It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?
– “In Bruges”
You’ve heard it a million times – you’ve got to see Bruges. Because it’s beautiful. Like a fairytale. Your grandparents loved it, and so did their friends. It’s on the Belgium top 10 list. It’s got canals. And swans in the canals. You’ve heard it all. And so has everyone else. Bruges has become one of the many gems of European architecture that is overrun with tourists, loving its beauty so much that you can longer see it behind the selfie stick forest.
The problem is – Bruges is actually beautiful. It has an amazing history of early prosperity and strategic advantages which make it a uniquely preserved medieval masterpiece. It’s not overrated. And you shouldn’t have to skip it because it feels like Disneyland.
I can’t stand crowds. And I’ve gone to Bruges twice! Follow these tips to visit Bruges and avoid a claustrophobia episode.
Watch “In Bruges” – if you can stomach violence and love dark humor, this black comedy set almost entirely in Bruges will give you a much needed satirical mindset before heading to a town marketed with too much sweetness.
Don’t go to Bruges on a Sunday or on a Monday. Some of the most important things to see here are churches, and if you come on Sunday, you will have to wait until 1:30 p.m. or later to get in. On Monday, many of the city’s museums are closed.
Pack a lunch. When it comes to food, Bruges is probably the worst place in Belgium to eat. This is what heavy tourism does to a place. You will waste time waiting for a table only to eat sub-par food for incredibly inflated prices. So fill a water bottle, pack some sandwiches, some fruit, and don’t forget some Belgian chocolates.
Check museum hours ahead of time. Do a little research and pick what you want to see, and then go on this website and double check for any special hours, holidays, and museum closings. Bruges is constantly undergoing restoration and maintenance, and some long-term closings are inevitable.
Arrive by 9 a.m. As you are probably taking a day trip here, plan your train journey to be at Station Brugge by 9 a.m. at the latest. Use this app to help you plan and buy tickets on your smartphone. If you come earlier, you will have more time to be nearly alone in still-sleepy Bruges. You can actually walk through Begijnhof and feel the atmosphere of seclusion and devotion that its residents attempt to preserve.
Pick one A-list attraction and do it first. Everything in Bruges opens at 9:30. The most mobbed attractions that tend to form a line are the Belfry, the Bruges Madonna, and the boat rides. So pick what you want to do, and stand in front of the ticket office before it opens. My personal opinion is that Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” and the art collection of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk that houses it are more impressive than the view from the 83 meter tower in the town square. I admit it, I’ve seen “Monuments Men” (as should you before coming to Bruges), and I will pick art over heights any day.
After your 9:30 a.m. excursion, you can still take a boat ride without excessive waiting. There will be a line, but it won’t take an hour. Boats depart right across the street from the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), as well as just east of the Markt.
When you return from the boat ride, about half an hour later, you are very close to Saint John’s Hospital, which is a museum of dual value that is rarely overrun by visitors. First, it is a 12th century hospital which continued to provide medical care to patients for 800 years. Even if you are not a healthcare enthusiast like me, old medical tools, dioramas of daily hospital life, and an old pharmacy make for a fascinating display. And second, this museum happens to own six splendid works by the famed painter Hans Memling, one of which is not a painting, but a three dimensional painted shrine of the martyr St. Ursula. Memling was treated for a wound at Sint-Janshospitaal and painted several works for the order in gratitude. And whatever you think of saint worship, a woman who insisted on a trip around Europe before getting married despite a very real risk of death will always have a special place in my heart.
At this point Bruges will be full of people. If you still have the energy and want to see more art, you can fight the crowds to make your way to Groeningemuseum, which has a small top notch art collection, including Hieronymous Bosch, Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Gerard David. For some reason, there usually isn’t a line here either. Depending on what your interests are, the other places in Bruges that are worth a visit are Gruuthusemuseum and Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Ter-Potterie (Our Lady of the Pottery) church.
As the city swarms with tourists, you can pass through the main square, continue north and turn right to finally catch a break at Jan van Eyckplein, a small square overlooking a canal, named after another one of Bruges’ famous artists, whose statue stands in the center. You can enjoy your lunch on the pedestal or one of the benches here, and then continue east along the canal. Pretty soon you will find yourself completely alone on the street, which is hard to believe considering the crowds you’ve just left behind! For one last site, head to Jeruzalemkerk, where you will probably be the only visitor. Make sure to check out the exhibition about the rich Italian merchant from Bruges that not only went on a crazy year-long pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 15th century, becoming one of the most traveled men even in cosmopolitan Bruges, but also built a copy of a church he happened to like there, complete with Christ in a tomb – because why have a postcard when you can afford the real thing? Even more amazingly, his descendants still own the compound and run the museum.
After the church, continue east towards the green lawn beside the Ringvaart, or the canal the circles Bruges. Here you will find windmills and a lovely place to lie down after all the cobblestone walking you’ve done. On a warm day, it’s bliss to lie in the shade and watch people playing frisbee and kubb on the grass.
On the far north corner of the green, at Carmersstraat is a little cafe called De Verloren Hoek or “The Lost Corner”, which has a good selection of beers. Here you can relax as long as you want before crossing the town one more time to head to the train station.
My final advice for visiting Bruges is this: if you have only one day to spend here, don’t spend your time on the torture museum, or the fries museum, or the beer museum, or the diamond museum, or the chocolate museum, or any other novelty museum. There will be lines for all of them, so don’t worry – they will still make plenty of money without you. It’s just not what makes Bruges valuable.