Belgian Getaway: What to See and Do in Bruges

Bruges, the capital of the West Flanders province in northwest Belgium, has been called the Venice of the North. The city’s picturesque canals wind through town creating Instagram-worthy photos around every corner.

With most of its medieval architecture intact, Bruges (or Brugge as the locals call it) is still one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in Europe, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site

What to Do and See in Bruges

Whether you have days to spend or merely hours, Bruges will suck you deep into Belgian culture as you explore the city. Have your cameras ready and your eyes wide open, and make sure you take time to visit these five sites.

Markt

One of the most historic corners of Bruges is this market center underneath the Belfry Tower. This is where festivals, fairs, tournaments, uprisings and even executions happened in medieval times. Since 958, the square has been used as a marketplace. Today, the square is surrounded by banks, shops, restaurants and other businesses, and it is filled with pedestrians and bicyclists touring the city.

Walking through historic Bruges, Belgium. Photo by Janna Graber
Walking through historic Bruges, Belgium. Photo by Janna Graber

Each Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the square is filled with a market where you can buy fresh fruits and veggies, flowers, meats, cheese, snacks, hot drinks and handmade crafts.

There are 14th century statues scattered throughout the plaza, including Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who are known as freedom heroes for leading the struggle against the French from right here in Bruges. The square is also an excellent spot to hitch a ride on a horse-drawn carriage, especially at dusk, which will take you around the city to watch the lights come on.

You can also take a guided tour of the city or guide yourself with a hand-held listening device which takes you from stop to stop around the city in your own language. As you listen to the historical narrations, you will be able to see, smell and feel the most historical parts of Bruges as if you were living there in the 1400s.

Just around the corner from the Markt on Breydelstraat, you will find the Beer Museum. You will be given an iPad upon entrance which will allow you to read or listen about all the different kinds of beer and its history. For an extra fee, you can participate in a beer tasting.

What to see and do in Bruges
Bruges, Belgium at night

Church of Our Lady

Known as the “high point” of Bruges, the Church of Our Lady is the tallest medieval building in the city, standing at 122 meters (400 feet). It took two centuries to build this sacred edifice, and many 13th-15th century pieces of art stand inside to add to the timeless ambiance.

One of these pieces is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, which was made from pure marble in Italy in 1504 and carefully transported to Belgium. The statue represents the core of Christianity itself, depicting the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus together. There are many adaptations of this sculpture, in all art forms, and Michelangelo’s is called the “Madonna of Bruges.” The statue has been fought over and protected for hundreds of years, having been captured by soldiers in the French Revolution and WWII before being returned to Belgium.

The church is also home to the Ceremonial Tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy, who ruled in the late 15th century. Duchess Mary was a lover of horseback riding, and she died at the age of 25 in 1482 when her horse tripped and rolled on top of her, breaking her back.

Take a canal tour in Bruges for a whole different view of the city.
Take a canal tour in Bruges for a whole different view of the city.

Her father was killed in battle in 1477, and his body was brought back to Bruges in 1550, where he was laid to rest beside his daughter. The tombs are included in the museum part of the church, along with several other pieces of medieval art and woodwork. Tickets to the museum are on sale until 4:30 p.m. every day except for during nuptial and funeral masses.

Basilica of the Holy Blood

In a double church dedicated to Our Lady and Saint Basil, the lower Romanesque church preserves its medieval character while the lower church keeps vigil over the relic of the Holy Blood. This chapel is a neo-Gothic exhibit connected by a staircase to the other chapel and the outside world. Originally built in the 12th century, the relic was promoted to minor basilica in 1923.

The building which houses these two chapels was originally built in 1533 in the Renaissance style, but was demolished during the French occupation, and reconstructed in the 19th century. The two chapels are incredibly different, with the lower one lacking much decoration and the neo-Gothic one bursting with life and color.

Bruges has been called the Venice of the North. Photo by Janna Graber
Bruges has been called the Venice of the North. Photo by Janna Graber

Take a Canal Tour in Bruges

After you’ve strolled through the city center, take a relaxing boat tour through the city’s waterways. The 30-minute tours leave from Huidenvettersplein every day in March-November, and they depart every half hour from 10:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. The tour will show you Bruges’ highlights from a different perspective than the walking tours or horse carriage rides. You can book a tour with a group or individually, and it only costs 8 € per person.

Bruges Belfry

Finally, stop by the town’s most prominent symbol, the Belfry bell tower. Once the house of a treasury and a post for spotting fires or danger, the Belfry is accessible to the public with an entry fee. A 366-step staircase leads to the top of the 83-meter (272-foot) tower, which leans about a meter (3 feet) to the east.

The very first Belfry tower was destroyed by a fire in 1280, and then the wooden spire atop the tower was burned in another fire in 1493 and 1741. Even after all that, the tower still stands today and includes an octagonal lantern from between 1482-1486 and a carillion, which is made up of 47 bells.

Because the tower is so narrow, only a limited number of people is allowed to make the climb at once. At the top awaits a 360-degree view of Bruges as well as the melodious carols of the carillion, which still sings today. Aside from all this, the tower offers a rich history, spectacular artwork and a once-in-a-lifetime experience deep in the heart of Belgium.