Bruges is a city of canals, churches and chocolate shops. And tourists. Lots of tourists. Very cute and picturesque, it is attracting both the history buffs and the Insta generation.
Bruges (or Brugge in Flemish) was built around the 1st century, when Julius Caesar was occupying most of Europe. A port town which was also getting famous for its cloths weaving, Bruges attracted traders from all over and wealth began to accumulate. The Bruges Bourse, which opened in 1309, is probably the oldest stock exchange in the world.
As the city grew, the Counts of Flanders began building cathedrals, palaces and colleges in Bruges. The port area has been moved to Zeebrugge , which today is one of Europe’s most important and modern ports.
Germans occupied the city in both wars without major battles. Allies left it alone both times, because it wasn’t as strategic as nearby Antwerp, so Bruges managed to avoid destruction twice.
It’s importance as a center for trade and culture was never really diminished; but changed over the centuries. Now Bruges is mainly well known for three things :
- The seat of the College of Europe, a post-grad university to create an elite class of politicians and economists that uphold the Western European ideals. Many members of its alumni could be found in the parliaments and institutions of European countries. Looking at the state of the world, I guess they could always do worse.
- Lace making : Belgium is famous for its lace, and most of its lace is manufactured in Bruges. Belgian lace making predates the founding of modern Belgium (1830) by centuries. Belgian lace, is ALWAYS hand made, is synonyms with luxury. If you think lace is only for brides and grand-moms, think again. Gucci, Versace and Alexander McQueen are among the major fashion houses who regularly use lace in their collections.
- The historic city centre is a prominent World Heritage Site of UNESCO and attracts some 8 million tourists each year. Thanks to these tourists, in Bruges you can speak French and not get nasty looks from the locals; which might not be the case for other Flemish cities. When in doubt, speak English and you are on the safe side.
There are couple of ways you can enjoy Bruges, and the best way is walking. But, if the weather is good and the light is perfect, go and take a boat tour. You’ll see some truly lovely sights and the comments of your captain will keep you entertained.
Bruges is full of delightful little parks, swans, weird statues, shops that sell everything you really don’t need but want to buy anyway. There’s an antique bazaar along the Dyver on the weekends and the Fish Market turns into a small art bazaar.
There are more than 80 bridges in Bruges, so the nickname ‘Venice of the North’ makes sense. There are also many stories around maidens and sailors and the bridges & canals they used to meet in secret. Some of these, along with some houses, are reputed to be haunted.
Apart from the chocolate boutiques and bars, there are a few places that I like visiting when I’m in Bruges.
The first one is the Church of Our Lady / Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk. First of all, I like its gothic & baroque architecture. I also like its little back garden with the Kiss Bridge and the boathouse and the sculptures of ancient revolutionists. Early in the morning and late afternoons are best to visit, before the tourists arrive to take selfies on the bridge.
Then there’s the Madonna and Child, the only sculpture made by Michelangelo that left Italy during the artist’s lifetime. It was purchased by two wealthy traders from Bruges and found its way to the church in 16th century. The sculpture was twice recovered after being looted by foreign occupiers—French revolutionaries in 1794 and Nazi Germans in 1944. How it is recovered by the Allies is depicted in the 2014 movie The Monuments Men. A must watch, if you like war movies, art and George Clooney.
There are some amazing tombs in the church. The most celebrated ones belong to the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy.
There’s an also a couple of tombs with 12th cc paintings. My favorite one is below. The mysterious Beloved Disciple looks like he’s on his iPhone, reporting the Crucifixion in minute detail.
The second one is the Begijnhof Brugge. Now a Benedictine monastery, the gardens of this begijnhof is always peaceful, and relatively empty.
The begijnhof is an architectural complex which was created to house beguines: women who lived in religious communities without taking vows or retiring from the world. They were usually habited by working women and answered their social and economic needs, in addition to offering them a religious life coupled with protection and personal independence, which were difficult to have for a woman of the Middle Ages.
If you are religious or a great believer of fairy tales, you can see a vial with Jesus Christ’s blood in the Basilica of the Holly Blood for 5 EUR pp. Yes, really. Before the Covid, you could kiss the vial, but thankfully they put an end to that.
If you don’t like fairy tales, go there anyway. The ancient basilica is cute, cozy and offers a little respite before you go on and explore the Burg Square.
Where to stay : Hotel Orangerie is a great choice. If it’s a bit expensive, go and have a beer at its open air terrace; which is always full and offers great views of the city.
Where to eat : Bruges is full of restaurants which offer good food, but don’t expect something very special.One of the better ones is the restaurants of the Hotel Duc de Bourgogne. The rooms, esp the ones with canal view are comfortable as well.
There is a lovely patisserie and tea room called Detavernier close to Begijnhof. The smell of their home made pastries are heavenly.
What to drink : Beer, mais bien sûre ! Visit the De Halve Maan brewery and try their Brugse Zot Blonde. It tastes better than it sounds. De Halve Maan is a 16th century brewery, owned by the same family since 1856.