The Venice of the north, the Birmingham of Belgium1... With its canals, historic buildings and art connections, Bruges (or Brugge in Dutch) is the second most popular tourist destination in Belgium after Brussels and although it can be a bit twee in places, does represent a good day out.
There is no doubt that Bruges has a certain atmosphere and contains many squares, canals and buildings that have an austere beauty. The ivy on the buildings, the water doors, the sober little bridges - all these details add up to an aesthetically pleasing whole. If only there weren't so many people and souvenir shops...
So why is Bruges so unspoilt today and why are there so many attractive crumbling old buildings? The answer lies in its history. From the thirteenth to the sixteenth centre, Bruges was a bustling port and thriving commercial town. In particular, it was a centre for the export of Flemish cloth, an important product in medieval Europe. The money made paid for the fancy churches, public buildings and townhouses2.
Then a range of problems began to occur. Quite early on, the sea going ships had stopped downstream of the city, with goods being transferred to smaller boats on the canals to get to Bruges. This worked well enough, and led to the creation of the extensive canal system we see today. However, the river continued to silt up, making access increasingly difficult. Coupled with increased competition from neighbouring cities and problems with the supply of cloth and the commercial prosperity began to dry up. Much of the city's population left for greener pastures, and Bruges settled into a quiet life of religious obsession and casting envious glances at Antwerp or Ghent. You can find more on the history of Bruges at this site, which also has a map and some general information.
Bruges la morte, a novel by Georges Rodenbach in the late-19th Century, sums up this atmosphere of decay and decline nicely. Well worth a read if you're feeling maudlin or even morbid, it describes the life of a widower mourning the death of his wife, his subsequent obsession for a dancer resembling her, and his murder of the replacement when she mocks his dead spouse. The lifeless city mirrors the grieving widower...
Bruges for tourists
The best way to get to Bruges from Brussels is by train. It will take about an hour, and you then have a pleasant ten minutes walk to the city centre, passing by the Begijnhof and the Minnewater park. If you drive, be aware that Bruges is near to the coast, and in the summer the Belgians like to go the beach, and the roads nearby get rather clogged up. Bruges is also really close to the port of Zeebrugge, or 'sea-Bruges' in literal translation. You can get a boat here from the UK. You could use any of the airports in Belgium to get to Bruges - Antwerp is the closest but either Charleroi or Brussels Zaventem would be fine - it's a small country...
Things to do include:
Take a ride in a boat
You could also opt for the horse drawn carriage option, but the boat smells better and gives you a more interesting view of the bridges and buildings. The tour lasts about thirty minutes, with a commentary. By no means visits all the canals of Bruges, but goes down the most scenic/central ones. Occasionally the boats pass too close to one another, and if you're unlucky you get a few litres of canal water in your lap3. Interestingly, in what sounds suspiciously like a mafia type arrangement, all the boats are run by just five families, who each have the same number of boats.
Climb the belfry
Cheap, and the view from the top is excellent. Not for claustrophobics or those with a weak heart as the stairs are steep and rather enclosed at the top. The tower is 83 metres high and has 366 steps, to give you an idea of what you are taking on. It dominates the market square, and also contains a 47 bell carillion4 that chimes on a regular basis.
Go to the Groeninge art museum
A good collection, mainly of Flemish Primitives, as you would expect. Not quite as good as what's on offer in Brussels, but certainly worth a look. Jan Van Eyck, one of the best Flemish painters, was born and worked in Bruges. So did Guido Gezelle, a Flemish poet. There are some other smaller art collections to see as well and you can go round a brewery if that is more your thing.
Take photos of nuns and daffodils at the Begijnhof
Originally the little houses round the central courtyard were occupied by widows who had decided to retire from the world, rather than nuns as such5. Very pretty in the spring and next to a nice park. As well as the Begijnhof, you might also come across Godshuizen. These were almshouses originally, and are now homes for elderly people.
Buy chocolate and lace
All a bit tacky, but someone must be buying the stuff, otherwise every second shop wouldn't be selling doilies or pralines. The quality of the chocolate is good, to be fair.
In Bruges, nearly everyone in the tourist industry (and that is many people) will speak Dutch, English and French. Some will also speak German and other languages.
The food is not great compared to Ghent or Brussels - tourist quality and prices in most places. In nice weather, you can eat outside on one of the many squares. On some of these, some form of musical entertainment may be available - as with the food, the quality of this may vary. As always in Belgium, low cost refuelling is available in the form of the traditional chips and mayonnaise.
There are some nice watering holes as well - outside on a spring day by one of the canals is particularly pleasant. For actual night life, go to Antwerp.
Bruges can be very busy on a spring or summer weekend. Coach parties jostle for space in the lace shops, and you can barely see the main squares for the weight of tourists. Bruges is very pretty on a frosty winter's day and can be atmospheric on a foggy autumn day. So going out of season could improve your Bruges experience. The tourist board, not surprisingly, recommends staying overnight to benefit from the less crowded evenings. The usual range of hotels, hostels and B&Bs are available.
Outside the 'museum of Bruges'
You can catch a glimpse of a quieter side of the town if you head west from the centre. There are still canals and old houses, but they look more lived in. As you get to the outskirts of Bruges you will come across windmills, some of which are open to visitors. This site has some suggested walks as well as some other useful/informative pages.
If you go further out, you arrive in a standard modern Flemish city - Bruges may no longer see many boats, but the port of Zeebrugge6, founded in 1907, is only a few kilometres away and is very much operational. Cycling to the coast is pleasant and flat - you can hire bikes at the station. There is a beach of sorts.
Modern Bruges has participated in the economic boom that Flanders has been enjoying in recent decades, based around hi-tech industry. It is the administrative centre for the province of Western Flanders and the base for a moderately successful football team.