Ever since I started living in Belgium, apart from the high praises that were given to Antwerp and Brussels, there were two other towns that gained a lot of raves from tourists and travelers alike: Bruges and Ghent. (Things to Do in Bruges)
I have already been to Ghent a long time ago but it was only just last month that I was able to go to Bruges; a seemingly favorite choice of Belgians when it comes to charming little old towns.
» READ: Ghent Self-Guided Walking Tour
I actually first witnessed Bruge’s postcard-perfect beauty when my friend introduced me to the highly-rated 2008 movie: “In Bruges [click]“ — a dark comedy that tells the story of two Irish hitmen.
Naturally, given the awesome coverage that was given to Bruges by this movie, I have been wishing for the chance to visit this town! And finally, I was able to set foot in Bruges, and you bet that it has exceeded my expectations!
» Quick Travel Planning
Bruges Travel Guide
Bruges or Brugge (which means ‘bridges’ in Old Dutch) is the capital and largest city in the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium. Though the totality of the city is large, the main area of Bruges would have to be the historic city center which is very small… and yet, even if it’s only 430 hectares in size, it is truly an outstanding example of a medieval historic settlement!
In fact, due to its magnificence, it has gained a prominent spot on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list since 2000, and as best illustrated by the map below, you will see how the historic city is oval-shaped and surrounded by stone walls. These structures were built for security at first but had later on been improved as Bruges blossomed as a city of international trade.
FACT: At 7km long, it is interlaced with canals, surrounded by reinforcements, and 7 gates (but only 4 remain standing today with the best preserved one at Langestraat, the Kruispoort).
Photos by Emmanuel PARENT / CC
Given all this information, you now have a fair idea of how small this city can really be. But don’t let its size fool you because Bruges can make you feel like you are walking AND living in a fairy tale town that’s straight out of a storybook! With its cobbled lanes, dreamy canals, medieval architecture, and historic churches among many others, you’re bound to have a magical time here.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are slowly learning about this treasured fact, so there are times that there is a constant stream of tourists in Bruges… yet again, don’t fret!
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» Best Time to Visit Bruges
Try to visit outside the high-peak season which would be the summer months of June to August. If you can’t avoid that, try to visit during the middle of the week and then also try to stay a night.
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» Getting Into Bruges
By plane. The closest airport would be Brussels, Charleroi (Brussels South), and Lille.
By car. Take the E40 highway and watch out for signs to ‘Brugge Centrum’. Take note though that since Bruges is a small town, you can’t take your car in. Well, you can, but it will be difficult with its small streets. Nevertheless, there are a lot of car parks outside the city center.
By train. Belgium has a good train system and from the capital, Brussels, heading to Bruges will only take you 50 minutes.
TIP: Pick the “IC” marked trains since they travel faster.
The train is anyone’s best bet in order to arrive in Bruges! Belgium has an excellent rail system so it shouldn’t be hard for you to reach this place from the capital of Brussels, which would take about 50 minutes.
Once you’re in the station, you have three options:
- TAXI. The fastest choice, but do consider that European taxis can be very costly; that’s why unless you have heavy bags, try to avoid this one.
- BUS. The bus stop is just right outside the center and as long as you take those that have the “Centrum” sign, it will take you to the Grote Markt (center square).
- ON FOOT. The city center isn’t so far since walking takes only 15 minutes. We chose to do this and I highly recommend that you do so too because you can already see great sights along the way that is often overlooked*!
- TIP: But if you have suitcases with you, I can’t really suggest walking since once you reach the city center, the cobblestone roads can be quite a hassle for your wheels (unless you are fine with carrying them, then good!)
I said the word ‘overlooked’ because if you take the taxi or the bus, you’re bound to miss out on De Brugse Vesten! This is a scenic park or ‘green belt’ around the city’s historic center that’s also laced with canals.
It even has a few old windmill houses here and there and it can be quite a sight. This is one of the perfect spots for you to escape to in case the center remains to be really crowded for your taste.
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» Where to Stay (Bruges Accommodations)
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» Helpful Dutch Phrases
People in Bruges predominantly speak West Flemish dialect which is similar to Dutch. A lot of people speak English as well but it doesn’t hurt to learn a few of these helpful phrases.
- RELATED READ: Best translation apps for travel
How are you (informal): Hoe gaat het? (hoo GAHT hut?)
How are you (formal): Hoe maakt u het? (hoo MAHKT uu hut?)
Thank you (informal): Dank je (DAHNK yuh)
Thank you (formal): Dank u (DAHNK uu)
Yes: Ja (YAH)
No: Nee (NAY)
Goodbye: Tot ziens (TOT seens)
I’m sorry: Het spijt me (hut speyt muh)
Is there someone here who speaks English?: Spreekt hier iemand Engels? (SPRAYKT heer EE-mahnt ENG-uls?)
Help!: Help! (HEHLP!)
Cheers!: Proost! (Prohst!)
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Things to Do in Bruges
1. See the Grote Markt
Also simply called the ‘Markt‘, it is a large market square of Bruges that packs a lot of character!
It has a prominent statue in the middle highlighting two ‘heroes’ of the city during a historical clash called the ‘Brugse Metten’ or the Battle of the Golden Spurs. And since it is at the very center and ‘THE’ center of this city, you will see here a number of horse-drawn carriages, multiple shops, medieval-style buildings or guildhalls, and of course the prominent Belfry.
It would be nice to take a seat in one of the cafés and restaurants around this Markt so that you can admire the view; but be aware that as it is the ‘center’ of it all, the prices can be a bit exuberant as well! (Much like the carriages). But if you must really need a cup of jo or a bottle of beer, I suggest that you just explore the side streets around this area since you can chance upon decently-priced shops that are still in an amazing spot.
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2. Go up Belfort en Hallen
Also called ‘Belfry and Market Halls’, this is a medieval (12th century) bell tower rising at 83 meters and it is surely one of Bruges’ most prominent symbols.
A definite must-do for this belfry? Climb up its 366 steps in order to see the details of the clock tower AND the breathtaking panoramic view of the whole city!
I will already warn you by now though that the lines can be long, and that the climb can take your breath away literally due to the ‘exercise’. Nevertheless, those factors aside, it will really be worth it!
INFO: Open from 9:30AM to 5:00PM, entrance fee is at €8 (Php 400+) but can be only €6 (Php 300+) with the Bruges City Card.
TIP: To avoid the queue, try to go early in the morning. If you’re a family, of course it would be nice to bring your kids along, but take note that it can be quite hard for the kids to do it (add the fact that with a crowd, it could be tough to handle them in such a narrow space). Rest assured, there are rest stops along the way so you won’t have to worry about bothering other people if in case you are out of breath.
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3. Witness the ‘2nd market square’: The Burg
Here, you will see a showcase of various buildings in different architectural styles!
There’s the Gothic town hall, the Renaissance-styled Old Civil Registry, the Neo-Classicist former Court of Justice building, the Baroque-styled Deanery house, and the late-Gothic Chapel of the Holy Blood.
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4. Do a Canal Cruise
Of course, a trip to Bruges would NOT be complete without this experience!
It’s surely a ‘touristy’ thing to do, and it can even breeze by the city in a manner that might make you feel that it went by too fast (even if it lasts for 30 minutes) — but I will still keep on recommending this experience because it was surely a different way of seeing the city!
As a matter of fact, the ride made us see several wonderful spots that wouldn’t have been normally reached by foot.
The most photographed area would be what I show in the photo above: Rozenhoedkaai which is near the Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce hotel (also featured in the movie ‘In Bruges’) and which is where you will see the cluster of canal cruise providers.
INFO: They cost around €8 (Php 400+). Opens at 10:00AM and closes at around 6:00PM (some even earlier at around 5:00PM).
One of the awesome things about these canal cruises is that the guides are multilingual, funny, and chatty! …Well at least our tour guide was that kind of person. Along the way too, the first notable thing that we saw was their ‘mascot’, Fidel, who is a seemingly lazy dog that always picks this window by the canal for his afternoon naps.
Apparently, he is a ‘resident’ of a bed and breakfast called Côté Canal at Groenerei (Green Canal). Because of his adorable behavior, he has become quite a landmark in Bruges for years and he even made a cameo in the ‘In Bruges’ movie! Isn’t that adorable?!
UPDATE: As of February 2, 2016, you won’t be seeing Fidel anymore. Regrettably, he died because of health complications. :( He will definitely be missed! From here on out, I bet a lot of visitors will glance by his window and miss seeing him there.
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5. Witness the Minnewater Park
Another highlight of your trip would be Minnewater Park or the ‘Lake of Love’ which is swarmed with a lot of elegant swans.
It was such a sight! There were certain sections for sure in the canals where swans were waddling about, but it is in this park where you will see PLENTY of them.
TRIVIA: Swans are also one of the symbols of Bruges and there’s actually a legend surrounding them. It seems that in the 1400s, the people of Bruges executed one of the town administrators who had a family coat of arms featuring a white swan. To punish the townspeople of Bruges for doing such a thing, the court obliged the population to keep swans on their lakes and canals forever! …Sounds like a lovely punishment if you ask me, but it’s a very surreal legend, don’t you think?
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BONUS: Just wander around and get lost!
Remember how I said that Bruges is small? I have to admit that I first, I thought my friend was kidding and it would tire me out to try and explore everything… but of course I was wrong.
Bruges’ center is really small, so I suggest that after doing the aforementioned activities, go and just walk around. In this way, you’re bound to see a famed spot in the city or a low-key one at that!
Of course, you can do museum trips (e.g.: Basilica of the Holy Blood, Choco-Story Museum, etc.), brewery tours (e.g.: De Halve Maan), and other historical escapades around the city as you go but if you’re like us who didn’t have much time at all to spend for such activities, you can just stroll around and drop by the key places below:
- Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk: Or the ‘Church of Our Lady’ is 122.3 meters high and it remains to be the tallest structure in Bruges and the 2nd tallest brickwork tower in the world. To add more to its grandness, it is actually in this church where you will see one of the masterpieces of Michelangelo which is the sculpture of the Madonna and Child.
- Bonifaciusbrug: Or ‘Bonifacius Bridge’ is yet another scenic place in Bruges that can enchant you given its marvelous view of the Church of Our Lady and the Gruuthuse Palace (just near the Groeninge Museum). It absolutely has a feeling of ‘secrecy’ to it; add the clattering of the horse-drawn carriages that pass by on the nearby street and you’re sure to have a mystical time.
- Groeninge Museum: I’m not talking about the museum that houses an impressive array of Flemish paintings, but I’m talking more about the courtyard outside this museum as it was such a great spot for lounging!
- Begijnhof (Beguinage) – A truly tranquil place that’s full of white-washed houses circling a vast garden covered with large poplar trees. Founded in 1245, it was here where the beguines of Burges lived during the last 7 centuries up until 1937. It’s sure to be an escape from the crowds but just make sure that you keep quiet because nowadays, this is a monastery inhabited by sisters (or ‘nuns’) of the Order of Saint Benedict.
- Minnewater Lake: Further down from Minnewater Park and near Begijnhof is this picturesque lake that will capture your heart. This was the ending spot for us as we walked around Bruges and I can tell you with utter honesty that its serenity and beauty were the best ‘trip-ender’!
BONUS: Go to Wollestraat 8 and you will see an amazing Beer Wall!
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However, take note that a travel insurance’s affordability typically means lesser coverage; so please always ensure that you read the fine print in order to decipher which travel insurance company is the right fit for you and your trip!
Looking for more travel tips for Belgium?
Check out my other detailed Belgium travel guides!
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Bruges is truly the best place for you if you want to be transported back to medieval times — or better yet, to a fairytale storybook set-up. (It’s no longer a wonder for me now as to why UNESCO made the whole city center a World Heritage Site!)
Though there might not be a lot of activities to do, it is still a great place to unwind, and a great destination if you’re looking for spectacular views. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, just plan your visit to avoid the crowds and you’re bound to have a perfect time in this magical town!
LAST TIP: …aaaand of course, since you’re in a Belgian town, make sure to try the famed Belgian treats and dishes! (» READ: 25 Things That Everyone Needs to Eat & Drink in Belgium)