Belgium is said to be the heart of Europe, and as we found out during a recent trip, the picturesque city of Bruges will stay in your heart forever.
Basing ourselves in Brussels, we took the train to this beautifully preserved Medieval city. After almost an hour, our transport pulled in to the Bruges central train station. Our plan was to see as much of the city with as little expense as possible within a day and it started by admiring the pleasant Modernist exterior of the station. It was such a nice surprise emerging into the square in front of the station, as the interiors gave no indication what a gem the building really was.
Now most of the visitors streaming out of the station, headed directly to the centre of the city, along Oostmeers. As nice a road as this was, we took Westmeers, which runs parallel. The houses along this road are definitely more interesting and quainter, and the road takes you directly to ‘T Zand.
‘T Zand is the largest square in Bruges and home to a weekly market. There has been a square in this location since the 13th century and was an important cattle market in the 18th century. This was also the spot where we decided to stop for lunch, choosing the pleasing little restaurant-bar of Den Apero. It was an ideal place to have lunch, giving us the chance to sit outside and sample the local food and Brugse Zot beer.
The Holy Saviour Cathedral
Continuing through the fascinating narrow streets towards the Holy Saviour Cathedral, we kept having to stop and admire the attractive houses that line the roads.
The Holy Saviour Cathedral is Bruges’ oldest parish church, with construction having started in 1250. The cathedral was actually built on an even older church from the 10th century, but which burned down in 1127. This mainly gothic building, with its 100m tall belfry, has only been a cathedral since 1834, after the original cathedral of Bruges was demolished by the French. Inside, the cathedral has many treasures including an impressive collection of Flemish paintings from the 14th to the 18th century, as well as tapestries manufactured in Brussels by Jasper van der Borcht in 1731.
Church of Our Lady
Just a stone’s throw from the cathedral is the equally impressive Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) which is dominated by its 115.5 metre high brick tower. The tower remains the tallest structure in Bruges and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world. The church’s real claim to fame, however, is the world-famous Madonna and Child, by the sculptor Michelangelo, which he created around 1504. Large-scale renovation works mean that the church is only partially accessible, and many works of art cannot be viewed.
St. Bonifacius Bridge & The Four Horsemen
Behind the church is St Bonifacius Bridge, which is very popular with the tourists, but a nightmare for getting a child’s stroller over! The bridge looks like it is centuries old, however, it only dates back to 1910. Take note when you walk over, as it is said that the first person that you see once you cross this charming little bridge is the person that you will marry. Thankfully, Pamela was the first person I saw after crossing, so I guess the legend is true after all!
The bridge then leads into the Arendts Garden, and its four sculptures - The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – which were created by Rik Poot and which make an interesting feature in this peaceful little area.
The garden entrance opens out at the start of what is probably Bruges most photographed area - Rozenhoedkaai (the Quay of the Rosary). This is where the Groenerei and Dijver canals meet and is such a romantic and charming area. It is worth just taking half an hour or so to just walk along this quay and take in the beauty of what used to be a mooring place for ships back in the late Middle Ages. The salt traders that unloaded their merchandise here have long been replaced by hordes of tourists!
Our little tour of the city continued past the fish market and over the canal towards Burg Square. This was one of the earliest inhabited places of the city, with evidence of people living here since the second or third century. The square was named after a castle that once defended this piece of land. The castle, however, has long been replaced by spectacular buildings, spanning Gothic, Renaissance and Neo-Classicist architecture. Buildings such as the Stadhuis (City Hall), which was built in 1376, and the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges, are a feast for the eyes.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
Our next destination, however, was not either of the buildings, but the Basilica of the Holy Blood which is tucked away in a corner next to the City Hall and was originally the 12th century chapel of the of the Count of Flanders. Drops of blood and water said to have been washed from the body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea are on display in this church, having been brought back from the Holy Land by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. The neo-Gothic church is actually built above another church, the Romanesque church of Our Lady and Saint Basil, which can also be visited. Handily for those with baby strollers like us, there is a small elevator available to take you up to the basilica.
After a quick stop to pick up the obligatory Belgian waffle, we entered the impressive Markt square. It has been used as a market place since 958, and is ringed by beautiful old guild houses, the Belfry Tower and the Cloth Hall. The statues at the centre of the square are of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, two freedom heroes in the struggle against the French at the beginning of the 14th century.
The Duvelorium Grand Beer Cafe
We wanted a better view of the Markt, so we made our way to The Duvelorium Grand Beer Café which is part of the Historium historical experience attraction. The Duvelorium can be accessed free of charge, and for the price of a beer you can sit at the terrace that overlooks the Markt and perhaps gives the best view of this historic square. It was at this point that we had our only real indulgence during the whole trip – a flight of beer, served with yummy Belgian chocolates!
We could easily have spent longer at the Duvelorium, but there was still more to see of beautiful Bruges, not to mention a train to catch! Our self-guided tour continued to Jan Van Eyck Square and its statue commemorating Bruges renowned painter. Our main focus, however, was the Skyscraper, or what is more commonly known as The Bruges Whale. This imposing artwork has been created out of 5 tons of plastic waste pulled out of the ocean, creating a 4 story tall whale: a powerful reminder of the 150,000,000 tons of plastic waste still swimming in our waters!
St. Walburga's Church
Just around the corner was our next stop - St. Walburga's Church. This is a 17th-century Roman-Catholic church in Bruges built by the Jesuits in a Baroque style. In 1773 the Jesuit Order was dissolved and in 1779 the former Jesuit church was inaugurated as a parish church and the relics of St. Walburga were transferred to it.
By now we were heading back to the train station, going via beautiful cobbled street of Walplein, then admiring the Horse Head Drinking Fountain, before entering the Beguinage. This was once the home of the beguines, emancipated lay-women who led a pious and celibate life. It was founded in 1245 and comprises of quaint white-coloured house fronts and a large, tranquil garden. We walked through this compound, before ending up at the Sashuis for a quick photo opportunity. The Sashuis is a pink brick lockhouse which overlooks the long Minnewater Lake and regulates the level of the canals in the city centre.
The Minnewater Lake and surrounding park were a welcome area of tranquillity and a nice escape from the tourist crowds in the centre of the city. Interestingly, the lake’s name is said to have come from the story of a young and pretty girl named Minna who was in love with Stromberg, a warrior of a neighbouring tribe. Her father did not agree with her love and arranged her to marry a man of his choice. Minna escaped and ran into the forest. When Stromberg finally found her, she died in his arms of exhaustion. The lake was named after Minna and the bridge by the lake was considered the bridge of love, in her honour.
The lake probably deserved more of our time, but we were entering early evening, so we walked past the Poertoren tower, which was constructed in 1401 as part of the city’s walls and made the short walk back to the railway station.
By the end of the day, we had met our objective of seeing Bruges on a budget. With the exception of paying for food and drink, as well as the train tickets to get there, we didn’t actually spend a penny! With more time and a bigger budget, there are plenty of museums, galleries and other attractions that you can spend your money on, and you could fill a number of exciting days in this attractive city experiencing them. But if budget is more your style, then we’d thoroughly recommend visiting Bruges.
Join us next time when our family adventures take us on a tour of Brussels, Belgium.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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