Bruges - Venice of the North

Sunday, March 06, 2016 Books And Trips

Bruges is the quintessential Belgian experience and must not be missed if you ever find yourself in this corner of the world. A fairy tale town, lined with buildings that seem made out of gingerbread, richly adorned facades and glistening canals, it is a northern alternative to the overly saturated Venice.

Bruges is an amazing city, capital of West Flanders province, in the northwest of Belgium. Once directly connected with the sea, gradual silting since 1050 has caused the city to lose this connection, but gained instead a network of picturesque canals. The historic city center was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list and the current old town boundaries coincide with the medieval city center. The buildings, streets and structures remain mostly unchanged since the 1600s, making Bruges an ideal destination for history lovers all over the world.   

Getting there is easy - just one hour by train from Brussels. If you travel on the weekends, you can book your tickets online with Belgian Rail, and get a 50% discount with the Weekend Ticket Internet. Also, if you are under 26, you can save money on your trip with the Go Pass. These fares apply to any destination in Belgium, so make sure you check out their webpage before going to the train station.

To stretch out our legs after the trip, we walked from the train station to the city center, but you can take a bus, or a cab - the distance is small though, about 2 km and it's a great walk, as you can admire the sights and do some people watching.

What did we do on our day trip in Bruges?

St John's Hospital was the first place we were drawn to, a large complex made of red brick and lush green gardens, right in front of the Church of Our Lady. This is one of the oldest surviving hospitals in Europe, functioning as a care facility since the 11th century, until 1978, when it was turned into a museum.

After admiring the Church of Our Lady, we took a turn and found ourselves in the heart of the city, Grote Markt. This bustling plaza was full of beautiful historical buildings, shops and restaurants. Once packed with merchants and buyers, now it is the focal point for all travelers flocking to Bruges. The historical center of the city is framed by guild buildings and the Provincial Court.

Presiding over the square, is the imposing Belfry Tower, probably Bruges' most famous landmark. This is a 83 meters high tower, leaning a meter to the east. The 47 bells play on a regular basis and travelers can climb all 366 steps to the top to see the bells up close and admire Grote Markt from above. I'll admit, we were too lazy and engorged with chocolate to do that! 

Instead we took another turn and found ourselves in the Burg Square, home of one of the most beautiful building in Bruges, the Gothic Town Hall, dating from 1376, its facade adorned with the town weapons of the cities and villages that were under administrative rule from Bruges.

Walking along the canals was one of the highlights of this trip for me. Bruges' canals were once navigated by ships, originally probably by the mighty Vikings themselves. Nowadays, the canals are exclusively used for private / tourist boats, but they are still incredibly charming and romantic.

After enjoying the picturesque canal route, we made it to the green park that surrounds the medieval city and admired the old defense tower and the gate.

Ghentpoort (The Gate of Ghent) is one of the four remaining city gates, an entrance for foreigners, a border with the outside world for the townspeople of Bruges, part of the city's defenses and a passageway for produce and merchandise.   

And speaking of produce and merchandise, our visit to Bruges would not be done justice if I wouldn't mention the amazing chocolate stores, the tapestries & lace stores and the incredible beer.

If you ever travel to Bruges, be mindful of the weather, as it can make or break your experience. We went out on a limb and traveled in January, but I would not recommend that to anyone. Though it was winter, thus very cold, we enjoyed a sunny day, where we could walk around the charming little streets, admire the canals, taste the local foods and be happy we were alive. 

Have you ever been to Bruges? 

What was your experience?