Bruges, Belgium is a must see. With medieval rooftops that step up to the sky, a history that spans back to the Vikings, and canals that credit the city as one of Europe’s “Venice of the North,” the enjoyment expands to every sense.
Flemish masterpieces of art and architecture, rambling cobblestone alleys, chocolate shops on every corner, and, of course, the beer. It is an easy place to travel to and within, and these five spots can be done in one day. A day you will neither regret, nor soon forget.
1. The Market Square
The Market Square (Grote Markt) is the heart of medieval Bruges. In the center is a statue celebrating the heroes, Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninc, of the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302 when a French Belgium was forced to recognize the Flemish emancipation. The Southern side of the square displays the medieval style houses. Their roofs literally look like stairs to the clouds, and the colors are just as warm as the charm. To the west is the Provincial Court. Built in the neo-gothic style this enchanting building indicates the change that took place in Bruges architecture during the 19th century. On the north side is the Belfry tower (see below) and on the east side are various hotels with restaurants on the ground level that extend into the square and offer the essential Belgian delights. From frites (fries) to fresh mussels to local beer and donuts, these cater to tourists so don’t expect the best prices in town, but certainly enjoy the ambiance. The square has been free of traffic since 1996 but keep your eyes open for bicycles, mopeds, and buses that will come flying through.
2. The belfry tower
The Belfry tower (Belfort) was built in 1220, with additions in 1240 and reconstruction after it burned in 1280, 1491, and 1781. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow aptly wrote in a poem titled “The Belfry of Bruges,”
In the market-place of Bruges stands the belfry old and brown; Thrice consumed and thrice rebuilt, still it watches o’er the town.
The final touch was a stone parapet added to the roof in 1821. The building served as a bell tower, watchtower, and market during the thirteenth century when Bruges was coming up as a prominent center of the Flemish cloth industry. Standing 83 meters high it is well worth the 366-step climb to view the entire city. On your way up the narrow spiral staircase you can stop and catch your breath in the different rooms along the way, I happened upon a man playing the 47 bells like an elaborate piano and hurried to the top where you can see the bells chiming through an open screen ceiling. If you can stand the noise, it is an incredible, and loud, musical performance to accompany the magnificence of the view. On a clear day it is not unlikely you will see the North Sea.
Note: Do not be offended if while you are in the ticket line, the ticket sales come to a halt. Take the time to reflect of the medieval architecture of the gift shop, the sales will resume in fifteen or so minutes, and the Belgian’s are not to be rushed.
3. The Gruuthuse
The Gruuthuse house and museum is a mansion that once belonged to the Gruuthuse family, one of the richest in Bruges. “Gruut” in old Flemish means peeled barley or wheat and therefore the Gruuthuse’s held quite a monopoly over the beer brewing market. The house still holds many of their treasures from as far back as the thirteenth century. The guided audio tour is free and available at the front desk in several languages. There is a three-piece oil painting on the altar that is worth spending some time in front of, and there are small folding chairs available for just that reason. Take your time, be sure to pop your head into every doorway and climb up each stairwell you are allowed, and note the hundreds of years of wear on each step. Outside, listen for the harp player in the square.
4. Saint John’s Hospital
Saint John’s Hospital (Hospitaalmuseum) was built in 1188 as a hospital for pilgrims and passersby in need of medical and religious attention before their deaths. Nuns and monks ran it from the ninth century to the nineteenth when a proper hospital was built. Fortunately, the old one remains for visitors and now houses works of some of the best Flemish artists. The audio tour is free, as are the little chairs. Make yourself comfortable, and pay attention to the painting of the original hospital for a view of what public health care was more than eight centuries ago.
5. The St. John’s House Mill and the Koelewei Mill
The St. John’s House Mill and the Koelewei Mill (Sint-Janshuismolen and Koeleweimolen) are just two of the four windmills along the park and river that encircles the city and is about a 12-15 minute walk from any point in central Bruges. Built in 1770 and 1765 the above listed are both functioning grain mills and museums that can be visited. The Saint John’s House Mill is on a hill that offers a beautiful panorama of the city. Take a stroll along the river and decide which of these four is your favorite.
Inside Tip: The main square on ‘T Zand has a modern red building which holds the Tourist Information center. They are very nice, speak English, and sell a 3-museum pass, which will likely save you Euros even if you only plan on visiting 2 museums. Plus, they throw in a drink and a one-day bike rental! Essentially, the best deal in town.
Photo of Bruges canals and Belfry, Belgium originally posted by Wolfgang Staudt