City trip to Bruges, a true medieval open-air museum
Bruges with its beautiful medieval centre invites you to visit. A city trip to Bruges is perhaps the best city trip you can do in Belgium. Along the picturesque canals you will find beautiful streets with many special buildings. All the attractions are close to each other in the wonderfully compact city centre. While walking, you feel like you’re in the Middle Ages and you can walk from one sight to another in this important Hanseatic city, which is on the UNESCO world heritage list for a reason. A city trip to Bruges feels like enjoying yourself in an immense open-air museum!
History of Bruges
The first signs of life in what is now the territory of Bruges date back to the 2nd century AD, when there was a Gallo-Roman settlement. The name of Bruges was first mentioned around 850. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, thanks to its important port, the city grew into an international trading hub.
The 14th century was the Golden Age for Bruges. The Burgundian royal house had made Bruges its residence city and attracted many outstanding artists, including painters and architects. This resulted in an enormous enrichment of the city on architectural, artistic and cultural level. The monumental town hall is a fine example of this. In addition, many houses and churches in the city centre date from that time.
The death of Mary of Burgundy in 1482 marked the end of the flourishing period. The royal house left Bruges. During a century, Antwerp took over the role as an important trading city and Bruges became completely dilapidated. Another disaster for the city was the silting up of the Zwin. As a result, the city lost its access to the sea. It was not until the 19th century that Bruges flourished again. Many rich people settled in Bruges and renovated the city. As a result, the city has now become one of the best-preserved medieval cities.
Bruges city break: main highlights
Because of the many canals (reijen) in the city, Bruges is called the Venice of the North. The city has many sights. That is why a day in Bruges is actually too short. Our personal highlights during a city trip Bruges include:
The beating heart of Bruges is the central and majestic market square. Although the square can be full of tourists on busy days in the weekend, there is still plenty to enjoy. Several beautiful buildings frame this square. In the middle, two statues stand out: these are Jan Breydel and Pieter De Coninck. These Bruges folk heroes played an important role in 1302 in the Flemish resistance against French dominion. Every Wednesday there is a large goods market in the square. You can buy the most delicious cheeses and sausages at the market and enjoy a bit of “local flavour”.
The most important Bruges tower [a belfry] dominates the image of the market. This belfry was built in the 13th century and is 83 metres high. First, the ascent of over 350 steps will take your breath away. Then that will happen again, when you enjoy the incredible view over the city and the vast surroundings. You can see the large harbour cranes of the Zeebrugge port. On the way up, you can take a rest during a visit to the treasure chamber. You can also enjoy a manually operated carillon with about 50 bells. You will hear this chime ringing all over the city regularly.
Canal cruise through the city
This is a way to discover why Bruges is called the Venice of the North. Through the many canals of Bruges you get a unique view of the historic city centre. A visit to Bruges is therefore not complete without a trip on the canals of Bruges. You can board at five different moorings. During a trip of half an hour, you can see the most beautiful spots of Bruges from the water. In the meantime, you will sail under many beautiful bridges.
In 1245 the ‘Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaarde’ was founded. Here women used to live a pious and celibate life in the white-painted houses. Together with the monastery garden, it is a wonderful resting place in the city. The houses are still inhabited today by sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict and unmarried women from Bruges. One of the cottages is accessible. Here you get a unique view of daily life in the 17th century. The beguinage adjoins a beautiful lake, the Minnewater, which is a lovely romantic spot in the city.
Bruges used to be an important hub for trade between Hanseatic cities from various countries. Goods were traded from Bruges to cities in France, Spain and Italy. The Spanish traders settled at the Spanish Loskaai and in the Spanjaardstraat, the Germans at the Oosterlingenplein. The central square of the Hanseatic Quarter is Jan van Eyckplein. This was once the old port of Bruges where goods were loaded and unloaded. You will find beautiful facades of the Tolhuis, the Pijnders Huis and the Poortersloge there. From Jan van Eyckplein you can quickly reach another nice district in Bruges: Sint-Gilliskwartier. A real working-class quarter where you won’t see many tourists.
The monumental town hall of Bruges is one of the oldest in the Netherlands. It dates back to 1420. On the facade of the beautiful building you can see numerous statues of the counts and countesses of Flanders. They are replicas, because the French rulers took the original statues with them in the 18th century. The absolute highlight of a visit to the town hall is the Gothic Hall. Note the beautiful ceiling, the beautiful low-hanging vaults and the many murals on the history of the city.
At the corner of the Market Square is a museum about the history of Bruges. It is a great interactive experience to immerse yourself in that history. No boring exhibitions or showcases. No, rather you feel like the protagonist in a film about the Middle Ages of Bruges. Through all kinds of techniques, you can get a fantastic picture of Bruges in the Golden Age. Experience it with Virtual Reality and see the city’s heyday as if you were living in those days yourself.
Finally, on the panoramic terrace you can enjoy a nice view over the Market Square, while enjoying a pint. If you’re even more adventurous, you can walk to the viewpoint of the Historium Tower up almost 150 steps. Here, you get a 360-degree panorama of the city.
Our Lady’s Church
At over 115 metres, the striking brick church tower is a special landmark in Bruges. It is the second highest church tower in the world. Inside, a world full of art treasures awaits you, with Michelangelo’s world-famous Madonna and Child as the absolute masterpiece. This is the only work of art for which this famous Italian sculptor ever left his country. Another beautiful work of art is ‘The Worshippers of the Shepherds’, made by Pieter Pourbus. The church contains many tombs, including the tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgundy.
Although it’s a modest museum in terms of size, you shouldn’t skip it during your city trip Bruges. The museum contains a fantastic and extensive collection of early Flemish and Dutch masters.
The highlight of the collection are the masterpieces of the world-famous Flemish primitives. Here you can see Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with canon Joris van der Paele and Hans Memling’s Moreeltriptych. The museum is therefore very popular with tourists. It is wise to visit the museum as early in the day as possible. The museum is open from 9:30 am.
Take a picture on the Rozenhoedkaai
For centuries this street along the canyon has carried the name Zoutdijk. It is suspected that the ships that used to deliver salt were unloaded here. It was not until the 18th century that the Rozenhoedkaai came into use as a name. The reason was that stalls selling rosaries were set up there. The Rozenhoedkaai runs from the Dijver to the Braambergstraat. The Rozenhoedkaai is the most photographed point of Bruges. You have a fantastic view of the beautiful buildings and the many people who take pictures or selfies here.
Other sights during your stay Bruges city break
An overview of the highlights is always quite personal. The above-mentioned highlights were great for us during our city trip to Bruges but it’s also worth visiting the Arentshof, an intimate little park and some alms houses (places of worship). Godshuis Sint-Jozef & De Meulenaere are the most beautiful of these.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood has an impressive treasury. In the Gruuthuse Museum you will find a lifelike wooden bust of Charles V. In addition, the chapel of the museum is impressive. You can also visit the De Halve Maan brewery. Here, they brew the famous Brugse Zot. Finally, if you want to escape the busy city centre, go for a walk via the Spinolarei and the Potterierei past the many museums and churches in this old town.
Bruges city break: practical matters
Transport to Bruges
- Bruges is located near the E40 motorway, an hour’s drive from Brussels and an hour and a half from Antwerp.
- It is possible to park your car for free on the outskirts of the city and continue your journey by public transport from here.
- The city centre is partly car-free and has a lot of one-way traffic.
- From Antwerp, Ghent, Hasselt, Leuven and Brussels there are one to four direct trains an hour to Bruges every day.
- The train station is about 1.5 kilometres from the centre (Markt). From the station you can take a bus or taxi.
Bruges city break: getting around in the city
- The city is compact and orderly. Many of the highlights can easily be reached on foot.
- In the past you could use the Brugge City Card, but for reasons that were unclear, they decided to abolish this card.
Eating, drinking and sleeping during your city trip to Bruges
- The city has lots of accommodation in all price ranges, from simple hostels and cosy B&Bs, to luxury hotels and atmospheric boutique hotels. Here you will find an overview of hotels in Bruges.
- For a delicious meal, you don’t have to search long in Bruges, there’s plenty of choice. On TripAdvisor you can easily find a restaurant of your choice.