This post was most recently updated on June 14th, 2017
Upon exiting the train station, all feelings of familiarity and modernity dissolved into crisp, cool air, as we walked along the medieval cobblestone streets of Bruges. Aged brick buildings of crimson and maroon surrounded us, and a tower looming in the background drew us into the city center. These feelings of intrigue and nostalgia were major themes throughout our visit to Bruges.
One hot summer’s day, Mauricio and I left the Spanish sunshine behind and took a spontaneous trip to Brussels. But when a cancelled flight back to Madrid blessed us with a few extra days in Belgium, we headed straight for Bruges.
This fascinating city, founded in the 9th century by Vikings, evokes nostalgia in the finest way and — despite the intermittent whirring of automobile engines — I actually felt like we’d time traveled back to the 1400s.
Due to the spontaneity of our visit, we arrived in Bruges without any sense of a plan. We walked around town with our luggage looking for a hotel that had availability so last minute, and luckily, we found a lovely, old, waterfront hotel straight away: Hotel Bourgoensch Hof. We enjoyed the most picturesque view you could imagine right from our waterfront window; I honestly think I could’ve sat in that window all day and just watched the boats and geese float along the canals past me.
We were really happy that to discover that everything we expected to find in Belgium, whether it was a pint of frothy beer or a waffle blanketed in chocolate and fresh strawberries, Bruges offered it, lacking neither tradition nor enthusiasm. All of these Belgian delicacies, enjoyed among Bruges’s Gothic and traditional Flemish architecture, create an experience that cannot be paralleled in any other corner of the globe. That being said, I highly encourage you to explore Bruges for yourself.
Essentially, when you visit Bruges, you can feel history living and breathing around you, tempting you to discover more about its intriguing and unique story. During our visit to Bruges, I found the charming Belfry Tower that initially pulled me into the city, and many other architectural marvels that tempted me to never leave. Simply stated, this city is too quaint and romantic not to love.
Though some people claim that Bruges has become overrun with tourists in the past few years (which I guess you could say is true), it certainly does not mean that you shouldn’t pay Bruges a visit next time you’re in Belgium. I would actually go as far as saying that you should travel to Belgium simply because you’re visiting Bruges. Clearly, there’s something really wonderful about Bruges if hoards of people want to visit it each year.
From solely a visual standpoint, Bruges is absolutely stunning. From its romantic canals, to its historic and traditional architecture and cobblestone streets, to its lack of cars and surplus of willow trees and horse drawn carriages, the sights of Bruges are enough to make you fall in love with the city and fall back in time to the 15th century. So in other words, this medieval town is certainly the last place I would recommend for solo travelers on Valentines Day!
When you visit the lively and picturesque Grote Markt lined with its colorful, distinctive traditional Flemish architecture, you’ll find that you can’t help but smile, and additionally, that it’s nearly impossible to take a bad photograph. Actually, yeah, it’s impossible.
I don’t care how horrible of a photographer you are, even an accidental picture of your shoes is going to look good since you’re standing in the beautiful city of Bruges.
And then if you want to talk about Bruges at sunset, then you should just give up. You probably won’t be able to get coherent words out of your mouth because the sight of cloudy pink skies juxtaposed with beautiful Flemish architecture is simply breathtaking.
Ugh, if I must talk about the food then I suppose I will…but who am I kidding? I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it many more times: I love Belgian food.
And if you’re going to visit Bruges, then I suggest that you love it too. Sure, you can find Thai, Italian, and French cuisine, but let’s imagine that you only have two days in Bruges, why would you want to have that?
Indulge in fattening yet scrumptious Belgian cuisine (which I like to call Belgian comfort food) and experience Bruges to the fullest. Carbonade flamande (Belgian beef stew), moules and frites (mussels and fries), Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, speculoos (cinnamon cookies), Delirium Tremens beer (specifically, Delirium Red – the best cherry-flavored beer), and this list of delicious Belgian delicacies could go on… but I’ll say that my favorite has to be a Belgian waffle blanketed in chocolate sauce, bananas, strawberries, and whipped cream. The only downside is that I always eat too many of them and end up with a stomach ache, but I’m willing to endure that pain along with the pleasure. Belgian waffles, people. What more do I need to say?
Now from a historical standpoint, Bruges couldn’t be more interesting or rich in history. I’ll clue you in very, very briefly if you don’t already know about the history of Bruges. As I already mentioned, Vikings founded Bruges in the 9th century, and by the 12th century, due to its strategic location along the North Sea, it quickly became a booming port city, mostly for cloth, and merchants from all over the world flocked to Bruges. By the 14th century, Bruges was extremely rich and powerful and had become the cultural hub for all of Europe, in which many different languages and peoples were represented. A century later, Bruges began to decline as Antwerp, a neighboring city in Belgium, began to expand. However, the 16th century also led to many great accomplishments in gothic architecture and to the Flemish painting school, which was attended by the likes of Hans Memling and Anthony Van Dyck. By the end of the 16th century, Bruges no longer held any substantial power, and not too long after, in the mid-1800s, Bruges was regarded as the poorest city in all of Europe. Bruges’s livelihood was revived in the 20th century as a tourist destination because it is the probably the most beautiful and well preserved medieval city in all of Flanders, Belgium. Bruges’s history is one comprised of rising and falling from power and importance, flourishing and struggling, and expanding in art and architecture, all of which is reflected in modern day Bruges, which was recently proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now in my personal opinion, one of the most interesting historical subjects is World War II, and specifically Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Everyone knows about the heinous acts Hitler and his Nazis committed against humankind, but many people aren’t aware of all of the important historical artifacts and masterpieces that Hitler stole during his reign of terror; many of which were destroyed, but also fortunately, many of which were later returned to their proper owners. Bruges holds a wealth of history across many eras, but when we visited Bruges, we refused to leave without seeing Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, which is arguably the most famous of all the masterpieces that Hitler stole. The Bruges Madonna is the only known work of Michelangelo’s to have ever left Italy, his home country, and it is absolutely flawless. When you visit Bruges, you can find the Madonna in the beautiful Church of our Lady, in a separate art-museum-like section of the church where you must pay a euro or two to enter. Don’t miss the Bruges Madonna, but also the Church of Our Lady, which is a work of art in and of itself.
When it comes to Belgium, sure there’s Ghent, Brussels, and Antwerp, but in none of those places will you find such well-preserved medieval architecture or the strikingly beautiful canals that have earned Bruges the title ‘Venice of the North.’
Explore the streets of Bruges on foot or by horse-drawn carriage, or hop on a boat and drift along the canals; no matter which way you choose, you’ll surely find plenty of cute chocolate shops, artistic and architectural gems, great restaurants, adorable lace boutiques, Flemish folklore, and mostly, beauty all around you. Happy exploring, my friends!
Have you ever been to Bruges? What’s your favorite thing about the city? If not, would you like to visit someday? Let me know in the comments section below!