Bruges is gorgeous. Its medieval streets radiate out from attractive squares, there are cobblestones with horses clomping by, and everywhere picturesque and historic buildings invite you to stop for a photo. Exploring Bruges, Belgium, from the water adds a new dimension as the canals pass through historic districts and beside 15th-century mansions. But Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) isn’t just about seeing pretty things—there are tours to take, history to be learned, and plenty of beer to be drunk. While Bruges may be best seen leisurely over two days, it’s possible to see a lot of the city in less time thanks to its compact, walkable nature. If you’re wondering what to do in Bruges in one day, here’s our best list.
People watch in the Market Square
There is just something about the buildings in Bruges. As with the canal houses in Lubeck and Amsterdam, I was completely smitten with the architecture of the city. The Market Square, is one of the best places to see the brightly-colored step-gabled houses and merchant quarters (of course, they’re restaurants and shops now). The cobblestoned, mostly pedestrian area is designed for enjoying the city. It would be nearly impossible to visit Bruges without stopping here, but why would you want to? A stop at the Market Square is definitely one of the best things to do in Bruges in one day. Grab some frites, pop into a shop for some chocolate, people watch, or climb the 366 steps to the top of the belfry—however you choose to enjoy the Market Square will be great.
Enjoy the swans at Minnewater Lake
Between the Old Town and the train station, Minnewater Lake (which literally means “Lake of Love”) and its accompanying park is a great place to visit in Bruges. The lake is really more of a wide spot along the canals that snake through the city, and it’s a lovely spot for people watching and enjoying the outdoors. There are benches, weeping willows, and lots of swans gliding through the water. The whole atmosphere is quite romantic and makes the lake’s name seem appropriate. I enjoyed watching the painters who has assembled along the banks to capture the scene. If you want to linger, grab a coffee or lunch at one of the outdoor cafes.
Stroll through the Beguinage
Near Minnewater Park, the Beguinage is one of the most peaceful Bruges sites. The Béguines who began living here in 1245 were lay women women who dedicated their lives to God without removing themselves from the world. They formed communities–buildings built around green space–where they could meet their spiritual and materials needs. The white houses and buildings currently at the Beguinage in Bruges date from the 17th century and are inhabited by the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict. The 13 Flemish beguinages have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Take a brewery tour
Whether you have one day in Bruges or one week, a brewery is likely to be on the itinerary. It is Belgium, after all. At one point, the city had more than 50 breweries, but now there’s just one brewery left in the historic center—De Halve Maan Brewery. Unlike Cantillon, the brewery I visited in Brussels, De Halve Maan requires guided tours, so it’s a good idea to schedule in advance if you have your heart set on seeing behind the scenes. On the 45-minute tour, you can see how De Halve Maan has been brewing in Bruges since 1856 and sample their famous Brugse Zot. If you don’t have time for a tour, head to the outdoor beer garden or the restaurant for lunch. The carbonades flamandes made with Brugse Zot dubel was my favorite.
Visit the Church of Our Lady
The Church of Our Lady is a must-do for art lovers who visit Bruges even for one day. The exterior of the church is striking, featuring the tallest structure in Bruges and the second tallest brick tower in the world. Inside, visitors will find huge wooden carvings, gilded bronze effigies on the tombs of dukes, and other ornate works. But the real attraction here is Michelangelo’s Madonna with Child (or Madonna of Bruges). It’s the only one of Michelangelo’s works that left Italy during his lifetime. The statue was carved 1501-1504 and brought to Bruges by a wealthy merchant. To protect it, the statue can only be viewed from 15 feet away, but that’s still close enough to see the mastery.
Enjoy a canal cruise
If you’re wondering what to do in Bruges in one day, a canal boat tour should certainly be at the top of your list. All the Medieval and Renaissance buildings, statues, and hidden alleys just take on a different look when you see them from the water. Not to mention that it’s hard to appreciate the picturesque bridges when you’re just standing on top of them. The 30-minute boat tours provide information on the history of Bruges and take you to places that streets don’t necessarily go. They’re are also the perfect way to get an overview of the things to see in Bruges when you have limited time because they cover a large area. Cruising around town was definitely one of my favorite experiences.
Stop by the Town Hall
A Town Hall may not sound like the most exciting site to see in Bruges, but it’s definitely worth a quick look at the outside. The Gothic building, which dates from 1376, is one of the oldest buildings in the Low Countries and is a work of art. Plus, the location is convenient. The Town Hall is on Burg Square adjacent to the Church of the Holy Blood. It would be easy to visit both in under an hour.
See an unusual relic at the Basilica of the Holy Blood
The Basilica of the Holy Blood is a Romanesque and Gothic chapel that dates from the 12th century. From the outside, its design is absolutely striking and made me want to know even more about what’s inside. It turns out that the upper chapel of this beautiful building holds an unusual relic that’s revered to be the blood of Christ. According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea wiped blood from the body of Christ after the crucifixion, and the cloth ultimately made its way to Bruges where it’s now located in a gold, jewel-encrusted vial in the chapel. Whether you’re a believer, a skeptic, or merely curious, the Basilica of the Holy Blood makes an interesting stop on 1 day or a weekend in Bruges.
See Bruges’ most famous view
The Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai) is one place you definitely cannot miss on a day trip to Bruges. In fact, this bend in the canal is a magnet and you may find yourself there without knowing that it’s the most photographed area of Bruges. At least that’s what happened to me. It’s hard not to be drawn to the postcard-perfect spot in the heart of the city. Medieval buildings and the serene canals become one as happy visitors glide by in tour boats. It’s stunning. Don’t miss it.
Have a beer on the water
Opposite Rozenhoedkaai just behind the trees is one of the best places to relax in the city—2be. Visit their beer wall, which is like an encyclopedia of Belgian beer. Then grab something from the bar and head to the outdoor terrace overlooking the canal for some of the best views you can find in Bruges. But go early because it closes by 7:30 on weeknights and 8:00 on weekends.
Get lost in the Hansa Quarter
From the 13th to the 15th century, Bruges was a bustling trade city thanks to its coastal location on many European trade routes. As part of the seafaring merchants of the Hanseatic League, the wealth of Bruges grew and many international merchants built mansions in the area that’s now known as the Hansa Quarter. Not far from the Market Square (but much quieter), the Hansa Quarter is a great place to walk along the canal, have lunch, and admire the architecture of the former mansions and Hansa Buildings, including the Old Tolhouse that dates from 1477.
Pay homage to fries at the Frietmuseum
Pop culture museums tend to go one of two ways—cool or goofy. Luckily, the museum honoring one of Belgium’s (and, heck, the world’s) favorite foods is the former. The quirky Frietmuseum has exhibits on the history of the fry from the cultivation of potatoes to the advent of the fried delicious snack. As a bonus, you get to eat at the end!
Take a walk to the windmills
In the past, I always associated windmills with the Netherlands, but after seeing a beautiful one in Bremen, Germany, and more in Sicily and Greece, I’ve realized that they’re all over. And I love them everywhere I go. That’s why I was so happy to find that there is a series of windmills just a few minutes’ walk from the city center. In the 16th century, as many as 23 windmills were once part of the city walls. Four stand today on Kruisvest Street, each on its own hill, and two are even still operational. Next to the windmills, is a great park where you can feed and photograph sheep.
Getting to Bruges
Brussels and Bruges are only about an hour apart by train, so it is possible to do a day trip to Bruges from Brussels. However, we would really recommend spending a night in Bruges to experience the city’s nightlife and the calm that comes after some of the day trippers depart. Trains costs about €20-30 each way, depending on class of service. The train station is about 2km from the historic center.
Trains between Bruges and Ghent cost about €10-20 each way, and the journey takes 22-40 minutes depending on the specific train.
Eating in Bruges
With hundreds of Belgian beers, Cambrinus is a perfect stop for beer pilgrims. The beer menu is massive, and all the staff are very knowledgeable and can help you find something to your liking. The food at this brasserie is also excellent, from the Belgian specialties to the Italian offerings.
Park Restaurant is one of the most romantic restaurants in Bruges. Set in an intimate mansion house, this fine dining establishment serves perfectly-cooked steaks and seafood and specializes in wine pairings.
Where to Stay in Bruges
A small luxury boutique hotel overlooking a canal, Hotel Van Cleef is one of the most amazing places to stay in Bruges. No detail is overlooked, the service is exemplary, and the surroundings are at once palatial and intimate. (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room here)
Just five minutes from market square, Hotel De Castillion offers excellently-appointed rooms in an 16th century bishop’s palace. In this small, family-run hotel, no two rooms are the same, but they are all gorgeous. (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room here)