After a long, jam-packed day in Brussels, I was already ready for a change of pace – and our day trip to Bruges proved to be just the change I was seeking.
Just a short hour’s train ride northwest of Brussels sits this picturesque and quaint city, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Bruges (or Brugge in Dutch) is often referred to as the “Venice of the North”, and it is not hard to see why. Due to its seaside location, the port and inlets into the town have created a web of canals – and accompanying bridges – that weave through the city. As soon as my cousin and I disembarked from the train, the rush of wind and fresh air that flew by was enough to invigorate and pump newfound excitement into me.
Walking into town, I immediately noticed the differences between Bruges and Brussels. While Brussels is a more metropolitan place (granted, it is a central hub for the EU), the influences of Bruges are distinctly more Dutch/Flemish – both in terms of language and architecture. This is generally what you will experience the farther north you travel in Belgium, the influences become distinctly less French and much more Dutch in styling. It really was quite interesting for me to see and compare!
Minnewaterpark & Poertoren
While walking from the train station to town, you’ll find yourself on a path running right along a canal and park. You’ll find a handful of people running on the trail, or strolling on the path with their kids/family. One of the first things you’ll see is the Poertoren – or the Powder Tower, in English – right next to a small bridge that goes over Minnewater Lake. The Poertoren stands at 18m, and is one of many old medieval structures that you’ll see throughout Bruges. In the early 1400s, the tower was used to store ammunition and gun powder, hence the name “Powder Tower”. Now, it serves as a good landmark along the trail to let you know that you are heading in the right direction to reach the center of the town.
My cousin and I took some time to admire the view from the Minnewater Bridge, which is right next to the Poertoren. The weather was temperate and full of sunshine, making for a good photo op as well! (Learn more about Poertoren & Minnewaterpark).
Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk
Upon reaching Minnewaterpark/Poertoren, you can cut into town a little quicker by walking down the path that forks towards Begijnhof (Beguinage) or continue straight along the original trail and spend more along the canal. My cousin and I ended up staying on the trail a little longer before cutting back into the main part of town. Eventually, as the number of people we encountered began to lessen, we hooked left and started onward towards the heart of Bruges.
Immediately, the path opens up into the famed cobbled streets and old-styled buildings that Bruges is known for. Just like that, you are transported into a fairy tale. The character of Bruges is unmistakably charming and vibrant. Occasionally, you will see a horse-drawn carriage, or two, trotting past you. The streets, and canals alongside them, are generally quiet, and only really start becoming busy as you near the touristy spots. Our first tourist spot that we wanted to check off was Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, or The Church of Our Lady.
Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, is another medieval building which truly captures the fine craftsmanship and work with stone during that time period. Standing at nearly 116m high, the church is the tallest building in Bruges. Fun fact: OLV is the second tallest brickwork tower in the world! (Learn more about the church here).
To enter the church, there is a small entrance fee of €4/person. Due to some construction work on the interior, we had to buy tickets across the street at Sint-Janshospitaal. There are combo tickets for both places, but to maximize our time, we chose to forgo Sint-Janshospitaal. (Alternatively, if you get the Brugge Card you’ll be able to visit Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk for free, amongst other attractions.)
The church, while the final resting place for both Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold, is actually most well-known for being the home to Michaelangelo’s “Madonna and Child”. The sculpture, made in Carrara marble, is much smaller than I anticipated, but is still quite an impressive sight to see. Though the construction work did detract a bit from the overall grandeur of the church, the vast collection of artwork and intricate designs of the interior easily forgive that. This is definitely a place worth checking out, especially if you are into art and history.
Somehow, after spending quite some time in Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, something must have pointed us in the direction of yet another church in Bruges. After a bit of wandering, we arrived at Sint-Salvatorskathedraal, or Saint Saviour’s Cathedral. While OLV is technically the tallest building, Sint-Salvatorskathedraal has the tallest tower compared to OLV. The Cathedral is Bruges’ main church, and had humble beginnings as a parish church during the medieval times. It was only around the 1830s when the church was upgraded to a cathedral status.
Sint-Salvatorskathedraal is free to enter and explore (there is a donation box as well, should you wish to drop a few Euros in). There is a decent collection of early Belgian art in the cathedral. Though not as resplendent as Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, definitely stop by if only for a quick peek!
Exploring & Lunch in the Markt
As noon started to approach, we decided to start looking for a good place to sit and enjoy a nice filling meal. We made our way through a lot of the popular shopping streets in town, first starting off at Steenstraat (right off of Sint-Salvatorskathedraal). We made a loop back around from Zuidzaandstraat to Noordzandstraat and eventually made our way to Markt through Sint-Amandstraat. Around here, you’ll find a lot more people, both locals and tourists, perusing through boutique stores or sipping on a refreshing drink at the restaurants and bars.
However, since we made our back to the Markt (the main square in Bruges, and similar to Grand Place in Brussels – it used to be a hub for commerce as well, with many canals leading here. Learn more about the Markt), we decided to eat at one of the restaurants facing the square. We finally decided on lunching at Le Panier D’Or. Their lunch menu isn’t terribly expensive considering that you get a dessert at the end as well (less than €20/person). My cousin couldn’t resist the mussels again, and I opted for the Flemish beef stew. We both paired off our lunch with a side of Belgian fries, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. Would recommend eating here if you want a lovely view of the – it’s also great for people watching!
Belfry of Bruges
After eating, I was ready to do the thing I was most excited for – climb up the Bell Tower! I love a getting a good aerial view, so the Belfry was a logical choice. The climb up costs €8/person, a little pricey in my opinion, but the views are gorgeously rewarding. If you can handle the 366 steps going up, you should definitely add this to your list of things to do. Don’t worry if you don’t think you can do it, there are several landing areas for you to stop, catch your breath, and read up on the history and admire the bells of the Belfry. (Learn more about the Belfry here.)
Canals, Waffles, & the Begijnhof
All the step work that my cousin and I went through at the Belfry left us hungry once again. As we resumed our wandering past the Markt and back along the canals, we found a small shop selling Belgian waffles. Of course we had to stop and get one!
After our quick bite, we trekked onward to the Begijnhof. Home to the nuns of the Order of St. Benedict, the Begijnhof is a quiet and tranquil area walled off from the people around town. Originally, the Begijnhof (also known as the Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde, or the Princely Beguinage in English) was where beguines (women who chose to live a semi-monastic life) lived. Though they did not have to take any religious vows, they had to promise not to marry while still a beguine. However, they were welcome to leave the Begijnhof’s confines whenever they wanted. (Learn more).
The Begijnhof is a beautiful place to escape to and roam around. The white homes surrounding the greenery are a peaceful sight to take in. There is a small church that you can visit as well. While there, we were able to witness some of the nuns performing some Benedictine prayers. This is a great place to find some inner peace, and to just appreciate the scenery of Bruges, without all the commotion from tourists.
Back to the Beginning
After wrapping up at the Begijnhof, out of the confines of the walls, we found ourselves back at Minnewaterpark. This time, we had a whole view of the Minnewater Lake and the buildings on the other side. The sun was in just the right position, and just as we started off the day, we ended with another photo shoot!
Once we got our shots and spent some time admiring the view, we decided to make our way back to the station and head back for Brussels. And just like that, our first day trip, and second day in Belgium, was complete!