We booked a day trip through Viator Tour Company, which included Ghent and Bruges (Brugge). First, a word about Viator. Viator is an Internet booking company. They only book tours; they do not give any. De Boeck is the tour company that is associated with Viator in Brussels.
A small van picked us up at our hotel (in Brussels) at 9am and drove us to Central Station, where we met a large coach bus. The whole trip was about 10 hours: 3 hours/transportation, 2 hours/Ghent, and 4 hours/Bruges. In Ghent, the weather was foggy and overcast, yet in Bruges, it cleared up and turned out to be quite a beautiful day. What a lovely, quaint city. It is almost like the land that time forgot - with no modern buildings or fixtures whatsoever.
Medieval Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, and neo-Gothic are the types of architecture you will find here. That is what makes this city so unique. During the Middle Ages, Bruges was among the wealthiest cities of Europe. In the 1500s, the Zwirn river, which linked Bruges to the North Sea, became impossible to navigate because of silting. Traders moved their business to Antwerp, and Bruges’ commercial decline ensued. The people of Bruges were left with little money and could not afford any modernization.
Now, Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bruges has a total population of 115,000, of which 25,000 live in the old center. It is the capital town of the West-Vlaanderen (West Flanders) province and located in northern Belgium. The predominant language here is Flemish, although you will hear French, German, and English on occasion as well.
Interestingly enough, our tour did not include a map, so we stopped at a hotel and got one from the concierge desk. I would recommend bringing a map since none of the souvenir shops had them for sale and the city can be confusing with its winding canals and streets and medieval townscape. Entering Bruges, we first walked through the Begijinhof (Beguinage) complex. Begijnhof is a courtyard surrounded by 17th-century cottages. The square is filled with beautiful yellow daffodils during the spring. In the early 1900s, Benedictine nuns converted the complex into a convent. Nuns still live here today. There are signs saying "Silence, Please" (which everyone seems to ignore) throughout the square. Nuns are seen walking through the grounds, and their black habits against the yellow daffodils is a beautiful and striking sight.
Taking a canal boat trip is definitely something I would highly recommend doing. It is very inexpensive, 5.20€ for adults, and allows you to see, yet again, a different side of the city. There are several departure points, all marked with an anchor icon on the local maps. A horse-drawn carriage is also an option, but more expensive at 25€ for a 30-minute ride. The streets are winding and narrow, and if a horse-and-buggy want to pass, you have to get on the sidewalk (and quick). Bike tours and bike rentals are also available, but to be honest, I think the best way to see this city is on foot. The busiest part of the city (where most of the tourists are) is packed with chocolate shop after chocolate shop, with souvenir stores in between. Bruges is famous for its lace. Bobbin lace making originated here in the 16th century. There are lace stores throughout the city, from the very inexpensive to the "you got to be kidding" expensive.
In Market Square is the Belfort-Hallen (Belfry), which offers incredible views of the city, including the Burg. That is, if you are willing to hike up the 366 steps. I must be honest and say that anyone who saw me would have thought I was a smoker (and I'm not) with the way I was huffing and puffing while climbing these stairs. There are two landings along the way, but otherwise, the stairwell is very steep, and there are only a few handrails here and there, with a heavy rope in the center to grab onto. I think the walk down was slightly more challenging than the way up. Regardless, once on top, you can see the city for miles (and the endless sea of orange roofs), so I'm glad I made the effort. Built in the mid-1200s, the cost was 5€ (approximately) to climb.
The market place (Grote Market) is free from traffic. It has been completely refurbished and is now one of the most attractive parts of the city. The Burg is medieval Bruges at its best. Here, you can find the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges (Paleis van de Bruges Vrije), the town hall of Bruges (Stadhuis), and the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed). In the Basilica of the Holy blood, there is a vial said to contain Jesus’ blood. Overall, the Burg reminded me of a tiny Grand Place in Brussels (very tiny that is).
The Church of Our Lady (13th century) is one of Bruges' top sights, simply because it holds Michelangelo's Madonna and Child statue. Interestingly enough, while we were there, it seemed that everyone in the church had no idea about the statue. They were flocking to everything but that. The statue is behind glass and located to the front-right part of the church. The church is also home to the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy. Admission is free, and an interesting side note is that the Madonna statue was originally sculpted for the Siena Cathedral.
I felt that in 4 hours we were able to cover most of the major sights. I think that is mostly due to the fact that we ditched the tour guide and went at our own pace (quick). It seemed to us that the tour guide was more interested in stopping at certain shops (friends of his) than showing us as much of the city as he could. Overall, Bruges is beautiful, with quite a few cultural attractions and places to visit. I'm sure there are other areas of town that we would have enjoyed had we had more time. I will say though that staying overnight would not be for us. Although I know there are many people that do overnight trips here or even week trips, I would assume there is not much nightlife here, but there are many restaurants with outdoor seating in beautiful settings. It is only an hour train ride from Brussels. There is lots of cobblestone, so dress accordingly. Recommended.