosity, which then paved the way for Bruges’ first steps into tourism.
Fortunately, both world wars left the Bruges unscathed, with all the medieval buildings practically intact. This only increased its appeal to visitors and culture lovers and in 2000, the UNESCO classified the entire medieval inner city as a World Heritage Site.
Best Time to Visit Bruges
Bruges has something to offer all year round, with its mild maritime climate that has no great highs or lows. The summers are warm without being extremely hot, while the winters are cold without being freezing. During spring and autumn, the temperatures are also pleasant, making it possible to enjoy atmospheric strolls along the canals at any time of the year.
However, the peak season is in the spring and summer months. Therefore, if you’d like to avoid crowds, visit in the colder months of January, February, and March, when you can also take advantage of the cheaper room rates.
Do note that the heaviest concentration of rainfall is in autumn and winter, so remember to bring your umbrella if you visit during this time.
Most shops operate from Monday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 or 6.30 p.m. Many specialist stores are open on Sundays as well, and on “Shopping Sundays” (first Sunday of the month, except on public holidays), most shops are open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. There is restricted access for traffic during this time in the following shopping streets: Zuidzandstraat, Steenstraat, Geldmuntstraat, and Noordzandstraat.
Cafes and restaurants have no fixed closing hour, sometimes remaining open until the early hours of the morning, depending on the number of customers.
How to Get to Bruges
By Public Transport
Belgium has an excellent rail system. Trains to and from Brussels depart from Brussel-Zuid (or Bruxelles-Midi in French) every 30 minutes during the day, and it takes about 50 minutes to reach Bruges.
It’s important to know that Bruges is not the terminus. Instead, you should look for trains going to Oostende or Blankenberge. Click here to check the schedule and buy tickets. Bear in mind that the trains are often full, especially during rush hours or in the peak season, so plan your trip accordingly.
There are also direct trains from Brussels Airport every hour. If you’re from Charleroi Airport, you can take the express bus to Bruges station.
To get from Bruges Station to the city center, you can either walk or take a bus. The buses depart every 5 minutes and stop at the Markt Square, close to shopping streets, historical buildings, and museums.
The tickets can be purchased from the kiosk at the bus station outside the railway station (€3.00 for unlimited transfers within 60 minutes), via an app, via SMS, or on the bus (cash only). Please note that the bus route may change on Shopping Sundays due to road closure. You can check this website for the latest information.
For those who drive, parking is the cheapest at one of the two center car parks: Centrum Station (15-minute walk to the Markt) and Centrum Zand (10-minute walk to the Markt). The parking charges here are not time-limited and include a free bus ride from Centrum Station to the city center.
Bus tickets can be obtained in the Lijnwinkel in the station square (or from the bus driver if the Lijnwinkel is closed) with the presentation of your car park ticket. Bus tickets are limited to 4 per car park ticket.
Top Things to Do in Bruges
For a day trip in Bruges, you should have enough time to explore the UNESCO-protected Old Town and visit some of the beautiful buildings that make it special. Don’t forget to satisfy your appetite with the local delicacies while you’re there. Here are the things you shouldn’t miss when visiting Bruges:
1. Climb the Belfry Tower
Standing at a height of 83 metres, the Belfort is the most distinctive landmark in Bruges. It was built in the 15th century and remains one of the finest bell towers in Belgium. You can either admire it from outside or climb the 366 steps to get the best views over Bruges and listen to the tunes of the 47 bells hanging inside it.
On the second floor, you can catch your breath at the Treasure Room, where civic documents are kept behind wrought-iron grills. Keep in mind that only a limited number of people are allowed to climb up at one time, so the queues can get long at peak hours.
2. Explore the Brugge Markt
At the very heart of the city is Brugge Markt, a market square that is surrounded on all sides by fine buildings of different periods. Whether you plan to join the throngs of visitors dining at the cafes or simply stroll around admiring the colorful buildings, you can easily spend at least an hour here.
Go on a Wednesday to see the weekly market that has been held there since 1985. Every winter between November and January, the square transforms into a winter wonderland, featuring an ice rink and a Christmas market with dozens of stalls.
3. Go Bridge Hopping
You may have gone island hopping or bar hopping in your previous travels, but in the City of Bridges, you go bridge hopping. There is a total of 49 bridges in Bruges — both centuries old and spanking new — to help you cross the network of canals. And the interesting thing is, no two bridges are alike, so you get to compare each unique design and see which one you like best.
Look for the Lover’s Bridge in the middle of the Lake of Love. Rumor has it that if you cross this bridge with your partner and kiss, your love will last an eternity. Or you can just snap a photo — it’s very pretty.
4. Try the Local Delicacies
They say that if you can only try one dish in Belgium, it has got to be the moules frites (mussels and fries). Belgium claims to be the inventor of this dish, and not France. Whether this is true or not, one thing is for certain: they mussels are definitely larger than the French variety and paired with the best fries in the world: the Belgian fries.
You will be served with two large pots — one containing the steaming hot mussels and one empty one for the shells later. You can use an empty shell like a pair of tongs to get at the meat, then use the spoon for the remaining juice (made of either vegetable soup or classic white wine) at the bottom of the pot.
Other dishes you can try are the carbonade Flamande (beef stew), anguilles au vert (eel in green sauce), Waterzooï (fish stew), and potjesvlees (potted meat).
5. Have a Belgian Waffle
Once you’re done with the savory stuff, it’s time for something sweet. You can go for the premium Belgian chocolates available at the many chocolatiers around town (which is an absolute must), but it would be a shame to leave without trying the famous Belgian waffle.
Larger and fluffier than the waffles you typically find in the rest of the world, this irresistible dessert allows you to customize it with a huge selection of toppings, such as strawberries, Nutella, whipped cream, syrups, honey, sprinkles, and more!
6. Search for the “In Bruges” Filming Locations
In 2008, Colin Farrell won over the audience when he played an Irish hitman in the film called “In Bruges”. The movie was filmed in many iconic sites around the historic city center that are super accessible to visitors, so you could go on a little scavenger hunt to find them all (the red door above being one of them).
I wasn’t aware of this movie during my visit, but I thought the door looked so gorgeous that I simply had to take a photo in front of it.
7. Stroll around Minnewater Lake
Also known as the Lake of Love, Minnewater Lake is located in the south of Bruges and is home to a beautiful castle surrounded by lots of greenery. The small rectangular lake commemorates the tragic romance of a pretty girl named Minna and her lover Stromberg, who was a warrior of a neighboring tribe.
Their love was not approved by the girl’s father who wanted her to marry a man of his choice. Minna escaped and ran into the forest, but when Stromberg finally found her, it was too late — she died of exhaustion in his arms. The lake was then named after her.
That was pretty much all that I had time for, but if you’re staying longer, here are a few other things you could do in Bruges:
8. Cruise the Canals
You can explore Bruges on foot, on two wheels, and on a horse, but the best way to see the beautiful gothic architecture is by cruising its waterways on a boat. The canals can really take you all over the historic center of Bruges and beyond.
Canal tours start from Huidenvettersplein, each journey lasting around 30 minutes. Sit back, enjoy the scenery, and listen to the captain’s fun anecdotes about the city.
9. Learn Something New at the Museums
If the word “museum” immediately sends your brain into slumber land, I can assure you that the museums in Bruges won’t. The museums here are not limited to
boring history or archaeological museums only, but there are a bunch of more interesting, unusual ones:
- Grruuthusemuseum – Museum of applied arts, displaying collections that range from the 15th to the 19th century.
- Torture Museum – Set in one of the oldest prisons in Europe and houses a collection of torture instruments from centuries gone by.
- Chocolate Museum – Tells the history of cocoa and chocolate from the Maya and the Spanish conquistadors to the chocolate connoisseurs of today. Chocolates are made by hand on the premises and can be sampled by visitors. Children can join a fun chocolate search game. Five minutes away is the Choco-Jungle Bar, which is also part of the museum.
- Lace Museum – Located on the ground floor of the Lace Center that has been renovated from an old lace school. Demonstrations and various courses are conducted on the second floor.
- Fries Museum – The world’s first and only museum dedicated to fries.
- Lamp Museum – Contains the world’s largest collection of lamps and lights, with more than 6,000 antiques. Learn the story of interior lighting, from the torch and paraffin lamps, to the light bulb, and LED. A small detour explains the mysteries of luminous animals and plants, such as the glow worms and the lantern fish.
10. Visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood
A trip to any old European city wouldn’t be complete without a church visit. The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a beautiful renaissance building presiding over Burg Square. It consists of two churches and is best known for a small crystal phial that is said to contain a piece of cloth with the blood of Jesus Christ on it.
Each May, the sacred relic is paraded through the streets of Bruges in the Procession of the Holy Blood, and every Friday, it is brought out to be shown to the devotees.
11. Marvel at the Town Hall
Town halls rarely make the list of the must-see attractions in any city, but the one in Bruges deserves a visit. The Bruges Town Hall (Stadhuis van Brugge) was built in 1376, making it one of the oldest town halls in the Low Countries. It features Gothic architecture, 19th century murals, and a colorful vaulted ceiling.
12. Join Tours
If you don’t fancy exploring on your own, there’s a variety of guided tours you could join, from rickshaw tours to scooter tours. Not only will you get to learn about the city from the experts, you’ll also get to meet other like-minded travelers!
How Long Should You Spend in Bruges?
To get just a sampler of Bruges, you could make a day trip like I did, but I don’t think that would do the city any justice. With all its many attractions and things to do, it deserves at least 2 to 3 days.
Where to Stay in Bruges
If you have more time than I did, here are some of your accommodation options. Please note that the city of Bruges charges a tourism tax of EUR 2.83 (excl. VAT) per person per night. This tax applies to all tourist accommodation (hotels, guest houses, hostels, etc), with the exception of holiday homes that are subject to a flat-rate tax. Children under 18 are exempt from the tax.
Charlie Rockets Youth Hostel – Located only 350 metres from Market Square and 3 kilometres from Bruges Railway Station, this youth hostel offers functional accommodation, a bar, and a restaurant. Guests can play billiards and darts, as well as enjoy free WiFi. From EUR 18 for a bed in a 6-bed mixed dormitory with shared bathroom facilities in the corridor.
Hotel ‘t Putje – This hotel is located just opposite the concert hall and is a 10 minutes’ walk to the Market Square. Each room is fitted with carpeted floors, a TV, and a private bathroom. Hotel ‘t Putje also serves buffet-style breakfast every morning. From EUR 32 for a Budget Single Room.
House of Bruges – Featuring classic baroque facades and steel and glass for its interior, the freshly refurbished hotel is located in the historical center of Bruges, 200 metres from the Market Square. The bright, high-ceilinged rooms come with large windows, a private bathroom, a TV, and free WiFi. From EUR 85 for a Superior Double Room.
Relais & Châteaux Hotel Heritage – Once built as a private mansion in 1869, this classical building has been converted into a hotel with elegantly-styled rooms, each one characterized by individual decorations. Each room not only has free WiFi, but also an iPad. Apart from a restaurant and a bar, the house also features a 14th-century old cellar with special arches, of which stones are now displayed at the Museum of the Archaeological Society. Located 50 metres from the Market Square. Rates start from EUR 310 for a Classic Double Room, inclusive of breakfast.
Additional Tips for Visiting Bruges
- In Belgium, there is a general ban on smoking in public places, such as cafes, restaurants, hotel lobbies, bars, train stations, airports, etc.
- It is prohibited to consume alcohol on the street in the night-life district on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
- All drugs are prohibited by law. That includes cannabis.
- Vehicles over 3.5 tonnes are not permitted in the inner city. This includes camper vans.
- Bruges is accessible to everyone. There are special maps at the information center that can help people with mobility issues find the best routes to navigate the city.
- There are several public toilets in the city center (e.g. at public buildings, museums, city halls, etc). Some are accessible to the disabled and offer baby-changing facilities. You could also use the ones at cafes, as long as you buy something.
Final Thoughts on Bruges
Due to limited time, I didn’t get to do much apart from some sightseeing, lunch, and dessert. I really wish I could have visited one of the food museums and sampled some free goodies.
But it was a great trip nevertheless, and I’m eternally grateful to the kind man who took me there and showed me around. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known about this beautiful place (this was around the time when I thought it was cool to go to another country without doing any research, and just let the place surprise me instead).
So, please don’t make that same mistake. If you ever find yourself in Belgium, Bruges is one of the places that you absolutely have to set aside some time to visit..
Have you been to Bruges or any other “Venice of the North”? Share your experience in the comment section below.
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