I’ll get to Bruges’s history info and must-see sites in a moment. But first a little nudge: VISIT BRUGES! In all my wanderings around Europe, I’ve found Bruges to have the fewest modern buildings of any major tourist destination. If you have any notion to discover a European city that transports you back in time, Bruges is that place. Except for the automobiles and paved roads, you step into the Middle Ages when you walk through Bruges. On a continent that has seen its fair share of wars, destruction, and modern urbanization, it says a lot that Bruges has kept itself looking like it was perhaps 800 years ago. Have I said enough? Okay…onward!
I met a woman at the coin-laundry who has lived her entire life in Bruges. She said it used to get tourists in the summer months, but now “they’re here all year round.” Well, that’s good for Bruges—3 million visitors come each year—and good for park lovers, too, because you’ll find more excuses to have lunch in Astridpark or cut through Hof Sebrechts to rest your eyes and stretch your travel legs. Both are nice recreation parks, too.
Bruges was founded in 865. The name means “city of bridges”—an apt name once its canals were dug for commercial transportation. Many of Bruges’s buildings date from the Middle Ages. Tourists can today appreciate the exquisite carvings and paintings that decorate their interiors. In its heydays, between 1240 and 1426, Bruges was one of the most important cities in Europe because of its trade with Venice and the Hanseatic League, comprised of northern Germanic cities bound together by—what else—economic interdependence.
Bruges Museums and City Sites
The Market Hall overlooks Market Square. The Market Hall dates from the 1200s, but today is famous for its “Stairway to Heaven” (I wish I had coined that, but alas…no), a 366-step walkway up to the belfry. Up here on a clear day you can get a glimpse of the North Sea. The bell tower has 48 bells that chime a tune twice each day.
As only a European city seems able to pull this off, Market Square is actually two squares, connected by the narrow Breidelstraat. It is in this second historical square that you will find Holy Blood Chapel. Its Catholic parishioners believe that the cylinder of blood on display holds Jesus’ blood, taken from his body during a trip to Jerusalem in a 12th Century crusade. The cylinder is taken from a safe each morning and put on a pillow to be worshipped. Each May, this holy relic is the highlight of the Holy Blood Procession through Bruges, whence visitors from around the world pay their respects with bowed heads and silence.
The Groeninge Museum (closed Mondays) on Uthusestraat (Dijver 12) holds a nice collection of old Flemish Masters of the 1500s, including Memling and Van Eyck. Keeping up with the centuries, the museum exhibits the twentieth-century Flemish absurdist Marcel Broodthaers and pop artist Roger Raveel. Open 9.30-5pm; €8.
Tour De Halve Maan brewery for €4.50 (@ $5) and beer is included (don’t let your imagination carry you away—they won’t strap a keg onto your back). The family brewers used to make “Straffe Hendrik” (Strong Henry) but owing to its popularity, they had to sell the recipe to a larger brewer to keep pace with demand. The location (Walplein, off larger Mariastraat) is a bit out of the way, but if you’re beering your way through Europe, it’s worth the walk. (Open daily; lunch from 12-3; tours at 11 and 3)
Since you’re down this way for the brewery tour, and need to work off your beer buzz, stop at the Begijnhof for a visit to a beautiful park and the historic community site of religious feminists. In 1200, some women went a bit over-the-top for Catholic leaders when they got married to Jesus, among other extracurricular spiritual practices. The church wanted to bury them alive. Instead, the women, called Beguins, sowed the seeds of modern feminism by bucking the establishment and starting their own communities all over Flanders. The surviving beguinages are part of Unesco World Heritage.
Bicycling is a Benelux staple. What with flat lands and high auto and petrol prices, pedal-power is not only economical, convenient and healthy, it is a way for you the visitor to join the locals (and avoid getting run over by one). Bruges has at least four bicycle rental shops, and one is next to the central train station. For around €9.50 per day, you can see Bruges and the outer countryside in speedy style. The North Sea is 45 minutes from town along J & M Sabbestraat.
(read more about Bruges’ highlights here)