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The Emerald Experience > River and city guides > City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Bruges

City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Bruges

With its web of cobblestone streets, timber houses and soaring ancient spires, Bruges perfectly captures the splendour of medieval Europe. This enchanting Flemish city on the shores of the North Sea has retained much of its historic architecture, lending it a tangible sense of nostalgia and heritage.

For centuries, Bruges has been a lynchpin for trade across northern Europe, with its famous port, Zeebrugge, still receiving dozens of passenger ferries every day. The city itself was first established in pre-history, and served as a major defensive port during Roman times, when it was used to defend the North Sea coast against pirates and raiders.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Bruges grew rapidly thanks to its tidal inlet, which became known as the ‘Golden Inlet’. This allowed a vast number of trading ships to make harbour in the city, and Bruges became a centre for local commerce as a result. Such was the speed at which Bruges grew, it received its city charter in 1128, becoming the capital of Flanders and the most significant trading post of the Low Countries of northern Europe.

Following the end of WWII, the ancient downtown area of Bruges was restored, and the city became a major tourist destination. Bruges is among the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe, and in 2000, much of the city was designated a World Heritage Site thanks to its magnificent historic architecture.

Must-See Sights

With its fairy tale architecture and quaint, pedestrianised streets, Bruges is one of Europe’s most walkable cities. Add to that a plethora of enriching museums and visitor centres, and the Flemish city emerges as an irresistible melting pot of culture and heritage.

Church of Our Lady

Piercing the Bruges skyline with its 120m-high brickwork tower, the Church of Our Lady is the city’s most recognisable landmark, and the perfect starting point for a cultural walking tour. Built between the 13th and 15th centuries, the Gothic church is magnificent inside and out, with its exterior stonework considered pioneering for its age.

The interior chamber of the Church of Our Lady houses some of the finest art treasures in northern Europe, including the exquisite Carrara marble Madonna and Child sculpture, created by Michelangelo in the early 16th century. This 200cm-tall statue is believed to be the only sculpture to leave Italy during Michelangelo’s lifetime, and has been recovered twice following historic lootings — once at the hands of French Revolutionaries and again by retreating Nazi troops at the end of WWII.

The Belfry of Bruges

Standing as the city’s second tallest tower, the Belfry of Bruges is a magnificent former observation post, located in the city’s central market square and built around 1240. Once used to regulate the lives of local city-dwellers, the Belfry has long been used as a time-keeping bell tower, and today houses a total of 47 bells, the combined weight of which racks up to a staggering 27.5 tonnes.

Built in the Gothic style, the Belfry is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, and visitors can access its octagonal roof via a steep, narrow staircase comprising of 366 steps. For those up to the challenge, making the ascent is certainly worth the effort, with the tower offering far-reaching views across Belgium and the North Sea coast on a clear day.

Basilica of the Holy Blood

The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a 12th-century Roman Catholic basilica, and the former residence of the Count of Flanders, located in Bruges’ elegant Burg square. The structure comprises an upper and lower chapel, with the lower chapel built in a dark Romanesque style and the venerated upper chapel designed in the Gothic Revival style following extensive renovation.

The basilica is renowned for housing a phial of Holy Blood, thought to have been brought to Bruges by Thierry of Alsace during the Second Crusade. The relic of Holy Blood held within the basilica dates to the 11th century, and is thought to contain a cloth doused in the blood of Jesus Christ.

Groeningemuseum

Housing a collection of art from six centuries of Flemish and Belgian artists, the Groeningemuseum is one of the most significant museums and galleries in Belgium. From works by renowned Renaissance and Baroque masters to pieces by Early Netherlandish painters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, the gallery features a comprehensive exhibit of work from artists from across the Lower Countries of Northern Europe.

Built on the site of the medieval Eekhout Abbey, this municipal museum offers up a fine collection of works from the neo-classical and realist period, as well as masterpieces of Flemish expressionism, symbolism, modernism and post-war modern art.

The Markt

Lying at the centre of the ancient city, the Markt (Market Square) is the beating heart of present-day Bruges, just as it has been for over 800 years. As well as historical highlights including the 12th-century Belfry and historic Provincial Court, the Markt features an array of authentic restaurants and bars, making it a popular spot for those hoping to sample a little Flemish fare.

Thanks to extensive renovation work, the square is now all-but traffic free, so is a wonderful place to relax with a glass of Belgian beer in the warmer months. At the centre of the square stands a statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, two of the great heroes of the Battle of the Golden Spurs, a conflict between the County of Flanders and the Kingdom of France in the 14th century.

Fast Facts

With a timeline stretching into the pages of antiquity, Bruges offers up a treasure trove of historic wonders and surprises. Here, we provide some of the most interesting facts about the Flemish capital.

  • The population of Bruges is around 117,377 people (2011 consensus)
  • The city is the capital of West Flanders, in the Flemish Region of Belgium
  • Around 430 hectares of the city is a prominent World Heritage Site
  • Of the 470 castles in the Flanders region, 50 are located in and around Bruges
  • Known as the Venice of the North, Bruges is home to multiple canals and 80 bridges
  • In the Middle Ages, Bruges was the wealthiest city in Europe
  • Bruges boasts more than 50 chocolate shops, though some are more authentic than others, and are recognisable by their ‘handmade’ certification sign
  • Bruges is one of only a small handful of European cities where it’s mandatory for its residents to vote, a law first introduced in 1894.
  • The name Bruges derives from the Old Dutch word for ‘Bridge’
  • Bruges is renowned for its fine lace, which has been produced in the city for centuries. This is all thanks to the flax flower, which is found in large quantities across Western Flanders.
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