One of the most perfectly preserved medieval towns in all of Europe, Bruges is worth a visit any time of year. But from the end of November through the New Year, this city transforms from a quaint village into an enchanting holiday wonderland. Traditional Dutch-gabled row houses are adorned with greenery and lights, skaters etch the ice under a magnificent Christmas tree, and stalls fill the squares with inviting aromas and Christmas treasures.
From the 12th to the 15th centuries, the Flemish city of Bruges flourished from trade. Wealthy merchants and nobility built the extravagant Gothic palaces and homes you see today. The picturesque canals make it one of the most exquisite towns in Europe. During Advent, Bruges truly comes alive at year’s end, when holiday revellers fill the squares to visit the Christmas markets.
The Market Square (Grote Markt) and Simon Stevinplein Square both erect holiday markets where you can stroll through the cobblestone streets sipping a world-class melted hot chocolate or a warming mug of gluhwein (mulled red wine with spices) and shop the tiny chalets full of glittering ornaments, handicrafts, and gifts. Horse-drawn carriages bring you back to the old world, and in front of the train station, a festival of ice sculptures depicts the holiday season.
There is so much more to Bruges than its holiday offerings, however. It has sights and specialties that are not to be missed during your visit.
In Bruges, chocolate recipes have been handed down in small family shops for generations. Bruges’ rich tradition started with cocoa beans that were shipped from its colonial territories in Africa. In 1912, Chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the praline, a thin chocolate shell that can be filled with endless ingredients. Larger operations of Belgian chocolate, such as Godiva and Leonidas are known the world over, but only when you explore Bruges can you experience the charm of visiting the little shops, each with its own story. There are traditional chocolatiers such as Dumon, which epitomizes the craft with creamy chocolates constructed with reverence to centuries-old recipes, fancy shops like BbyB by Bart Desmidt, whose chocolate began as dessert for Michelin-starred restaurant Bartholomeus, or trendy new flavour creations such as Dominique Persoone’s The Chocolate Line, where you can try flavours such as lemongrass, Cuban cigar, or even katapult a cocoa-herb mix directly into your nose.
There are many types of Belgian beers, but the most traditional are the Trappist ales. There are six breweries in Belgium still run and operated by Trappist monks of the order of Cistercian, where ales are produced within the walls of the monastery, and profits of the operation benefit the abbeys, such as Chimay and Westmalle. Many Belgian beers are bottle conditioned, which means they are meant to re-ferment in the bottle, which results in a near-champagne level of effervescence when you pop the cork or bottlecap. These ales are best enjoyed with Bruges’ world-famous mussels and french fries.
Basilica of the Holy Blood
This 12th-century Romanesque and Gothic church is famous for the crystal phial kept within that is reputed to contain a drop of Christ’s blood brought back from the Holy Land by Dietrich of Alsace in 1149 on his return from the Second Crusade. The relic is kept behind an ornate silver tabernacle, and each year in May on Ascension Day, this sacred relic is carried through the streets of Bruges on a jewelled reliquary, with much pomp and circumstance for the Heilig Bloedprocessie, or Procession of the Holy Blood.
The imposing Gothic bell tower stands 83 metres above Bruges and houses a carillon with 47 canorous bells. You can climb the 366 steps to the top of this 13th-century Gothic tower, stopping by the medieval treasury room on the way up, where civic documents are kept behind wrought iron, before making it to the top for an unforgettable panoramic view of all of Bruges and the surrounding area.
During the Golden Age of Bruges in the 15th century, the city was known for its fine arts, with the Dutch Primitives taking centre stage. Painters such as Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Hugo van der Goes are celebrated today at the Groeninge Museum, which was created when these Dutch masterworks were returned to Bruges after Napoleonic occupation of Austria had forced them to Paris for a period. It was customary for Flemish artists to donate pieces to their hometown Bruges museum, and today, exhibits have to be rotated frequently to display its vast collection. Van Eyck is honoured elsewhere in Bruges with his own square and stately brass statues.
English Text by Laine McDonnell