With the entire city centre named as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a trip to Bruges is a must for any visitor to Belgium. It’s known as a simple and honest city, historically Frankish. Bruges is of one Belgium’s best-preserved medieval cities and smiles with a wrinkled sort of grin.
It’s a city of colourful bricks and mortar, long in the tooth but shedding the memory of the terrible wars and revolutions that have brought death to its streets with an invincible spirit of survival.
Its four ancient gates were once protected by great walls, but nowadays, tourist warriors can walk safely from the Vismarkt (fish market) to the Choco Story museum, looking out for locations from the movie ‘In Bruges’ along the way.
The black comedy starring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes was actually filmed in Bruges in 2008.
The often troubled past of the city shouldn’t haunt you in Bruges, but it will encourage you to find out how Bruges gained great status and then, like many medieval cities, lost it.
The city centre is compact, bustling, and arranged around a friendly square. The colourful buildings and circling canals give this great little city a very special look and atmosphere. American poet Henry Longfellow waxed lyrical about the towering and, to him, strange belfry. The industrial revolution passed Bruges by, and it was mercifully spared from the destruction that both World Wars brought to Belgium, safeguarding the city’s unique character.
Bruges is a city of the Middle Ages when Burgundy, under the predatory Charles the Bold, was one of the great powers of Europe.
The city’s looming clock tower, with its 365 steps, is one of the enduring symbols of Bruges’ earlier prosperity.
Memling and van Eyck gave the place a very special artistic heritage and romance can always be found at the 'Minnewater' (the Lake of Love).
Today Bruges has around 120,000 inhabitants and is the capital of the province of West Flanders. Each year more than 3 million tourists from all over the globe pay the city a visit. In high season during the summer and in the run up to Christmas the city centre can get very crowded.
Even then, you will be able find small pockets of tranquillity and calm hidden across the city. At the harbour and ferry port of Zeebrugge (Sea Bruges), the city has reclaimed its long lost maritime gateway to the world.
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Bruges has a history that is richer and much longer than that of the country of Belgium itself, dating back two millennia. Back then, a Gallo-Romanic settlement was established on the same spot where the city stands today.
From the very start, this was a trading centre - then with the rest of Gaul and England - and this was the first step towards the city’s golden economic future.
Some centuries later Scandinavia’s seamen became partners in trade, and it‘s from them that name Bruges came. It comes from the word “Bryggja”, Viking for a landing place or harbour.
Halfway through the 9th century, the Flemish coastal plains were being plundered by the Vikings.
By then, Bruges already had a citadel and fortifications formidable enough to discourage any potential attacker. The Norsemen must have thought it was better and more effective in the long-term to be friends and make money rather than engaging in siege warfare.
The city soon established a strong reputation and, with its extensive port facilities, quickly became the economic centre of Europe. However, in the 11th century Bruges’ direct access channels to the sea started to silt up.
While the city did remain connected to the sea via a canal to Damme until the 15th century, this forced Bruges to start using secondary ports like Sluis and Damme to maintain the steady flow of goods to and from the city.
The city went through its medieval rough patches, with some nasty periods of revolt, plague and other assorted upheavals, but continued to expand and prosper.
Bruges grew with its own beautiful architectural style, timeless and opulent, which eventually earned it the title, the Venice of the North.
The trade in Flemish cloth and other luxury goods fuelled the cultural and economic boom times. The concentration of wealthy bankers, merchants and noblemen attracted the very best artists and craftsmen and many of the architectural and artistic treasures they created are still around for visitors to enjoy today.
At the end of the 15th century the reign of Bruges as most influential and important city in northern Europe ended with the abrupt death of the Duchess of Burgundy.
Along with most of current Belgium, Bruges had been a part of Burgundy for about a century and the death of the Duchess sparked yet another revolt against foreign rule, represented by the Duchess’ husband Maximilian of Austria.
With the city plunged into a decade of political instability, international traders fled, costing Bruges its seemingly ever-growing prosperity.
The stories of the time - “Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck”, “The Battle of the Golden Spurs”, “The Story of Charles the Terrible”, “The Last Mass of Charles the Good”, “How Proud Bertulph was crucified in the Market-Place” and “The Lost Vial of Blood” – are of conflict and division. Bruges’ importance regularly put it at the centre of Belgium’s turbulent history and you can read more on our history page.
After a slight recovery of fortunes during the 16th century, Bruges had declined so far that halfway through the 19th century it was Belgium’s poorest city.
In 1892 the novel “Bruges la morte” (Dead Bruges) by Georges Rodenbach described the dire situation the city was in.
However, from that low point, the city slowly but steadily started working its way back up again.
The tourist cash began to flood in at the end of the 19th century and has since become the economic motor of the region. Together with the important harbour of Zeebrugge, which opened in 1907, it has made Bruges a prosperous city once again.
Getting There & Getting About
It doesn’t matter how you’re travelling in Belgium, Bruges is never far away and makes an excellent base for exploring the Flemish medieval cities or the province of West Flanders. Ypres is about 50 minutes by car, the coast only 20.
Many roads lead to Bruges. Driving from Calais, for instance, only takes 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Once you’re there, you’ll find many huge parking complexes in and around the city to stable your vehicle. Driving through the city centre can be a nightmare best left to the locals.
Busses, specially built to fit the narrow medieval streets, take you almost anywhere around the city anyway and taxi services are abundant. This city may not have an airport but there’s immediate access to and from the United Kingdom via the port of Zeebrugge. When flying or travelling by Eurostar or Thalys, Brussels is only an hour from Bruges’ beautifully modernised and well-equipped station.
See Belgian Rail for timetables and tickets. In our humble opinion, walking is the best way around Bruges; it just fits the city’s character.
It may not take you straight from A to B, but along with the canal boats and horse-drawn carriages, it gives a great perspective on this little city.
Finally, bikes are readily available in and around the city as well as at the station. When in Belgium do as the Belgians do and cycle the beautiful region around Bruges, several Cycle Routes can be obtained via Bruges' Tourism Office.
With more than 7,500 hotel beds and the only five star hotel in Flanders, the city of Bruges has a varied choice of accommodation. Everything from basic lodgings to the very best the world of hospitality has to offer. As this is an old city, you will find many hotels occupy historic buildings, all adding to the medieval experience of a visit.
As most people come for short city trips to Bruges, there aren’t as many holiday rentals available as there are in the coastal resorts. Then again, many of these resorts are only a short drive away and easy accessible by public transport.
What the city lacks in holiday rentals is made up for with some superb B&B’s and official youth hostels.
Camp sites are also scarce, with only one site 3 km/1.8 miles from the city. However, you will be able to find heaps at the seaside. With millions of visitors, most hotels are fully booked for much of the year.
This is true across all types of accommodation, so making reservations early is certainly advised. Don’t forget to check alternative bases close to the city for your visit, as there are plenty to be found only minutes away.
For The Love Of Beer
With all those visitors, Bruges is in the perfect position to promote one of Belgium’s most important and well-known export products: beer. During the 15th century, when the city was at its most powerful, Bruges boasted no less than 54 breweries within its fortified walls.
As the city’s economic power waned, so did its breweries. After the Great War, the rise in popularity of Pilsner beer and the investment required for its production meant the end for most small-scale breweries.
With De Halve Maan and Fort Lapin, Bruges today has two working breweries. De Halve Maan has been brewing since 1856.
As well as Straffe Hendrik Tripel, Quadrupel and Heritage they are best known for Brugse Zot (Blonde and Dubbel) which has already won several international awards.
The brewery itself is open to visitors and is located in the heart of the city, with guided tours in different languages.
They have a small shop and are well equipped to let you taste the beers along with some dishes specially prepared to accompany them. Fort Lapin is a relative newcomer to the world of Belgian beer. Nevertheless, after launching the blonde Fort Lapin 8 at the beginning of 2012, brewer Kristof Vandenbussche has already launched a second beer: Fort Lapin 10, a strong dark Quadrupel.
Finally there’s also Brugge Tripel (8.7 % ABV), formerly known as Brugse Tripel and originally brewed by the Gouden Boom.
Today this amber blonde beer is brewed by Palm Breweries, who took over the operation and moved it out of Bruges.
Alongside several well-stocked speciality beer café’s, you will find more than one beer shop. Beer aficionados worldwide acclaim Struise Brouwers, or Sturdy Brewers, and they have their own outlet on the historical Burg, just metres away from the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Here you can buy most of their brews and taste what you can’t carry home.
Many restaurants serve dishes prepared with beer, and there’s a specialised beer restaurant called Cambrinus offering entire menus prepared with beer.
Event wise, the Bruges Beer Festival organised by the BAB or Independent Beer Tasters of Bruges, is the city’s annual beer heyday.
During the first weekend of February, the historical halls of Bruges transform into a modern day beer paradise attracting tasters by the thousands.
Be sure to check our own thoroughly selected Beer Tourism Destinations.
Food & Gastronomy
If you count the number of stars per inhabitant, Bruges can truly be called Belgium’s Michelin hotspot. With two of the country’s three top ranking restaurants within the city’s perimeter and a staggering total of no less than nine Michelin star-winning eateries, this is nothing less than a top gastronomic destination.
However, if you’re not up for some Michelin-level cooking, this city is used to welcoming hordes of hungry tourists and is well equipped when it comes to catering to their culinary needs, whatever their taste or budget.
You will find a wide array of restaurants, bistros and tearooms scattered along the cobbled streets and on the numerous markets and squares.
If fast food is your thing and Belgian fries have become your main staple food, go and have some at a real Belgian 'Frietkot' or 'Friterie' in front of the belfry on the main square.
A lot of places serve classic French-Belgian cuisine, with typical dishes such as Flemish Carbonades or Paling in t’Groen, but exotic cooking is also well represented in Bruges.
Bruges has everything from Indian, to Thai to Italian to Chinese as well as one of the best Japanese restaurants in the country.
When it comes to chocolate you’re also in the right neighbourhood, the streets are simply riddled with chocolate shops.
Most of the major brands are present and, with the Chocolate Line, the city even boasts a Michelin awarded chocolate shop. Be sure to check some of the finer eating places in the city listed on our Sweet Tooth and Where to Eat pages.
Shopping & Markets
Lace, chocolate and beer are the first products that come to mind when Bruges is mentioned. Don’t be fooled though, besides the obvious tourist shops there is a wide array of quality shopping available.
Fashion, jewellery, antiques, comics, music and literature, you name it and you’ll probably find it. Remember, this has been a city of trade for centuries.
Shopping in Bruges is pretty simple to understand, you may find a couple of shops tucked away in a desolate corner, but in essence it’s concentrated in and around the main shopping arteries: Steenstraat, Vlamingstraat, Langestraat, Noorzandstraat and the adjacent Zuidzandstraat.
Most high street brands are well represented and off the beaten track you are certain to encounter smaller independent shops and boutiques.
In the Noordzandstraat and Zuidzandstraat you will also find the covered shopping centre, Zilverpand.
Most shops are open from 9am to 6pm, but some close on a Sunday. You will notice the absence of large supermarkets, as they are all located outside the historical centre. Markets are regularly held in different locations around the city. The main food market is held on Wednesdays between 8am and 1pm in front of the Belfort. On Saturdays, also between 8am and 1pm, there’s a larger food and non-food market held on t’Zand and the nearby Beursplein.
The fish market sells fresh North Sea produce each morning from Tuesdays to Saturdays.
As well as fish mongers you will also find a flea market there and along the Dijver canal, every Saturday and Sunday from 10am till 6pm, between the 15th of March and the 15th of November.
In winter, from the end of November till the beginning of January, there’s a Christmas market held on the “Markt” and in the Simon Stevin square. The one on the main square features an artificial open-air ice rink.
Sightseeing & Culture
Bruges is without any doubt one of Belgium’s cultural capitals, and even the most demanding museum lovers will be able to find something to their liking. If you’re not careful, you could find yourself leaving the city without having seen more than the inside of its many historical collections.
Then again, the city can easily be viewed as one big open-air museum, there’s just so much to see, one can spend years discovering it all.
When in Bruges, you can be transported back to centuries gone by with art, music or architecture without missing out on the best contemporary art.
Bruges never ceases to surprise, the city invests heavily in a diverse museum culture as well as supporting such modern projects as the Concertgebouw, which programs anything from modern rock to classical ballet and opera.
The Groeninge Museum is part of the Flemish Art Collection and covers six centuries of Flemish and Belgian art history from the late medieval period to the contemporary.
The most famous part of the collection is that of the 'Flemish Primitives', containing works by Jan van Eyck, Gerard David and Pieter Pourbus to name just a few. The St-Jans Hospital Museum also exhibits works from the Flemish Art Collection including the Memling collection.
The Brugge Museum brings together 12 of the top historical attractions around the city, each showcasing a different aspect of the Bruges’ rich heritage.
Locations like the 'Koelewei mill', the city hall and the Belfry are just some of the impressive buildings housing the vast collection of the Brugge Museum.
However, one of the most impressive locations is the Gruuthusemuseum. The museum is located in the former city palace of the lords of Gruuthuse, which dates back to the 15th century. Amongst the titles and privileges the lords of Gruuthuse were granted was a special right to tax all the beer brewed in Bruges.
Their impressive palace now houses a huge collection of typical arts and crafts including tapestries and silverware as well as an authentic guillotine from the 18th century.
Originally constructed in the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Holy Blood on the Burg houses a relic said to contain some of Jesus’ blood brought back from the Holy Land by one of the Counts of Flanders.
As well as the classic museums, there are also more modern, quirkier initiatives like the Frietmuseum, which gives you a very different outlook on the fate of the potato – as chips, crisps or fries.
Activities & Entertainment
As you must have figured out by now, this city likes to take care of its visitors. Away from the culture, there are plenty of other means to pass time and enjoy your stay. There’s a boat trip available to pocket-sized Damme, which has a golf and country club.
The city is surrounded by some nice forested areas ideal for nature walks, the Beisbroek forest even has a public observatory.
You can also cycle the canal towpaths around the city or jump on a train and spend an afternoon at the seaside in Zeebrugge.
Once there you can tour the huge harbour by boat, or go to see the authentic Russian submarine “Foxtrot” at the Seafront maritime theme park located at the old fish market.
Only ten minutes away from the city centre, you have the Boudewijn Seapark, a theme park that besides acrobatic shows featuring dolphins and sea lions also offers an indoor ice rink as well as miniature golf and plenty of mechanical attractions.
For the aquatically talented there’s the Olympia swimming pool. Also outside the city there’s a big, modern cinema complex that shows all of the latest blockbusters.
If that’s too far there are also a couple of smaller cinemas in the historic centre that mainly focus on international, independent movies.
For more information on activities and entertainment our category page on Things to Do or check with the Bruges Tourism Office.
MICE, B2B & Conferencing
As with most major cities and tourist destinations in Belgium, Bruges has its own specialised MICE or convention bureau. A professional team is at your disposal to show you all the B2B and MICE possibilities Bruges has to offer.
The bureau will bring you into contact with all of their hospitality, cultural and catering partners and will advise you as you organise the perfect custom-made business event.
Many of the hotels have great infrastructure, and are used to dealing with business clientele on a daily basis.
Besides the hotels there is a wide variety of original venues to host your event and an army of exquisite local caterers capable of providing and serving the most delicious dishes for your guests.
Almost anything is possible, with locations like the medieval city halls under the Belfry or the city’s neo-renaissance theatre built in 1868 to name just a couple.
The picture postcard backdrop and opulent architecture of Bruges come for free and will only add kudos to your event, fair or convention. For more information or see our own MICE & B2B travel guide category.
Festivals & Events
A great range of festivals and events are organised all year round in Bruges. From celebrating classical music at the Concertgebouw to UNESCO World Heritage listed events such as the Procession of the Holy Blood.
The first Procession of the Holy Blood is said to have taken place on 3rd May, 1304.
The Procession consists of more than 1,700 extras and live animals, accompanying the relic of the Holy Blood while depicting biblical scenes in front of tens of thousands of spectators.
The Reiefeesten is yet another historical event in the open air. It’s organised every three years and is named after the “Reien”, the official name for Bruges’ canals. At ten different locations around the city you will find spectacular re-enactments of major events in Bruges’ history, from Burgundian times right through the renaissance and baroque periods.
For three weeks from the end of April, there’s the yearly Bruges fair. Part of the city centre is transformed into a huge theme park with some 90 rides and attractions.
At the end of June, there’s a small, free world music festival called “Feest in t’Park” or “Party at the Park” in the romantic Minnewater park.
In mid-July there’s the three-day Cactus music festival, also at the Minnewater Park, which attracts around 30,000 visitors with international names like Jamie Lidell, Spearhead, Toots and The Maytals and Bryan Ferry. See our Festival and Events category page for more information.
The Egg Market or 'Eiermarkt' next to the “Markt” is the main hang out. It’s a small cosy square with plenty of dance cafés.
As well as the Egg Market you will find clubs and bars in the lively student neighbourhoods of the Langestraat, the Kuiperstraat and at the Kraanplein.
Although the students tend to party during the week, the weekend nights are by far the busiest. If you can't find something to your liking in bruges you can still check what's happening in nearby Ostend or Ghent.
Visit our Nightlife page for more information.
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