Bruges is a city that will capture your heart with its canals, cobblestone streets, and medieval buildings. Its great history has earned it the title of UNESCO World Heritage City. If you’re looking for a fairy tale adventure in a place that has managed to retain the mysteries of the Middle Ages, it would be hard to find a better place than Bruges.
The Belfry Tower is a medieval bell tower in the Bruges city center. It’s one of the most prominent symbols at 272 feet (83 meters) tall and with 47 bells. You can climb the 366 steps to the top for panoramic views of Bruges.
Canals and Gardens
The quaint, small-town feel of Bruges allows you to wander the streets and get lost among the many canals. You can visit some of the lovely gardens, view the picturesque medieval architecture from one of the many bridges, and even tour Bruges by boat.
One of the beautiful gardens you can visit is Astridpark. Once a monastery garden, Astridpark is a botanical garden named after the Belgian Queen Astrid. It includes a pond oasis with a gazebo and statue of Neptune in the middle.
Old St. John’s Hospital
The Old St. John’s Hospital, on Mariastraat, is a historic hospital on the canals dating back to 1118. It’s one of Europe’s oldest surviving hospital buildings, although today it is a museum. You can visit the medieval ward where monks and nuns performed their works of mercy, the chapel, the collection of archives, art works, and medieval medical instruments.
Distinguished by white-colored houses and tranquil convent gardens, the Bruges Beguinage was once the home of beguines. Beguines were widows or religious women who were looked upon with distrust by religious authorities, but they helped the poor and sick and contributed to education. The tiny houses share a common entrance, central patio, and water pump. Today, the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict inhabit the Beguinage, but the houses still offer insight into 17th-century life in Bruges.
Church of Our Lady
The Church of Our Lady towers 379 feet (115.5 meters) over the city, making it the second highest brick building in the world and tallest church in the Low Countries. It has a valuable art collection including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child from 1505. You can find it on Mariastraat.
In the 1800s, merchants sold fish on the Market’s corners until people complained about the fish smell, so the fishmongers moved to this specially erected wooden building. They sold fresh fish, a delicacy that only the rich could afford. Today, the Fish Market is open on Tuesday through Saturday and you can still buy fresh fish directly from the coast.
St. Walburgha Church
The amazing baroque Jesuit church is a little outside the city on Boomgaardstraat, but worth the walk or ride. You can see it from one of the driving tours from central Bruges. It dates back to 1691 and is now a parish church that contains many valuable art objects. The beautiful, light, and airy baroque monument is very impressive with marble columns and a black and white interior.
Choco-Story, The Chocolate Museum
The 16th-century Huis de Crone on Wijnzakstraat, originally home of a wine tavern, now houses the Chocolate Museum. Belgium is famous for a few things: Belgian waffles, Belgian beer, and Belgian chocolate. If you get the chance, take a tour through the history of cocoa and chocolate and sample handmade Belgian chocolates.
The Neo-Renaissance Theater in Bruges dates back to 1868 and is located right in the middle of a completely renovated area on Vlamingstraat. Papageno, the bird seller from Mozart’s Magic Flute, stands in the square in front of the theater.
In the 13th century, traders in Bruges gathered inside the house of a man called Van der Beurze on Vlamingstraat. In 1309, it became less informal and more institutionalized and became the Bruges Bourse. The Beurze house was the site of the world’s first stock exchange, around 1415, where merchants would meet to agree upon currency exchange. It’s in this building where the word “bank” originated.
Jan van Eycksquare
Jan van Eycksquare is a five-minute walk north of the Markt. The Poortersloge (Merchant’s Lodge) is one of the most impressive buildings in the Jan van Eycksquare. It dates back to the end of the 14th century in the heart of commercial Bruges, where international trade took place. The Poortersloge was the meeting place for the bourgeois of Bruges society. Membership was reserved for the richest and most powerful of Bruges. It has a slender tower and several statues of celebrities who stayed there. The Poortersloge was an informal alternative to Town Hall.
The statue that dominates the Jan van Eycksquare dates back to 1878. It represents Jan van Eyck, a famous 15th century Northern Renaissance Belgian painter.
The Tolhuis (Tollhouse) is a Renaissance house dating back to the 15th century (but underwent renovations in 1878). In the Middle Ages, the Dukes of Luxembourg collected a toll at St. John’s Bridge, now Jan van Eycksquare. In 1477, Pieter van Luxemburg, a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, used the tax money to rebuild the Old Tollhouse, which now bears his coat of arms over the Gothic entrance to the building.
Left of the Tolhuis is the guild house of the stevedores (boatworkers), where they held their meetings. Guilds typically generously decorated their houses: the more impressive the house, the richer the guild. You can see an example of this in the guild house of the stevedores.
Anna van ‘t Pitje / St. Anne’s Church
At the corner of Korte Speelmanstraat and the Carmerstraat in the St. Anna quarter, you’ll find St. Anne’s Church. While the outside may be simple, the inside is a magnificent example of baroque. It dates back to the 1400s with 16th- and 17th-century decorations.
Also in the St. Anna quarter, there’s a strange wooden statue of Annatje van ‘t Pitje, or Little Anne of the Pit. Legend has it that a child named Anne fell into a frozen well and the townspeople found her four days later. Her survival was a miracle, and they built this statue in her honor.
Jerusalem Church, Lace Center, and Museum of Folk Life
The Jerusalem Church is a unique chapel built in 1428. It’s an oriental-style replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and it is private property. It includes a round tower, a macabre altar with skulls and ladders, and a replica of Christ’s tomb.
The old lace school of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception now houses the Lace Center. You can see the story of Bruges lace in the lace museum with multimedia and testimonials from international lace experts. You can also use touchscreens to better understand the complexities of making lace with pins and bobbins. Today, students can learn the old art of lacemaking from expert lacemakers at a School of Lacemaking.
The Museum of Folk Life is a renovated 17th-century dwelling with a classroom, a millinery, a pharmacy, a confectionary shop, a grocery shop, and an authentic bedroom interior. There are plenty of things to do, including visiting the lace collection, visiting a demonstration by the sweetmaker, relaxing in the garden, or trying traditional folk games.
City Hall and Registrar’s House
The Bruges City Hall is one of the oldest city halls in the Low Countries, dating back to 1376. You can find this impressive Gothic building in Burg Square, the area of the former fortified castle in center Bruges.
The five-century-old registrar’s house, in Flemish style with pale stones and gilded ornaments, recently underwent renovations. Next to it is a Gothic basilica with a Roman crypt.
Salvador Dali Exhibit
It just so happened that we managed to catch a traveling Salvador Dali exhibit while in Bruges. We decided we had to see this Spanish surrealist artist’s work in person! It’s not really related to Bruges because you can catch the traveling art show anywhere, but if you get the chance, it’s very interesting to see the inner workings of Dali’s head.
Going to a beer museum in Belgium is a must. We originally tried to go to a brewery, but after the long walk in early January in the snow, it was closed. So we walked back to the Beer Museum next to City Hall in the Markt to check out the Beer Museum. You can take a tour of the beer museum for a cost, or go straight to the bar to sample Belgian beers. We went straight to the bar, where the beer selection is plentiful and delicious.
Bruges has walking tours or bus tours of the city where you can listen to a recording in all different languages and see the sites (which is where I got my pictures and information above). Since we went to Belgium in early January when it was freezing cold, we took the bus tour. I definitely recommend taking a tour if you visit Bruges. The city has a lot of history to share! You can catch the tours in the Markt in front of City Hall.
Other Fun Facts
Archaelogical evidence suggests there was a small Roman population in Bruges during the Stone Age, in the 5th century B.C. In Italian, Bruggia means “embarkment.”
Bruges was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 35,000 in the 14th century.
Have you been to Bruges? What was your favorite part of this beautiful medieval city? Let me know in the comments below!
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