A medieval city with cobbled streets, Gothic architecture and stuffed with artisan chocolate shops and monk-brewed Trappist beer; it’s not hard to see the appeal of Bruges. So when Kasha revealed we would be visiting this Belgian gem as my birthday surprise, I was overwhelmed. I’ve dreamed for years of visiting the place that Colin Farrell’s In Bruges immortalised on film, and discovering its old-world delights. To really honour this destination, I’ve put together my ultimate Bruges Travel Guide, to share the awesome things on offer.
As there is no international airport in Bruges, you’ll most likely travel in from Ostend, Brussels or Zeebrugge and arrive at the train station. From here, you have two choices, you can grab a bus to the centre, or you can enjoy a leisurely stroll of around 20 minutes along cobbled streets and past gorgeous historic buildings; it’s an easy decision for most people.
Essential Things to do in Bruges:
If there’s one part of Bruges that is unavoidable, it’s the pedestrianised historic central Markt. The awe-inspiring sight of the 83-metre Belfry gives way to a guildhall lined square dotted by alfresco bars and the central statue of two local heroes: Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck who famously fended off the French in the early 14th century.
Here you’ll find the Bruges Beer Museum, the Salvador Dali Museum and the Historium, where you can learn all about the town’s rich history. If you feel like enjoying a drink or a meal at one of the many touristy restaurants lining the square, be aware that the food is a little overpriced, and the beer selection isn’t that great (read my section on food below). Your wallet and your belly are much better off dining anywhere away from the Markt.
The medieval, 12th-century bell tower is one of the most striking buildings I have ever seen. It’s pretty much obligatory to climb up the 366 steps to get a bird’s eye view of the city (10 Euro), so budget in some time to do so. This tower also boasts star status after appearing in the Colin Farrell flick In Bruges so movie buffs will enjoy a chance to retrace Brendan Gleeson’s steps, but hopefully without the same intention. The winding stairs are just as narrow as you imagine, but thankfully a timed light based system ensures you won’t get caught in a traffic jam.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
Named for the treasured vial that is said to contain the blood of Jesus Christ – as collected by Joseph of Arimathea (the man who donated his tomb to the Jesus) – this church is a serene and magnificent place to explore. Make sure to time your visit (free to enter) with the solemn daily ceremony that allows you to lay your hands directly onto the golden, jewel encrusted vial.
If you hadn’t already noticed, the Belgian people love beer. So when it came time to choose some cultural activities for our trip to Bruges, a brewery tour came quite naturally. De Halve Man brewery (half moon) is the last remaining beer producer in central Bruges, and after one taste of their products its easy to see why. A tour of their venerated brewery (8.50 Euro per person) will see you guided around the various vessels, enlightened with local history and the denouement of the tour sees you enjoy a fresh glass of Brugse Zot Blond straight from the source.
Cathedral of our Lady
Very close to the De Halve Man brewery, the towering Gothic masterpiece of Onthaalkerk Onze-Lieve-Vrouw is the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. The main church is completely free to enter, however the chapel containing some of the best artwork is 6 Euros. Here, you’ll see Michelangelo’s world-famous Madonna and Child, a true masterpiece carved from white marble; a glimpse is worth the admission cost alone. There are some other fascinating works here, so take the time to explore all there is to see.
If you thought you’d get away without seeing Bruges on the water, you were wrong! As touristy as it may be, a scenic tour of Bruges’ canalways is a must. Trips take around 30-minutes, run every day and will set you back around 8 Euro. You’ll get some great photo opportunities, see some of the city’s most beautiful architecture and, if you’re lucky, hear a few funny anecdotes from your driver.
Alternative Things to do in Bruges
Hunt Down a Windmill
Windmills may be more associated with the Dutch than the Belgian, a number of brightly painted windmills can be found at the eastern boundary of Bruges. While once there was more than 20 of these impressive constructions, now only a handful remain. You can actually visit the still working St Janhuis mill for 2 Euro (May-Sept). It’s quite a walk from the city centre, but more than worth it to relax with a picnic under the mills, enjoy a drink in one of the nearby bars or seek out the old city walls and the 15th century Kruispoort city gate.
Visit the Frietmuseum
The world’s only museum dedicated to potato fries; the Frietmuseum is unquestionably awesome. If you’re a fan of a good chip as much as I am, you’ll enjoy a chance to wander through this museum and retrace the humble potato’s transformation into the beloved snack we know and love today. As well as learning about the effect chips have had on our culture, you’ll even get a chance to taste a cone of frites at the end of your tour – result!
Go Beer Shopping
Visitors will slurp down the golden beers in Bruges in their thousands, but a true connoisseur will try and take bottles of this amber nectar home. As well as being much cheaper to buy beer here than in the UK, your selection choice is vast. My recommendation would be to grab some of the Trappist beer on offer, this is beer brewed traditionally in just 11 places around the world – six of which are in Belgium. Two of my favourite Trappist brewers are Orval and Chimay, but take the time to explore your own favourites.
Check out the Bruges Triennale
Every three years, the entire city is transformed into a walkable art gallery. Known as the Triennale, this event sees creatives from across the globe come to the medieval city to showcase some exciting – largely outdoor – artwork. Modern sculptures contrast with centuries old architecture as artists attempt to take you on a sensory journey. 2015’s sculptures included a series of treehouses, an overturned flashing pylon in the canal and an enormous glass ‘Diamondscope’ in the historic Markt Square.
Pick up a Souvenir at the Flea Market
One of the most interesting ways you can while away an hour or so in Bruges is by heading to the flea market where you can work your way through fancy beer glasses, World War memorabilia or unique decorative items. These antique markets offer a wonderful insight into the lives of the locals, and can actually transport you back to a bygone era. There are a couple of options available, the most popular being held in Vismarkt on Saturday and Sunday, or if you’ve just finished a boat tour, you’ll pass by the charming ‘folklore’ market at Den Dijver.
Food in Bruges:
You’ll see endless stands selling waffles across the city, so you won’t have trouble getting hold of one. The only advice I can offer here is to choose make sure you try to taste both styles, the crunchy caramelised Liege waffles or their lighter but equally delicious cousin from Brussels (pictured above). Other than that, get stuck in.
Beer Infused Dining
If you really want to have the full Bruges experience, you should head to Bierbrasserie Cambrinus. Affectionately named after the European king of beer, this restaurant allows you to dine on dishes that are ALL made with the nectar of the gods. We opted for the ‘Menu of the Brewers’ (29 Euro per person) which will get you Trappist cheese croquettes, a rich Flemish stew infused with strong dark Gulden Draak ale and a dessert of crème brûlée enriched with a dark abbey beer by Ename.
As well as being ubiquitous in Bruges, chocolate shops are fast becoming one of the city’s main attractions, with home-made artisan producers selling their wares on every street. The hardest thing to do is choose a favourite, but you’ll have a lot of fun finding out! My advice is to sample just a couple from each shop until you find the perfect one, and then stock up on a few boxes to take home.
For Kasha and I, our favourite was Dumon. Located in a squat little house on the Eiermarkt, the truffles here are literally to die for and we actually visited around three times. If you want something a bit more experimental, head to The Chocolate Line where you can sample flavours like wasabi, tobacco or even fried onion. If you want good quality choccies on the cheap however, the chain Leonidas is a great option.
Drinking in Bruges:
‘t Brugs Beertje
In Bruges, size matters. And there is no size more important than a bar’s beer menu. At ‘t Brugs Beertje a 300 strong beer bible provides the discerning drinker with plenty of choice. If you don’t want to drink from the bottle, there are even five regularly rotating draft beers to enjoy. My recommendation here is to peruse the array of Trappist beers. I opted for the Rochefort 10, dark a quadruple packed full of rich fruity flavour.
For those that prefer their hoppy explorations in the dark, the gorgeous subterranean drinking den of Le Trappiste is for you. This international beer café is located just 400-metres from the main square and from street level you simply need to descend the stairs to find yourself in an 800-year-old vaulted cellar.
If you’re finding it hard to choose a brew, the tasting tray (pictured above) is an excellent way to sample many of the fantastic beers on draft. I felt like trying something a little special here so I went for the St. Bernardus Abt 12. Although not technically a Trappist beer, the brewery has historically close ties to the Westvleteren Brewery (maker of some of the world’s best beers) and the two share very similar recipes. So if you can’t afford / find the elusive Westvleteren 12, this is a delicious alternative.
Where to Stay in Bruges:
The old town of Bruges is not very big, so if you’re staying near to the centre everything is in very easy reach. Thankfully, a room right near the Markt won’t cost you the earth. We stayed at the charming Hotel Cavalier, a budget-friendly hotel with a decent continental breakfast – think fresh bread, pastries, cold meats and occasionally a boiled egg thrown in for good measure. The best thing about this hotel though is its location. Sitting just 250 metres from the main square, you literally couldn’t get more central.
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If you’ve enjoyed reading all about this beautiful Belgian city, why not take a peek at some of the amazing things to do in the Polish seaside resort of Gdańsk and Sopot.