History of Bruges
Bruges is a small city located in the Flanders region of Northwestern Belgium. The city’s origins date all the way back to medieval times, with the name ‘brugj’ appearing for the first time in the ninth century.
Often referred to as ‘the Venice of the North’, Bruges has always been closely connected to the ocean, even through its physical foundations. The city is known for its intricate network of canals, which merge several streams into a single river known as ‘The Reie’ into the North Sea. In the early Middle Ages, these networks allowed Bruges to develop into a bustling trade city. Merchants developed trading monopolies on English wool and other goods, and by the 13th century, it was considered to be the leading trade centre in Northwestern Europe.
The fifteenth century is often seen as a ‘golden age’ for Bruges, as it became a cultural and commercial trade centre unmatched anywhere else in Europe. In addition to economic success, Bruges became an inspiring location for the arts. The city was home to several notable works of Renaissance art and Gothic Architecture, as well as the Flemish School of Painters, including artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. In addition, Bruges became a political stronghold with the presence of the Flemish Courts.
However, this golden age came to a halt by the end of the fifteenth century after the death of Belgian monarch Mary of Burgundy, and the accumulation of silt in canal estuaries, blocking key trade routes. By the time of Belgium’s Independence in 1830, Bruges had become an impoverished provincial city.
The revival of Bruges as both a commercial center and tourist destination began in the late nineteenth century, with the publication of a book entitled Bruges la Morte (1892), by Georges Rodenback. Rodenback’s novel depicts Bruges as a sleepy, mysterious city stopped in time. The novel is accompanied by photographs of the city, which sparked curiosity among readers and began drawing thousands of tourists to visit and experience the city’s mysterious intimacy first-hand. A few years later, in 1907, a connecting canal was cut which revived Bruges’ trading industry. A new international seaport known as Zeebruge was also developed, which eventually became an operational base for German troops during the first World War. Today Bruges depends largely on tourism, but a new industrial area in the north produces and trades ships, electronic equipment, dyes, and industrial glass. Spinning, weaving, lace-making, and other artisanal trades are also still in practice.
Things to See in Bruges
Many of the most popular tourist attractions in Bruges also happen to be the oldest. An example of this is the Belfry Tower, a marvel of gothic architecture that still stands today. Built in the fifteenth century, the Belfry Tower is located in the city’s central Markt Square. If you can brave the exhausting climb to the top of the tower, it offers a stunning view of the entire city. The bells on the Belfry Tower (now a 46-bell carillon) are another key attraction. In addition, the Markt Square itself is home to medieval festivals, craft fairs, and weekly markets throughout the year.
Bruges also has several beautiful and historic churches worth seeing. The most notable one is arguably the Basilica of the Holy Blood, located in Burg Square. This chapel dates back to the fourteenth century, and contains a gold casket rumored to hold a few drops of Jesus Christs’ blood brought from the Hold Land in 1150. The Church of our Lady is another one of the more imposing architectural feats in Bruges. Inside the church, visitors can observe an art collection which includes Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child, as well as the tombs of Mary of Burgundy and Charles the Bold. Bruges City Hall (built in 1736) also provides another example of the city’s breathtaking Gothic architecture. The Council Chamber on the first floor, decorated with breathtaking medieval carvings, is open to the public for tours, and is decorated with beautiful medieval carvings.
In addition to architectural feats, Bruges is home to a multitude of museums which showcase its vibrant artistic and cultural history. The Groeningmuseum, built on the site of the medieval Eekhout Abbey, is a renowned art gallery displaying six centuries worth of visual art from Flemish, Dutch, and Belgian artists. Visitors to the museum can learn about the history behind Flemish and Belgian paintings, as well as 18th and 19th century neoclassical pieces that are housed there.
Things to do in Bruges
There are many outdoors activities available in Bruges which provide visitors with additional sight-seeing opportunities, and the freedom to explore more of the city on foot. A walking tour of The Ten Wijngaerde Beguinage allows tourists to explore and relax a little beyond the buzz of Bruges’ main square. A beguinage is an architectural complex created to house beguines, or lay religious women that live in community without taking any vows. The Ten Wijngaerde Beguinage (built in 1245) is structured with tiny white plastered houses, and is surrounded by a picturesque courtyard with an array of flowers.
Visitors to Bruges can also embark on a ‘Windmill Walk’, to see the city’s remaining windmills. Four of these windmills stand alongside the moat and medieval city gates on Bruges’ original wall. The Sint Janshuys Mill for example, built in the 1770’s, still grinds grain today, while others contain small museums inside. The walk alongside these windmills is peaceful and relaxing. It provides a unique opportunity to witness the historic city centre on one side, and the canal with houseboats on the other.
Another quintessential sight in Bruges is the Minnewater canal in the Southern part of the city. Known as the ‘Lake of Love’ in English, this medieval canal was once used as a dock. Ships from throughout Europe would arrive and exchange cargoes of wool, wine, spices and silks for Flemish cloth. Nowadays, Minnewater park is known for the ‘Lover’s Bridge’ located in its center, a great spot for romantic vacations or weekend getaways. The public space surrounding the bridge also has a beautiful castle and greenery worth seeing. The canals in Bruges weave through the center of the city and beyond, and are also available for tours by boat. Boat tours depart from jetties throughout the city during the day and evening, and offer a great view of beautiful buildings and houseboats along the way.
What to Eat in Bruges
When in Bruges, it would be ludicrous not to suggest trying a famous Belgian waffle. According to locals, the best Belgian waffles in Bruges are found in a small white van known as Arlecchino Gelateria, stationed near Burg Square. In contrast to other stands that serve pre-cooked waffles, this gelateria makes them fresh, with a thick, fluffy texture similar to that of a croissant. The waffles can be eaten with an array of toppings, such as whipped cream, icing sugar, melted chocolate, fruit, or gelato.
Another staple Belgian treat to try in Bruges are Frites, or fries. Belgian frites differ from traditional ‘French fries’ or any Americanized versions because they are traditionally fried twice in ox fat or lard oil. Frites are typically eaten with mayonnaise on the side, and can be found almost anywhere in the city. However, there is a location known as Friterie 1900 in Bruges, which allows diners to look out on the Main Square while eating. Another location called Royal Frituur also offers Vegetarian or Vegan alternatives.
While it is not considered a food, Belgium is renowned for offering some of the best and unique beers in the world. This includes an iconic blend known as Trappist Beer, traditionally brewed by monks in a monastery. There are multiple locations in Bruges where visitors can go for a beer tasting, or just in accompaniment with a meal. Locals recommend going for a beer tasting at the Bauhaus Hotel, which offers up to six different flavors for testing. The family-owned De Halve Maan Brewery is also recommended, which has produces world-renowned Belgian beer since 1856.
One of the country’s staple products, exportation of Belgian chocolate dates back to the 17th century. There are even specific legislative bodies established to ensure that the quality and high production standards of Belgian chocolate are maintained. Belgian chocolate is produced in a variety of shapes and forms, such as pralines, truffles, animals, figurines, and even white chocolate swans. In Bruges, there are hundreds of chocolatiers where one can shop for chocolate, but one of the most renowned locations is the third-generation family business, V Chocolatier at 29, Philipstockstraat. There is even a chocolate museum, located at 2, Wijnzakstraat.
Popular Dishes and Restaurants
The best restaurants in Bruges are usually located outside fo the main market square. Some of these spots include ‘Bonte B’, run by one of Belgium’s top chefs, and ‘De Bottelier’, which rests atop a wine shop in a canal side-garden. In many of these restaurants, diners will have access to traditional, delicious Belgian dishes. One of the most popular Belgian meals is Flemish Stew, also known as Carbonade Flamande or stoofvles. Flemish Stew is a form of stew slow-cooked in beer, usually eaten with bread and served with mustard on the side. Another popular dish found in Bruges is moules-frites, or mussels cooked with onions and celery. Both of these are considered winter dishes, but are served year-round in most Belgian cities.
When to Visit Bruges
Bruges has a temperate climate for most of the year, but is quite rainy during the winter and can be crowded during the summer. It is recommended to visit during months like April, May or September, when weather conflicts are less likely. While winter months are less desirable, there is a Christmas Market in the city centre from Mid-November through December, which offers some cultural excitement amid the winter blues. In addition, Bruges is a big weekend-break destination, so it is advised to visit during a weekday. The city is commonly visited by train or bus through Brussels, but boat and carriage tours are also available.
Anthropology: Bruges in Pop Culture
Associations with Renaissance and Gothic Architecture, as well as with the School of Flemish Painters have allowed Bruges to emerge as an artistic hub within Northwestern Europe. However, the city continues to retain a unique presence in contemporary art and pop culture. An interesting example of this would be the cultural relevance of Fidel, the most famous dog in Bruges.
Fidel was a yellow Labrador retriever who lived with his owners at the Cote Canal bed and breakfast alongside the Groenerie Canal in Bruges. He would often be seen laying or napping on a windowsill facing the canal, and has been admired and photographed by tourists and artists alike for years. He has even been known to receive fan mail and packages of toys from tourists. Unfortunately, Fidel passed in 2016 at twelve years old, but his memory lives on in photographs that continue to circulate.
Fidel has also made an appearance in the 2008 film In Bruges, directed by Martin McDonagh. The film, starring Irish actors Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, is filmed entirely in Bruges. It tells the story of two Dublin Hitmen, instructed by their employer to wander around the city and await further instructions. Tragicomic undertones combined with the quiet intimacy of Bruges provide a unique backdrop for the film, as the two men wander aimlessly and admire their medieval surroundings. Since its release in 2008, the film has developed somewhat of a cult status for cinephiles and tourists alike, and has attracted even more visitors to the city around which the plot is structured.
In 2000, UNESCO declared Bruges to be a ‘world heritage site’, a title the city continues to hold today. This is evidently a sufficient declaration to make for a city that has remained untouched by time yet continues to hold unique appeal for locals and tourists alike. In its simultaneous ability to hold onto its medieval origins yet continue to hold relevance in contemporary art and pop culture, Bruges continues to be one of the most intriguing and beloved destinations in Europe.