Bruges is one of Belgium’s best-loved cities, often outshining the capital of Brussels. Planning your visit? Don’t miss this guide to the best things to do in Bruges to help you plan your trip.
Bruges is the archetypal Flemish city, but it’s so much more than that. Ancient brickwork and winding canals give the city its nickname “The Venice of the North”, while its position as the heartland of Dutch-speaking Flanders gives it an unmistakable identity of its own.
I’ve visited Bruges several times over the years and each time, find one more reason to go back and explore.
You don’t have to look hard to find evidence of Bruges’ historical importance: stately market squares, important museums, diamond traders – all tell the story of the city’s position.
Bruges was named the capital of Flanders in the 15th century. In the 17th, it was named the capital of King Charles II’s exiled government as the English Commonwealth ruled on British soil. All of this has left its mark on Bruges as firmly as a stamp.
Looking for the best things to do in Bruges? This is what you need to know.
PS: Looking for somewhere to stay? I recommend a few hotels in Bruges towards the end of this article but my go-to is the Novotel for its great location and reasonable prices.
Top 5 Things to do in Bruges
Chances are, that if you asked anyone to name the single best thing to see in Bruges, they’d start with Markt.
Sitting at the heart of Bruges, flanked on one side by the Belfort, Markt is Bruges’ commercial hub – a stark reminder that once Bruges was the economic centre of Flanders.
That’s all great, but it is the architecture that sets out to wow. Rows of typical Flanders houses, complete with their stepped roofs and distinctive brickwork surround the square, punctuated by a few museums and the huge Belfort.
Burg is the second-biggest square in Bruges and another must on your list of top things to see in Bruges.
Why? Well, first of all, some of Bruges’ most important buildings sit on the square: the Gothic Stadthuis (town hall), the 16th century city registry, the former Court of Justice, the Deanery, the House of the Deans of the Church of St. Donatius and the Heilig Bloedbasiliek (the Basilica of the Holy Blood).
Secondly, it is straight-up beautiful. Much of Bruges feels like you are walking through a fairytale but the Burg goes for the full shebang (well, when it’s not thronging with huge crowds anyway – that somewhat ruins the effect).
Bruges Begijnhof / Beguinages
Belgium’s gorgeous begijnhof offers a calm respite in the heart of the city.
These world-famous UNESCO World Heritage buildings were built in 1245 to provide religious sanctuary for poor and elderly women – often unmarried or widowed by the wars that claimed so many of the menfolk’s lives at the time.
While the Beijinhof dates from the 13th century – many of the buildings you see clustered around the central tree-lined green were built in the 17th century, with a few 19th century ones thrown in for good measure.
The entrance, via a bridge over a pretty canal takes you into a different world.
Life inside the begijnhof was quiet and governed by strict religious beliefs, so it’s fitting that it’s now a Benedictine convent. Even walking through today, there are signs requesting visitors keep their voices low and don’t make too much noise.
You can’t come to Bruges and not hop onto one of the cruises plying the canals that make this city so famous. After all – it is called the Venice of the North (no jokes about how Venice never calls itself the Bruges of the South allowed) – a cruise simply has to go on your Bruges to do list.
Bruges waterways are what made the city so rich in the first place. Even the city’s name is tied to the canals. It’s thought that the name Brugge was taken from the Scandinavian word “Bryggis”, which translates as mooring place.
These days, it’s all tourist trade on the canals – but they’re no less picturesque than they were centuries ago. The tours generally run between March and November – wrap up on colder days and be sure to bring a waterproof layer.
Discover Belgian Beer on a Brewery Tour
Belgium is famous for its beers, so if you have even a passing interest or enjoyment of the brown stuff, going on a brewery tour is pretty much a must.
There are a few breweries you can visit in the city – De Halve Maan, Fort Lapin and Bourgogne des Flandres – all three producing excellent beer and leading brewery tours. What could be more Bruges than learning all about how the city makes the iconic Belgian Beers before whetting your whistle with tasters of the end product?
Alternatively, you can book onto an awesome private beer tour of Bruges tasting some of the city’s best beers along the way.
PS. Service is curt at best at Bourgogne des Flandres, so if you have to skip one, choose that one.
Brilliant Things to See & Do in Bruges
Helig Bloedbasiliek (The Basilica of the Holy Blood)
Perched in a corner of the Burg, the Basilica of the Holy Blood is one of the most important Bruges attractions – well from a religious point of view anyway.
But what is it? Well, the clue is in the name – the Basilica holds a phial that is said to contain the holy blood of Jesus.
The relic is reported to have been transported from the Holy Land in 1149 but the evidence suggests it was actually from then Constantinople. Either way, the holy phial is supposed to contain a shred of the cloth used to wipe Jesus’ body after his crucifixion. Gory stuff.
Whether you believe that or no, there’s no denying the dramatic exterior is a real eye-catcher, even by this city’s high standards.
The Groeninge Museum is the city’s leading museum – with a collection that largely focuses on artists who, throughout the centuries since the medieval ages, have called Bruges their home.
I’ll be completely honest here. I didn’t LOVE the Groeninge Museum. In truth, I found it a bit dull – but I’m not really that into the early Flemish, Dutch and Belgian art that forms the backbone of the museum’s collection.
I also thought it was pretty expensive for what is ultimately a relatively small museum, but it is one of Bruges’ most important museums, so I’ll leave you to make up your mind.
Housed in a mansion, the recently-renovated Gruuthuse Museum contains the antique and art collections of the Archaeological Society of Bruges.
The labyrinth of rooms were once the home of the Van-Brugghe-Van der Aa family, merchants who were incredibly important in 15th century Bruges. The result is astounding – medieval kitchens, Gothic furniture and medical displays all portraying life in medieval and Renaissance Bruges.
Eat Some Belgian Waffles
Just the thought of Belgian waffles is enough to get my mouth drooling. There are so many great waffle shops in Bruges that I totally wouldn’t blame you if you had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day (though maybe that would be a little bit excessive).
Fluffy yet dense, sweet but not too sweet, and topped with your choice of delicious topping (hello salted caramel), you really should have at least one during your trip.
I loved Fred’s Waffles around the back of Markt but you really are spoilt for choice when it comes to locations.
Buy Some Belgian Chocolate
Belgian chocolate hardly needs an introduction – the country loves chocolate, a passion that has meant it has produced some of the world’s finest chocolate for centuries.
The upshot is that if you’re big on your chocolate, Bruges is tantamount to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – with shop after shop selling the good stuff.
Not all chocolates are created equal though, so it’s worth hunting out a few highly-recommended ones for your list of places to visit in Bruges: Olivier’s Chocolate Shop & Bar and Pol Delpa Chocolatier are two of my faves.
De Vesten (The City Ramparts) and Windmill Walk
Did you know that Bruges used to be a walled city? You will only find traces of evidence that once, the city boasted 7km of walls, built for protection in 1297 by the French King Phillip the Fair.
Though the walls were largely torn down in the 19th century a few gates remain including the Gentpoort, which houses part of the city museum and the moated Ezelpoort.
Interesting as that all is, what’s better is that the space previously occupied by the old city walls has been turned into a lovely walk around Bruges Old Town, taking in the four remaining city gates and windmills (which is why it’s often nicknamed Windmill Walk).
There used to be over 20 windmills to the north of the city – today only three remain. Sint Janshuismolen is the most important of them all – as it still grinds flour today – you can pop in and see the process yourself.
I cannot recommend that you walk the old ramparts enough – it’s a lovely way to take in some of the city’s historical sights in what feels like a semi-rural setting. What’s more, it’s one of the best free things to do in Bruges – nice in a city where the costs can mount up easily.
Wondering what to do in Bruges that doesn’t look like it’s straight up out of the 16th century? So much of Bruges has one foot in the past that the ultra-modern Concertgebouw can come as something of a shock.
Opened in 2002 – the year that Bruges was named as the Europan City of Culture, it is purposefully dramatic and a real change from the traditional buildings that define the rest of the city. Book a concert in the main hall for the full experience.
Choco Story – Bruges Chocolate Museum
Created to honour one of Belgium’s best-known international exports, Choco Story is certainly one of the best things to do in Brugge for the chocolate lovers out there.
Belgian’s first chocolate house was founded in 1845 and the country has been devoted to the good stuff ever since. No complaints here.
The museum walks you through the history of chocolate and the development of Belgium’s own chocolate industry – complete with interesting snippets and stories along the way. I dare you to resist the chocolate from the shop on the way out.
Three of the world’s leading diamond museums are located in Belgium. Accident? I think not. Belgium’s history is inextricably intertwined with that of the diamond industry .
Housed in a 17th-century mansion, the museum takes you back in time to the old diamond workshops and some replicas of the famous pieces they produced. There are also large numbers of real diamonds for you to feast your eyes on too.
Climb the Belfort
It’s hard to miss the Belfort – you see it peeking out above the skyline here and there – in fact, there are few places in the city centre you won’t catch a glimpse (or, failing that, hear the sounds of its bells ringing out).
The Belfort that we see today is not the original – that burnt down in 1240, was rebuilt then destroyed by fire twice more – the second time in 1741 before it evolved into the building we see today.
Climbing the Belfort is undoubtedly one of the top things to do in Bruges – if only for the spectacular views you get from the top. It is high – and it takes some puff to get to the top, but it is worth it.
St Salvator’s Cathedral
Previously a humble church, St Salvator became a cathedral when Belgium became an independent kingdom in the 19th century. It was enlarged and “improved” to befit its new status (and to ensure it looked every bit and more important as its neighbour the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk too) – but not everyone liked the new design.
Inside you’ll find art and tapestries, as well as weapons belonging to the chivalric order of the Knights of the Golden Fleece. Definitely worth a visit.
Onze-Lieve Vrouwekerk – The Church of Our Lady
Sporting Bruges’ highest tower (yes, even higher than the Belfort’s), Onze-Lieve-Vrouwerkerk is Bruges’ most visited religious building thanks to a combination of its stunning architecture and the fact that it houses a number of important artistic works…. including Michaelangelo’s Madonna & Child.
The sculpture – famously the only one to leave Italy while Michaelangelo was alive, was originally sculpted in 1504 for Siena Cathedral in Italy. However, that all changed when it was bought by two Bruges merchants and then donated to the church in 1506.
Today, it really pulls in the crowds – try and go early or late before or after the tour buses arrive and depart to get a look at it in relative peace.
The 122m tower is one of the tallest in Belgium, topped only by that of Antwerp’s gorgeous cathedral.
Note: The church is currently undergoing some SERIOUS renovations, and in truth, they detract a lot from the experience. That said, the tickets are cheaper too so it balances out.
Sint Janshospitaal & The Memling Museum
Sint Janshospitaal featured as the city’s main hospital until well into the 20th century, when it was transformed into what it is now: a museum dedicated to recreating what a medieval hospital and pharmacy would have looked like. There is also a collection of paintings by German artist, Hans Memling in the chapel.
A whole museum dedicated to the humble chip? Only Bruges could make it work. In truth, I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy the Frites Museum, but it is surprisingly engaging – walking you through everything you ever needed to know about the much-loved Belgian fries. What’s more, you get some perfectly-prepared fries at the end of your trip to round it off (to be had with mayonnaise the Belgian way naturally).
It’s hard to believe that tranquil Minnewater Lake is a city park, but it is.
This pretty spot, containing the Lovers’ Lake and Lovers’ Bridge is both peaceable and photogenic – and well deserving of a place on your list of places to visit in Bruges.
Like much of Bruges, there’s a story behind the lake too. According to legend, a beautiful young woman was in love with a warrior from a neighbouring tribe. Her family disapproved, instead arranging for her to marry another man. Rather than submitting to this fate, the girl ran off into the forest, where she was found by the warrior… only to die in his arms.
It’s not a cheerful tale, but rather fitting for the evocative surrounds of the park and lake.
Rozenhoedkaai (Quay of the Rosary)
Is this the prettiest location in Bruges? It’s certainly one of the most photographed. The Quay of the Rosemary could have been lifted out of the pages of one of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales – that or a Disney film.
The Quay marks the spot where the Groenerei and Dijver canals meet – and also serves as a jumping off point for canal tours around the city.
St Walburga’s church
St Walburga’s is one of the things to do in Bruges that’s a little off the tourist track – which is weird as it’s located quite centrally and boasts the most impressive interior of all the city’s religious sites. Decorated in stark black and white Baroque style (with plenty of gilt and wooden carvings for further effect), it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Visit Bruges: Practical Tips for Your Trip
So, now you know what to do in Bruges, here are a few more recommendations for your trip.
How Long to Visit in Bruges?
I would recommend visiting Bruges for at least two days, preferably three.
Bruges is a popular and easy day trip destination, but staying overnight means that you have more time to explore the city’s key sights and also get to experience how nice and quiet it is once all the day-tripping crowds leave.
Where Should I Stay in Bruges?
Bruges isn’t a large city, so wherever you stay is going to be relatively close to the centre. Here are my particular recommendations:
Novotel Bruges Centrum Hotel (Mid-Range)
A relatively simple, yet contemporary hotel a short walk away from the city centre, the Novotel might not set your world alight but the rooms are comfortable and the prices are reasonable.
Hotel de Orangerie (Luxury)
A converted Carthusian convent, the ivy-clad facade of the Hotel de Orangerie is a landmark in itself. Go for upmarket rooms, swish service and (if you’re lucky), breathtaking views.
Looking for more recommendations? Read my guide to The Best Places and Areas to Stay in Bruges
Recommended Places to Eat in Bruges
- Restaurant Sans Cravate – Michelin-starred Restaurant Sans Cravate melds French and Belgian cuisine to create high-end dishes and some of the best eats in the city. Book ahead. £££
- ‘T Bagientje – Traditional Belgian cuisine in a rather cutesy setting just inside of the old city ramparts. Food is tasty but service can be slow, so don’t go if you’re in a hurry. ££
- The Republic – Want to head to where the locals eat in Bruges? Go to The Republic, where the contemporary menu and chic decor feels worlds away from the sometimes stuffy Bruges dining scene. Highly recommended. £
Things to do in Bruges, Belgium: Map
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