Known as the Venice of the North, Bruges is a medieval paradise replete with sweeping canals, quaint cobblestones alleyways, unrivalled Gothic architecture and an utterly enchanting atmosphere.
Antwerp is a prominent station to change trains on your way to Bruges. The train station was even designed by a Brugian architect in 1854. The entire building is a lavish masterpiece filled with slabs of colourful marble, a swelling crystal dome, a brilliantly brazen ornamental clock and all complete with elegant art deco details.
There are some that refer to this train station as a Cathedral, and I couldn't agree with them more. Just as churches were built to be representations of heaven on earth, this station makes travel a truly heavenly experience. The station serves as a giant hub for connections from all over Europe. With so many people trying to kill time, the station is filled with shops selling the most extravagant of all Antwerp's exports, diamonds! Since our travel budget didn't cover diamonds, we opted for the Belgian waffles instead. As soon as we got off the train, we were immediately bombarded with the intoxicatingly sweet scent of waffles and chocolate wafting through the air. In Belgium, chocolate covered waffles are a national treasure.
Finally, we arrived in Bruges! From the train station, you can quickly get on a local bus that will take you into the centre of town. The commuter bus drives through the narrow, cobblestone streets of medieval Bruges at breakneck speed. There were a few close calls as we barreled around tight corners, but any locals on the bus didn't seem the least bit phased, so I took their nonplussed reaction as a comfort and watched the red brick scenery pass us by.
Bruges is not just a gothic looking town; it is a gothic town. The streets are still lined with stones older than perhaps even my home country and even the most ubiquitous family home looks like a gothic paradise. Bruges is a UNESCO protected city, and as such, historians ensure that everything remains unchanged from its perpetual state of gothic opulence. Any renovations which are undertaken to protect buildings from the perils of old age are done with lots of research and employ only old materials to fix or repair any damage.
The bus dropped us off in Markt Square, close to our hotel and we walked through the square dragging our rolling suitcase along as we went.
TIP: Make sure you have sturdy wheels, or better yet, a knapsack, as wheels will take a beating in this city.
Another big tip for visiting Bruges is to stay at least one night in the city. Many people choose to visit only for a day trip and rush through the sites just to check them off their bucket list. I more than encourage spending a few days here to properly experience the atmosphere of this ancient city, both during the day and at night. Once the heavy loads of day-tripping tourist disappear in the afternoon, the true nature of the town comes alive. Locals open their doors, and the city feels more than just a postcard.
A great place to stay, that won't break the bank, is Hotel Marcel. It might not be the most extravagant place, but it's also not a dingy hostel, miles outside the city. This hotel is right in the centre of town. It's recently renovated rooms with wallpaper of iconic scenes in Bruges are a charming addition which makes even a simple room, all the more interesting.
After you're settled into your hotel, it's time to dig your heels into the history, art and architecture that pours from the veins of Bruges. And what better way to do this than to take a stroll to get up close and personal with the city. I've divided the tour into two parts, the North and the South. You could do this all in one day if you only wanted to see look at the buildings from the outside but I advise you to venture inside if you have the time.
But, before you head out on your adventures, here's a bit of history to give you some context for your travels throughout this Gothic city. Bruges first established itself as a settlement in the 9th century. Since Bruges was a city settled on the river, connected to the North Sea, it immediately became a hub for international trade. It was called Bruges after the word Bryggia, an old Scandinavian word meaning harbour.
In the middle ages, Bruges was the most important trade centre in north-west Europe. It specialised in Flemish cloth, one of the most important products in medieval times as it was used to sew clothing for everyone from villagers to the royal family. Because the market for cloth was exploding all over the country, more and more money poured into the city. The overwhelming wealth meant Bruges could build some of the most impressive pieces of medieval architecture in Europe.
Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, Bruges continued to fluctuate under an ever-changing economy. While other cities in Europe were able to expand, Bruges remained a small town. It couldn't keep up with the growth that was happening all over the world and eventually lost its position as the leading trade city to Antwerp with a population that doubled its own. Bruges slowly fell out of the limelight and disappeared from European high society.
In the 1800's, Bruges became the most impoverished city in Belgium as all trade routes into the city had shut. It is perhaps this period of poverty that we have to thank for the preservation of the city's historic architecture. There was no money for renovations, expansion or modernisation. In the mid 19th century, when the tourism industry started to creep outside the major cities into the countryside, people began to discover this untouched gem of a town. People from all over fell in love with the historic-artistic culture they found here, left untouched by urbanisation.
The Grote Markt
The best place to start your tour is in the Grote Markt, which serves as the centre of Bruges. Seems fitting to begin your journey in the area which brought Bruges all its wealth. The first known marketplace was built here in the 10th century. Later on, in the 12th century, a wooden market hall was developed to help house the fish and cloth imports and exports. The square turned from a simple shopping area into a meeting place for jousting tournaments, weddings, royal parades and even executions. Despite the passage of time, the square is still used today as a marketplace. Every Wednesday local vendors come out with their fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, cheese and more to sell to locals and tourists alike! It's the perfect place to get ingredients for a picnic, so I highly recommend you visit here on a Wednesday morning!
In 1996, the square was converted into a pedestrian zone where horse-drawn carriages and bicycles are the only modes of transportation allowed. Tourists can wander and gaze up at the buildings around them without fear of being hit by a car. And gaze up you will!
The Bruges Belfry
Looming over Markt square stands the Belfry Tower, atop the infamous Cloth Hall. The Belfry was built in 1240 but needed to be rebuilt in 1280 after a fire ravaged the first building. If the octagonal shaped top looks slightly unfinished to you, you'd be correct in thinking so. The tower was once topped with a great spire, well various spires actually, but each one was the victim of lightning strikes which reduced them all to ash. There is a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which goes, "In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown; Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilt. Still, it watches o'er the town."
In the medieval ages, the belfry's bells were the only indicator citizens had to tell the start of the workday, to signal for fire or even to begin a festival or event. In the 16th century, a 35-set carillon was installed in the tower. A carillon is a set of bells which could be played using a keyboard below the tower, creating a more musical sound than a few single bells rung from ropes ever could.
You can still climb the 366 steps to the top of the tower as patrolmen once used to do, to look out for fires which could have destroyed the entirety of this incredible city. The view from the top is unequalled, and, worth the time and effort, it takes to climb up.
Snack on "French" Fries
At the bottom of the Belfry Tower is a local French Fry vendor who serves up some of the most delicious Belgian french fries. There are ongoing disputes over the term "french fries" and their origin. The Belgians insist it was them. The story goes that when American armies were stationed in Belgium, the Flemish military served them up one of their favourite (and inexpensive) meals - fried strips of potato. The American army LOVED them and took the recipe back home. They ended up calling them french fries since French was the local language in Belgium at the time and the American just assumed they were in France. While the French aren't known for selling fries on the street, the Belgians have perfected the snack on the go. They serve them alongside a mustard and mayonnaise dipping sauce which is an oddly delicious side dish and the perfect thing to eat to keep you going throughout your tour.
While chowing down on your snack, take a moment to study the brightly coloured buildings which surround that square. Each one is topped with their iconic crow-stepped gables, which have become the quintessential characteristic of Bruges.
Take a seat in the centre of the square, beneath the grand statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. These two men are local heroes, known for leading the uprising against the invading French in 1302 and keeping Bruges a part of Belgium.
Across from the statue is the Provincial Hof or Provincial Court. The building now houses the government of West Flander and a local post office but hundreds of years ago it was home to the largest port in Bruges. Originally built in 1294, it was demolished in 1787 and rebuilt in a neogothic style reminiscent of its original Gothic architecture. One of the most iconic parts of its design is the bright red dormer windows which pop out of the stone grey roof.
Hendrik and Gustaaf Pickery designed all the interior decorations; intricate stained glass windows and exquisite ironwork cover the rooms like wild vines. The statues and murals within depict scenes of famous personalities from West Flanders, a visual history of the building of their great city.
Dumon Chocolates are one of the most popular souvenirs people bring home from Bruges. Belgium is known the world over for their chocolate creations, and Dumon has found a way of perfecting the art. Established in 1992, this family-run business has expanded around Belgium, but their first, family-run shop was right here in Bruges. As you open the door, you are overwhelmed with the sweet and slightly bitter scent of melting chocolate. The tiny shop is almost no wider than arm's length but is charmingly cluttered. Chocolates glisten behind glass cabinets, and you can't help but start to drool. While there are no labels, the kind employees (all family members) will lovingly tell you about all the different kinds of chocolate and prepare you and customised box with all your favourites. They speak English in addition to French and Belgian but if you can't communicate you really can't go wrong with anything inside.
Past Dumon, walking along the narrow streets and alleyways, you come upon Hof Bladelin. Hof Bladelin was once an aristocratic mansion, which has now been converted into a home for the elderly and a small museum. The Hof Bladelin was originally built in 1451 as the house of Pieter Bladelin and his wife, Margaret of Vagewierre. Pieter was the counsellor and treasurer for Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy. At the time, he was one of the wealthiest men in Bruges and wanted to build a house which reflected his enormous wealth. The Bladelin's has no children, and after their death, the house came up for auction in 1472. It was purchased by the Medici’s, a powerful Florentine banking family who are known for coveting the most beautiful pieces of art and architecture from the world's greatest artists.
The Hof Bladelin has the architectural design of a Gothic castle. The Renaissance courtyard was designed in Italian style and added to the building by the Medici family. Stone medallion portraits of Lorenzo de Medici and his wife can still be found in the courtyard. The ribbed vaulted ceiling in the interiors has some unique corbels adorned with scenes depicting the duties of Bladelin and the life of St. Alphege of Canterbury.
The Poortersloge or Burgher’s Lodge is an exemplary model of Gothic architecture in Bruges. It was built at the end of the 14th century and served as a meeting place for the burghers (a citizen of a town or city). One can admire its magnificent façade, decorated with stone figures; one of these is of the legendary bear, Beertje van de Logie, dated to 1417. In the past, banquets and festivities were held here; nowadays, the building contains historical documents.
If you're feeling peckish, stop off at the Cambrinus pub. The building oozes history. The original pub was built here in 1699 and despite a few updates, much of the place remains the same. When you arrive, the waiter will bring you a book the size of a dictionary with over 400 varieties of beer listed, along with vivid descriptions, in various languages. There truly is something for everyone. In addition to the best beer list in the country, their traditional Brugian food is also to die for. The rabbit stew is my favourite and will warm you up from the inside out if you are travelling in any of the colder months.
Burg Square is one of the most stunningly medieval parts of the city. Surrounding you from all sides, are architectural gems from the Gothic era to the Renaissance to the Neo-Classical revival.
Burg Town Hall
Burg Town Hall, or "Stadhuis", is the oldest building in the square, built in 1376 in true Gothic fashion. Standing between the bright red painted windowsills, are the statues of men from the Court of Flanders intermingled with biblical figures. Each one looking down at the townspeople below, guiding them in their daily lives.
Sandwiched between the Town Hall is the Palace of the Liberty. This once served as the Old Court House for more than 200 years. The brilliant white painted facade with gold trim is decorated like a cake with the golden Lady of Justice statue as the cherry on top.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
In the corner of the square, tucked away so tightly it almost seems to disappear, stands the Basilica of the Holy Blood. This 14th-century church holds one very important item, a vial of "Holy Blood" believed to be drops of blood and water washed from the body of Christ.
Behind its dark, richly decorated facade, hides and even more ornamental interior. The interior houses two chapels, each other the polar opposite of the other. The upper chapel is the crown jewel of West Flanders in high gothic style. From floor to ceiling there are darkly painted murals depicting the Holy Trinity and various scenes of the journey of Holy Blood Relic to Bruges. Vividly painted stained glass windows provide the only natural light inside the chapel. To ensure the murals don't fade with time, little modern lighting has been installed inside.
The Holy Blood relic is embedded in a rock-crystal vial and placed inside a glass cylinder framed with two golden crowns. It is only shown to the public on certain days of the week so if you're making a pilgrimage just to see it, be sure to check the schedule. When it is not on display, it is housed inside a silver tabernacle with a picture of the Lamb of God on the front. In recent years the validity of the vial has come under question and investigations have shown that it is was nothing more than a Byzantine perfume bottle from Constantinople. But to those who believe, no amount of science can deter them.
The lower chapel is a simple, Romanesque church from the 12-century, the last Romanesque church in all West Flanders. This chapel has been virtually unchanged since it was first built. The two chapels are connected but a large brick staircase built in 1533 in the Renaissance style which was subsequently destroyed during the French WWII occupation but rebuilt in the 19th century.
Across the bridge from Burg Square is the Vismarkt or old Fish Market. The fish market was once located in Markt Square, but the smell of the fish was so intense that people around the square complained and so it was moved further east. The covered stone arcade was built in 1821. The market is only open from Wednesday to Saturday in the early morning, but you can visit the iconic stone structure any time of the day.
From the Fish Market, walk west along the Dijver canal. The canal's passageway from the fish market to Nieuwstraat is a classical view of Bruges you must see for yourself. There are various restaurants along the canal which are reasonably touristy but do provide you with one of the most beautiful scenes in Bruges. If you just want to hop into one of their patios for a drink, I think the overpriced beer is well worth the view. This is a great place to end your first day or if you're trying to squeeze it all into 24 hours, you can continue on with the south tour.
Across the street and down a few lanes from the canal is the Groeninge Museum. The Groeninge Museum is an essential stop on your tour of Bruges as it gives you an introduction to Brugian art across six centuries.
The Primitive Flemish style of painting is featured throughout the walls of museums. Flemish art isn't classically thought of as exceedingly masterful since it can sometimes seem slightly grotesques, raw and explicit. Flemish painters were always trying to emulate their Italian counterparts when it comes to achieving dynamic perspective, but the Flemish didn't have the technical skills to realize these effects. The result are images which appear almost warped, but whose expressions are so real they left a lasting impression on the people who viewed them.
Arents House Courtyard
Across from the Groeninge Museum, you'll find the Arents House. Arents House was once an ancient manor belonging to the noble Arents family. It now hosts an extensive collection of paintings by the British artist Frank Brangwyn. While it might be worth a visit on a more extended tour to Bruges, today we are merely exploring its courtyard. The small yard between the two medieval houses is the perfect place to stop and take a moment of pause. Listen to the sounds of cobblestones underfoot. The trickle of water which flows down the canal. From Arents Court you have one of the most splendid views of the Church of Our Lady's tower. If you're lucky, you'll hear the church bell rings across the street and the soft crowing of birds perched above. There are four exciting sculptures by artist Rik Poot, surrounding the courtyard, representing the "Four Apocalyptic Knights" which are a great compliment to the artistic surroundings.
Before heading across to the Church of Our Lady, you'll pass across the Bonifacius Bridge. Despite only dating from 1910, is one of the most beautiful bridges of Bruges. The tightly interlaced cobblestones are red brick archway provide the perfect frame for the church towers behind it. Standing on the bridge, you can watch tourists paddle up and down the canal.
The Church of Our Lady
All of the churches in Bruges are enormous. They seem to tower over the tiny houses below. The Church of Our Lady's tower is over 122 meters high, the highest point in Bruges and is the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. Because the church took over two centuries to build, it combines various evolutions of Gothic architecture with a Baroque interior.
While the interior might not be as grand as it's exterior, it is still worth poking your head inside. The central organ is a small but opulent design, hiding behind the high altar screen. A few dozen simple chairs provide seating for the small but dedicated congregation. The altar screen is unique both in colouring and design. Its white and green coloured marble are highlighted with splashes of gold leafing. Along the nave are columns dotted with reliefs of various influential saints. On the right side of the nave, a large wooden pulpit stands at attention, dozens of beautifully carved cherubs hang off the sides, clinging to books with golden scriptures written on them for the people below to read.
Behind the high altar is the resting place of two of Bruges' most famous residents. The golden tombs of Charles the Bold and the Duchess Mary of Burgundy lie in quiet repose beneath a beautiful tryptic. The elaborately designed tombs are worth taking a look at, so don't miss touring the back half of the church.
The crown jewel of this church is the white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child created by Michelangelo from 1504. Over the years, the statue has been stolen by foreign invaders, but those dedicated to preserving its place in Bruges have always managed to bring it back home. Although this sculpture doesn't have the same impact as his Pieta in Rome, the sadness on the Madonna's face reflects her knowledge that this little boy will grow up only to die for the sins of his people.
Away from the Church of Our Lady is the Gruuthuse Hof, a small but historic house, adorably sandwiched between two major streets. Now a restaurant, the Gruuthuse Hof is one of the oldest residences in Bruges. While in one of the most prime locations for tourists, the restaurant manages to keep a somewhat simple, traditional menu which caters to both locals and tourists alike. With only 28 seats inside and 12 on the patio, the place remains intimate despite its popularity over the eras. If you can find a table, it's worth stopping in for the featured meal of the day.
St. Salvator's Cathedral
Up from the Gruuthuse Hof is St. Salvator's Cathedral. It is the oldest parish church in Bruges with parts dating back to the 10th century. But the original design was much less grandiose than the current incarnation. In 1834, after Belgium's independence, St. Salvator's was given the status of the cathedral and the meagre church had to be extensively renovated to match its new high status as a cathedral.
The architect of the new cathedral was William Chantrell, an English architect, who was greatly influenced by the resurgence of Neo-Romanesque architecture. Neo-Romanesque buildings feature thick walls, round arches, sturdy pillars, barrel vaults, large towers and decorative arcading. Because most of the rest of Bruges is so powerfully Gothic, this church stands out.
The neo-Gothic interior of the church is relatively plain but is accented with stunning embroidered tapestries from the 18th century. These antiquated works of art were made in Brussels by Jasper van der Borcht and featuring astounding scenes from the Bible, all created with needles and thread.
The pulpit, to the left of the nave, is a stunning example of Louis the XVI designs. Louis XVI design was predominantly produced in France and exemplified the last phase of Rococo design. The style focused on natural forms and dramatic embellishments.
Old St. John's Hospital
Walking back down Mariastraat, we come upon Old St. John's Hospital which is now the Memling Museum. Before becoming a museum, it was used a hospital for the sick and dying, who were administered to by nuns and priests. Inside are many different relics and six paintings by 15th-century painter, and Bruges resident, Hans Memling. One of the highlights inside is the Shrine to St. Ursula. Carved into a gilded wooden reliquary, in the shape of the church, are six panels which tell the story of St. Ursula's sainthood, painted by Memling himself. The work was commissioned by the Hospital of St. John and is one of the most exquisite pieces of religious art I've seen close up. The three-dimensional details and rich colours are remarkable.
Inside the museum, you can also visit the old pharmacy. It's a real treat for anyone who loves going back in time and seeing how sickness was treated back in the 1800s.
De Vos Almshouse
Further south, away from the central part of the city, we will come across the "De Vos Almshouse". This small grouping of little white houses, facing a lush green herb and flower garden once houses the poor, widows and the elderly. The houses were purchased by a wealthy Brugian merchant who loved his city and wanted to give back to the less fortunate. Each house was donated to a specific guild (mason's guild, blacksmith, coopers etc.) and would provide housing for members of that guild when they became too old to work, or fell ill or lost their jobs. You might notice how none of the houses have windows which face the street - this was because at the time of their construction there was a tax improvised for any street-facing window.
Before entering our final destination be sure to stop into the Beguinage 'De Wijngaard' or Vineyard. This grouping of white houses with terracotta roofs is one of the most peaceful places to rest your weary feet in Bruges. So far away from the centre of town, this site is little toured by day-tripping tourists.
Since 1245, the beguine sisterhood of Bruges have lived here, and in 1937 it became a monastery for the Benedictine sisters. To enter the Beguinage, you first pass through a large arched entrance gate built in 1776. Inside you find houses which range from the 15th to 19th century.
Minnewater or Lake of Love is one of the most beloved retreats for the remaining residence of Bruges. Swans float up and down the picturesque canals and lovers roam under the densely forested pathways, arm in arm.
This is the ideal place to come to reflect on your time in Bruges. If you're wondering what to eat on your last day here, I recommend the mussels. Mussels are a Belgian speciality and you can find them offered up at any restaurant in Bruges. They are so simple to make delicious, so you really can't go wrong. While the restaurants around Markt Square are slightly overpriced the view is really what you're paying for so I say go for it! Enjoy people watching and the incredible view, and soak in all of this beautiful gothic paradise