A visitor to the historic center of Brugge, commonly spelled Bruges, can easily imagine a time when this picturesque Flemish town was bustling with merchants and traders from all corners of Europe, a place where bankers rubbed shoulders with painters and holy men.
The city in northwestern Belgium’s Flanders region was once a major nexus of trade in medieval Europe, and of art and architecture during the Renaissance. Brugge’s historic center has retained its character through the centuries and is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It represents one of the best-preserved examples of a medieval European settlement.
First settled by Vikings in the early Middle Ages, the town’s strategic location on the North Sea helped it become a major commercial center, where traders from northern and southern Europe met, bringing a hodgepodge of languages and cultural influences. The area’s wealth was further boosted by the thriving Flemish textile industry. The city became known also as a center of the Flemish Primitives painting school and home to masters including Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.
Over the years, however, the city’s fortunes turned. The Zwin inlet, which connected Brugge to the North Sea and had first opened after a storm in the 12th century, began to fill up with silt. Ultimately the passage became unnavigable, and Brugge was cut off from the sea. By the 1500s, Antwerp had supplanted Brugge as a trading center.
By the mid-1800s, the city was one of the poorest in Europe. But its fortunes changed again with the 20th century. The city was spared from major damage in the two World Wars, leaving its architectural heritage intact. As a result, Brugge got a new lease on life as a tourist hub.
Today, visitors flock from around the world to float down the city’s historic canals and under its picturesque stone bridges alongside flocks of swans, to tour its cobblestone streets in horse-drawn carriages, and to sip hot chocolate and beer at sidewalk cafes.
Many of the town’s original Gothic structures remain, including the imposing 13th-century belfry overlooking Market Square. Its bells—now a 47-bell carillon—have been a feature of the city for centuries. Enterprising visitors can climb 366 steps for a panoramic view. The medieval structures blend harmoniously with the neo-Gothic buildings and facades constructed in the late 19th century, preserving the town’s Old World atmosphere.
The city has also preserved its religious and cultural traditions, the most famous of which is the Procession of the Holy Blood. The procession, inscribed by UNESCO on its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, takes place each spring on Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter.
During the event, officiants from the Brotherhood of the Holy Blood carry a vial believed to hold cloth stained with the blood of Christ through the streets. More than 1,700 participants march through the town center on foot, horseback, or in carts, enacting Biblical scenes and accompanied by brass bands. The spectacle brings tens of thousands of visitors to the city each year.
HOW TO VISIT
Brugge can be done as a day trip from Brussels and is accessible by train, bus, and car. The city is easily explored on foot. Boat and carriage tours are available, as are rental bicycles. Key sites in the heart of the city include Market Square and the belfry, the Groeninge Museum, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. For those wishing to ascend the belfry, it’s best to come early, as lines become quite long later in the day.
Belgium has a temperate climate through most of the year, but to avoid both the winter rain and the crowds of peak summer months, consider going in April, May, or September.