Between the 12th and 15th centuries, Bruges developed into the world’s most important commercial center. Then the harbor silted up, and ships became too large to reach the port. The city soon fell into disrepair.
Well-off 19th-century British and French tourists, on their way to the nearby Battle of Waterloo site, rediscovered Bruges. Encouraged by their interest, the Belgians decided to rehabilitate the city as a tourist draw, and their decision has paid off ever since. The shore excursion department will whisk you here from Zeebrugge, the modern port on the North Sea that has replaced old Bruges as a shipping center.
What We Love
The Ease of Sightseeing on Two Wheels: Explore beyond the center on foot, or rent a bike to go even farther. Bruges has a canal network ringing and crisscrossing the city, and if you go a few short blocks from the tourist center, you'll find serene residential neighborhoods on the water.
The Beguinage/Begijnhof: Once inhabited by a Christian lay religious order of women who served the poor, the peaceful compound of white houses, a church, and an infirmary is now occupied by Benedictine nuns. There is also a museum.
Best Known For
Market Square: The Markt defines the city center, surrounded by gilded, Flemish-style buildings. The key architectural element is the 13th-century belfry housing 47 bells that sound every quarter hour.
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Who It's Best For
Chocolate and Mussels Lovers: If you want to take home samples of Belgian chocolates, your most difficult choice will be what to buy. For lunch, try a traditional bowl of steamed mussels washed down with a Belgian wheat beer. If still upright, visit the beer museum.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Expect Crowds: If you visit in high season, be prepared to wonder if real people actually live here, other than perhaps some of the shopkeepers. If you don’t have a set bucket list, a better bet for a genuine medieval canal city is Ghent, 30 miles farther inland.
Theodore W. Scull is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has written several books on crossings.