If you research day trips from Brussels, you’ll discover that everyone recommends visiting Bruges. However, all the recommendations will be accompanied by caveats about how Bruges is a tourist mecca most of the year – to be prepared for large crowds, long wait times, etc.
Fortunately, one article made a joke about the least busy time of year being mid-February when the weather is not great. Wonderful – that just so happened to be our timeframe during our recent trip to Belgium!
Unfortunately, the article failed to mention that the ‘least busy time’ for Bruges is still very busy – so much so that I have to honestly say this ended up being one of my least favorite day-trips during our long weekend in Brussels.
Although everyone raves about Bruges, there are many other incredible towns in Belgium that also offer grand market squares, ancient bell towers, amazing food, canals, and incredible architecture. If you don’t love shopping and being bustled around by other tourists, I’d skip Bruges and check out Ghent or Antwerp instead.
That’s not to say that Bruges didn’t have its highlights. I recount my favorite ones below.
One Day in Bruges, Belgium
Grote Markt Square and Belfort
After a reasonable walk from the train station to downtown Bruges via streets lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants, we arrived at the Great Market Square. This large square is surrounded by interesting buildings, the most prominent of which is the13th century belfry pictured below.
As it turns out, you have to reserve a timeslot to climb the 366 steps to the top for views of the surrounding area. Everyone arriving in town did this right away, and by the time we reached the kiosk the next available slots were not until around 4 p.m., which was later than we had planned to stay. Given the poor visibility, we weren’t sure what sort of views we would have from the top anyway so we opted to save our belfort climb for our visit to Ghent instead.
We set off northwest from the market square, walking along increasingly less crowded streets away from the tourist areas into more residential ones. Our destination was the Ezelpoort, or ‘Donkey Gate,’ one of four remaining medieval gates into the city.
The Ezelpoort was built during the construction of the second ring of ramparts in 1297. It was rebuilt in 1369 to a new design by Jan Slabbaerd and Mathias Saghen, who were also responsible for the construction of the Boeveriepoort and the Smedenpoort. Various alterations were carried out between the 14th and 17th centuries. The lower section of the brick gate is authentic, but the old medieval gate was much higher. The original appearance of the gate was significantly altered in the 17th century, following the removal of the top part of the structure.https://www.visitbruges.be/en/ezelpoort-donkeys-gate
A couple points of interest we encountered along the way included the imposing brick school pictured below as well as an orchestra house that had a fascinating set of conductor hands protruding above its entryway.
It was still relatively early in the morning and the streets were quiet without many cars. A few people were walking their dogs and pushing small children in their prams as we explored the canals and lake around the gate.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
As with most European cities, Bruges has countless churches. We narrowed our focus down to two – the first being the colorful and elaborate Basilica of the Holy Blood. The entrance is just off to the site of the belfort and from the outside there are very few indications you’re entering a church – it blends right into the line of buildings alongside it without the traditional tell of a steeple.
After entering, we wound up several flights of stone stairs to the interior entry, passing a paid-entry museum to the right. We waited in line with many others to enter the side nave to see the phial reputedly containing Christ’s blood. Individuals can climb up a few steps to a viewing platform and then take their time examining the phial before giving an optional donation and being handed a flyer with information. The phial is said to have been brought back to Bruges from the Crusades in the 12th century.
Den Gouden Karpel
A true highlight of the day was having a wonderful and relaxing lunch just off one of the main canals behind the belfort at Den Gouden Karpel. This spot was recommended for seafood, which made sense when we discovered it right across from the Vismarkt (fishmarket).
We had a bit of an uncomfortable start to our visit as this is a nicer establishment and a group with small children was trying to get a seat just ahead of us. The host told them there wasn’t room, which resulted in some arguing and pointing to open tables, to which the host responded by very firmly restating there was no room and showing them to the door. Meanwhile he turned to us and smiling, said to follow him to the very visibly available table just ahead. Awkward!
It really wasn’t an establishment for small children – it’s a small space, there are no highchairs or places to put strollers, and the menu is fairly sophisticated. After sharing some oysters on the half shell, I had the recommended shrimp croquettes and Brian had the salmon special. Both were delicious, and the servers were very friendly and helpful.
Noted as one of the most photogenic bridges in Bruges, we wandered around until we discovered the Bonifacious Bridge, which we crossed over to our next stop, the Church of Our Lady.
There were lots of people trying to get their own photo ops of the half-timbered homes along one side of the canal on the south side of the bridge. We – of course – got ours too!
Church of Our Lady
Our second church visit was to the 13th century Church of Our Lady. While many people wandered in, not as many paid to enter the museum, which is the vast majority of the interior church.
I don’t think Brian really wanted to explore the museum, but I really wanted to see the stated highlight – Michelangelo’s world-famous Madonna and Child. He humored me, we paid to enter, and we spent more time than I expected exploring the 13th and 14th century painted crypts, the 15th and 16th century tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold, and the many pieces of artwork and history.
Our last stop of the day was the 13th century Begijnhof abbey, which we were able to pass through on our walk from downtown back to the train station.
We were tired so we didn’t invest much time or energy exploring – instead we enjoyed walking the path through the central courtyard, which wound through old trees and newly sprouted daffodils, and popped in one of the small chapels for a moment to look around.
Just south of the abbey we paused to see the Poertoren (gun powder tower) before circling along the trail back to the train station for our ride back to Brussels.
It was a full day of exploring Bruges. If I find myself back in town for some reason, there were a few things we didn’t get to on my list that I would consider going back to experience.
- That’s Toast, breakfast spot
- Brouwerig De Halve Maan, last family-owned brewery in Bruges – we stopped in but no tours and super busy
- Museum Sint Janshospital, 12th century hospital with Memlings and medical history
- Boat ride on the canals
The distance from Brussels certainly makes Bruges an appealing day-trip, but there are many other nearby towns that are also worth a visit. I personally wouldn’t put this one at the top of the list.
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