Can you possibly do justice to the magnificence of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bruges in just one day? Clearly not, but it’s well worth a try. The capital of Flanders in the north west of Belgium is laced with canals, cobbled streets, and medieval buildings. Once one of the world’s chief commercial cities, Bruges now receives more than 16 million visitors each year who stay in the city, day visitors adding considerably to that number. If you have limited time available, here’s what to do in Bruges in one day.
Revised and Updated: August 2019
- 1 When To Visit Bruges
- 2 Breakfast In Bruges
- 3 Time For The Bruges City Walk
- 4 Bruges’ Markt
- 5 De Burg And The Stadhuis
- 6 Church of Our Lady
- 7 Things To Eat In Bruges
- 8 Exploring The Canals Of Bruges
- 9 Bruges’ Community of The Begijnhof
- 10 Basilica Of The Holy Blood
- 11 Belgian Chocolate
- 12 Belgian Beer And Nightlife
- 13 Bruges’ Christmas Market: Kerstmarkt
- 14 How To Get To Bruges
- 15 Day Trips From Bruges
When To Visit Bruges
This is undoubtedly a year-round destination. Spring and autumn are both comfortably warm, as is summer. In these three seasons you’ll be visiting when all the attractions, including boat trips, are open. Summer is probably the busiest season in Bruges, so if you visit then, be prepared for crowds and queues for lunch venues. Visit in winter, and you’ll see Bruges from a whole different perspective. The Kerstmarkt, held in Grote Markt, brings the central area of the city into fairytale glory. Wrap up warm, and Bruges is still a pleasure.
You should note that Bruges is particularly busy on Belgian public holidays, including May Day, Ascension Day, Whit Monday and the Procession of the Holy Blood (when more than 1500 people parade through the city). Check the dates for Easter and the associated holidays if you would like to visit the city at a quieter time.
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Breakfast In Bruges
I’d recommend that you start your day in Bruges early. There’s a gentle hush about the streets and canals. You can also take your favourite photos in the quieter streets.
There are plenty of choices to enjoy your breakfast in Bruges. Kottee Kaffee on Korte Zilverstraat can offer you brunch or breads and bagels, but be warned that it’s small and fills up quickly. As will you, when you see its beautiful bakes. That’s Toast on Dweersstraat also offers brunch, French toast or a veggie breakfast, and is well recommended for gluten free food too. Having fueled your inner explorer, it’s time to get out to see more of Bruges.
Time For The Bruges City Walk
There is plenty of information available to help you explore the city by yourself. You can find links to some of the walking routes at Visit Bruges, where self-guided tours include movie walks based on In Bruges and The White Queen.
Alternatively, you can book to take a free walking tour of the city, for which you will need to tip your guide. Legends Free Walking Tours offers two walks in the city. The first, called the Legends of Bruges Tour runs daily at 0945, 1130 and 1400, and takes around two hours. The early trip in particular makes the most of the city at its quietest. Groups have a maximum of 24 people and either one or two local guides, most of whom are volunteers. If you are able to stay later in the city, you could take the Bruges by Night walk starting at 2000, a 1.5 hour wander through the city at its most atmospheric.
Armed with new knowledge of the city, it’s time to discover some of its highlights in more detail.
Bruges’ role as a commercial heavy hitter of the Middle Ages is perfectly displayed in the incredible buildings of Markt and the surrounding area. The Golden Age spanned the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, and the richness of both the city and its buildings is evident here. The tidal inlet, known as the Golden Inlet, brought trade aplenty to the city. Taking lessons from the Italians, the medieval traders began working together to create new methods of trading, including the early version of cheques. The city established what is probably the oldest stock exchange – the Bourse – in 1309. Under this climate of commercial accumen, Bruges flourished.
The Belfort And The Carilloneur
In the generously-sized square of Grote Markt, you’ll find the 12th century Belfort. It formerly held the city’s treasury and the municipal archives. It was also used to spot fires and other approaching dangers. You may recognise the building from the film In Bruges. There is a wonderful panoramic view of the top if you climb what I call the leap year steps – one for each day. If you feel slightly disorientated at the top, it’s not just the climb. The building leans nearly a metre to the east.
The Belfort has a carillon of 47 (formerly 48) bells, weighing in from the equivalent of a bag of sugar to two and a half cars. They are played manually from a keyboard. The clip from You Tube below shows just how hard you have to work to ring all those bells.
“In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown;Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilded, still it watches o’er the town.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
De Burg And The Stadhuis
It wouldn’t be Belgium without a fine Town Hall, or Stadhuis. Bruges’ version is located in De Burg. It’s the earliest Late Gothic monumental style civic building in Flanders or Brabant. It’s so gorgeous that Brussels, Ghent, Leuven and Oudenaard were quick to copy it. The roof here is fascinating, dotted with little turrets, crests and dormers. You’ll also find scenes of prophets, evangelists and saints.
As you look at the wonderful facade of the building, remember that the city has been governed from here for over 600 years. The Stadhuis is open every day from 0930-1700. In the main hall, you’ll see a full collection of portraits. You can read more about the building’s history, including the power struggle between citizens and the city’s government. Those merchants we spoke of earlier? You’ll find the first coins used in the city on display, along with the Great Seal of Bruges.
Church of Our Lady
The beautiful Church of Our Lady was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The tower is the tallest structure in the city, and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world at 115.6 meters. Here you’ll find the tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary. There are gilded bronze effigies of both wearing crowns, with Charles dressed in full armour.
The altarpiece has the most renowned art treasure of the church, Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child, created around 1504. The sculpture has a history of not being where it should. It was originally intended for Siena Cathedral, but was purchased in Italy by two merchants from Bruges, who brought it home. Later it was looted – twice – and recovered.
Things To Eat In Bruges
If you had a good breakfast, you may still be wanting a snack around now. If a savoury crispness appeals to you, it’s time to check out the famous Belgian fries. Topped with something from a very large list of sauces, they make the perfect lunchtime treat. If you’re hungry for more, bitterballen are tiny meatballs, also served with sauces.
It would be difficult to be in Belgium and not partake of the wafflemaker’s art. There are two types of waffles, and to my mind, two kinds of ways to eat them. You could pick the softer, less dense Brussels waffle, or the thick Liege waffle, with a caramelized outer crunch. Then choose your toppings: fruit, cream, ice cream, chocolate. As for ways to eat them, a waffle can be brilliant on the go, forked steadily into your mouth while exploring the city. Or you can adopt the elegant tearoom approach. Find a cafe where the waiters are resplendent in the classic black aprons (somehow never covered in icing sugar, despite the carriage of waffles and pancakes dusted with it) and you can also enjoy the elegance of the whole waffle-eating affair.
Equally gorgeous are the pancakes. Or perhaps you’d like a classic Belgian ice cream: the Dame Blanche with a sticky dark chocolate crown, or the Coupe Bresilliene, topped with caramel and nuts?
Exploring The Canals Of Bruges
Having dined, it’s time to take to the water. Bruges has been described as the Venice of the North, but to me it has all its own charm from water level. You see things differently from the waterways of Bruges. In the city there are five landing stages (mostly on the River Reie), and a few companies offering 30 minute boat trips. The earliest trip leaves at 1000 and the last at 1730 from March to mid-November. You may get lucky and find trips outside these months, but it’s not unknown for the canals to freeze over in winter.
By legislation, there are no more than twenty boats on the canal at once. If you have time to take a trip earlier in the day, it will probably be less busy. Remember to wrap up warm in the cooler months, but the humour of the guides will help to raise the temperature.
Bruges’ Community of The Begijnhof
Like many other cites, Bruges had a community of pious women housed together, and providing help to the sick and infirm. The white houses that mark Bruges’ begijnhof were built between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, and you’ll find a museum here explaining the history of the community. The beguines are no more, but the buildings now house Benedictine nuns.
Minnewater nearby is a beautiful lake, with a legend of swans living there to avenge the murder of a noble. The name of Minnewater means Love Lake, and even if you don’t have a romantic bone in your body, you can’t help but appreciate its serene charms.
Basilica Of The Holy Blood
This Roman Catholic Basilica was originally a chapel of the Count of Flanders. It holds an important relic of the Holy Blood, brought back to the city after the Second Crusade by Thierry of Alsace. Every year, the relic is paraded through the streets in a mile-long religious procession, made up of more than 1600 city residents. Many are dressed as medieval knights or crusaders.
It’s taken time – and many steps – to reach this moment in our day. Belgian chocolate is rightly renowned, and here in Bruges, you’ll find more than 50 dedicated practitioners of the art of the chocolatier. Visit Bruges has a whole list of establishments dedicated to your chocolate pleasure. Pass the plain chocolate orange peels please?
Bruges is also home to Choco Story, a chocolate museum and chocolatier. The museum deals with the story of chocolate, and in particular the story of chocolate in Belgium. If you can make time (an hour for the museum and an hour for the practical session), it hosts workshops – one on pralines, and another on pralines and truffles – where you can get to try your hand at chocolate making. Workshops run between 1000 and 1500.
Belgian Beer And Nightlife
If you’ve not been introduced to Belgian beer, you’re in for a treat. There are a whole range of taste options and flavour explosions in store from one of Belgium’s most traditional industries. At one stage there were more than 50 breweries within the fortified walls of Bruges. Today you’ll find three: Bourgogne de Flandres, De Halve Maan and Fort Lapin. De Halve Maan has been brewing since 1856, and is notable for a three kilometer pipeline taking its brews from the central brewery to a bottling plant on the outskirts of the city. Try award winning Brugse Zot, available in blonde and dubbel. The breweries are open for guided tours and also have shops.
With Bruges’ nightlife best described as convivial rather than riotous, you could happily settle down for an evening chat in one of its many bars over beer or coffees and teas. We recommend t’Brugs Beertje which has a massive selection of beers, Cafe Vlissinje dating from 1515 and De Lokkedize for jazz, blues, or indeed whatever they fancy playing that evening.
Once you’ve rested awhile and eaten, if you’ve got any walking left in you, don’t forget to take a last wander beside the canals. Now that most visitors have left, the air is still and a gentle mist hangs over the water. Bruges has an elegant lighting scheme, designed to highlight the beauty of the city at night. It’s a wonderful time of day in this special city.
Bruges’ Christmas Market: Kerstmarkt
If you think there’s a touch of magic about Bruges, wait until you see it at the Kerstmarkt. This already spectacular city is further enhanced with lights, the smell of roasting chestnuts, hot chocolate, warme wijn and the chatter of excited visitors and locals alike. Running from late November to early January each year, the Kerstmarkt has stalls in Markt and an ice rink – seemingly a feature of Belgian Christmas markets – on Simon Stevinplein. The most Scrooge-like among us would struggle not to get the Christmas feeling here.
How To Get To Bruges
If you want to make the most of your day in Bruges, you’d best arrive early. If you’re taking the train, you’ll find regular services from Brussels Midi to Brugge (the Flemish name for the city). The fast train will take just under an hour, and it’s a short walk from the station into the city centre. If you don’t want to walk, any bus marked Centrum will take you there, and there are also taxis for hire. We’ve got a guide to taking the train in Belgium which will help you navigate the easy system.
Check out the train times here at SNCF. If you’re staying in Ghent, then you’ll find it’s just half an hour on the train; find out more about what to do in glorious Ghent here. Don’t forget that you can also drive from Calais in around 1 hour 15 minutes.
Day Trips From Bruges
If you’ve enjoyed Bruges, then why not travel further afield in Belgium? We persuaded travel writers to share the very best of Belgium, and I’ve taken a look at a host of day trips from Brussels. It’s not far to explore Grand Place in Brussels, the sheer magnificence of which is hard to surpass. And for a convivial day of gently Belgian pleasures, you could find plenty of things to do in Leuven, including visiting the town hall, the wonderful university library and the beguinage.
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