Bruges, Belgium - Walking Tour of Medieval Town

Cruise Shore Excursion from Spring Tulip Cruise or from Zeebrugge, Belgium

A tour boat gliding along the canals in Bruges

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

Bruges is a charming Belgian medieval city that is essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. River cruise ships sailing spring tulip cruises of the Netherlands and Belgium often include Bruges as a half-day shore excursion option. In addition, the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium is sometimes a port of call on northern European cruises. Zeebrugge is only a few miles from Bruges, and is its closest seaport. Bruges is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Let me first explain that guidebooks and websites often use two different names for the same city. Like much of Belgium, Bruges has two names and two spellings. Bruges (pronounced broozh) is the English and French spelling and pronunciation. Brugge (pronounced broo-gha) is the Flemish spelling and pronunciation. Either is correct. Before it was either English or French, the name was a Viking word for "wharf" or "embankment."

All guided tours of Bruges are walking tours, as no buses are allowed in the narrow streets. Although you won't have to climb any hills or many stairs, the streets are cobblestone and uneven. We walked for most of the time we were in the city, so I do not recommend this tour for those who have problems walking.

For those who do not wish to tour Bruges on foot, you might want to rent a horse-drawn carriage for sightseeing.

Bruges was all that I had expected, which was quite a lot. Full of interesting architecture and fascinating cobblestone streets, criss-crossed by peaceful canals, Bruges is a tourist's dream. Walking the streets is fun and could be quite time consuming if you stopped in each shop for exploring as I wished to do. Chocolate, lace and crafts are found everywhere, as are many restaurants and pubs. The city of 20,000 expects over two million visitors a year, making it seem almost like a Disney park in some places.

At first glance, it might seem you are in Disney-Belgium, but a closer look shows you that Bruges is not just another amusement park. The area was first inhabited almost 2000 years ago. Some of Bruges' buildings still date from the 9th century. Baldwin of the Iron Arm (I love these names) fortified the city with thick walls and fortifications to ward off the Viking marauders. At one time in the 14th century, Bruges had over 40,000 residents and rivaled London as a trading center.

Bruges grew wealthy during the Middle Ages on the cloth trade, and its harbor often saw over 100 ships anchored. Flemish weavers obtained the finest wool from the British Isles, and their tapestries were renowned. The city became an artisans' center, attracting all kinds of craftsmen. The Dukes of Burgundy and famous Flemish artists called Bruges home in the 15th century. However, during the 16th century, the harbor silted up, and Bruges was no longer a port city. Compounding the geographical changes were political upheavals and the death of a popular young queen due to a fall from a horse in 1482. After that, the city declined and was seen as mysterious and dead. Around 1850, Bruges was the poorest city in Belgium. However, in the early 20th century the new port of Zeebrugge was built nearby, which revitalized Bruges. Tourists discovered the monuments, museums, and the unspoiled historic cityscape and began spreading the word about this fascinating old city.

Let's walk around the city.

Page 2 > > A Walking Tour of Bruges > >

We began our walking tour of Bruges by crossing a bridge from the bus drop-off point, but it was like crossing back into time. A medieval tower greeted us, and we immediately marveled at how well preserved the city was. While walking around Bruges, I was somewhat surprised to see the European Union flag (blue with gold stars) predominantly displayed on many buildings. We walked through many of the streets until we reached the Church of Our Lady. It is topped with a 400 foot tower, the largest such brick construction in the world. The church demonstrates the power and wealth of Bruges at its height. The highlight of the church is a small sculpture by Michelangelo of the Virgin and Child. It is Michelangelo's only statue to leave Italy during his lifetime, which helps show just how much money the cloth traders had. After walking the city for over an hour and being mesmerized by stories of medieval times, we took a boat ride along the canals. The ride was a welcome rest for all of us, but also enabled us to see many of the structures of the city from a different angle.

After the 45-minute boat ride we walked to the Burg Square. Our guide gave people the option of continuing the tour or striking out on their own to explore the short distance between the Burg and the Markt (Market Square). We would all meet in the Markt in about an hour for the walk back to the bus. About half the group wandered off to buy lace and chocolates, and the rest of us went into the Basilica of the Holy Blood with the guide. The church has 2 chapels with significantly different looks. The lower chapel is dark and solid and in the Romanesque style. The upper chapel is Gothic and ornate. Since we were there on a Friday, we joined the pilgrims who were in line to view the phial of blood reputed to be that of Christ. It was brought to Bruges in 1150 after the Second Crusade, and is only displayed on Fridays. An old priest was guarding the phial, and we all solemnly passed and stared. (Being somewhat skeptical, I couldn't help wonder exactly what I was looking at--was it real or just a symbolic tradition?)

We were only in the Basilica about 15 minutes, but that meant we had 30-45 minutes to explore on our own. We walked the 2-3 blocks to the Grote Markt, and purchased some delicious Belgian waffles. We found a stoop in the shade, sat down, and gobbled our chocolate and whipped cream-laden waffles before we got more on us than in us. Yummy! Then we rushed into a chocolate shop and pondered over which tidbits looked the best. I bought a couple of handfuls of chocolates, and went back to meet with our group. I would have loved to explore some of the many other shops, but there just wasn't time. If you're a mega-shopper and have only a half day in Bruges, you might want to skip the tour and absorb yourself in the stores!

While walking back to the bus, we ran into some of our fellow cruisers. Were they happy to see us! They were lost and walking the wrong direction. We all sympathized with them, because it would be very easy to get lost in the narrow winding streets. They joined our group for the walk back to the bus parking lot. On the way, we passed the old Begijnhof enclave. Single and widowed women lived in these places during the middle ages. The Begjins could live a life of piety and service without taking a nun's vow of poverty. The quiet peaceful atmosphere in the Beginjhof was a wonderful ending to our day in Bruges. I left Bruges with a great desire to return. Our half day there gave us an opportunity to see much of the city, but I would have loved to have climbed the Belfry, spent more time shopping, and gone inside some of the museums. Oh well, maybe next time.

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