Bruges, or Brugge in Dutch, is almost a perfect medieval fairytale town in Belgium. The cobbled lanes and canals linking the market squares are so picture perfect that you may find it difficult to put your camera away and absorb the beauty for yourself. The city is also an architecture lover’s dream, even by European standards and the Gothic and Baroque buildings are truly jaw-dropping. Obviously, with this sort of beauty comes lots of tourists and in the summer months the constant crowds are the city’s only real downfall.
You should certainly not let the crowds put you off however and with some planning (ie visiting midweek) the worst of it can be avoided. Spring is a particularly beautiful time to visit the city and see the Loppem Castle gardens in bloom or daffodils returning to the grounds of Begijnhof. Winter is also a good time as the city looks great with a dusting of snow and, apart from at Christmas, the crowds are almost entirely gone.
Here is our opinion of the best things to do in Bruges.
1. Go to Hospital
This isn’t your ordinary hospital, the Museum St Janshospital is a restored 12th century hospital complete with timber roof beams and art masterpieces dating back to the 15th Century. The oak reliquary, in all of its gilded glory, is the most famous piece within the museum and was crafted by Hans Memling. The piece tells the story of St Ursula’s betrothal to a pagan prince. Ursula, along with 11,000 virgins, was murdered on her way to Rome by the King of the Huns. Entrance to the museum is 8 Euros for adults and includes entry into a model 17th century pharmacy.
2. Visit Bruges Markt
Bruges historic Markt is like many others in Europe. It is a beautiful open square surrounded by delightful architecture, cafes and restaurants and plenty of tourists. Most of the guildhalls surrounding the square, and providing the wonderful views, are not original but are based on the original designs. The most notable points in the square are the imposing the neogothic Provincaal Hof building and Craenenberg Cafe were Maximilllian of Austria was imprisoned all the way back in the year 1488.
3. Absorb Culture in the Groeningemuseum
Without a doubt the “must-visit” art gallery within Bruges, the Groeningemuseum is the go to destination for art lovers. The gallery is especially wonderful for those who want to see Flemish artwork from throughout the centuries past. There are many beautiful works in the gallery, but for those with a more morbid appreciation of art, you will be pleased to know that the gallery contains many gory and gruesome works including a painting from 1498 of a man being flayed alive and St George being tortured. If you need a break from it all, there are wonderful views from the building of the market square.
4. See Christ’s Blood
The Heilig-Bloedbasiliek is a small basilica which was supposedly once home to a phial of Christ’s blood. This is the reason for many thousands of visitors attending the basilica each and every year. The phial is displayed in a decorative tabernacle but is bought out for viewing at 2pm every day. The museum has other objects worth seeing including a crown that once belonged to Mary of Burgundy. The building itself dates back to the 12th Century and was once the residence of the Count of Flanders.
5. Stare up at the Belfort
The Tolkeinesque Belfort building in Bruges stands tall at 83 metres. The building is best admired from afar and will no doubt feature in many photos of your trip to Bruges. The most worthwhile thing to do inside the building is climb the tiring (and slightly claustrophobic) stairway to the top of the tower. Once there, you will have great views of the city Only 70 people are allowed at the top at one time, which can cause queues in the summer and at other busy times. Lookout for the board at the entrance to the tower which will let you know when you can hear the building’s 47 bells.
6. See the Church of Our Lady
The Church of Our Lady or Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk dates from the 13th century and is best known ad being the home of Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child statue which attracts visitors from around the globe. The piece was the only one by Michelangelo to leave Italy whilst the artist was still alive. There are several other lesser-known but equally as impressive pieces of art in the church which mainly date from the 15th century. The tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter are crafted in bronze and stone and are worth seeing also.
7. Admire the Brugse Vrije
This building was once the administerial centre of Bruges when it was in its Liberty of Bruges phase in the 12th Century and is still used as offices to this day. The building itself is stunning to look upon and the carved chimney, from the 15th Century, is arguably its most beautiful asset. Also worth seeing is the mantlepiece ornament, made from oak, depicting Charles V and his two grandfathers.
8. Walk on the set of In Bruges
The blockbuster and critically acclaimed thriller In Bruges featuring stars such as Colin Farell and Brendan Gleeson was, of course, filmed and set in the city. Leaflets are available from various tourist offices that allow you to track down the locations of some of the films scenes. Not only is this a great opportunity for fans of the film to relive the greatest scenes but it also serves as a great walking tour of the city’s landmarks including the Belfort and market square.
9. Eat Chocolate and Drink Beer
Although this point can be applied to anywhere in Belgium, Bruges is a really a showcase city for two of Belgium’s main treats, beer and chocolate. Sukerbuyc is a family run chocolatier and cafe which is a great spot to taste some of the best chocolate in the city/country/world. Order yourself a hot drink and you can expect it to come with some of the divine chocolate made at the cafe. The city’s only surviving brewery, the De Halve Maan is open daily and is a great place to sample some of the best beer in the city.
11. Get interactive in the Historium
This part museum part medieval movie is an interactive museum experience like no other. Situated in a beautiful neogothic building near the city’s market square, the museum’s sole objective is to take visitors back to medieval Bruges via an hour long audio and video tour. The historical accuracy (or lack of it) and the lack of facts make this more of an exciting experience for children and families rather than a learning experience about the city and its medieval history.
12. See Bruge’s Other Square
The Burg square, right next to the better know but arguably less impressive Markt square, is worth a visit during your time in the city. The palace in the square was the seat of the Count of Flanders for many years. The square was also the site of a magnificent cathedral but this was tore down in the 18th Century. The Burg is probably the best place in Bruges for lovers of architecture as the collection of buildings dotted around this square are all beautiful in their own way.
13. Walk to the Jeruzalemkerk
This church in St Anna is one of the strangest in the city. It was built by the Adornes family in the 15th Century and was based upon the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The altarpiece of the church is covered in skulls and there is also an effigy of Jesus Christ’s corpse and a tomb containing only the heart of Anselm Adornes which was supposedly bought all the way back from Scotland following Adornes murder. It is safe to say that this church is one of the more macabre in the city of Bruges.
14. Admire the Stadhuis
Bruge’s Stadhuis, town-hall, is a truly stunning building that dates back to the early 15th Century. The turrets and slitted windows on the buildings facade ooze Gothic beauty. There are also a number of statues of former counts and countesses of Flanders. Audio guides lead visitors through the interior starting with the portraits in the hallway before heading upstairs to the Gothic hall. If you thought the building looked good from the outside wait until you see the ceiling and the murals within the Gothic hall, you will be left speechless.
15. Take a trip to the Kasteel Van Loppem
Kasteel Van Loppem or, in English, Castle Loppem is a good opportunity to explore the area just outside of Bruges. The building, which is just on the outskirts of the city, is more of a mansion than a castle. It was built in the 19th Century and was home of the Belgian King for a short period of time after the end of the First World War. During this time it was also a command center for Belgium’s army. The park surrounding the castle are wonderful and home to a maze and ponds.