No matter the time of year, Bruges is an enchanting place set amongst beautiful canals. Make sure tick these top 10 things to do in Bruges off your list.
I remember my first week at work after I had just moved to London in 2013, a colleague was handing out chocolates he had brought back from his trip to Bruges. I had not heard of Bruges nor did I know it was a hot spot for British travellers. After a quick Google image search and chocolate tasting, Bruges’ romantic canals and smooth chocolate left a lasting impression on me that I immediately added it to my bucket list.
To kick off the festive season this year, I decided to book my trip to Bruges at the end of November to coincide with the start of the Christmas markets. Walking around with a mulled wine in hand definitely added to the experience.
All things to do in Bruges mentioned in this article are either free or included in the Brugge City Card which is well worth getting. The are 48 hours (€ 46,00) and 72 hours (€ 49,00) cards available and they include access to all museums (excluding the Torture Museum and Beer Museum) and sites in Bruges, even a canal ride and the ice sculpture festival which over the Christmas period. Either purchase your card online here or at any information desk once you arrive.
History of Bruges
Bruges is famous for its chocolatiers, waffles, fries, beer, and canals but there is so much more to appreciate. In medieval times the sea flooded the area around present-day Bruges, which carved out channels and waterways. Baldwin the Iron Arm, the first count of Flanders, built a castle as protection from Viking raids, and gradually a town developed.
By the 14th century, Bruges was one of the most powerful trading cities. Other famous trade cities such as Genoa and Venice built their own trade houses in Bruges while other ships from as far as Russia docked in the beautiful Minnewater, a small lake to the south of the city. Unfortunately, in the 15th century, the waterways leading to the sea silted up, thus ending the city’s economic lifeline. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the city saw a revival with an influx of tourists.
1. Visit Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child
Any renaissance art enthusiast should not miss Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child which was carved around 1503. Look for Michelangelo’s signature ‘M’ that the Madonna makes with her left hand.
The Bruges merchant Alexander Mouscron, who was in Florence at the time, bought the sculpture and donated it in 1514 to the Church of Our Lady in Bruges. It is the only sculpture by Michelangelo that left Italy during his lifetime.
Unfortunately, after the attack on Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican in 1972, which was completed shortly before, the sculpture was placed behind bulletproof glass and is placed 15 feet away from the publics viewing area.
During your visit here, don’t miss the picturesque Bonifacius Bridge located to the east of the main entrance. This was my favourite spot to appreciate both the Gothic architecture of the church and the calm canal decorated with quaint medieval buildings.
2. Take a Stroll Around Minnewater
As mentioned earlier, Minnewater used to be a mooring place for barges. Nowadays this is one of the most romantic spots in Bruges. This elongated lake is attached to a local legend of an impossible love. During Roman times, there was a girl called Minna whose father arranged for her to be married to a respectable young man named Horneck. However, Minna’s heart already belonged to Stromberg, a warrior of a neighbouring tribe. In an attempt to get out of her father’s arranged marriage, Minna fled to the forest. Stromberg tried to find her and begins a long and desperate search. When he finally finds her, it’s too late. Minna dies of exhaustion in his arms. At the place of her death, Stromberg chiselled her name in a rock and named the pond after her. It is said that any couple who crosses the bridge will be together for eternity.
3. Climb the Belfry (Belfort)
I’ve climbed a few narrow bell towers and cupolas in my travels, but the winding staircase in this one becomes particularly narrow. However, the tiring 366 steps climb is broken up with several stops along the way. You’ll learn about how the city’s public funds were kept up there during the Middle Ages, and if you’re lucky you might catch the carillonneur at work as he plays a tune on the 47 melodious bells. Once you reach the top of this 83-metre-tall tower, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking and unforgettable panoramic view of Bruges and its surroundings.
4. Relax on a Canal Ride
While Bruges is easily explored by foot, I would highly recommend jumping on a canal boat from Roezenhoedkaai which used to be the salt port. This spot has to be the most photographed location in Bruges. Either during summer or winter, it is a stunning spot to admire the canal and the Belfry.
The canal ride lasts for 30 minutes and the helmsman gives running commentary in English, Dutch, and French. To buy tickets just visit the little booth set up just before the steps leading down to the dock. If there is a long queue, head up the canal where you will find other pick up points.
5. Appreciate the Flemish Masters
The Groeninge Museum houses the largest collection of Flemish painters from the 15th and early 16th century. Many world-famous masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes, and Gerard David are on display here. Jan van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele is one of the highlights of the museum.
Not many people know that there are windmills in Bruges that date back to the 13th century. During the 16th century there were more than thirty windmills turning their sails here. Today, only four survive and of those, only two mills can be visited. Sint-Janshuis Mill, built in 1770, is still in its original spot and still grinding grain just like its neighbour Koelewei Mill. On a sunny day, there’s nothing like a short climb to Sint-Janshuis Mill for a panoramic view of Bruges. During your visit, the miller will explain the workings of his mill and give a demonstration too!
7. Say a Prayer Over the Holy Blood
On a crusade to Jerusalem in the 12th century a cylinder of Jesus’ blood was taken. Every day it is placed on a pillow to be worshipped. After a short ceremony, the faithful are invited to hold their hands over the cylinder and say a prayer.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a double church. The 12th-century basilica is located in the Burg square and consists of a lower and upper chapel. The lower chapel dedicated to St. Basil the Great is a dark Romanesque structure that remains virtually unchanged. The cylinder of the Holy Blood is in the upper chapel, which was rebuilt in the Gothic style during the 16th century and renovated multiple times during the 19th century in Gothic Revival style.
On the other side of the square in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, you can find the old foundations of the first cathedral built in Bruges! Just ask at reception if you can go to the basement. Don’t worry, it’s not dark and gloomy down there.
8. Visit the Almshouses (Godshuizen), the Quickest Way to Heaven
These beautiful little white-painted facades were built from the 14th century onwards. Each community of almshouses had its own chapel where the occupants were expected to send their prayers of thanks up to heaven. These communities were sometimes set up by guilds to lodge elderly members, by widows, or well-to-do burghers who wanted to ensure their place in heaven.
More than 46 blocks of almshouses have been preserved, 43 of which are still occupied by elderly people. A couple include Nieuwe Gentweg and Stijn Streuvelsstraat.
9. See Where Bruges was Governed for over 600 years at City Hall (Stadhuis)
Bruges’ City Hall was built in 1376 and is one of the oldest in the Low Countries. It is from here that the city has been governed for more than 600 years. An absolute must-see is its Gothic Hall. In the adjoining hall are a number of authentic documents and works of art. There is also a multimedia exhibition on the ground floor illustrating the evolution of the Burg Square.
10. Marvel at the Jerusalem Chapel (Jeruzalemkapel)
This chapel was commissioned by the Adornes, a prominent Bruges merchant family of Genovese origin. Upon returning from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Anselm Adornes decided to build an exact copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, complete with a replica of Jesus’ grave which is accessed by crawling through a hole in the wall! The results are impressive.
Over to you!
Have you been to Bruges? What other things to do in Bruges would you add to this list?
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