close navigation menu

About Bruges

Canal-laced Bruges is one of Europe’s most remarkably preserved medieval cities. About 10 miles inland from the sea, water flooded the area during the Middle Ages, creating its signature waterways and establishing it as one of the world’s most important ports. Once connected to England’s wool industry, Bruges’s early textile trade made it one of the wealthiest trading towns in the world. In the early 16th century, silting closed the main canal linking Bruges to the open sea, halting trade and development. The lace industry and Flemish art scene sustained its dwindling population in the 17th century; the city otherwise became a living time capsule, unchanged for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the construction of Zeebrugge port and a new canal in 1907 that it finally awoke again, and has worked hard to preserve its medieval lanes, remarkable structures and rich traditions.

Today, tourists flock to Bruges’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where market squares are surrounded by stunning brick churches and other perfectly preserved specimens of medieval architecture. Wandering its inviting and charming warrens, it’s easy to think of Bruges as the town where time stood still.

Bruges Lifestyle and Culture

Sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Bruges boasts picturesque waterways set against dramatic brick buildings with sloping red roofs. The historic center has retained the original pattern of streets, canals and open space, as well as its Gothic and neo-Gothic architecture. The Grote Markt (Market Square) is the heart of the city. A climb to the top of its towering 13th-century belfry, with its 48-bell carillon, rewards travelers with sweeping views of restored guild houses and tree-shaded squares.

Flemish is still spoken here, and art museums displaying the technical prowess of Flemish oil painters embody the fascinating history and culture of the region. Lace, chocolate and beer all speak to Belgian craftsmanship, and are well represented in Bruges. Bobbin lace, a particularly intricate form of hand lacework made by braiding and twisting thread, is still crafted here in much the same way as it was during the Renaissance.

The Procession of the Holy Blood on the Day of Ascension also keeps medieval traditions alive. Thousands watch the parade in which actors portray historical scenes from the Bible, a custom that dates back more than 700 years.

Bruges Sights and Landmarks

The Belfort Belfry in the Grote Markt, which dates back to the 13th century, is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Climb the more than 300 steps for panoramic views of the red-roofed city. The adjoining Burg Square, with its stunning civic buildings, is smaller but just as impressive. Here stands the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Built in the 12th century, it allegedly houses a vial of the blood of Jesus.

The Groeningemuseum, or Fine Art Museum, houses an amazing collection of Flemish works, including Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Van der Paele from 1436. Another must-visit museum is the Oud Sint-Janshospitaal (Old St. John’s Hospital). Here, in one of the oldest surviving medieval hospitals in Europe, masterpieces from Flemish painter Hans Memling hang adjacent to hospital-related items from the Middle Ages.

Founded in 1245 for secular charitable nuns, the Béguinage (Begijnhof) is a small complex of houses and a church. Today it is inhabited by Benedictine nuns, but one of the buildings has been turned into a museum that depicts how these simple women lived. For another glimpse into the past, visit the old windmills where grain was ground into flour. Janshuismolen and Koeleweimolen are two of the four still standing.

Bruges Entertainment and Activities

There are nearly 200 breweries in the small country of Belgium, and they’ve been perfecting the art of beer since the 12th century. Monasteries, in particular, made use of the ample water supply, an ingredient essential to beer-making. Brouwerij De Halve Maan is a family-run brew house that offers tours and a tasting of this malty beverage. Or make your way to the Bruges Beer Museum at the top of the old post office in the Grote Markt to learn about the history of beer. If chocolate ranks high on your list, Choco-Story is a museum sponsored by the family behind Belcolade, one of the world’s finest chocolatiers. Learn about the history of chocolate and its health benefits, then watch how it’s made.

Markets and squares abound in Bruges, but when you want to stroll through a lovely little park, head to Hof Arents behind the Arentshuis. Lovers’ Bridge, which arcs over the canal, is the site of many first kisses and a beautiful spot for photos. Outdoor sculptures by Rik Poot also warrant a few photos. For a bit of culture, the neo-Renaissance Bruges City Theatre (Stadsschouwburg) is one of the best preserved of its kind in Europe. Dance, theater performances and concerts grace its stage throughout the year.

Bruges Restaurants and Shopping

Best known for chocolate, waffles and beer, Belgian cuisine is also influenced by German and French kitchens. For something quintessentially Belgian, try waterzooi, a stew made of chicken or fish with vegetables, cream and eggs, or chicons au gratin, Belgian endive cooked with cream and cheese. Moules frites, steamed mussels with fries, is another popular French-inspired Belgian dish. The Belgians do like their french fries, and even claim to have invented them. Two famous stalls under the Belfry have been frying up potatoes for generations.

De Karmeliet, set in an elegant 18th-century house with gorgeous Italian-style gardens, offers a seasonal menu that changes every few months. This is fine dining with price tags to match, but the inventive food, hand-selected wine list and formal service are all excellent. Den Gouden Harynck is another higher-priced spot for fine dining. The candlelit white dining room allows the food to shine. Christophe offers rustic charm and a homey atmosphere, serving up Flemish staples alongside mainstream options.

Stalls in the Grote Markt sell all sorts of gifts and souvenirs, but the antique store named 't Apostelientje is where you’ll want to head for authentic, handmade lace. Try Mille Fleurs for Flemish tapestry, Chocolate Line for handcrafted chocolate and Käthe Wohlfahrt for endless Christmas items.