Bruges is one of the most picturesque cities in Northern Europe, with a photo opportunity at every corner. The medieval city center survived invasions and wars over the last 500 years, yet miraculously kept its 15th-century architecture intact – an achievement that won it Unesco World Heritage status in 2000. 

Beyond the picturesque Gothic facades, you can go sailing through the canals, learn about the Flemish Masters, or visit one of the many museums (perfect for a rainy day, of which there are many). Here's our guide to the very best experiences in Bruges.

See Bruges on a canal boat tour

For the reasonable cost of €12, you can experience the sights of Bruges on a boat tour along the picturesque canals. Take a trip on arrival in the city to help orientate you while the tour guides give you a potted history. You'll pass under the arched Bonifacius Bridge, a popular 20th-century stone arch crossing usually busy with tourists taking photos, as well as the 18th-century Nepomucenus Bridge, watched over by a statue of John of Nepomuk, the patron saint of bridges.

Save some smartphone storage for Rosary Quay, though. Rosary beads were once sold from this spot, but it's the photogenic kink in the canal and the crooked, forward-leaning facades that attracts Instagram devotees today. The boats, formerly all diesel engines, are being replaced by a fleet of fully electric boats

Break for a Belgian beer at a Bruges bar 

Beer is a big part of Flemish culture, and there's no shortage of places to have a pint, so take a break from sightseeing to try a local specialty. Tucked away in a little alley near the city center, De Garre is a quirky bar with over 140 varieties of beer. Advertised as "possibly the oldest pub in Bruges," Café Vlissinghe has been pouring beers since 1515. It's still a beloved spot for tourists and residents of Bruges alike. If you're looking for a lively bar scene, head to 't Zand square – Villa Gerard is popular with students and local residents. 

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A person holds a waffle in a takeaway pot outside in a medieval square. It's covered in chocolate sauce
Don't miss tasting Bruges' sweet delicacies, such as fresh waffles covered in chocolate sauce © NataliaDeriabina / Getty Images

Indulge your sweet tooth with waffles, pastries, and chocolates

Bring your sweet tooth to Bruges – you will notice chocolate, pastry, and candy shops on every street, with the sweet aroma of freshly toasted waffles following you through the city. For a beautiful and delicious waffle, go to Otto Waffle Atelier where the waffles are created with an intricate pattern. Aux Merveilleux De Fred serves exquisite pastries in an equally stunning tea room. Order a Vergeoise waffle to go with your coffee. Round out your indulgence with chocolate truffles at one of the most popular chocolate shops, Chocolatier Dumon.

Go on an architectural walking tour of Bruges 

Pack your comfortable shoes because Bruges is a place for walkers. A wander through the beautiful city center is one of the best ways to admire the Gothic and Flemish architecture. Keep your eyes open for the many treasures such as the emblematic 't Zand's 21st-century Concert Hall, which looks like a giant, half-submerged goldfish ducking beneath the pavement; the cherry-red Barge Bridge that seemingly twists like the track on a roller-coaster; and the 13th-century Church of Our Lady, with its enormous 115m (377ft) spire. Inside you'll find Michelangelo’s serene Madonna and Child statue from 1504. Bruges Tourism Office offers free maps for self-guided walking tours.

Visit independent shops along Langestraat 

Take a 10–15 minute walk away from Markt, the heart of ancient Bruges, to Langestraat, a street with independently owned restaurants, cafes, and shops. Stop by Cherry Picker Cafe for its unique selection of vinyl records with a bar in the back of the shop. Visit Frivool for designer second-hand women's clothing, shoes, and accessories in great condition, before browsing for rare finds at Brocante Cafe, an antique shop and cafe. If you're looking for a made-in-Bruges gift, you'll want to stop by Atelier Twee, featuring leather goods made in-house and items created by regional artisans. 

Tour a Belgian brewery 

Belgium produces some of the best beers in the world – even those that don't usually enjoy a pint can be converted to brew lovers after a sip. For Belgians, beer is more than a beverage, it's a tradition, with most brasseries serving beers in distinct glasses representing the breweries. Located in the heart of the Bruges, Brewery De Halve Maan offers brewery tours and tastings. There's a little surprise too: the tour guide (weather permitting) will take you to the brewery's rooftop, which offers splendid views of the city. Sip on your beer in the beer hall or catch the elusive Belgian sun on the cozy terrace. 

People walk through a huge medieval square dominated by a tall Gothic tower
Belfort, a 13th-century belfry, towers over Markt in central Bruges © Olena Z / Shutterstock

Take in the magnificent Markt, one of Europe's finest squares

A medieval masterpiece, few European plazas outdo this glorious, car-free square for sheer good looks. A poster child for Belgium, Markt has a bit of Hollywood pizazz to it – all tall, step-gabled guild houses, glinting neo-Gothic facades, and slow, clopping horse-and-carriage rides. True, some of the buildings may not be as timeless as their restored glory suggests, but little has really changed since the first market here in 958.

Just ask the Belfort to the northwest of the square. Finished in 1486, this 83m-high (272ft) octagonal tower was the dominating skyscraper of its day – and so it remains. Grab a coffee from one of the nearby terrace cafes and admire it all from there, or...

Climb Belfort for the best views of Bruges

In an effort to preserve Bruges' charm, there are no tall modern buildings in the city center. Get the best panoramas over red-tiled rooftops and all the way to Zeebrugge – and a workout from climbing the 366 steps – at the top of Belfort. This 13th-century belfry is one of the tallest points in the historic center. 

Learn about the Flemish Masters at Groeningemuseum

Given its long history, Bruges is a city of culture, and you can celebrate that by admiring the rich collection of Flemish Primitive and Renaissance works at Groeningemuseum. The art gallery features works by Flemish Masters such as Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes, and Gerard David, and is the perfect rainy day activity.

Enjoy an eclectic program of events at Concertgebouw 

Another treat for a rainy day is the eclectic programming of exhibitions and performances at the Concertgebouw, the modern concert hall of Bruges. You can also book a tour of this stunning 21st-century architectural gem.

The exterior of the Museum Sint-Janshospitaal against the canal on a calm, blue-skied winter morning in Bruges, Belgium
The Museum Sint-Janshospitaal is home to several works by the great Hans Memling © Shutterstock / kavalenkava volha

Admire the works of Hans Memling at the Museum Sint-Janshospitaal

This impeccably restored chapel, which sits at the heart of a wonderful 12th-century hospital building, is home to six masterpieces by the revered 15th-century devotional artist Hans Memling. Undoubtedly Bruges' finest painter, certainly in his own lifetime, it wasn't really until the late 19th-century that interest piqued in the innovative portraitist with shows across the world.

Here, you can admire his delicate oil work on the panels of the splendid, gilded reliquary of St Ursula, which is said to hold some of her relics. But don't miss the large triptych of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist either. It was originally the church's altarpiece.

Immerse yourself in history and myths at Burg

Imagine being a square this beautiful and interesting and still not being the most-talked about square in the city. Anywhere else in the world and the Gothic turrets of the 15th-century Stadhuis (city hall), the charcoal-colored facade and gilded statues of the Basilica of the Holy Blood – purportedly home to a vial containing a cloth stained with the blood of Jesus Christ – and the light clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages would make Burg an unmissable banquet of medieval architecture. Here? It plays second fiddle to Markt. But is still well worth a few hours of your time.

Grab a budget meal around 't Zand

There are several universities in Bruges, most notably the College of Europe and the Catholic University College of Bruges, which means plenty of places to find a meal on a budget. The area around 't Zand square has several student-friendly restaurants, cafes, and bars. HAP Takeaway Bites uses locally sourced ingredients to make delicious sandwiches, salads, and freshly pressed juices. An excellent spot for breakfast or lunch, most items cost around €5–8. For lunches less than €10, try the burgers, croquettes, and fries at Frituur-Bistro 't Bootje or dine on Syrian-style falafel, shawarmas, and wraps at Taboulé.

Pastel-colored tall buildings line a square with cafes and restaurants at the base. A cyclist whizzes by.
Bike is a great way to get around the relatively flat city of Bruges, and beyond © J2R / Getty Images

Rent a bike and go beyond the historic city center

Bruges is relatively flat, making it ideal for touring by bike. You will find several bike rental outfits around the city. Start your ride at the Kruispoort Gate, one of Bruges's four preserved medieval gates, where a bike trail leads the way to photogenic windmills such as Bonne-Chière and Sint-Janshuismolen. If you want to go on a longer ride, consider the 90-minute roundtrip to Zeebrugge, approximately 15km (9.3 miles) each way, for a view of the choppy North Sea and lunch at a seafood restaurant.

Find inner peace at the begijnhof

Ah! Pure silence. Or as close as you're ever going to get in a city which swells with bus-loads of tourists each day. Built in the 13th century as a place for religious women to live piously but with the freedom to go into the city itself, this gabled, white-washed begijnhof still retains a reverent calm among its trees. 

Take your fries seriously with frietjes at a frituur

No trip to Belgium is complete with having a cone (or three) of frietjes (fries). Belgians take their fries seriously and Bruges has plenty of frituurs, small restaurants specializing in fries, around the city. A large portion of fries with sauce is usually around €4. Belgians love a dollop of mayo on their crispy, thick-cut fries and sometimes tuck in with unique condiments such as curry ketchup or samurai sauce (spicy mayo).

And then learn why fries are part of the national dish at the Frietmuseum

The quirky Frietmuseum starts with a detailed history of potatoes and their journey from Peru to Europe, and helps you understand why fries became such an important part of Belgian cuisine. Bring your appetite – the museum serves crispy fries made to order with a wide selection of sauces from its own frituur

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