Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Bruges is far more than a cute, instagrammable and romantic city to spend a day in. During the Middle Ages, Bruges was a booming, vibrant and extremely rich trading metropolis (have a quick read to dig into its history!). Today, its wealth not only resides in its preserved architecture, but also in the masterpieces that were created here amongst which some of the most remarkable paintings by the Flemish Primitives that are beautifully showcased in the intimate city museums. Follow us on this 3-day itinerary to enjoy Bruges to the fullest, including the best attractions, walks, photo spots, bike rides around town, hidden gems and insider’s favourites!
|The best views:|
1. The belfry
2. The rooftop of the Concertgebouw
3. The tower of the Historium
|The best museums:|
1. Groeninge Museum
2. Saint John’s Hospital
3. Gruuthuse Museum
|The best photo spots:|
1. The Bonifacius Bridge
2. The Beguinage
3. The corner on the Dijver
|The best attractions:|
1. The Historium
2. The city hall
3. A horse-drawn carriage tour
Step back in time with virtual reality at The Historium
Travel back in time and explore Bruges during its golden age! Explore the city in virtual reality thanks to its historically accurate 3D-modeling and get a glimpse of what it was like to live in Bruges in 1435, when the greatest Flemish primitive Jan Van Eyck was painting one of his most famous masterpieces, Madonna and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele.
Follow in the footsteps of Jacob, an apprentice of Van Eyck as he searches for precious goods on the unloading quay, pays the tax at the toll house that contributed to the wealth of the city, enters a bath house, barges into an inn where big deals were negotiated and where the stock exchange system was shaped, gets into Van Eyck’s studio and visits the grand Water Halle that was destroyed in the 18th century and where the most luxurious and exotic goods were unloaded.
In collaboration with a historical committee, the Historium educates and entertains with both an excellent virtual reality show and a sensory experience mixing special effects, smells, films and sets. This is a great and fun introduction to the heydays of Bruges!
Insider’s tip: the tower of the Historium provides great 360° unobstructed views on the city that are not as dramatic as from the belfry (26 meters (78 ft) vs. 83 meters (249ft)) but remain a fantastic option for photographers. Note that on the belfry, a safety net makes it more challenging to take photos. Regarding the climb, 145 steps vs. 366, with the staircase of the tower of the Historium being very narrow (45 cm (18 in)).
Get up and close with the Flemish masterpieces at the Groeninge Museum
The excellent Groeninge Museum showcases a stunning collection of Flemish Primitives and covers the evolution of art in Bruges until the 20th century making it a must-visit museum. It showcases how the metropolis had kept attracting prominent artists from Jan van Eyck to Hans Memling (1433-1494), Jan Provoost, Gerard David (1450-1523) and more.
The masterpiece of the Groeninge Museum is the Madonna and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436) by Jan van Eyck. Next to it, the Portrait of Margareta van Eyck (1439) represents the wife of the artist in an innovative painting as portraits were in their infancy.
Amongst the remarkable masterpieces, The Judgment of Cambyses (1498) by Gerard David (1450-1523) is a gruesome and gripping painting reminding the judges of the importance of a fair justice. The Persian story of the torture of a corrupt judge was made more contemporary by the artist by transferring it to 15th century Bruges recognizable in the background. It used to be displayed in the Liberty of Bruges. The Last Judgement (1584) by Pieter Pourbus also used to hang in the Liberty of Bruges.
Just for its Flemish Primitive paintings, the Groeninge Museum is worth a visit. Some other artworks like The Last Judgement (1505) by Hieronymus Bosch with his devilish creatures, or the funny details of country life depicted by Bruegel, canvases by Joseph Benoit Suvée (1743-1807), the leader of the neoclassical movement in Bruges, and a painting by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) top it off.
For a swan’s eye view: boat the canals
Yes, it is the very touristy thing to do and an activity during which you will not meet any locals! But still, no visit to Bruges is complete without taking a boat ride on the canals, and this is really the only way to do it. Indeed, SUP, kayaks or other embarkations are forbidden in Bruges but for one day a year. Only a few boating companies are licensed to operate. Be warned: the Belgian humour and approximate facts given by some of the captains have to be taken with some distance, or good ear plugs!
Marvel at the murals of the Gothic City Hall of Bruges
One of the oldest in Belgium, the city hall of Bruges (1376) influenced the architecture of civic buildings such as the city halls of Ghent and Brussels. If its outside facade is impressive, its sculptures are fairly recent as they were all destroyed during the French Revolution.
The Gothic Hall on its first floor is definitely worth a visit. The vaulted ceiling dates back to the 14th century for its most part (more specifically its keystones depicting biblical scenes), while the murals telling the story of Flanders and Bruges have been completely repainted in Gothic Revival style the 19th century by Albrecht Devriendt.
As its size indicates it, one of the most important scenes described here is the The return of the Flemings after the Battle of the Golden Spurs. The County of Flanders was a semi-independent fief of the French king that tried to take sides with the English. Not pleased, the French king ordered the invasion of Flanders, imprisoned the Flemish count and appointed a French governor, Jacques de Châtillon. The populace sided with their imprisoned count. The wealthy took sides for the French as the plan of Edward I of England was to bypass the bourgeois to trade the precious sheep’s wool from England directly with the customers putting an end to an extremely lucrative monopoly. In the night of May 18, 1302, some rebellious citizens of Bruges led by Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck (whose statues are on the Market Square) slaughtered the French garrisons in the city. The insurrectionists entered houses asking inhabitants to pronounce “schild en vriend” (meaning “shield and friend”) that was very difficult for French-speakers. This uprising during which 2,000 Frenchmen died is referred to as the Matins of Bruges. Jacques de Châtillon escaped disguised as a monk, and came back with the royal French army. It opposed the foot soldiers of the rebellious forces of the count on July 11, 1302. The farmers had the advantage of knowing the terrain: they organized themselves and dug holes in the swampy soil. The horses of the Frenchmen fell and the farmers beheaded the knights leading to an unexpected victory of the Flemings. They gathered 500 pairs of gilded spurs from the battlefield, remembering this day as the Battle of the Golden Spurs. In the 19th century when the mural was painted, the Battle of the Golden Spurs was reinterpreted as an uprising by the Dutch-speaking populace against the French-speaking Belgian elite, becoming an important symbol of the Flemish emancipation movement – language fracture that is still very present to this day.
Other murals depict Thierry of Alsace giving the holy blood of the Christ to Bruges which is still displayed in the neighbouring Holy Blood Chapel, the studio of Jan van Eyck, Philip the Good establishing the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1430, the interior of Saint John’s Hospital, the count of Flanders Philip of Alsace awarding the city privileges to Bruges in 1190 that were kept in the treasury of the belfry, market scenes showing Bruges as an international trading centre, and the opening of the new waterway in 1404.
Above the murals, symbols of the Bruges guilds and prominent citizens are depicted, such as Jan van Eyck and Robert van der Beurze.
The hall is still used today to host city councils and weddings.
Enter the secluded Liberty of Bruges
From this building next to the city hall, the rich agricultural region around Bruges (from the Yser River to the West & the North Sea & Western Scheldt to the North) referred to as The Liberty of Bruges was governed. Don’t miss the Aldermen’s Chamber, one of the best-preserved Renaissance interiors in the city with the stunning 1528 mantelpiece celebrating the Ghent-born emperor Charles V (1500-1558). The originals of The Judgment of Cambyses (1498) by Gerard David and The Last Judgement (1584) by Pieter Pourbus can be admired at the Groeninge Museum. They both reminded the judges of the importance of a fair justice.
Follow in the footsteps of a pilgrim by visiting the Holy Blood Chapel
In the 11th century, Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders returned from the Second Crusade with a very special relic: the holy blood of the Christ. It would have been collected during Jesus’ crucifixion when blood flowed from His side. It is still kept in the beautiful Basilica of the Holy Blood, and every year since 1304, it is carried around Bruges during the Procession of the Holy Blood when inhabitants wear historical costumes to parade in the city.
Bruges from above: climb the belfry
The belfry dominates the whole city from the Markt and offers amazing views from an altitude of 83 meters! It will take you 366 steps to appreciate them and the climb is eased by checking out the treasury where the precious privileges of Bruges were kept, the great bell and the carillonneur’s room on your way up.
Since the 13th century, the belfry has represented the prosperity and autonomy of Bruges. It has grown taller over the ages to be topped off by its 15th century octagonal lantern tower. The belfry is part of a hall building where the coveted Flemish cloth used to be stored and sold. Guild houses with their step-gabled façades line the Markt. If the market has been held here since 958, most of the houses are much more recent and were reconstructed in the 19tch century.
Tourists enjoying amazing views on Bruges and its modern harbour Zeebrugge have replaced watchers looking out for fires and securing the 7 city gates (4 of which remain). Pop tunes (every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday between 11am and 12pm) played on the 47 bells of the carillon have replaced the pulse of the city, keeping time for workers.
Stroll Bruges’ street with a night tour
At night, Bruges may look even cuter, and taking a stroll along its canals is very romantic. The lit houses, picturesque façades and arched bridges are reflected in the inky water of the canals. The best way to enjoy the city is to go on a walking tour listening to the many legends of Bruges.
Care for your soul at the Saint John’s hospital
The Saint John’s Hospital is worth visiting for two reasons: its excellent collection of Hans Memling paintings (6 of them), and the medical insights it provides on how hospitals used to operate during the Middles Ages. If both aspects may not seem to fit together at first, it actually makes total sense as medieval hospitals used to care for both bodies and souls, and as such works of art surrounded the patients.
Built in 1150, the Saint John’s hospital is one of Europe’s oldest and operated until 1977! During the Middle Ages, the hospital was caring for the sick, and also for the poor, providing a bed and a meal. Actually, the word hospitality is derived from it. The wealthier preferred to be cared for at home. Getting admitted was a whole different story 870 years ago: a recommendation from your priest certifying your good character, an assessment of your property and a confession were needed. Jan Beerblock 1778’s painting depicts the old hospital ward and its daily routine that went on for centuries. Four different rows, one for women, one for men, one for people undergoing surgery and one for the terminally ill were supervised by a nun. Each row consisted of wooden alcoves for each patient. Hot irons were used to cauterize wounds, legs were amputated with saws and without any real anaesthetic, bloodletting (that was believed to heal pretty much anything by getting rid of impure body fluids) that almost every patient succumbed to was performed by the barber, curing insanity was attempted by puncturing through the skull…
Hans Memling produced four paintings for this hospital, and a total of six by this prominent artist can be seen here. Each is so poignant, with its many details and vibrant colours: observe the cityscapes, the paintings within the painting, and the unique facial expressions of the numerous characters. The Saint Ursula Shrine (1489) is a miniature oak chapel containing the relics of Saint Ursula, one of the hospital’s most venerated saints. The Flemish Primitive described the story of Ursula’s martyrdom with great details in six scenes. The Saint John Altarpiece (1479) is still displayed in the place for which it was painted by Memling.
Now in the centre of town, the Saint John’s Hospital used to stand on the edge of the city. Vegetables and medicinal plants used in its authentic pharmacy were grown in its gardens.
See the only statue Michelangelo exported at the Church of Our Lady
The Church of Our Lady cannot be missed: its 280-foot tower is the tallest of Bruges (and world’s second highest brick tower).
Very concerned by their afterlife, rich patrons would commission the best artists and ornate churches, putting their best foot forward before passing… The Church of Our Lady may be one of the best examples in town with its many altarpieces.
Visit the heart of the choir with its marvellous wood carvings and the tombs of Mary of Burgundy, the ruler of Flanders, who died at the age of 25 after falling from a horse in Bruges in 1482. Next to her rests her father, Charles the Bold.
The Madonna and Child by Michelangelo looks almost divine in its milky-white Carrara marble of the purest sort. The image is not classic. The child is standing upright while Mary’s face bears a sad expression, as if she already knows his fate. Michelangelo created this work just after his renowned Pietà in the early 1500’s. Originally designed for the Piccolomini altar in Siena Cathedral (Italy), the sculpture was purchased by the Moucrons, a wealthy cloth trader family from Bruges, based in Italy, and it was shipped to Bruges in 1506. The Madonna and Child remains the only statue to leave Italy during Michelangelo’s his lifetime.
Travel old-school: a ride in a horse-drawn carriage
To really feel like you are travelling back in time, take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Leaving from the Markt, you will ride along the dijver, pass by the Bonifacius bridge and the white alms-houses, cross the cute wallpleintje square with De Halve Maan brewery before taking a break by the Minnewater Park close to the Beguinage. The coachmen and the municipality take the well-being of the horses very seriously.
Take in the peaceful vibes at the Beguinage
Founded in 1245, initially for the widows of the crusaders, the beguinage was a refuge for emancipated women who wished to live independently while supporting their communities. To be admitted in these self-supported inner cities of peace, beguines had to give away all their possessions and live in faith without taking any religious vow. They would work on lace, or help at the Saint John’s Hospital. The Ten Wijngaerde Beguinage in Bruges with its central courtyard planted with oak trees and lined with whitewashed brick houses is full of charm, and still inhabited by 7 Benedictine nuns.
Learn all about brewing beer in a 500-year old brewery
Beer has been brewed for over 500 years where De Halve Maan brewery stands, in the heart of medieval Bruges. It is also where the only beer pipeline in the world starts from! What better place to uncover the secrets of beer making and enjoy a local brew? Check this article out for more details.
Enjoy some of world’s best acoustics at the Concertgebouw
The modernity of the Bruges concert hall contrasts greatly with the medieval architecture of the city while its 68,000 terra-cotta tiles covering the building form an unexpected harmony with the rooftops of the historic inner city that seem frozen in time. Built in 2002 to consecrate Bruges as the European capital of culture, it was designed by the Ghent architects Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem who won the international competition thanks to their uncompromising acoustics.
Whether for a concert by a full orchestra, choir or soloist, or an opera or modern dance performance, the auditorium is designed with an extensive system of sound absorbing devices: the whole building is set on thousands of steel springs to neutralize any ambient vibration that would interfere with the acoustics, the main material used is plaster for the sound waves to be reflected optimally, and ceiling and towers absorbers are combined to banners and drapes while the 1,300 chairs are designed to provide the same excellent acoustics whether occupied or not. The shapes of the halls have been optimised too: the floor plan of the main hall resembles a mouth shouting with both hands beside it to amplify the sound. The intimate chamber music hall that can seat up to 340 spectators gives a completely different feeling. Inspired by The Globe Theatre in London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, its white spiral design revolves around an inner patio with a dryer acoustic for more intimate performances. Rare thing for a music venue, it is surrounded by double-glazed windows offering views on the city without affecting the acoustics.
Around these two concert halls, the relatively sustainable building is sober with its vast concrete walls pierced by extra-large windows opening up on amazing views on Bruges while modern art is exhibited such as the permanent monumental painting Angel by the leading Belgium artist Luc Tuymans. The last floor houses interactive sound art such as the Kilo Ohm by Erwin Stache where the electrical resistance of the player touching metal tubes is used to close a circuit and generate different sounds based on how the tubes are touched, or Omni by Patrice Moullet where the player interacts with 108 colourful plates each producing a specific sound.
Whether a music-lover, an art aficionado or an architectural buff, the Concertgebouw is worth the visit that climaxes on its rooftop terrace offering panoramic views on Bruges.
The Gruuthuse family had the monopoly on trading gruut, a combination of herbs that was used to bitter and flavour beer during the Middle Ages before hop replaced it. At a time when water was unhygienic, the beer consumption was high and Bruges was home to no less than 54 breweries, each in business with the Gruuthuse family. Its most prominent member is Louis de Gruuthuse who gave its splendour to the 15th century palace built in the heart of the metropolis of Bruges and greatly contributed to expanding the family’s art collection. Enlarged and remodelled over the ages, the palace has kept a strong medieval style. Newly renovated after a five-year closure, it houses a museum showcasing the history of Bruges through maps, objects, crafts, furniture, tapestries, stained glass windows, wooden sculptures, lace, manuscripts, paintings, and excellent videos and interactive movies. Make sure to peep into the Church of our Lady from the private wooden extension of the house built for Louis to attend mass without having to sit with other people.
Louis Gruuthuse’s personal motto “be the best you can be” has survived through this excellent museum.
Travel to the Holy Land while in Bruges: the Jerusalem Chapel
In the 13th century, the Adornes family of merchants and bankers from Genoa immigrated to Bruges. They worked their way up and became a very influential family and financial advisors of the count of Flanders, culminating with mayor Anselm Adornes (1424-1483) who lived during the golden age of Bruges. Anselm had made his fortune by importing alum from Middle Eastern, and later Italian mines to fix colours in textile, to make them light and waterproof. He had time and resources to go on a pilgrimage and decided to head to Jerusalem in 1470. This is where he got the inspiration for the Jerusalem Chapel, which is an exact copy of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre – lost since then. Visiting this 15th century historical chapel full of symbolism referring to the Adornes family and Jerusalem feels like stepping into a hidden gem. Anselm’s heart is kept in the black marble mausoleum (his body is buried in Scotland after he was murdered there). After 600 years and 17 generations, the Jerusalem Chapel still belongs to the descendants of the Adornes family.
Insider’s tip: have a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at the Scottish lounge while playing one of the many board games provided.
The alms-houses or medieval social housing
The rich had to comply to their Christian obligations, such as caring for the poor. Following a tradition started in the 14th century, many families had alms-houses built: these simple houses consist of a door and a window and a single room with a fireplace. They are often lined up and close to a chapel or built around a garden. Anselm Adornes had alms-houses built for a dozen single women or widows by the end of the 15th century. Today the museum of the Adornes Domain is housed in them. Providing these houses for the poor was a way of securing the best possible place in paradise and to save the founder’s soul from damnation.
The alms-houses were mainly for those who were on the margin of society due to poor health, widowed or without family support. Its inhabitants had to provide their own furniture and their possessions would be sold to benefit the alms-houses upon their death.
Forty-six alms-house complexes can be found around town, some turned into museums like at the Adornes Domain, the Lace Museum and the museum of Folk Life yet many still today serve as social housing.
Marvel at the English Covent
From the top of the Belfry, the English Covent is unmistakable: it is attached to the only church in Bruges with a dome. Famous for its relic of Thomas Moore (a bone of his neck), greatly enjoyable for its garden, and containing a treasure of a sacred library of 8,000 books with the oldest one dating back to 1609, the English Covent has been inhabited by nuns without interruption for 400 years. If during the Middle Ages, the city was wealthy and it was easy to maintain the many cloisters in and around town, things got more complicated over time: in the 16th century when poverty struck, cloisters in the countryside were not safe anymore. Today, with a quarter of Bruges being religious heritage sites, many buildings are getting empty with barely 8 elderly nuns living here in the English Covent. True silence, incredible beauty, and a spiritual atmosphere will surround you in this very aristocratic jewel.
You can still go to mass here on Sundays at 11am if you ring the doorbell. For other days make sure to book a Sacred Books, Secret Libraries tour to be able to witness the traditional way of life of the nuns of this off the beaten path sight in Bruges.
Hop on bike for a scenic outing along the canal to Damme
Take a break from the city centre of Bruges to explore the charming village of nearby Damme which used to be a transhipment harbour for Bruges. The best way to visit Damme is by renting a bicycle and following the bike path along the Ghent-Bruges Canal on the eastern side of the city. You will cross a bridge with the picturesque view on the Coupure Marina, the only canal in Bruges with real boats. Following the bike path along Bruges’s ramparts from the late 13th century you will come across the Kruispoort, one of the four remaining city gates and three 18th century windmills. The Saint Janshuismolen is the only mill that is still situated at its original spot and is still active (and can be visited). Once you arrive at the locks, cross to follow the Damme canal. The bike lane is lined up with centennial-old poplar trees leading you to the picturesque medieval village of Damme. When Napoleon had the canal between Damme and Bruges built, the star-shaped city was split in half. The West side of town turned into a swampy area and became uninhabited, but for some grazing sheep. If you visit on a Thursday morning, check out the food market on the main square for local products such as cheese, candies, meat but also Dutch delicacies such a fried cod from the nearby Netherlands that lies just 10 kilometres away. Check out the characteristic Church of Our Lady with its flat tower that you can climb for your own birds-eye view on town.
Food & drinks in Bruges
Bruges has so much more to offer than waffles, fries and chocolate to which it often is associated. Make sure to check out the website of Visit Bruges to select the latest award-winning restaurants, cosy spots to surprise your lover or vegan-friendly places.
- To plan your trip, refer to Visit Bruges.
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