With all of its Old World charm and seemingly countless medieval landmarks, a trip to the “Venice of the North” can be mightily overwhelming. Here we filter out the noise and tell you about 20 absolute highlights.
Rose Hat Quay (Rozenhoedkaai)
The Rozenhoedkaai – named after the rosaries that were sold here yesteryear – is vintage Bruges. Its painterly composition of reflective canals, ancient houses, a quaint bridge, and the Belfry peeking out from the back has made it the most photographed corner in the entire city.
The most important square in Bruges besides the Markt, Burg has been abuzz with human activity since the 2nd or 3rd century. Today, it’s given shape by some of the finest buildings in the city, including the early medieval Town Hall, a pearl of Flemish Gothic architecture.
Also residing on Burg is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Its small stature and tucked-away location in the right corner of the square is somewhat hard to reconcile with its most prized possession: a phial supposedly containing the blood of Christ himself, brought back to Bruges by a Count of Flanders after the crusades. The relic is taken out twice every day for veneration.
Bruges’ Belfry, 272 feet (83 meters) high and 336 steps rich, remains the ultimate spot to admire the city’s UNESCO-labeled historic core from. Though not quite the Tower of Pisa, the keen observer will spot that the tower tilts almost a meter to the left.
Flanking the Belfry on the Markt are step-gabled houses that look like they’ve been fashioned from gingerbread. Though a charming plaza the whole year through, seeing the city’s main square decked out in Christmas lights is a mesmerizing experience.
One of the square’s most prominent buildings has recently been renovated into the Historium. This unusual museum has been set up to be a 3D flashback to Bruges’ Golden Age, as told through the eyes of one of Jan Van Eyck’s young apprentices.
A peaceful escape from the tourist madness can be found at the Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde. The 14th-century community of white-colored houses used to be home to Beguines, pious women who were interested neither in marriage nor in taking the vows that nuns did. The garden is at its most beautiful when its trademark daffodils bloom in spring.
From the beguinage, it’s a mere minute’s walk before you find yourself on the Minnewater Bridge, floating above the Lake of Love. Legend has it that if you walk across with your partner, the two of you will know eternal love, so all is well as you walk towards the green Minnewater Park for a view of the lovely Castle de la Faille.
Despite the Minnewater Bridge’s hopeful promise, it’s actually the Bonifacius Bridge that has walked away with the nickname “Bridge of Love.” While most people assume this swoon-worthy spot has been here for forever, it was actually installed in the beginning of the last century and made to fit into its ancient surroundings. The brickwork church behind is a veritable old Lady though (13th-15th century) and the home to Bruges’ most precious work of art: Michelangelo’s marble Madonna with Child.
Besides moonlighting as hand-holding heaven, the Bonifacius Bridge performs another important task: connecting the Church of Our Lady and its Madonna with another temple holding essential artwork. The Groeningemuseum prides itself on the elite collection of Flemish Primitives it has managed to bring together.
Also nearby is the palace of the Lords of Gruuthuse. This prominent family was the only one allowed to use the adage “of Bruges” in their name, and their former abode is filled with treasures of the merchant city’s heyday such as valuable lace and tapestries. The palace is closed for renovation right now but will once again open its doors in 2018.
Bruges’ ramparts are essentially a green belt that wraps around the city’s core. The 6-kilometer circular park was constructed on the old 13th-century fortification line. Walking along, you’ll come across four sturdy city gates that have survived the test of time.
Included in the ramparts walk are four ancient windmills. They’re all that’s left of a series of 25–30 of these wind-driven giants that populated the town walls. The remaining four can be found on the northeast side, with two of them (the Sint-Janshuis Mill and the Koelewei Mill) still dutifully grinding grain.
With this privately owned church, the affluent Adornes family has left behind a rather quirky legacy in Bruges. After his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, patriarch and successful merchant Anselm Adornes planted the exotic construction to be a replica of Christ’s final resting place in Jerusalem. Today, the peculiar chapel is open to the public.
Much preferred by locals to the perennially hectic Markt or Burg, it’s only fitting that the Jan Van Eyck Square is watched over by Bruges’ most famed painter. From his pedestal, Van Eyck looks over the former docking area and to the elegant Burgher’s Lodge (Poortersloge), where the city’s rich and powerful merchants received international guests.
Pictured below are the Spiegelrei and the Langerei quays, just tips of the iceberg when it comes to gorgeous canalside walks in the waterborne city. Make sure to include the tree-lined Groenerei and the tranquil Sint-Annarei in your evening stroll.
If only the walls of Saint John’s Hospital could speak, they would teach us volumes about medicine throughout the ages. From the 12th century all the way up to 1987, the buildings were collectively used as a shelter and health institution. At the moment, the old nursery wards are open to visitors, and the complex regularly hosts art exhibits.
Just when you think Bruges is completely deserted at night, you see lights streaming from cozy dwellings like ‘t Brugs Beertje. Soon you realize everyone is simply holed up in beer bars and medieval cellar pubs, merrily drinking their way through Belgium’s endless supply of quality beers.
Speaking of Belgian beer culture, Bruges boasts an authentic family brewery that has been up and running for six generations. Take a tour of the Halve Maan’s kettles and smack your lips to their official city beer, the strong and blond Brugse Zot.
Bruges’ Concert Hall forms the rare contemporary attraction that can hold its own among the town’s parade of medieval landmarks. World-class acoustics attract world-class musicians, and that’s exactly what architect duo Robbrecht and Daem had in mind when they designed the hall on almost 4,700 steel springs.