Like Amsterdam and Stockholm, Bruges is often referred to as the “Venice of the North” due to its canals. Little of its pre-Roman or Roman period survives, but it is known that the city was the western terminus of the “Amber Road” trade route as long ago as 1600 BC. It was trade that made Bruges prosperous, and prosperity that led to the reinforcement of the old Roman walls against the Vikings in the 9th century. The channel linking Bruges to the sea silted up in the 11th century, but was restored by a violent storm in 1134. Bruges once again became an important center of trade, and new city walls were constructed in 1127 to encircle the expanding city. Little of these walls remain, with the exception of four of the nine Medieval gates – the Kruispoort, Gentpoort, Smedenpoort and Ezelpoort.
By the dawn of 13th century, Bruges had emerged as the economic capital of Europe due to its prominence in the weaving trade: wool was imported from England and Scotland and Flemish cloth exported throughout Europe. French King Philip IV annexed the city in 1301; in 1302, the citizens rose up and massacred the French garrison that occupied the town. Philip’s mounted knights were sent to put down the rebellion, only to be defeated by Flemish militias commanded by Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninc. The decisive “Battle of the Golden Spurs,” named for the trophies stripped from fallen knights by the victors, marked a shift away from mounted troops to infantry. It also shifted political power in Bruges from the nobles to merchants and artisans, and established Dutch as the official language of Flanders.
Bruges continued to prosper during a “Golden Age” that lasted through the 15th century. The first bourse (stock exchange) in the world was established in Bruges in 1309; the arts flourished, as did the printing trade. But when the inlet leading to the sea silted up in the early 16th century, Bruges slipped into a decline. Canals dug in the 17th and 18th centuries re-established the city’s maritime connection, but were not able to revive its fortunes. As a result, Bruges’s population shrank and the city did not expand beyond its medieval walls until well into the 20th century. The resulting preserved medieval center city is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ships dock at the commercial port of Zeebrugge, about 20 minutes from Bruges. Most cruise lines provide a shuttle into town; it is also possible to get into Bruges by means of a tram/taxi, but the logistics are complicated, and the trains only run once an hour. You can also take a taxi from the pier for a flat rate of €50 (as of 2013).
Bruges’ compact size makes it relatively easy to take in the city’s most notable sights with ease. Two large squares – Market Square and Burg Square – are at the heart of the city.
Opposite the Provinciaal Hof is the Cloth Hall and Belfort or Bell Tower, which is visible from almost everywhere in the city. The Belfry was built in the 13th century and given an octagonal extension in the 15th century. In medieval times, the Belfry was used to store important city documents; its 47 bells, each tuned to a different note, rang out to signal danger, or important announcements. Today, the carillon marks the time every 15 minutes between the hours of 7 AM and 9 PM. You can climb the 366 steps to the top to take in the panoramic views of the city below. (Open Tues-Sun, 9:30am-5pm – Admission €8)
Burg Square, the site of the first Count’s castle, is the seat of public administration, and holds many of the town’s governmental buildings and a Tourist Information Office. Notable buildings in this Square include the Stadhuis (City Hall), built in 1376 – the oldest in the Low Countries, and the seat of city government for more than 600 years. The building’s facade features carvings of Biblical figures and the Counts of Flanders. Inside, on the ground floor, is a multimedia exhibit on the evolution of Burg Square; a grand staircase takes you upstairs to the Gothic Hall, with its vaulted polychromed oak ceiling (1402) and its neo-Gothic murals (1895). (Open Daily 9:30am-5pm – Admission €4, Seniors €3)
Admittance to the Landhuis, which houses the administrative offices of the Bruges City Council, is included with admission to the Stadhuis. This 18th century building replaced an earlier 16th century structure. The 16th century Council Hall (the building housed the council for the “Liberty” of Bruges, as the outlying districts were known) has been restored to its original condition, and holds a beautiful black marble fireplace decorated with an alabaster frieze and topped with an oak chimneypiece. Carved into the latter are statues of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his grandparents, Maximilian of Austria, and Duchess Mary of Burgundy, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille. (Open 9:30am-12:30pm and 1:30pm-5pm – Admission included with Stadhuis ticket.)
Just next to the Stadhuis is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the oldest building in Bruges. Built in 1139, the basilica was originally the chapel of the residence of the Count of Flanders. The lower, Romanesque-style chapel, is dedicated to St. Basil the Great and holds a relic of the saint. The upper chapel was remodeled in the late-Gothic style toward the end of the 15th century; the stained glass and murals are from mid-19th century renovations. This upper chapel holds the “Holy Blood,” a relic brought to Bruges from Constantinople after the sack of that city in 1204. Enclosed in a glass-fronted gold cylinder is a rock crystal vial which holds a piece of cloth supposedly used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood of Christ. On every Ascension Day since 1303, the relic has been removed from the chapel and displayed in a procession celebrating the 1302 revolt against Philip IV of France. A small museum next to the chapel displays the golden processional reliquary. (Open Daily 10am-Noon and 2pm-5pm – Free admission to the Basilica, €2 to visit the Museum/Treasury)
Dominating the city skyline is the steeple of the Church of Our Lady, which rises some 122 meters (400 feet) in the air. Constructed from the 13th -15th centuries, the church is a showcase for many different Gothic styles. The real draw for tourists, however, is Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child,” and the ceremonial bronze tombs of Mary of Burgundy and her father, Charles the Bold. Beginning in 2014, the church is undergoing major restoration, and is only partially accessible; the chancel and the tombs are currently closed to the public. (Open Mon-Sat, 9:30-5pm, Sunday 1:30pm-5pm – Reduced Admission during restoration – €3)
Opposite the Church of Our Lady is the Old St. John’s Hospital. Founded in the 11th century to care for pilgrims, this is one of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in the world. Today the hospital holds the Hans Memling Museum, which displays 6 of the Flemish Primitive artist’s paintings. There are several other religious paintings and sculptures on display, as well as exhibits of medical and apothecary items, reliquaries and archival documents. (Open Tues-Sun, 9:30am-5pm – Admission €8)
St. Saviour’s was originally a humble parish church, but following the destruction of St. Donatian’s Cathedral in Burg Square in the late 18th century and the installation of a new bishop in 1834, it was elevated to the status of Cathedral. Smaller and less imposing than the nearby Church of Our Lady, an addition was made to St. Saviour’s tower to give it a more impressive profile. Many of the art works originally displayed in the demolished St. Donatian’s were moved to St. Saviour’s, including several 18th century tapestries. (Open Mon-Sat, 10am-1pm and 2pm-5:30pm; Sundays 11:30am-12pm and 2 pm-5pm – Currently (2015) undergoing restoration, which may affect the opening hours of the Treasury/Museum)
Situated in the southern part of the city, near the Minnewater Lake, the Begijnhof is a quiet refuge from the bustle of the city center. The community was established in 1244 to house “beguines,” unmarried and widowed women who lived as nuns but took no vows. In 1927, the complex became a monastery for the Benedictine sisters, who live there still. The community’s 30 white-painted houses surround a grassy courtyard, which is entered by a bridge over a canal. The houses date from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; the Baroque church was built in the 17th century to replace an earlier one that burned down. It’s free to visit the church and compound; entrance to a small museum that recreates the quarters of a beguine is €2. (Open Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm, Sun 2:30pm-5:00 pm.)
Bruges has a host of museums, some devoted to some fairly off-beat subjects such as lamps, lace and beer.
Groeningemuseum (Dijver, 16) – This museum holds six centuries of Flemish and Belgian painting, from the 15th century “Flemish Primitives” through the 20th century Flemish Expressionists and post-modernists. On display are works by van Eyck, Bosch, van der Weyden, Memling and many others. (Open Tues-Sun, 9:30am-5pm – Admission: €8 – Seniors €6)
Gruuthuse Museum (Djiver, 17) – The former home of a wealthy family, this museum holds a collection of historical objects that shed light on life in Bruges between the 15th and 19th centuries. Each room houses a display of objects of a different material, such as lace, goldware, furniture or ceramics, as well as tapestries. (Currently being renovated; due to reopen late 2017)
Kantcentrum (Lace Museum) – Lacemaking was an important industry in 17th century Bruges, and this museum, housed in the old lace school of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, is dedicated to the subject. Multimedia installations explain the different types of lace and their geographical origins. Live demonstrations of the art take place daily between 2pm-5pm. (Balstraat 16 – Open Daily 9:30am-5pm – Admission: €5, Seniors €4)
Diamantmuseum (Diamond Museum) – Recent investigations confirm that the diamond trade in Bruges preceded that of Antwerp and Amsterdam. The museum’s permanent collection includes exhibits on the history of diamonds, the manufacture and use of industrial diamonds, a robot capable of manufacturing synthetic diamonds from graphite, and a collection of diamonds and historical diamond jewelry. There is also a diamond-cutting demonstration at 12:15pm daily, with an extra demonstration at 3:15pm on Saturday and Sunday. (Katelijnestraat 43 – Open Daily 10:30am-5:30pm – Admission: €8, Seniors €7)
Historium (Market Square)
Offers a one-hour audio-guided “experience” that takes visitors back in time to the Golden Age of Bruges. A free i-Beacon app for iPhone or Android may be downloaded after your visit via Historium’s wi-fi. This app will send you text messages detailing historically important, iBeacon-marked sites. (Open daily 10am-6pm – €12.50, Historium + Walking Tour, €16.50 Euros)
The citizens of Bruges seem to take their beer quite seriously. In addition to a Beer Museum telling the story of beer and brewing (upper floors of the old Post Office in Market Square – Open 10am-6:30pm – Admission €12), there is also a Duvelorium/Grand Beer Café on the first floor of the Historium and the revived Brouwerij de Halve Maan, where you can take a tour and samples the wares (Walplein, 26 – Hourly tours between 11am-4pm, with an additional tour on Saturdays at 5pm – €8 admission includes a tasting of the house beer Bruges Zot Blond).
Choco-Story (Chocolate Museum) – Opened by Eddy Van Belle and his son Cedric, owners of a chocolate business, this museum recounts the history of chocolate and offers various workshops for those who wish to learn to art. Samples of the chocolates hand-made on premises are included in the price of admission. (Winjzakstraat 2 – Open Daily 10am-5pm, Admission: €7, Seniors €6)
Lumina Domestica (Lamp Museum) – The second of Eddy Van Belle’s museums, Lumina Domestica houses Van Belle’s 6,500-piece collection of lamps and lights, and tells the story of interior lighting from torch and paraffin through light bulb and LED, with a small detour into bioluminescent plants and animals. (Wijnzakstraat 2 – Enter through Choco-Story – Open Daily 10am-5pm – Admission: €7, Seniors €6)
Freitmuseum – Do you want fries with that? The third of Van Belle’s museums tells the history of the potato, Belgian fries, and the sauces that accompany them. Show your entry ticket and get 40 cents off on an order of fries in the museum’s basement café. (In the Gothic Saaihalle at Vlamingstraat, 33 – Open Daily 10am-5pm – Admission: €7, Seniors €6)