Few cities lend themselves better to a short visit than Bruges, one of Belgium's prettiest destinations. With its winding cobbled lanes, picturesque canals and colourful history, the city feels modelled from a fairytale. Bruges holidays, in fact, feel like stepping into a storybook. The old town’s historic heart has changed so little since medieval times that the entire city centre has been made a UNESCO World Heritage site. Naturally, a Bruges city break is popular with day trippers: trains from Brussels take just under an hour, and the old town can be crossed on foot in half an hour. It’s worth booking a weekend break in Bruges, though, if only to sample its remarkably good dining scene.
The best way to see the city is to explore on foot, but a boat tour of the canals is a fun way to get your bearings. You’ll get a swan’s eye view of the city and lively details from its fascinating past. You can hop on at one of five stops along the route, between Jan van Eyck Square and the Beguinage. Colin Farrell fans are also in for a treat with a tour of 15 locations from his dark comedy film In Bruges. Shopping is one of the best things to do in Bruges. The city is famous for its chocolate shops: you’ll find one at practically every street corner around the central square. Make sure you leave some space in your bags for other treats to bring home – Bruges has some excellent concept and designer stores.
Many of the best things to see in Bruges were built in the 1400s – the city’s golden century – when the canals brought great trading riches. The city still shines today as a historical and cultural treasure trove. Start your visit at the Market square, in the shadow of the towering Belfry, then spend some time ticking Bruges’ remarkable churches and Groeninge Museum off your list. You’ll be rewarded with Flemish masterpieces, holy relics, and even a Michelangelo sculpture. Further away, the tranquil Beguinage, or Begijnhof, can be reached by crossing the Wijngaard Bridge. Don’t miss a peek inside Jeruzalemkapel, a private chapel with a unique wooden ceiling.
It’s easy to imagine medieval life in full swing on Markt, Bruges’s grand central square. Its weekly market has been going for a good thousand years, and you can still grab picnic essentials here come Wednesday mornings. Look out for the neo-gothic Provincial Court on the eastern side of the square and the bronze statue of local heroes Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. You’ll also find horse-drawn carriages for romantic tours of the city. Sint-Joris restaurant, on Markt’s northern side, is a good spot for a pit stop: expect friendly service, cold beer and classic Flemish fare.
North of the Markt, this atmospheric district has kept much of its historic character. Spanish traders settled on Spaanse Loskaai (Spanish Quay), while merchants from the Baltic Hanseatic League set up shop on Oosterlingenplein, or Easterner’s Square. Tranquil Jan van Eyckplein (named after the famous Flemish painter) was once a wealthy, cosmopolitan port. Views from the Spiegelrei canal towards the Burgher’s Lodge are some of the finest in town. See if you can spot the Toll House and the narrow Rijkepijndershuis, the porters’ house illustrated with figures carrying heavy loads
Built on top of the Cloth Hall, the Belfry soars 83 metres high above the city, casting its long shadow over Markt below. It’s worth climbing the 366 steps to the top. The views over Bruge are beautiful, but even more impressive is the enormous musical drum used to run a complex system of gears, strings and 47 bells. Time your visit for one of the 11am Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday concerts to see the carillon in action and feel its full power. In summer, evening concerts take place on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9pm; grab a spot in the courtyard to listen.
A 15-minute walk south from Markt, this lovely lake and surrounding park feels a world away from the bustle of central Bruges. Its nickname – the Lake of Love – comes from the tragic story of lovers Minna and Stromberg. Legend has it that couples who cross the Minnewater Bridge will be blessed with eternal love. With its weeping willows and pairs of swans gliding gracefully over the water, it’s a perfect spot for a romantic stroll. If you’re less inclined towards romance, cross over to the Beguinage nearby: this community for emancipated single women is now home to Benedictine nuns.
After years of painstaking work, the brick-clad Church of our Ladyhas been restored to full medieval glory. It’s easy to spot from the street, thanks to its tall distinctive steeple. Shipped from Siena by a wealthy Bruges family, a delicate Michelangelo marble of the Madonna and Child is the highlight, but you’ll find other treasures within. There’s a grand triptych of the Passion, plus the gloriously gilded mausoleums of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgundy. Entrance to the church is free, but tickets are needed for the museum section containing most of these works.
In a city so small and so ancient, the best places to stay in Bruges are central, stylish and full of character. From grand hotels with unique histories to homely B&Bs, there’s something for every budget. You could bed down in cosy guesthouses with a lively bar scene, say, or elegant stays tucked away behind stained-glass windows and timbered façades. If you’re travelling on foot, it can be a good idea to book somewhere by the station, or the uneven cobblestones might make short work of your suitcase wheels. For the ultimate experience, look for a room with canal views. Hotels in Bruges tend to fill up quickly, so book early – especially if you’re looking for cheap places to stay in Bruges.
For a city of its size, Bruges packs a mighty gastronomic punch. With some exceptions, such as the fabulous Tanuki, don’t expect exotic cuisine or fusion flavours. The best places to eat in Bruges draw their inspiration from French and Flemish traditions. Eating in Bruges is a joy, thanks to fashionable restaurants, careful plating and an abundance of fresh local produce. The super-sized mussels at Breydel de Coninck make for a memorable moules frites. Locale works with – you guessed it – locally sourced seasonal and organic produce. If you have something to celebrate, book a table at one of two Michelin-starred restaurants: Zet'Joe or Sans Cravate.
Propped up on the edge of the water, Brouwerij De Halve Maan Brewery has been churning out Brugse Zot – the city’s strong, hoppy beer – since 1856. Book one of the daily tours for a crash course in brewing; entrance comes with a taster or three, best enjoyed in the beer garden. This being Belgium, it’s by no means the only beer-tasting spot in town. Bierbrasserie Cambrinus has an attractive wood-panelled room and more than 400 different beers on its menu. Check out local bands at hip late-night venue De Kelk in the Sint-Anna quarter – the craft beer and cocktail selection isn’t bad, either.
There’s nothing like a proper brunch to get in the mood for a day of exploring. Thankfully there are plenty of trendy spots in Bruges to start the day right. Right on the picturesque Jan van Eyckplein, Blackbird claims to serve the best breakfasts in town. It’s hard to argue with the cosy café’s colourful take on the most important meal of the day. The menu’s vegan-friendly: expect fluffy pancakes, nutrient-packed bowls and sparkling mimosas. Overslept? Not to worry – That’s Toast serves delicious breakfasts, proper coffee and freshly mixed juices until mid-afternoon.
There’s nothing quite so restorative as a warm, freshly baked waffle when you’ve been hitting the cobblestones all day. You could just follow your nose to the nearest stall (this is Belgium, after all), but waffles aren’t all made equal. On Katelijnestraat, Otto Waffle Atelier rustles up oat waffles garnished with tempting toppings, like a rather grown-up rhubarb and ginger compote. Look for the Arlecchino van by the Markt, where Liège and Brussels style waffles are cooked to order. If you’d rather sit in, make a beeline for Lizzie’s Wafels’ extra-large, heaven-scented creations.
An all-weather knockout, Bruges can be enjoyed in any season. In spring, daffodils bloom in the Beginjhof’s tranquil gardens; it’s a good time to experience the city at a more leisurely pace. Look out for the Procession of the Holy Blood, a colourful tradition that has been taking place on Ascension Day since 1304. Summer crowds can get a bit wearing, though there’s plenty of peaceful pockets to be found off the beaten path. Make time for a visit to the Sint-Janhuis windmill in Park Kruisvest. The Christmas Market in Bruges is magical – but if you miss that special time of the year, De Witte Pelikaan sells handcrafted Christmas ornaments throughout the year.