Located in the Flemish region of Belgium, Bruges is a vibrant, active and surprisingly populous city for its size. The center of the city seems almost untouched since medieval times and provides a quaint and idealistic charm that rivals the medieval splendor of Prague, with peaceful canals that rival the beauty of Amsterdam or even Venice.
Bruges is one of the most popular tourist destinations in northern Europe, but when people refer to Bruges as a holiday destination it is not the city on the whole that they speak of, but rather the old part of the city and the area that surrounds the market square, known as the Markt.
Getting into Bruges
One of the most popular routes to get into the city is by bus, but it really depends on where you are coming from. If you live in England, particularly in the north, you can take a ferry from Hull. If you live in Belgium or France you can hop on a train or a bus, both of which will drop you off a short taxi drive away from the historic center. If you live further away then your best bet is to fly into Brussels. From there you can either take the bus or the train.
Things to do in Bruges
1. Chocolate!: Bruges is a chocolate lover’s paradise, especially in the Markt, which is the center of the city. Here it seems like every other shop is a chocolate shop, and the scent of sickly sweet chocolates fills the air, mixed in with freshly brewed coffee, Belgian waffles and beer from the restaurants, shops and cafes nearby. The chocolates are expensive here, and not terribly practical to take with you on a return flight or ferry, but if you don’t plan on scoffing them all at the hotel room then you can also buy special bags that will keep them cool and protected throughout.
2. Beer: Belgium is also very famous for its beer and there are hundreds of varieties to try. Again, it’s not the cheapest experience you’ll find, but a good beer costs considerably less than a good box of chocolates and there’s nothing better on a hot day than a cold beer served in a tall glass. Belgium is the home of a number of beers that are drunk all over the world, but our advice is to go for something new. Duvel is very popular here, but there are countless others.
3: A River Cruise: There is no better way to see this medieval city than a river cruise, particularly if you go at night when the buildings are lit and town looks at its best. These cruises are fairly inexpensive but if you go during the spring or the summer, when the streets are packed with tourists, then you’ll want to book online in advance. The queues can be very long in the holiday season and the last thing you want to do on a hot day is stand shoulder to shoulder with sweating tourists.
4. Enjoy the Performers: Being a tourist town, Bruges attracts plenty of street performers, but these aren’t random people with rusty guitars and rustier voices, Bruges has some of the best street singers, musicians and performers of anywhere else in the world. These performers could easily adorn any stage in the world and yet play for you on Bruges’ cobbled streets instead.
5: The Groeningemuseum: This is one of the most popular and by far the most beautiful attractions in Bruges, just try not to pronounce it. The walk to the museum is a scenic one and the gardens that envelope it are almost as beautiful and the works on art displayed inside it. This museum showcases many fantastic pieces, including a large selection by Belgian artist Jan van Eyck who the natives are very proud of and who you will probably hear a lot about during your stay in the city. The Triptych by Adriaen Isenbrandt is also here, as are several other paintings with a religious theme.
6: Get Lost: There is no better way to see Bruges than to just wander off. If you start from the Markt and stay in the historic section of the city then you’ll be okay. It is very small and you should get your bearings after a while, but an unguided walk into nowhere will lead you to all the great sights that this city has to offer. You could also follow the water, going over the bridges, through the narrow streets and across the cobbled paths to take in as much as you can.
7. The Basilica of the Holy Blood: Although not quite as grand as the cathedral, this 12th century gothic structure offers more of a quaint and other-worldly feel. It is tucked away in a square that is just a stone’s throw from the Markt and once you go inside there is a spiraling staircase leading you to the church itself. It’s a very unique building and for those who are used to visiting the cathedrals and churches of Europe it offers something a little different.
8. Ride a Horse Drawn-Carriage: One thing that you can’t help but notice upon arriving in the Markt are the number of horse-drawn carriages. These take tourists on a short trip around the historic center and typically cost anywhere up to 40 Euros, a price that differs depending on the season. These rides are perfect for those seeking romance, or even those who just want to put their feet up as they see the city sights.
9: French Fries: Contrary to popular belief (and common sense), French fries were invented in Belgium, and they don’t want you to forget that. There are plenty of small shops and stalls that sell fries and you’ll see hordes of tourists carrying around bags and pouches of these. They are cheap and although they are far from “out of this word” (after all, there’s very little you can do with fried potatoes) you can hardly go to the home of the French fry and not sample some.
Where to stay
If money is no object then get a hotel with a view of the Markt or of the canals. The close proximity will also ensure that you never need to walk far as everything you’ll want to see within the city is located within a ten minute walk from the Markt. The hotels also serve as restaurants and bars and are open to everyone, and as they tend to make most of their money from food and drinks (which are incredibly expensive) they may neglect the hotel side of the business, so be sure to research well in advance.
You can check out the TripAdvisor website to find the best deals, and if you keep an eye on the prices as they change throughout the season, or if you book well in advance, you should be able to grab a great Markt hotel at a knock-down price.
Alternatively, you can find a smaller and cheaper hotels or bed and breakfasts away from the historic center. It will increase the amount of walking you need to do everyday and won’t be as convenient, but providing that you get somewhere within couple of miles then it’ll only cost you a few euros to get a taxi into the center. There are also bicycles that you can rent during your stay, and these are quite common in the city.
Bruges is very much walkable, in fact you’ll struggle to get a car down many of the streets in the historic center. If you are staying close to the Markt then once you get in you won’t need to think about buses, taxis or anything else until you are ready to leave. In fact, most of the popular tourists attractions are in the Markt itself, including the Belfry and the Historium, and the cathedral and the basilica are just a couple of minutes away. There are bikes to rent and you can also hop on a boat, although the latter is just a cruise and will take you back to where you started.
The downsides to this city are the same downsides that you would expect to find in any popular tourist destination. The first is the tourists themselves. During the summer and even in the spring Bruges is filled to the brim with visitors from all over the world. This can make queuing to get anywhere an ordeal and it also has the potential to turn a walk around the historic center in to a procession. The beauty of the city makes up for this, and as it’s such a small but stunning city you would expect overcrowding to be an issue. If this is a big problem then plan your visit towards the end of the year, in the cooler months.
The second issue is the price. The hotels are expensive for what you get, and if you visit one of the the restaurants or bars that surround the Markt you can expect to pay a considerable amount for a drink or a bite to eat. A single shot of the cheapest whiskey, for instance, costs around 10 euros, whereas a light breakfast could set you back close to 30 Euros. You don’t always get what you pay for either, certainly not where the food is concerned, but you can’t argue with the view or the ambiance and that’s what a trip to Bruges is all about.