Bruges is made for weekends. The canal-laced picture-perfect city is a short train ride from Brussels and most attractions can be explored on foot.
From atmospheric places to stay and the finest art museums to hearty Flemish food and medieval pubs – there's plenty to pack in on a weekend trip to this beautiful city.
Get to the heart of the city
Two neighbouring squares – the Markt and the Burg – comprise the gabled, cobbled, impeccably scenic heart of the city. Horse-drawn carriages depart from the Markt, and it’s also the site of the rocket-like Belfort (belfry), which you can climb for a bird’s-eye view that extends as far as the cranes of Zeebrugge. Highlights of the Burg include the grand Brugse Vrije, the city’s medieval control centre, and the Stadhuis, with its dazzling Gothic Hall. At the western end of the Stadhuis is the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a phial believed to contain Christ’s blood, as well as a lavish treasury.
Admire artistic masterpieces
The art of this historically wealthy city is one of its great attractions. The Groeningemuseum displays Flemish Primitive and Renaissance works, notably by Van Eyck and Gerard David, and intricate townscapes depict the city at the height of its mercantile prowess in the fourteenth century. The Museum St-Janshospitaal is worth seeing both for the building – a twelfth-century hospital with a fine timber roof – and the treasure-house of art by Hans Memling, including the altarpiece of the hospital church and the gilded oak Reliquary of St Ursula.
Cruise the canals
If a horse-and-carriage trip feels too touristy, let yourself be seduced by seeing Bruges by boat. You get a very different perspective from the canals, including lovely gardens, tranquil backwaters and the undersides of umpteen arched bridges.
Wander the begijnhof
Designed to provide respectable shelter for unmarried women, the wonderful begijnhof is a key city site. A grassy garden complex surrounded by thirteenth-century whitewashed cottages, it still preserves an air of tranquility and contemplation. Don’t miss the house museum here, with its Delft tiles, homely stove and decorative lace. It’s hard to believe that the equally tranquil Minnewater nearby was once a harbour for ships unloading a rich cargo of spices, wool, wine and silk.
Feast on Flemish food
Horse steak, black pudding made with pig’s blood, eel in herb sauce and tongue set in gelatin are all on the menu in Bruges. If this sounds less than appealing, rest assured there are plenty of delicious and more easily palatable eating options. Try the stoofvlees (traditional stew) dished up at Pro Deo (bistroprodeo.be), or wild boar fillet on oyster mushrooms at intimate De Stove. Grand Den Dyjver specialises in matching beer with gourmet food, while you could push the boat out for Michelin-starred ivy-wreathed Den Gouden Harynck.
Taste the local brew
A remarkable number of visitors are pretty much just here for the beer. And with good reason. Beer is to the Belgians what wine is to the French, and there are reckoned to be 1000 varieties brewed nationwide. Trappist beers are a legend, and lambic sparkling brews created by spontaneous fermentation are highly prized, with cider-like gueuze being the most popular variety. Bruges features many great drinking spots, but the classics are brown café ’t Brugs Beertje, 500-year-old Herberg Vlissinghe and tavern-like De Garre, which brews its own 11% beer.
A circuit 'round the windmills
If you’re keen to walk off the beer and Flemish fare, take a walk around the back streets of the St Anna district, and on to the city’s ramparts, to view some picturesque working windmills. Other attractions en route include the Museum voor Volkskunde, an attractively homely city museum, and the dramatic Jeruzalemkerk with its skull-bedecked altarpiece.
Cocktails with a vampire
Yes, really. Bruges’ absolutely oddest night out is Retsin’s Lucifernum, a former Masonic lodge occupied by a self-proclaimed vampire. Open only on Sunday evenings, it contains a voodoo temple, corridors hung with portraits of the vampire through the ages, a grave-filled tropical garden and an excellent Latin-style bar. Only in Belgium.
Shop for lace, beer and chocolate
This is the holy trinity for shoppers in Bruges. Sadly much ‘Bruges lace’ is now made in China, but ’t Apostelientje offers the real deal, handmade with wooden bobbins. Bacchus Cornelius is the most appealing place to purchase beer and jenever (gin), including their own homemade versions. And experimental chocolatier Chocolate Line offers some extremely offbeat taste combinations, including Cuban cigar and wasabi.
Where to stay
The city may be compact and walkable, but its picturesque canals and top-drawer art pull in tourists in multiple coachloads. Book accommodation well in advance, and avoid the worst of the crowds by visiting outside high-summer season. In fact, winter is a lovely time to come here, when warming food and snug pubs provide respite from the weather.
- Budget travellers should try ’t Keizershof, which provides B&B comfort at hostel prices, while Passage Bruges and Lybeer offer actual hostel accommodation in the heart of the city.
- The city excels in mid-range B&Bs: St-Niklaas and Baert are two favourites, the first with belfry views and the second located in a restored coach house.
- If price is no object, stay in the ultra-romantic Guesthouse Nuit Blanche, a fifteenth-century former tannery with a canal-side garden, stained glass windows and Gothic fireplaces. B&B Huyze Hertsberge is similarly historic and tastefully decorated, with an antique-bedecked salon.