You certainly don’t have to spend money to enjoy Bruges. Although there’s an admission fee for most of the top sights, many others are accessible for free, including the Burg square, the Begijnhof, the cathedral and churches. Then there is the sheer pleasure of just wandering about, drinking in the views, and the spires and step-gables mirrored in the canals. It is very easy to get deliciously off the beaten track, just a street or two away from the main thoroughfares and squares.
Wander in wonder
Bruges is a wonderfully walkable city. Equip yourself with a free map, some stout walking shoes (for the cobbles), and head off. The historic city centre is surrounded by an egg-shaped ring of water that traces the line of the old city walls, the Brugse Vesten (of this, just four medieval city gates survive). It takes only about 30 minutes to walk right across the historic city centre, from one side of the egg to the other. Away from the centre (around the Markt and the Burg), the city quickly eases into a network of quiet cobbled streets and photogenic stone bridges over canals.
Feed your rebellious spirit
Pay your respects to the double statue in the centre of the Markt, which depicts Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breydel (or Breidel), a weaver and a butcher respectively, who led a revolt against their French overlords in May 1302. Anyone who couldn’t pronounce the difficult phrase ‘Schild en Vriend’ (‘Shield and Friend’) was deemed to be French and slaughtered in what became known as the ‘Bruges Matins’. This was followed by the great victory of the Flemish over the French at the Battle of the Golden Spurs on 11 July 1302 (still celebrated as Flanders Day). Independence, identity and civic pride remained a continuing theme of Bruges’s and Flemish history.
Mingle with the Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece
The Sint-Salvatorskathedraal (Cathedral of Saint Saviour) was originally built in the 12th-15th centuries, but massively restored in the 19th, and recently renovated. It’s impressive for its soaring scale, especially given that it only became the cathedral in 1834. It contains an exuberant baroque organ and pulpit, plus some excellent retables (3D altarpieces), and a fine collection of paintings in its Treasury. But look out too for the coats of arms in the choir, marking the 1478 chapter meeting of the Knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece (founded in Bruges in 1430); Edward IV of England was here.
Contact: 00 32 50 33 61 88; visitbruges.be
Discover little-visited parish churches
Thevarious parishes of Bruges each have their own churches, which in the past were invested in with immense artistic and architectural effort and wealth. They are greatly under-visited, and so have often struggled to justify long opening hours, and access can still be a problem, but there has been a move to see them open at scheduled times. The best are the Sint-Jakobskerk (Church of St James), 15th-century, with a rich collection of art; Sint-Gilliskerk (St Giles), 13th-15th-century, with a rare wooden barrel-vaulted nave; Sint-Walburgakerk (St Walburga), 17th-century, exuberant Baroque; and Sint-Annakerk (St Anne), in eastern Bruges, 17th-century, with a beautifully modulated Baroque interior, like a Dutch painting.
Breathe in the tranquillity of a Godshuis
Dotted around the historic centre of Bruges are numerous beautiful whitewashed homes, some dating back to the 14th century and marked in neat black lettering with the word Godshuis and a name and the founding date. These are the city's almshouses, often bearing the name of their original sponsors who provided homes for the worthy poor out of a sense of civic duty – or in penance for some wrong-doing. Fully restored, most are still used as housing for the elderly. If you see a gate open, you can discreetly venture into the courtyard garden to glimpse timeless tranquillity.
Explore the Hanseatic Quarter
In its great heyday as a trading city during the 15th century, Bruges had close links with the Hanseatic League, and merchants from the Hansa cities and other nations lodged here, particularly in the quarter around Jan van Eyckplein. Street names in the Hanseatic Quarter tell the story: Oosterlingenplein (Germans), Spanjaardstraat (Spanish), Engelsestraat (English). This is where the canal, continuing on from the Spiegelrei, formerly led past the Tolhuis (Customs House, Jan van Eyckplein 2), the Poortersloge (Academiestraat 14) and the crane on Kraanplein to the covered quays (now gone) on the Markt. Close by is the Huis Ter Beurze (Vlamingstraat 35), the world’s first stock exchange, or Bourse.
Admire the city's medieval gates
There are four surviving medieval city gates: the Ezelpoort (north-east), Kruispoort (east), Gentpoort (southeast) and Smedenpoort (southwest). As well as being defensive bastions, they controlled the roads and trade in and out of the city. Their huge scale gives a fair impression of the massive city walls that once ringed the city. First built in around 1297, and rebuilt in the 1360s, the walls were destroyed by Belgium’s Austrian rulers in the 1780s, as part of a modernization scheme. The interior of the Gentpoort can be visited (for a small fee), but all are equally impressive viewed from the outside only.
Contact: Gentpoort: 00 32 50 44 87 11; visitbruges.be
Stroll between the icons of 'The Lost Corner'
The eastern edge of historic Bruges is called ‘De Verloren Hoek’ (The Lost Corner), and sometimes it does feel wonderfully abandoned after the throngs of central Bruges. Lined up on raised ground along the line of the old city ramparts are four historic windmills – preserved survivors of some 20 windmills that once pierced the skyline of Bruges, reaping the breeze to grind grain and oil seed. One of these, theSint-Janshuismolen, built here in 1770, still operates and can be visited (for a small entry fee), but it is reward enough just to walk among them, along the banks of the canal.
Contact: Sint-Janshuismolen: 00 32 50 44 87 11; visitbruges.be
Price: Sint-Janshuismolen: £
Picnic by the Lake of Love
The old harbour of Bruges, where trading barges would moor up, is in the very south of the city. This was within the old city walls, still marked today by the 14th-century Poedertoeren (gunpowder tower). The harbour is now a pretty lake, called the Minnewater, inhabited by Bruges’s famous swans, with an adjacent Minnewater Park. This is a good place to bring a picnic. 'Minnewater' is often translated as 'Lake of Love', because minne means love in Dutch. Actually the origin of the word here is probably more like ‘inner’ or ‘common’ water, but, hey, you’re in romantic Bruges: forget the mundane option.
Jog your way around the former city defences
The Brugse Vesten, the old city walls, were around 6km long altogether. There is a beautiful path that traces their line just about all the way, passing along raised ground in the shade of mature trees, overlooking the encircling canal, with occasional fine views over the city. The only place where the path is broken is across the north, between the Ezelpoort and the (site of the) Dampoort, about 1.5 km apart, but here it is easy enough to find your way along quiet streets between these two points. Joggers can follow a marked Loopparcours (Loop Route; 8.6km altogether) that extends further out across the north.