Last Updated on August 13, 2023
The best time to visit Bruges, Belgium is in the off-season. In fact, it’s one of the best cities in Europe to visit then...
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Like many European cities, the best time to visit Bruges is in the off-season when there’s a dearth of tourists, the cultural season is in full swing, and prices tend to drop with the temperature. So what makes Bruges special?
For one thing, it’s a very easy day trip from Brussels. But what sets Bruges really apart when you visit in the off-season, is that it’s so beautiful and so small. Oddly enough, those are the two things that also contribute to it being so crowded in the summer.
The Best Time to Visit Bruges – the Off-Season
You’ll Bruges best in September-October and in June. Remember, however, Bruges gets damp in any time of year so dress appropriately.
When there’s a bit of a nip in the air, Bruges turns from crowded to cozy. And all that medieval architecture just accentuates the city’s intimacy and romantic nature. That gorgeous architecture is one of the reasons Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
With the crowds gone in the off season everything in Bruges feels more authentic and I feel more like a local. Sometimes even a local from another century, as I take in that glorious architecture all around me.
There’s much to be said for snuggling under a blanket in a horse-drawn carriage as you clip-clop along one of Bruges’s cobbled medieval lanes. And also for escaping the winter wind in a crowded, centuries-old bar or café. Go there to linger over a glass of beer, wine or genever, the Flemish warm gin.
When I’m tucked away in an old candle-lit restaurant, even the food tastes better to me on a cold, rainy evening. And there’s no lack of wonderful restaurants in Bruges.
It’s the Best Time to Visit Bruges for More Relaxing Dining
With fewer tourists around you’re able to dine at the best restaurants in Bruges and linger in them a while. In some there may only be you and a few other diners.
But regardless of the time of year you visit Bruges, forget the diet. Not only is this a city of fabulous food, it’s also the chocolate capital of the world. I might add that it’s also awash with excellent wines and wonderful Belgian beer.
Wherever you go in the old historic center, you’ll likely never be more than a few steps away from a chocolate shop (see In Search of the Best Chocolate in Bruges, Belgium) as well as plenty of places to get a hot chocolate to ward off the chill.
There are reputed to be hundreds of chocolate shops scattered all over the little city. I can tell you from experience they offer flavors ranging from exquisite to quirky. My favorites include Dumon Artisanale Chocolatier (Eiermarkt 6) and Dominique Persoone (Simon Stevinplein 19) but you’ll likely find your favorites.
If you want to learn more about chocolate visit the privately owned Chocolate Museum (Choco-Story, Wijnzakstraat 2). There you’ll find the answers to such questions as to whether it causes high cholesterol, makes you fat, or is an aphrodisiac.
It’s the Best Time to Visit Bruges for Enjoying Unspoiled Medieval Beauty Without the Crowds
Right up there with chocolate is the city’s reputation for unspoiled beauty, which in the off-season, even in September, you can enjoy without the crowds.
During the 14th–16th centuries, Bruges was one of northern Europe’s most sophisticated cities. It was during this time that merchants built beautiful mansions, churches, and extravagant civic buildings. Most are still intact since the city thankfully escaped damage in both world wars.
And it’s not an exaggeration to say the city has an overabundance of medieval architecture. In fact, you find stepped gables and craggy spires jutting up just about everywhere you look. You see it especially throughout the old, historic city center, which is eminently walkable and virtually car-less.
Swan-dotted canals also cross the center here and there, emphasizing the romantic nature of it all. Also crossing it are warrens of medieval lanes which, like the canals, are lined with mansions. Wander down them and you’ll stumble across some of the most picturesque places and houses you’ll see anywhere.
Start at the Market
The city’s medieval 13th-century market spreads out below the Belfort, a 13th-century tower where Bruges medieval charter of rights was held. It’s the perfect place to start a tour of the city.
It’s a large square, almost 2.5 acres in size, surrounding a statue that celebrates Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, 14th-century local heroes who resisted French oppression. Around it loom step-gabled medieval buildings and old guild houses, now the homes of pricey pubs and restaurants.
The 272-foot tall Belfort is part of a 13th-century complex of halls that served as a warehouse and a market hall in the Middle Ages. It contains a carillon with 47 bells and also the old city Treasury. If you want to work off some chocolates climb the 366 steps to its top. You’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of the city. There’s also an art gallery at the base of the building.
Afterward, whether you’re in Bruges in the off-season or not, stop at a café to people-watch, hire a horse-drawn carriage to take you about, or wander five minutes over to the Dijver canal near the Groeningemuseum to poke about the sidewalk antique market.
The Begijnhof, More Serene During the Off-Season
Only about a 15-minute walk from Market Square is the Begijnhof. Officially known as Prinselijk Begijnhof ten Wijngaarde, a ring of small whitewashed houses in a park-like setting.
This serene place, beautiful any time of year, was once the home of Beguines, girls and widows from a variety of social backgrounds who devoted themselves to charitable work beginning in the year 1245, after it was founded by the Countess of Flanders.
Today the Begijnhof is home to the sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict (who still wear the Beguine habit), and visitors are requested to respect their vow of silence. If you take a horse-and-carriage ride around Bruges, your driver will likely make a 10-minute stop here, long enough for you to cross the small entrance bridge for a quick look around. You’ll find the Bruges Begijnhof beautiful in the off-season in spring and on a brisk autumn afternoon.
Exit the Begijnhof at the small bridge over the Minnewater Canal and you’ll find a group of cafés on Wijngaardplein, all perfect to get a warm tea, coffee or something stronger.
Groeningemuseum (Groeninge Museum)
While Bruges itself is a work of art, don’t miss visiting some of the city’s renowned art museums, which, as said, are better experienced in the off-season.. Top on my list is the Groeningemuseum, Bruges’ famous 11-room art gallery. And during the off-season you’ll almost have the place to yourself.
It’s only a fraction of the size of some art museums in Brussels and Antwerp. But it’s a fantastic and great gallery that houses Belgium’s finest collection of works by the Flemish Primitives, including Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, and Gerard David.
The Groeninge also contains top 18th– and 19th-century neoclassical pieces as well as masterpieces from Flemish Expressionism and post-war modern art.
Canal tours run throughout the year, not just during the warmer months. Although they may seem touristy, which they are, they are an excellent way to see the city from a different perspective in any season.
Be aware, however, that just as you can get very warm on a hot summer day on a canal tour, you can also get quite chilly on a cold winter one.
Still, they’re fun – just dress appropriately.