How to Love Bruges (Brugge) Despite the Crowds

I looked around the heart of historic Bruges (or Brugge as it’s spelled in Dutch) speechless, and a bit horrified. The once serene streets of this UNESCO heritage city were now far from quiet. Singly, or in couples, or in a covey led by a guide visitors have taken over the city, and especially the famous market square.

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Clopping horses taking tourists on tours, busses, guides, crowds – it was a mad house in which I felt battered about like a ball in a pinball machine. Finally, I fell back to my roots in NYC and briskly threaded my way through the crowds, but I was devastated. Where was the once-magical place I had visited? I wasn’t too keen on the newer version. In fact, I thought I’d never love this tourist-busy city, but I did. Brugge wasn’t the city I remembered from years ago, but there is still a lot to love.

While the visitors go to the typical places, other parts of the city remain calm and relatively peaceful. And the places that really do rate a visit can be seen at somewhat off-times.


Bruges was founded by the Vikings in the 9th century (although there is evidence of settlement during the Iron Age). The city rose, holding prominence for centuries but by the end of the 16th century, Bruges no longer held great power and by the middle of the 1800s, the city languished.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Bruges began to attract tourists, lured by the city’s extensive medieval heritage. So pure is the historic feel of the city that is was the site of many scenes in the 2013 mini-series, The White Queen. In fact, if you’re a fan, you can download a map with the sites, provided by Bruges tourism. White Queen Map.

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The Tourist Triangle: Market Square, The Burg, Bonifacious Bridge

Market Square

One tourist area that you won’t be able to avoid is the Market Square, or the Grand Market, in the center of Bruges. Once the mercantile hub of the city, today it is thronged with tourists. It is the starting point for tours and rides, as well as the site of several attractions. But there is so much more to see that if you kinda skirt around it a bit you’ll discover why this city still makes people fall in love.

The Burg

Just a block east the area known as the Burg is a bit less of a beehive of activity, but with plenty to see. It is said to have started as a fortress to protect from Vikings, a castle on an island in a swamp formed by the river. The castle has disappeared, but the magnificent square that replaced it, the Burg, became a center of the late-medieval town. The most impressive building is the Stadhuis, City Hall, built when Bruges was a hub of international trade.

There’s also the Church of the Holy Blood with its priceless relic. The Basilica of the Holy Blood, dedicated to Our Lady and Saint Basil in the 12th century, is a rare double church, with a Romanesque lower church and a neo-Gothic upper church. It is in the ornately inspiring upper church that a relic of the Holy Blood is preserved. Carefully held in the hands of a priest, visitors are allowed to come up one at a time and view the priceless relic.

Bonifacius Bridge

The final area of the city that part of the tourist triangle is Bonifacius Bridge. Although jammed with tourists who actually wait in line to cross the tiny bridge, this area is too beautiful to miss. It is easily the most intimately medieval area of the city. The bridge itself is relatively new – built in the early years of the 20th century – but the area has a warmth to its historic feel that made it a magnet for me to visit and revisit.

The most popular time to visit is midday when the churches and museums are open, but if you go back earlier in the morning, or later in the afternoon there are fewer people. The nearby museums are closing and you can enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

The Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady) is a beautiful backdrop and also displays the small but lovely Michelangelo’s famous Madonna and Child, as well as other pieces of art and history. The area is also bit of an epicenter of museums. But there are two surprises in the area.

As you stroll the area you’ll likely see the canal-side statue and memorial to Juan Luis Vives. Vives was born in Valencia to a Jewish family in 1492. Although his family had converted to Christianity to avoid the effects of the Spanish Inquisition, they all perished anyway accused of being secret Jews. Only his mother was spared, and she died of the plague. Juan himself left Spain shortly after her death, moving to Bruges.

His fame comes from his remarkable ideas about education and people’s inner lives, foreshadowing many of the great philosophers whose names are more famous. He died in Bruges in 1540. The people of the Bruges honored his achievements with a statue erected in 1957.

The area is also home to the studio and guest house of famous Belgium artist David de Graef. The studio is open to the public when he’s there and painting. You can find it at the foot of the bridge. David de Graef’s meticulously created vaguely surreal air-brushed images are other-worldly. He has also opened the rooms on the upper floor of this medieval mansion (updated with the facilities we hold dear) as guesthouse overlooking the Church of Our Lady and the whole exquisite area.

Jan van Eyck Square

This early major trading section is just outside the tourist area, a bit off to the north of the Market and the Burg. This former Hanseatic quarter is a lovely and relatively quiet spot to explore some of the history of the city. Watched over by a statue of beloved Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, the area encompasses notable sites, which are all helpfully documented on a map by the statue. Van Eyck was the famous 15th-century Flemish painter most often associated with Bruges. His close attention to details and their clear rendition has made his paintings legendary, and a source of information on early life, customs, and clothing. His work is on display at the Groeninge Museum near Bonifacius Bridge.

Another highlights of the Square is the Toll House, one of the oldest building still extant in the city, along with one of the two surviving wooden facades in the city.

Remembrances of Bruges

Belgium Chocolate, Pastries and Marshmallows I won’t say I live to eat, but fine chocolate and pastries has always claimed my attention. Belgium is known for its... Belgium chocolate. But their pastries are similarly fine. Some of the famous chocolatiers are also in Bruges – The Chocolate Line, Pierre Marcolini for example. But here are a couple of places that I'd recommend.

For pastries, and great light lunches stop by Servas Van Mullem at Theatre Square. Go early for the best selection of their rich and delicious pastries, confections, cookies, croissant and pain du chocolate. Enjoy a delicious lunch either outside on the tiny plaza or inside their cozy and intimate cafe.

At Academstraat, 4, you’ll find Patisserie Academie where Tom van Loock his offers his heavenly Millefoix (among other delights). I have also fallen in love with his marshmallows (especially covered with chocolate) but Tom also makes a yummy combination of raspberry and yogurt that is uniquely delicious.

Across on the same street Confiserie de Clerck also makes excellent chocolate covered marshmallows as well as over 500 types of candy. The store is famous for its diversity.

The Wall of Beer features every beer made in Belgium. It’s at 2BE – at Wollestraat, 53 which has only Belgium products and is a perfect place to check out local products.

Walk the City Walls and Windmills

Certainly Holland is known for its windmills, but Bruges, too, has windmills, although few are still in existence along the old city walls. Enter at Kruisport gate and head north for photo-ops of several windmills.

If You Go

Bruges is a very walkable and compact city. But it’s also a bird’s nest of streets and rather confusing, so get a good map and keep it with you.

But, the best single thing you can do to see the city is actually to buy a City Pass. Bruges has numerous museums, with the City Pass offering free admission you can treat them like a buffet, cherry-pick exactly what you want to see without feeling obligated to go through all the exhibits. If you try a place and don’t like it, shrug and move on. An excellent less expensive alternative is the Museum Pass. You can purchase one at any of the participating museums.

I stayed at the hotel Jan Brito which is a small and charming hotel well-located slightly outside the congested part of the city.

For more information on visiting Brugge click on Brugge and Visit Flanders-Bruges

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: January 15th, 2015

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