From ancient monastic beer to gigantic muscular beef cattle, the Flemish city of Bruges has a fascinating history, a singular culture and some of the prettiest architecture in Europe. Here’s how to experience the best of Bruges.
Pretty bridges spanning narrow canals, Gothic architecture, exquisite food and unique beer, broad paved market squares, and looming spired cathedral towers.
These things are ten a penny in Europe. But only in Bruges do you find them all in one place – a place that’s just 2km by 2.5km wide.
It’s quite remarkable to think that so much is packed into such a small area – the old town itself ringed around by a canal and vestiges of a Roman-built battlements.
For such a small city, Bruges has really seen a rollercoaster ride through its history.
Here’s a quick run-down of what Bruges has had to deal with over the centuries:
History highlights of Bruges
– Evidence of Iron and Bronze Age habitation, but with no relationship with modern-day location of Bruges
– Developed by Julius Cesar to protect the land from piratic attack
– Settled by Vikings in Middle Ages
– Became trade centre thanks to its proximity to the sea and its canals
– Thrived with Flemish textile industry – in particular, lace
– Became a centre for art during the Renaissance
– Main inlet to the North Sea filled up with silt and Antwerp took over trade in 1500s
– Missed out on most of the developments from the Industrial Revolution in 19th Century
– Bruges became one of the poorest cities in Europe by mid-1800s
– Miraculously survived WWI and WWII with very little damage
– Now a tourist hub and UNESCO Heritage listed destination
But perhaps the most startling piece of Bruges’ history is its famous architecture.
Many of the buildings now standing in the oldest and most famous parts of the city were only built in the early 20th Century (you can read more about this here).
They were designed in the Neo Gothic style and in keeping with the original ‘flavour’ of Bruges, but still not the original. This was, in part, because the original buildings were all wood and thatch, which even as early as the 1700s, was seen as a fire hazard.
I’m guessing the Belgians looked back at what had happened to London in 1666 and made some wise changes.
10 things to see, do and eat in Bruges, Belgium
1. Climb the Bruges Belfry
Standing at 83m tall, the Bruges Belfry (aka the Belfort Belfry and Carillon) is easily the most noticeable and perhaps most famous part of the city, which is only 3m above sea level.
You can climb the narrow precipitous staircase that winds up to the top of the tower for incredible views of the whole region.
Get ready for a climb though. The 266 steps make for quite a workout. And watch your timing: if you’re at the top of the belfry when the bell sounds, you’ll hear it ringing in your head the rest of the day!
2. Find the Nun’s Walk
The ‘Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde’ is a beautiful hidden enclave of white-walled houses and pristine gardens that was once the home to emancipated women.
Founded in 1245, this peaceful village within the city was a sanctuary for those wanting to live a pious life without men. They were not nuns.
There are still some women living here as ‘beguines’ but the majority of the population is Sisters of St Benedict.
3. Drink Belgian beer… everywhere!
Bruges is famous for being one of the epicentres for Trappist beer. Brewed by Trappist monks for centuries, this is now a UNESCO protected product of culture. It’s also bloody tasty.
Of course, you’ll find this excellent beer in almost every eatery and bar in the city, but when you’re in the little old beer cafes dotted around town, you’re not just drinking up the beer. Here’s a list of the best places to drink beer in Bruges.
4. Follow the canals on foot
Giving Bruges the moniker ‘Venice of the North’ these interconnecting canals offer a leading path throughout the city.
Keeping the water by your side, you can amble through the cobbled streets of Bruges old town without worrying about getting too lost – though in a city so small, getting lost is actually a challenge.
But you’ll be rewarded with some of the most beautiful sights.
5. Try the beef stew
As we mentioned before, Bruges is famous for its monstrous cows. Simply Google ‘Belgian Blue’ and you’ll see what I mean.
But from these massive beasts, the beef is magnificent. Steak is an easy option but the local stew – ‘stoverij’ – is really the way to go. Slow-cooked for hours in a dark Trappist beer, the dish comes to you full of rich, deep flavours and textures you won’t believe.
We had this at ‘t Bagientje and would highly recommend this spot again.
For other food recommendations, check out our full story of finding food in Bruges.
6. Explore the torture museum
Not for the feint-hearted, the torture museum – De Oude Steen – is a grisly reminder of how badly humans can treat one another. It might seem like a kind of morbid thing to do, but it’s a great museum and very interesting.
It’s also right next door to House of Waffles, which brings me to the next point…
7. Eat savoury waffles
Everyone’s heard of Belgian waffles. Crispy grids covered in cream, ice cream, blueberries, chocolate… but this is not a traditional Flemish Belgian waffle from the area. In fact, the dessert-style ones only became popular because a spoilt prince-bishop in 18th Century Liege had a sweet tooth.
Traditional Belgian waffles are eaten with a range of savoury toppings – from eggs to smoked salmon. I wasn’t sure when I first saw this, but it’s actually amazing.
8. Buy chocolates
Everyone’s heard of Belgian chocolate and it’s in Bruges in abundance. You might say the city’s choc full of it. Sorry.
There are so many chocolate shops in Bruges, the hardest thing is picking where to go. We have a few suggestions at the end of this post about finding food in Bruges.
9. Try some Belgian cheese
Not as famous as its chocolate, Belgian cheese is also well worth looking out for. Similar (but not the same) and Dutch cheese, things like Belgian gouda is incredible.
One of the most amazing shops we found in Bruges was this little cheese shop – Kaashuys Den Hof – right in the middle of town that you shouldn’t miss.
10. Take a boat tour along the canals
Probably the most touristy thing you can do in Bruges is take a boat tour along the canals. But we never saw an unhappy face coming off the ride.
And a bit like the river cruise in Chicago, all the locals recommend it because it’s so good.
You get a completely different perspective of this beautiful little city from the water and you learn a little bit more about the place you’re visiting.
Have you been to Bruges? What would you recommend people try or do or eat here?