Bruges is beautiful. Pretty well every corner is Instagram pretty. Yet most visitors come for only a few hours, they see the Belfry, drink some beer and go. They are missing a treat, Bruges has great art waiting to be discovered in her many churches and museums. Come with me and find out why it is worth while spending 48 hours in Bruges.
What to see in 48 Hours in Bruges
Bruges has architecture, great art and beer. The best place to start any Bruges itinerary is by seeing the great set-piece squares in the heart of the city, the Markt and the Burg.
Right in the centre of Bruges is the Markt ringed on three sides by buildings that would not look out of place on a biscuit tin, housing many tempting bars. The fourth side dominates all the others with its towering bell tower.
The Belfort or Bell Tower rises 83 metres above the Markt. Should you feel so inclined you can climb the 366 steps to the top. On a clear day the views are stunning, I could see all the way to coast. Be warned, those steps seem easy to begin with but get steadily steeper and narrower. Don’t do as I did and ignore the first two rooms thinking to see them on the way down, take advantage of the chance to take a breather! If you don’t fancy clambering up to the top, the 47 bells give a Carillon concert at 11am that you can listen to whilst sitting outside one of the many cafe’s that line the Markt.
On the east side of Markt you will find the Historium which tells the story of Bruge in 3D audio visual splendour. Great if you have kids in tow or have a wet day. Best of all is the open air balcony that offers fine views over the Markt square. There is also a bar at the Historium open to all with those fine views.
Next door to the Markt is the Burg, the historical heart of the city and for centuries the heart of government. The set of buildings are reckoned to be the finest in Bruges and that is saying something!
The Stadhuis or Town Hall is a magnificent fourteenth century concoction. When I arrived a Bruges couple were getting married there, what a place to tie the knot. Once inside, that Gothic architecture has been embellished with nineteenth century painting, it is like stepping into one of William Morris’s dreams.
Brugse Vrije translates as the Liberty of Bruges, which means almost as little to me as the Dutch original! Plainly put it was the home of the Bruges court for centuries. Sounds dull, but it is far from it. Go inside to see one of the most magnificent fireplaces I have seen anywhere adorned with carvings of Emperor Charles V with a particularly prominent codpiece!
Jan Van Eyck Plein
Head north east from the Burg and you will get to Jan van Eyck Plein. Once upon a time this quiet corner was the epicentre of the port of Bruges. It would have been filled with people, ships and goods from all over the world. Now it houses a statue of Bruges’ most famous artist Jan van Eyck. It makes a fine place to sit for five minutes and take in the view.
Rozenhoedkaai or Quay of the Rosary is one of the most photographed places in Bruges, with good reason. In a photogenic city this is possibly its most photogenic corner. Visitors with selfie sticks abound trying to get the perfect shot of canal, medieval buildings and belfry all in shot.
Bruges was one the wealthiest cities in fourteenth century Europe and so has a wealth of churches from that time. The skyline is dominated by three great towers: the Belfort, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk and St Salvatorskathedral. Popping into churches is one my favourite things to do and the ones in Bruges are especially fine.
St Salvatorskathedraal or Holy Saviour Cathedral
Although St Salvators is the Cathedral it is actually a bit plainer than its near neighbour the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, as such it is much quieter. What both have in common are amazing tombs. When I saw a sign pointing to tombs, I thought “Yep, I’ve seen tombs before. A knight and a lady lying next to each other.” Think again. These are the actual tomb chambers and have paintings on the walls. I have never seen paintings like these in Christian burial, there are six or so on show in the Cathedral and many more in the Church of Our Lady.
Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk or Church of our Lady
Not as important ecclesiastically as the Cathedral but fancier. The Church of Our Lady in Bruges is also home to the only Michelangelo statue outside Italy. At the moment the whole church is undergoing restoration work and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child is receiving some tender loving care too and so a replica is on show.
Heilig Bloed Basiliek or Basilica of the Holy Blood
Oh my word, what a tiny jewel box gem this is. This is a church on two levels one plain and one very fancy, both incredibly moving. The upper church was restored and painted in 19th century in full technicolor. It is home to a Holy Relic that purports to be the Blood of Christ collected by Joseph of Arimathea as he washed the dead body of Christ. I visited on a Sunday, queuing on the steps that lead up to the church listening to a live broadcast of the service. As I entered the church it was rich with the incense of a recent service, also the Relic was available to view. A long line of churchgoers snaked around the ornate church, falling to their knees and crossing themselves fervently when they came face to face with the relic. Once a year on Ascension Day the relic is paraded in public, this is just one of Bruges’ many UNESCO listings.
Underneath the Basilica is the older Romanesque chapel of St Basil. On the day of my visit it was pretty deserted. After the bustle and extreme emotion of the Basilica, the peace and simple beauty of the chapel was very spiritual. Make sure you don’t miss what is West Flanders only Romanesque church.
I confess that I when I heard the word Beguinage mentioned it meant nothing to me. Now I’ve visited I still don’t have a single word to describe it. It is like a town within a town. A collection of houses and a church arrayed around a green, surrounded by high walls and big gates. It is home to a group of nuns but it is not a nunnery, it is also a home to women who choose not to marry but who are not nuns. What it is is beautiful and UNESCO listed!
Bruges was home to a group of painters called the Flemish Primitives, Jan Van Eyck was the most famous of them. The city is still home to several of their works.
The Groeninge Museum houses a stunning collection of Flemish Primitives. There is a rather fine Madonna and Child, where Jesus, who looks like an old man, is transfixed by a green parrot held by Mary. Fellow Flemish Primitive Hans Memling can be found just around the corner. Hieronymus Bosch is here with a bewildering selection of fearsome mythical beasts. It’s not all 14th century painting: Surrealists Paul Delvaux and Rene Magritte get a look in.
Sint Janshospitaalmuseum or St John’s Hospital Museum
The St John’s Hospital looked after people sick of mind and body until well into the 19th century, the collection of buildings survives and is well worthwhile wandering around just to get an idea of what a great monastic complex would have been like. Inside the hospital is a fascinating exhibition explaining the history and use of the site. Then you get to the main attraction, the Memling collection. Hans Memling was commissioned by the monks of St Johns to paint six altarpieces and caskets for holy relics. These masterpieces have remained in the building ever since. Wherever you saw these paintings they would be incredible but to see them in the place that they were commissioned for is amazing.
Make sure you when you tear yourself away from the Memlings to go upstairs. You will find yourself in a vast empty room, look up to see an intricate ancient structure of beams. Once outside the building turn left and left again to find the Apothecary of the Hospital, all polished wood and ceramic vessels.
The Arentshuis is a four square Georgian building next to the Groenninge Museum. The top floor is devoted to Sir Frank Brangwyn, an apprentice of William Morris who worked in Bruges. Totally not what I was expecting but interesting nevertheless!
Take a Brewery Tour
What could be more Belgian than beer? Bruges even has beer running underneath its streets, with a pipeline running from the city centre brewery to the bottling plant on the outskirts. Bruges has two breweries Bourgogne des Flandres which has just returned after 6o years away and the Brouwerij De Halve Man which has been brewing in the city for six generations.
Brouwerij De Halve Maan
Beer has been brewed on the site of the Brouwerij De Halve Maan since the nineteenth century, your tour price includes a glass of Brugse Zot Blond at the end of the tour. You see the modern sealed stainless steel vats that are used today as well as the older more traditional methods. In the middle of the tour you find yourself on the roof of the brewery with grand views across the city. Should you not want a tour, the brewery is home to a courtyard bar and a restaurant overlooking the canal.
Take a walk out of the centre
Beguiling though the centre of Bruges is, the smaller streets that lead out to the encircling outer canal are every bit as quaint and much much quieter.
In the south east corner of Bruges you will find the Adornes Domein. This was and still is the grand home of the Adornes family in the 15th century and has remained pretty much unchanged since then. The Alms houses are now home to a history of the family. Also on show is the Jerusalem Chapel. Anselm Adornes, the founder of the dynasty, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was so impressed by what he saw that when he came home he had the Jerusalem Chapel built. It is tiny and houses many family tombs, most incredible of all is the recreation of the tomb of Christ at the back of the chapel, it is housed in a space so tiny that you cannot stand (no photos, not enough space).
After visiting the Chapel you can pop into the Scottish Lounge for a cup of coffee, make sure you do this – the room itself is unremarkable but look out of the window. You will see an orchard and garden pretty much unchanged since the 15th century.
Arrayed along the banks of the outer canal of Bruges are a collection of windmills. You can go into one of them but I confess that I enjoyed seeing them all lined up ready to have their photo taken.
Gentpoort or Gate of Ghent
There are four remaining medieval gates to Bruges left standing. The Gentpoort is the only one that you can go in. I confess that once again I didn’t go inside but enjoyed looking from the outside. Follow the road from here and you will end up in Gent.
Take a Boat Trip
Bruges is a city of canals and narrow streets. You will walk for miles. Take the weight of your feet and enjoy a canal trip. The drivers (should that be helmsman?) will tell you a bit of history as you float on by.
I realise that this is also covered in take a walk but meandering without a definite destination is especially rewarding in Bruges.
Godshuizen or Alms houses
Within the city walls of Bruges there are 46 complexes of Almshouses. Most are still homes, to qualify you need to be over sixty, own no property of your own and have lived in Bruges for at least a year. You can find some in Nieuwe Gentweg.
Look up and see the Madonna
Look up as you walk around the streets every other street corner seems to be adorned with depictions of the Madonna and Child. One even had this spectacular cruxifixion.
I love a UNESCO site. Bruges is a UNESCO Heritage spotters heaven. It has four of them! The whole city, not just the centre but all of it is a World Heritage City. The Beguinage, the city within the city for single ladies is also on the list. As is the Belfry, well to be honest it isn’t only Bruges’ belfry but the whole tradition of really really tall belfries in Flanders. Last on the list is Procession of the Holy blood when relic is taken from the Basilica and paraded around the streets of Bruges (I confess that I would love to see this).
Bruges isn’t just Old Buildings
Bruges is best known for her stellar collection of medieval building but she is not staid and unable to move forward.
Concertgebouw or Concert Hall
Even if you don’t want to attend a concert at the brand new Concertgebouw take time to look inside. The building is stunning. It is built on springs to ensure perfect acoustics. You can do a self guided tour of the building and enjoy panoramic views from the rooftop. It even has a fine cafe to appreciate those acoustics whilst sipping coffee.
Bruges has a museum for everything
What is Belgium famous for? Chips, Beer, Chocolate, Diamonds and Lace. Fret not Bruges has a museum devoted to all of these. Did you know that the chip was invented in Belgium, no me neither.
What I need to go back to Bruges to see
In the end I ran out of time to see everything that tempted me, still Mr CW is keen to spend a weekend Bruges and it is easy to get to!
It wasn’t lack of time but timing that stopped me seeing the Gruuthusemuseum which is being restored and should open later in 2019.
Our Lady of the Pottery
Another religious hospital, this one run by nuns and a little out of the centre. It has a stunning art collection and a fine Baroque church.
Schuttersgilde Sint-Sebastiaan or St Sebastian Archers Guild
This is a 600 year old longbow archers guild with close connections to the British Royal Family. I confess that it is its amazing tower that makes me want to visit.
Volkskundemuseum or Museum of Folk Life
Just along the road from the Adornes Domain and housed in a row of old Alms Houses this museum tells the story of how the everyday people of Bruges lived.
Where to eat in Bruges
Everywhere you look in Bruges you will see bars and restaurants, with so many to choose from it can be a bit daunting. These are the ones that I ate in and enjoyed.
Nomad is on the huge square in front of the Concert Hall and serves good breakfast and lunch fare.
Part of a Belgian chain known for its bread. This branch is located in an old weaving workshop that seems to go on for ever and has a central courtyard to eat out in when the weather is warm.
Books and cafes two of my favourite things rolled into one. If I could live at Books and Brunch I would be happy. Books are everywhere and the food is great. If you are only here for a weekend bad luck, as Books and Brunch only opens during the week.
Right next door to Books and Brunch and a little out of the bustling centre but well worth seeking out. I had tomatoes stuffed with prawns and lusted after the perfectly cooked Dover Sole that was being eaten on the table next to me. You can book a table via the website.
Art Deco interior and traditional Belgian food are the order of the day here, there even a few hotel rooms above the cafe.
Upmarket burgers is what you get at Ellis Gourmet Burger, this won the teens vote hands down!
Sometimes you need push the boat out. Bonte B is an award winning restaurant, we ate a six course tasting menu that was simply delicious and beautiful.
Where to stay in Bruges
Bruges has many, many hotels. So many that choosing can be daunting. Here are a couple that either I or somebody I know has stayed in.
Bonobo Apartments are perfect if want a bit of space or have teenagers in tow. They have one and two bedroom apartments with a kitchen, dining and sitting area. For fine days they have a garden with views looking over the St John’s Hospital and Church of Our Lady. Steps away from everything you want to see but down a quiet street.
If an hotel is more your cup of tea a little but further down Goezeputstraat is the Hotel Goezeput, all quaint and old on the outside and Scandi clean lines inside. My friend especially liked his attic room.
This Ibis is housed in ancient building but you get the same standard of rooms that you find in all the other Ibis. I confess that I stayed here many, many years ago, but we have stayed in lots of Ibis since and not been disappointed.
Getting to Bruges
Planes, trains or automobiles, take your pick. All will get you to Bruges easily from the UK, although be warned parking is tricky if you bring your car. Taking the Eurostar from London to Brussels with take you about two hours once there stroll to a neighbouring platform and catch another train to Bruges which will take about an hour. P&O run ferries go from Hull to Zeebrugge take your pick of daytime or overnight and from there it is an hour train journey into Bruges. You can put your car on the Eurotunnel and then drive for just under two hours to Bruges, although parking is tricky. Taking the plane to Brussels and then a train is also easy.
Have you visited Bruges? What did you like best and what would take you back?
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Visit Flanders for this visit to Bruges, all opinions are my own.