A few weeks ago, my good friend Zari asked me for suggestions on where to travel for a couple of days, and knowing her love for architecture and art, I immediately suggested the Belgian town of Bruges, which I have visited a few years ago and fallen in love with. After she got back, I asked her for what she liked the most about the city. Here is what she had to say:
Imagine yourself arriving to a small, quiet, fairytale and beautifully floodlit medieval town surrounded by canals, the musical sound of bells, and a subtle smell of chocolate.
For some background, Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders, Belgium and is considered one of the better-preserved medieval towns in Europe. The town is also connected by numerous canals, which are an essential part of Bruges’ identity and have earned it the title of “Venice of the North.”
You can follow me on Instagram (@justzhm) for more pictures and doodles from Bruges and around the world.
Now, without further ado, here is why I think visiting this fairytale town is worth your while.
1. Medieval charm: Bruges is definitely the most well preserved medieval city in all of Europe and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visiting Bruges is like traveling in time to another world, a world of colorful dollhouses and beautiful rooftops. You will fall in love with Bruges when you visit and even more so after you leave it and look at your pictures from there.
2. The Belfort: The Belfort is a striking architectural element that dominates the heart of Bruges. This perfectly preserved 83-meter tall medieval tower houses a 47 bells carillon and provides breathtaking aerial views of the whole town and enchanting melodious bell sounds every hour. It is a 366 steps climb but the spectacular panoramic views are worth that and more.
3. Postcard perfect historic squares: Bruges has many beautiful squares, most of which are very rich in history and landmarks (and highly Instagrammable too!). The main market square, the Markt, is located at the very heart of Bruges as it was the medieval commercial center of the city. Today, this square brings together the essence of the city; it is full of history, life, buzzing with people, music & food. Smaller in size but equally as significant is the Burg and the Stadhuis (Town Hall).
4. Romantic canals and bridges: Many European cities with canals (i.e. Amsterdam, Manchester, and Stockholm) are sometimes described as the “Venice of the North”, but none is more worthy of that title than Bruges. Once you travel through its canals you will realize how wonderful Bruges is, and you will see how the buildings step right into the water and how the water flows into places that can’t be accessed by land and that would otherwise go unnoticed.
5. The Lake of Love: On the southern edge of the historic center of Bruges there is an oasis-like area named Minnewaterpark, a tranquil public green space featuring the Minnewater and the Lovers Bridge. According to a local legend, a young girl named Minna was in love with Stromberg, a warrior of humble origins. Her father, who did not approve of their love, arranged her marriage with a young man from a higher social class but Minna ran away disappearing into the forest. Stromberg searched for Minna but when he finally found her, she was too weak and died in his arms. It is said that Stromberg buried Minna on the bottom of the lake to keep their love in its waters forever. The lake was then named after Minna and their tragic love story resulted in the myth of eternal love befalling couples who cross this lake’s Bridge.
6. Beautiful parks, gates and mills: Bruges’ old city walls (taken down in the 1780s) were replaced by a series of green spaces that encircle the whole city. They offer a variety of interesting locations worth discovering, such as breathtakingly beautiful parks where to enjoy nature away from the crowds, monumental medieval city gates and postcard perfect windmills. Originally there were 25 mills in Bruges, but now only four remain. The Sint-Janshuismolen (Sint-Janshuis Mill) was built in 1770 on the site it occupies today, it is still grinding flour and is open for visitors.
7. The Blood of Jesus Christ Church: Bruges is home to several monumental churches and an important Catholic shrine, the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The basilica owes its name to a relic from the crucifixion: a vial containing a small piece of cloth said to be stained with drops of Jesus Christ’s blood. The Basilica building itself is wonderful and consists of a Romanesque lower chapel (austere with very little decoration) and a Gothic upper chapel (rich in colors and details) connected by a monumental brick staircase. Another religious/architectural/artistic treasure is the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), which is home to Michelangelo’s Madonna with Child (1504), the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime.
8. The Begijnhof: The Begijnhof (Beguinage) is a little piece of heaven on earth. It is a convent-like complex located away from the heart of the city and the crowds. It is reached by a bridge and through a gate that is locked every night. Inside, there is complete silence and calmness, all houses are white, the lawns perfectly green and the trees and shade abundant. Inside the Beguine’s House (a typical house turned museum), you will be able to see what these beautiful houses look like from the inside and get an idea of what day-to-day life was like in the 15th century.
9. Chocolate: Bruges houses over 50 expert chocolatiers who provide infinite ways to enjoy chocolate, from very traditional crafts to the most innovative creations. As soon as you start walking around and looking at the numerous confectioners’ windows, you will realize that you are in chocolate heaven; where chocolate comes in hundreds of flavors and shapes. Quality chocolate can be found almost everywhere in the city, but a must visit shop is the Dumon Chocolatier, a tiny dollhouse-like shop where chocolates have no labels because, as the owner explains, labels over-simplify the intricacy and richness of the flavors.
10. Fabulous evening floodlighting: Bruges looks beautiful during the day and even more splendid at night: the Belfort and other landmarks towering above the town are brightly lit up with floodlights, the water of the canals reflect the illuminated fairytale architecture and the wet cobblestones shine under the street lights.
11. Rich art scene: Did you know that at the end of the 15th century, only the most eminent of Italian cities could dispute Bruges’ position as the art center of the Western world? Well, Bruges has been closely associated with the school of Flemish Primitive painting and a center of patronage for great artists, such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Many of these artists’ works were exported across Europe and played a large part in the Renaissance. Today Bruges houses many museums and art galleries, but the Groeningemuseum is THE museum you don’t want to miss. The Groeningemuseum features paintings by the most influential Flemish painters and many other masterpieces. Some of its highlights include Jan Van Eyck’s “Madonna with Canon George Van der Paele” (1436) and the “Madonna by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage” (1510). Another jaw dropping piece is Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgment” (1486). I could write pages about what I saw and felt when seeing these pieces up close.
12. Unusual, fun museums for art and non-art lovers: If art is not your thing, there are some peculiar museums you will find interesting and enjoyable, such as the Brugs Biermuseum (Bruges Beer Museum), Choco-Story (Chocolate Museum), Frietmuseum (Fries Museum), and Diamantmuseum (Diamond Museum).
…and that’s why I left Bruges with a heavy heart, a heavier bag, and the wish to be back again soon!
Have you been to Bruges? What was your favorite experience?