One of our favorite cities in the world is Bruges (or Brugge as it's known in Flemish). Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bruges was once a bustling and wealthy city in the Middle Ages, its wealth built upon its skill and trade in weaving. After its access to the North Sea - the Zwin - started silting in the 1500s, Bruges began a slow decline and became a forgotten city - 'Bruges-la-Morte' or 'Bruges-the-dead'. Progress (and warfare) passed it by and as a result its medieval town centre remained intact in its wealthy glory for us to enjoy and marvel at today.
And people do come in droves to marvel and experience the beauty of Bruges. The Flemish architecture, canals, well-preserved buildings and artworks, museums, and the lovely scale of the city make it unique in Belgium and in Europe.
As a result of the explosion in tourism in Bruges, there is no shortage of chocolate and lace shops, of t-shirt and souvenir shops, or of international retail chains selling items you can find anywhere in the world. The throngs of tourists taking in the tours and caleche rides can be off-putting if you're trying to actually get a feel for the city itself.
The following list is a child and family-friendly top 6 of our favourite places to visit and things to do when in Bruges, in no particular order.
1. The Belfort (Belfry Tower)
If you and your family feel up to climbing the 366 steps to the top of the 83-meter medieval Belfry Tower, the view of Bruges and the surrounding countryside will make it worth your while! If not, you can enjoy the daily concert from the 47 bells of the 16th century carillon.
You might expect to find a museum about chocolate in a chocolate-loving and producing country like Belgium, and you would be right!
Choco-Story is a four-storey museum detailing the long and heralded history of chocolate, from cacao bean to praline. The museum offers a fun edu-game for kids as they make their way through the museum, and demonstrates chocolate and praline-making, the products of which are consumed by you, the museum-goer. It is housed in the old Maison de Croon, dating back to 1480, not far from the Grand Place (Central Market Place).
3. The Caleche and Boat Tours
Yes, they are touristy beyond belief. But, there's no denying that kids love horses and water. And the caleches (horse-drawn carriage) and boat tours in particular, are among the best ways to visit and view the city. The canal system in Bruges was once its lifeline to the sea and key to its historical wealth as a medieval city. There are several boat tour departure locations to choose from, and all of the tours offer a standard 30-minute floating presentation, in multiple languages, detailing the history, spirit and architecture of Bruges. The caleche tours leave from the Grand Place and also offer 30-minute guided, horse-drawn carriage rides through the narrow streets of Bruges. The tour stops at the Minnewater, the Lake of Love, to feed and water the horses. Our children took turns riding up front with the guide and they loved every minute of it.4. The Food - Chocolate, Fries and Gaufres (Waffles)
A travelling family must eat, and in Bruges you are in luck as Belgians take their food very seriously.
If you want to eat the best fries in the world, stop for lunch at the 'Friet Kot' in the Markt, or 'Grand Place'. There are two 'kots' to choose from, and they are essentially camper vans that have been converted to fry kitchens. Just look for the line-ups and huge piles of fresh fries heaped with gloops of mayonaise (other toppings are available too). You can chase that down with chocolate offerings from Galler, also in the Grand Place, or Van Tilborgh, one block away. Or if you want to continue the street food theme, try the tempting Belgian waffles (gaufres de Liege are best) and ice cream from Laurenzino.
There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Bruges for wonderful sit-down meals. If you want a really special Brugeois meal, save your Euros and visit Bistro de Schaar, a neighbourhood restaurant specializing in grilled food. Bon Appetit! [travellingmom tip: On the way there or back, stop to enjoy one of the only green parks and playgrounds in the city, Astrid Park. The kids can feed the swans and play on the swings while you relax and re-energize.]
5. Medieval Churches
This might be surprising, but depending upon the age and interest level of your child, visits to the churches of Bruges should make your to-do list. Visiting churches is economical for families (free entrance); they contain many treasures to view, including gold and jewel-encrusted cups and religious artifacts, crypts of dead kings, queens and knights, and relics of holy objects; and they showcase magnificent works of art, including the Madonna sculpture by Michaelangelo. Of particular interest are: Basilica de Saint-Sang (Holy Blood), the Church of Notre Dame (Our Lady), and the Church of Saint Sauveur, a 900 AD church in low gothic style that my kids nicknamed 'the spooky church.'
Founded in 1245, this collection of small houses and buildings is now a monastery for Benedictine sisters who still live and worship in this quiet courtyard area. The Beguinage is a place of peace and tranquility that offers a break from hours of walking and sight-seeing. The poplar trees in the courtyard garden all lean towards the church, 'as if they're praying too' (in the words of my youngest).
[travellingmom tip; If the crowds become too much, just turn the corner and leave the main squares. Get lost in the narrow side streets and lanes. Guide yourself by the church spires; you'll find your way back to the Grand Place.]