One of my absolute favorite cities from our 2015 travels was Bruges, Belgium. The vibrant city is full of small town charm and retains much of its history from the 15th century.
When researching the city, you will find the name listed as either Bruges or Brugge. Bruges being from the English and French variation and Brugge being Dutch. These spellings are interchangeable throughout the city, so I don’t think you can go wrong either way.
Location & Language:
Bruges is located in the Flemish Region of West Flanders in Northern Belgium. There are three official languages in Belgium: Dutch, French and German. However, as a Flemish region, the spoken language in Bruges is Flemish. English is also widely spoken, so visitors don’t need to worry about a language barrier.
I was fascinated to learn that all these languages are taught in public school. While dining canal side at one of the restaurants near our apartment, our waiter, a native of Bruges, spoke German to a couple at one table, English to us and then Spanish to a third! He said he picked up Spanish to help with his job. I guess once you are a polyglot, what’s one more language!
While some might believe that Flemish and Dutch are the same, they are actually different. There are similarities and differences that those speaking the languages can easily differentiate. Flemish is a Belgian Dutch that is used not only in everyday speech, but in schools and government as well. However, Flemish is not recognized as an official language.
Bruges was an important center for cloth trade in the 13th century, importing some of the finest grade of wool from England. Due in large part to it’s port, Bruges was once one of the most important commercial cities in the world. It remained so through the 12th – 15th centuries, which was referred to as the city’s “Golden Age.”
In the 14th century, Bruges became a key member of the Hanseatic League of Seventeen Cities , a powerful association of northern European trading cities. Italian cities such as Venice, Genoa, and Florence built trade houses in Bruges, bringing ships from all over Europe into the port, trading their exotic goods. This era marked the economic apex of Bruges.
Due to silting of the waterway in the 15th century, trade was moved to neighboring Antwerp. The former hub of Europe is said to have slept for 400 years. These 400 years of economic downturn is what helped preserve the beautiful Gothic architecture seen today. Had the cities prosperity continued, it is likely these building would have changed with the times.
At one point in history, there was a high degree of political tension due to Bruges’ prosperity. Higher taxes were levied on the city by the French government. The Flemish refused to pay and an army was sent in to obtain payment. In retaliation, a revolt against the French occupiers was launched early one morning in the year 1302. Anyone that couldn’t correctly pronounce the Flemish phrase ‘schild en vriend’ meaning shield and friend, was murdered. This phrase was chosen because a Frenchmen would not be able to say the phrase properly. The victory over the army was short-lived and the French soon regained control over the city.
While many tourist visit Bruges as a day trip, I highly suggest it as a home base for your travels in Northern Belgium. The daytrippers come into the city by train or bus, spend the afternoon in the city center then return to cities such as Brussels or Antwerp.
Once the day trippers leave the city, it becomes quiet and subdued. The late afternoon and early evening become a great time to explore, leaving some areas almost uninhabited and creating a perfect time to take a stroll through the streets and reflect on life as it may have been in the 15th century.
Things to Do in Bruges:
The historic city centre is a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s dripping with historical significance at every turn and is a great spot to start your visit. Below is our Bruges travel guide:
1. Take a Walking Tour of the City
Taking a free walking tour is a great way to explore the city and become aquainted with Bruges for just the price of a tip. We took the Legends of Bruges Tour, so the kids were entertained and didn’t complain too much about the walking. If you can take a tour on your first morning in Bruges, you’ll be armed with city information and know which spots you’d like to explore further.
There is also another free “In Brugge” walking tour. We didn’t take this tour, but I’m sure you can’t go wrong with either one.
2. Enjoy a Canal Tour
Experience the city by water with a canal tour. The tours offer a unique prospective on the expansive canal system and provides commentary on Bruges history, culture, and unique features of the city.
This is a great way to let the kids have a little break from walking. If you have a Brugge City Card, then a canal tour is included.
3. Explore Markt square
Explore the center of Bruges at Markt square. Here you’ll be surrounded by impressive gothic building that will transport you back in time.
4. Climb the Belfry Tower
Find the massive Belfry tower at Markt square. Interestingly, it has been rebuilt three times due to fires. You can tour the museum and, if you have older kids, even climb the 366 steps to the top for a spectacular view.
5. Visit Burg Square
See decades of architectural styles in one 360 degree view. This political center of Bruges houses beautiful museums and architectural masterpieces, showcasing the beauty of Bruges over the centuries.
6. Visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood
The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a Romanesque style chapel from 12th century located in Burg Square. The building itself is an inspiring piece of architecture. According to the Relic of the Holy Blood, Christ’s blood is preserved and can be viewed in the Basilica. On Ascension Day, the Holy Blood is paraded around Bruges in a grand procession. You can watch a video of the procession in the museum.
7. Visit Beguinage or Begijnhof Church
Beguinage Church is a beautiful baroque style church that is worth a visit. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Beguinage is now home to nuns of the Order of St Benedict. This tranquil area is a nice reprieve from the bustle of the city. Walk the grounds, taking in the beautiful white homes along the perimeter.
Entrance to the ground and church are free. There is a fee to enter to museum.
8. See Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady)
The Church of Our Lady is not only a beautiful building, it is also home to Michelangelo’s world-famous Madonna and Child from 1505. You’ll also find other spectacular works of art and painted tombs within the museum.
Admission into the church to pray in free, but there is a 6€ fee for adults to see the museum which includes the Madonna and Child or is included with Brugge City Card. Children 12 and under are free.
9. Visit the Hansa Quarter
Plan time in the Hansa Quarter and the Jan van Eyckplein square. In the center is a statue of Jan van Eyckplein, a famous Bruges painter. The Old Tollhouse also has a pretty facade and an interesting history.
10. Don’t Miss the Windmills
Walk or rent a bike to explore the windmills. Along the Ringvaart waterway between Dampoort and Kruispoort, you will find 4 windmills. This was my kids first experience seeing windmills outside of a book. The grassy area is also a nice place for a picnic or to just let kids run around.
11. Take a Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride
Kids would also enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city. Get a tour of the city amidst the clip clop of horses hooves. This is a pricey option, but is an authentic way to see the city.
12. Take a photograph at Rozenhoedkaai
One of the most photographed areas in Bruges is Rozenhoedkaai. This is the location to get a perfect postcard worthy shot.
13. Tour Brouwerij De Halve Maan or Half Moon Brewery
Adults need time to do what they want as well. Visit the brewery where Bruges city beer called ‘Brugse Zot’ is made. The fee is 8.50€ for adults and includes a beer at the end of the tour. Children under 6 are free and under 12 are 4.25€. The tour is also included in the Brugge City Card.
14. Tour Choco-Story or Chocolate Museum
I’m not against bribing my kids when traveling. After the kids let you take the brewery tour, head to the Chocolate Museum. Learn the history of cocoa and chocolate plus get samples during the tour. Adults are 8€, kids 12 and under are 5€ and kids 6 and under are admitted free. Admission is also included in the Brugge City Card.
15. See the Swans in the canal
See the swans in the canal behind the Hospital Museum. There is a story that swans were introduced to Bruges after the murder of Pieter Lanchals, AKA Long Neck. Lanchals was a friend of Maximilian I. While trying to take over Bruges, Maximilian I was imprisoned in Markt Square and was forced to watch his henchman tortured and Lanchals beheaded. After Maximilian I was released, he ordered the city to keep swans in the canals as a reminder of “Long Neck.”
16. Eat Chocolate and Purchase Lace.
There are three things that Belgium is well known for – chocolate, waffles and lace. You can find eateries all over the city selling delectable Belgium chocolate and tasty Belgium waffles. Once you’ve stuffed yourself full of treats, browse the MANY lace shops throughout the city.
17. Get lost
Get lost while strolling along the cobblestone streets and winding canals. Sample local delicacies along the way. There is so much to see that you can’t go wrong with simply taking walks. If you are the type that needs a direction, head into the neighborhoods. The row houses are lovely and it gives you a sense of real life in the city. When the kids were tired of walking, we just took a break on a bench or in a café. Parents know that the kids quickly regain their energy if you promise them a piece of chocolate when you get back into the city.
18. Riverboat to Damme
Jump on a riverboat for a trip to Damme. Damme is a small town just down the river from Bruges. It’s a cute little town that worth a visit if you have time. In all honesty, getting to see the countryside from the boat was more interesting than the town itself. We walked around and made it back to the boat for the next departure. We had planned to eat lunch in Damme, but all the restaurants were rather expensive.
19. Flanders Fields Battlefield Tour
One of the things we really wanted to do was take the Flanders Fields Battlefield tour. We should have booked the tour before visiting. With a group of seven, it wasn’t possible to schedule the tour at the last minute during our summer visit.
Where to Eat in Bruges:
We didn’t eat out much when in Bruges, but there are a few restaurants we did enjoy during our 5-day stay.
:: Don’t miss the waffles from Gelateria. Look for the food truck parked in Burg Square in front of City Hall. These were some of the best waffles in Bruges! The consistency is a bit doughy for my taste, but that’s what made it a favorite for Derrick and the kids.
A note on finding the best waffles. Avoid places where there are stacks of pre-made waffles in the windows. They just aren’t good! Take time to find a place making fresh waffles, preferably where there is a crowd gathered out front, waiting in line.
:: One of the best meals I had during our European travel was at the historic Gruuthuse Hof. Enjoy quality food for a reasonable price. We didn’t take the kids, but I think dining for lunch would be perfectly acceptable with children. I’d suggest requesting a table outside to let the kids run around.
Since we were traveling with family on this leg of our journey, Derrick & I had a date night, while the kids hung out with their grandparents. A reservation is a must, so make sure to book early.
:: Grab a quick lunch or dinner just down the street from Markt Square on Philipstockstraat at Burger & Burger. The burgers were good and the kids appreciated having a meal that was more like home, after a long day of sightseeing. The wall of wine bottles added a fun touch to the modern decor.
:: Head down to LE Trappiste – the International Beer Cafe for a beer flight. Located in a 13th Century cellar, LE Trappiste has over 100 specialty beers. A flight of 5 full-sized glasses of beer was only 10€! The kids enjoyed a coke and an appetizer while the adults guzzled beer in “the cave”
:: If you need a break during the middle of the day, pick a restaurant next to the canal to grab a coffee, glass of wine or beer. Parents will enjoy a break from sightseeing just as much as the kids. Make a note. If you like smoked salmon, some establishments were very generous with it on appetizers! And for not much money!
Don’t miss a visit the medieval town frozen in time. There are so many places to visit in Bruges, you might never want to leave.
If you want to see the city before visiting, you can watch the In Bruges movie. Do NOT watch the movie with kids. There is a ridiculous amount of cussing in the movie. I didn’t really like the movie, but it was cool to see some of the same historical buildings and landmarks on the screen.
Have you been to Flanders? What other things to do in Bruges can you suggest?