Last Updated on October 5, 2022
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Jim Ferri
You’ll find great things to do in Bruges, Belgium, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
This photogenic city is a favorite with travelers and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belgium. Oftentimes you’ll see its name written as Brugge (in Dutch) since originally it was part of the Netherlands.
Its historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is not open to cars. Nevertheless, it is chockablock with beautiful medieval buildings and other places of interest and is quite easy to navigate.
You can see it by foot (it is eminently walkable), by boat on its quiet canals, or via horse-drawn carriages. Each provides a slightly different perspective of the incredibly beautiful city.
Bruges owes its well-preserved and magnificent architecture to its position as center of the cloth trade in the 13th-15th centuries. That’s the time when the city’s merchants lavished their wealth on their mansions, civic buildings and churches.
In fact, the city’s buildings were so beautiful that they were the sensation of northern Europe at the time.
Luckily, the city has retained its ancient beauty. Today is is full of architectural and artistic treasures, as well as chocolate shops, lace boutiques and fine restaurants. It’s also a great place to visit in the off-season when the crowds are gone and the prices are lower.
One other thing, if you’re also visiting Brussels (a city with great food!). Bruges is a great and easy day trip by train from the capital.
The following are seven top places in Bruges that are certain to enhance your visit.
The Top Place to Visit in Bruges – the Historic Center
This is the area of the city that impresses most travelers, the historic center of medieval buildings crisscrossed with old canals and cobblestone streets. It’s Old-World Belgium at its best. Walk about the Center and you’ll feel that you’ve stepped back in time.
The area’s restored buildings once housed merchants; today they house coffee shops and cafes, art galleries and boutiques. There are aslo museums and shops selling chocolates and lace and plenty of fine restaurants. It’s best seen with a map in your back pocket while walking aimlessly, letting each little street or lane draw you in.
A Don’t Miss in Bruges – Markt Square
The “nerve center” of Bruges, as Lonely Planet calls it, is a beautiful square that surrounds the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, 14th-century local heroes who resisted French oppression.
Dominated by the imposing Belfry, the broad 13th-century market square, covers an expanse of approximately 2.5 acres. It’s lined with medieval buildings and old guild houses with step-gabled facades. Many house numerous (and relatively expensive) pubs and restaurants that tumble out onto the square below.
It’s a great place to people-watch or to hire a horse-drawn carriage.
The Beautiful Belfry
The most imposing building on the Markt Square is the 272-foot tall belfry, which forms part of a 13th-century complex of halls that served as a warehouse and a market hall in the Middle Ages.
The tower contains a carillon with 47 bells and also the old city Treasury that housed the city’s charter, seal and public funds during the Middle Ages.
Those looking for a panoramic view of the city should head for the Treasury halfway up the 366-step climb to the top. It was once a look-out tower in case of war, fire or other calamity in the Middle Ages. There’s an art gallery at the base of the building.
A Special Place in the City – The Begijnhof (Beguinages)
The Prinselijk Begijnhof ten Wijngaarde, “The Begijnhof,” is a ring of small white houses. They surround a central lawn in a park-like and garden setting.
This serene place was once the home of Beguines, girls and widows from a variety of social backgrounds who devoted themselves to charitable work. It traces its birth back to 1245 under the Countess of Flanders, Margaretha of Constantinople.
Today the Begijnhof is home to the sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. They 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.
Groeningemuseum (Groeninge Museum) – an 11 Room Art Gallery
If you visit the Groeningemuseum, Bruges’ renowned 11-room art gallery, you’ll realize that size always doesn’t matter.
Even though it’s not as large as renowned art museums in Brussels and Antwerp, it’s a fantastic and celebrated museum 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.
The Top Thing to Do in Bruges – Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate!
Bruges is as famous for it chocolate as it is for its medieval architecture and you’ll likely never be more than a few steps away from a chocolate shop nearly anywhere in the old, historic center (see In Search of the Best Chocolate in Bruges, Belgium).
My favorites include Dumon Artisanale Chocolatier (Eiermarkt 6) and Dominique Persoone (Simon Stevinplein 19) but you’ll likely find your own favorites. If you want to find out more about chocolate visit the privately owned Chocolate Museum (Choco-Story, Wijnzakstraat 2) where you’ll find the answers to such questions as to whether does it causes high cholesterol, makes you fat or is an aphrodisiac.
…and Don’t Forget the Canal Tours
Yes, canal tours can be touristy but in Bruges, where canals are such an important part of its history, you’ll get a very different feel for the city than you do walking about it.
Just be aware they can get very warm on a hot summer day, and quite chilly on a cold winter one. Still, they’re fun – just dress appropriately.