It wasn’t until I saw the 2008 Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges”, a black comedy about two Irish hitmen hiding out, that I had even heard of this Belgian town! I went from first hearing about it, to adding it onto my “absolutely must visit” list less than half an hour into this film…
Seeing this town used as a backdrop for this film was almost a distraction from the storyline itself. The film, as it’s title suggests, does an incredible job of showing Bruges at its best – the beautiful architecture, the stunning Belfry and the wonderful little old bridges. Soon after we had watched the film for the first time, we were booked on a long weekend to go and visit Amsterdam and Bruges! In fact, we were booked to go on this trip in the May and enjoyed it so much that we booked up to go back again only a few months later in the August!
You always have to take care when you first see a place in a film and decide it is the next place to visit after falling in love with all the Hollywood imagery and effects. You are either going to visit somewhere and find that it completely exceeds your expectations and the film represents it exactly how it is. I’ve found this to be true with Las Vegas, New York and Thailand (Thailand as in Leonardo Dicaprio in “The Beach”.) I’ve also been bitterly disappointed with some places I’ve visited after seeing them featured on the silver screen (spoiler alert – Hollywood is an absolute DUMP in real life!) so I really didn’t know what to expect on my arrival here.
I’m pleased to say that it was everything I had hoped it to be, which is obviously why I booked to go back so soon! It is a beautiful city and in my opinion completely under-rated.
Bruges has most of its medieval architecture intact, making it one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe. The historic centre of Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
Grote Markt is the largest of Bruges’ two central squares. It is full of beautiful architecture and buildings which have real character – here you will find some Nineteenth century gabled buildings along three sides of the square, and the fourth side features the breathtaking Belfort. There are horse drawn carriages galore within the square if you would like a whistle stop tour of all the main sights. Perfect on those bright and sunny days but beware, they are expensive, as most touristy trips tend to be!
Whilst here we went for lunch on the square and sat outside so we had a beautiful view of the Belfry. We had been pre-warned that the food would be expensive but it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. We sat in the sunshine and had a lovely lunch and some drinks whilst admiring the views and people watching, so well worth it I thought! If you are put off the prices in Grote Markt then if you walk a few streets away from the square you will find places with more reasonable prices (but not as much of a view, obviously!)
Anyway, after our pit stop and refreshment break we went on a mission to explore as much as we could during our short time here! Here are some of the main sights that Bruges has to offer;
As the Belfry is Bruges most famous landmark it would be wrong to start with anything else! It features heavily in the In Bruges film and storyline. It is a medieval tower from the 13th Century and used to house a treasury and municipal archives. The city archives were very sadly lost in a huge fire in 1280, and the tower was largely rebuilt.
The poor Belfry has actually been subject to three fires over the years, the last one was in 1741 when the wooden spire was destroyed and never replaced. If you want to go all the way to the top you can, and you would be a braver person than I am! Friendly word of advice – if you are planning on going to the top of the tower, DON’T watch the In Bruges film before you go!
There is a fee of 8 euros to climb the 366 steps to the top of the bell tower and it stands at 83 metres (or 272 feet) high! It is at the South end of the Markt (you can’t miss it!) and is open from 9:30am to 5:30pm. You don’t have to do the entire 366 steps all in one go, as on the way up to the tower you can stop at various levels to see the old bells and watch the big bell and see the carillon in action. There are a total of 47 bells which make up the carillon, and they ring every quarter of an hour.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood
Even if you don’t have time to venture inside here, it is worth visiting just to admire the dark gothic and romanesque exterior!
The basilica consists of an upper and lower chapel and is dedicated to St Basil the Great. The lower chapel was built in the 12th century in Romanesque style and the upstairs chapel was built in the Gothic style in the 16th Century and houses a venerated relic (the physical remains or personal effects of a saint which have been preserved to be used as a memorial for them). The relic is of St Basil the Great and was brought here by Count Robert II from Caesarea Mazaca in modern day Turkey, or Cappadocia, Asia Minor as it was known then.
The basilica is also famous for housing a phial said to contain a cloth with the blood of Jesus Christ on it. This was rumoured to have been brought to the City by Thierry of Alsace after the 12th Century second crusade, however recent research found no evidence of the relic being in Bruges before the year 1250. The phial is made of rock crystal, there is gold thread wound around the neck and the top is sealed with red wax. It is then encased in a glass fronted gold cylinder. I wish we had taken the time to go in and see this now!
St. Salvator’s Cathedral
The cathedral is one of very few buildings in Bruges which has survived all the ages with no damage. It was originally built as a parish church and was not given cathedral status until 1834.
The newly defined cathedral underwent significant changes after that to make sure it looked more cathedral-esque, and a fortress like Romanesque style tower 99 metres high was built.
This is a really beautiful neo-gothic style building which was actually built in two stages the first stage was between 1887 and 1892 and the second stage between 1914 to 1921.
The building was originally used as a government meeting hall until 1999 and is now used mainly for exhibitions.
Church of our Lady
We didn’t have time to actually visit here properly and go inside which was a real shame. Even in the distance looking at the beautiful spire you could tell what an impressive building it is. Its tower is 122 metres in height and the building is the tallest in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the WORLD!
Even more annoying, I learned after we had got home that inside you can find Michaelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” sculpture in the transept, believed to have been the only sculpture by Michelangelo to have left Italy within his lifetime. We really should have taken the time to visit here properly!
The Old St. John’s Hospital
This, as the name suggests, is an old medieval hospital which was founded in the 12th century. It is located next to The Church of our Lady and houses some of Europes oldest surviving hospital buildings. Today part of the hospital buildings houses the popular Hans Memling museum.
If you have the time to take a boat trip during your visit to Bruges, you’ll get some spectacular views of the Church and the Old St John’s hospital en-route. The trips only cost around 10 euros and can take you to places in the town that you otherwise can’t reach! The pictures of the Church of our Lady and the Old St John’s hospital are spectacular from the water.
If you have time, also check out the well preserved old city gateways; the Kruispoort, the Gentpoort, the Smedenpoort and the Ezelpoort.
And of course, no trip to Bruges would be complete without window shopping at some of the famous Belgian chocolate on offer! Oh, and waffles, you MUST have some Belgian waffles whilst you are here!
Bruges is ever so easy to get around, the train station is only about 2km from the town centre and the train station adjoins the bus station. Local buses can take you from the train station to the town centre or there are plenty of taxis around if you prefer.
Although we visited Bruges both times during the summer months, the weather was still very unpredictable! The first time we visited it was very dark and cold and the rain didn’t stop the whole time we were there! It was no fun trying to capture some good photos in this awful weather, however, the second visit to Bruges with glorious sunshine partly made up for this! Always plan ahead and check the weather before you go – it really can be one extreme to another!
A really beautiful place which is well worth a visit – I would love to go again, but would like to actually stay in Bruges this time, rather than just do a day trip here. A day just isn’t long enough to explore and uncover all that this place has to offer!