One of our favorite cities in the world is Bruges (or Brugge as it’s known in Flemish). A UNESCO World Heritage site, Bruges was once a bustling and wealthy city in the Middle Ages. Its wealth was built upon its skill and trade in weaving. After its access to the North Sea – the Zwin – started silting in the 1500s, Bruges began a slow decline and became a forgotten city – ‘Bruges-la-Morte‘ or ‘Bruges-the-dead’. Progress (and warfare) passed it by and as a result its medieval town centre remained intact in its wealthy glory for us to enjoy and admire.
Today, visiting Bruges with kids or without is like visiting a real-life medieval Disneyland. The Flemish architecture, canals, well-preserved buildings and artworks, museums, and the lovely scale of the city make it unique in Belgium and in Europe. It can get busy, but the beauty of Bruges makes a visit completely worth it. Follow this list of the top 6 things to do in Bruges for families, and you’ll fall in love with the city too.
7 Things to Do in Bruges for Families
Bruges is a fairytale medieval city of canals, swans and beautiful architecture that is a perfect scale for families and kids. However, it can become extremely crowded in the summer months. The explosion of tourism in Bruges has resulted in far too many tacky chocolate, cheap t-shirt and souvenir shops. Avoid them, and don’t despair. A visit to Bruges with kids, even if it’s a quick day trip from Brussels, is completely worthwhile.
If the crush becomes too much, simply turn the corner and leave the main square and tourist attractions. Wander along the narrow side streets and lanes where only the locals go. Appreciate the medieval buildings in Bruges and don’t worry about getting lost. Guide yourself by the church spires and you’ll easily find your way back to the Grand Place.
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1. The Belfort (Belfry Tower)
Want the best views in town? Prepare to climb the 366 steps to the top of the 83-meter medieval Belfry Tower. The views of the city of Bruges and the surrounding countryside will make it worth your while. It’s one of the top things to do in Bruges, Belgium.
If that’s not possible, you can enjoy the daily concert from the 47 bells of the 16th century carillon. Just sit in the historic centre of the Grand Place (burg square) and enjoy the sounds and sights of the Belfort.
If you’re planning to visit the Belfry, I recommend going as soon as it opens in the morning at 9:30 AM, while the city is still relatively quiet.
2. Choco-Story Museum
You might expect to find a chocolate museum in a chocolate-loving and producing country like Belgium, and you would be right! Choco-Story is a four-story museum detailing the long and heralded history of belgian chocolate, from cacao bean to praline.
The museum is one of our favorite things to do in Bruges with kids. Children can play a fun education game as they make their way through the museum. There are also demonstrations of chocolate and praline-making, and opportunities for chocolate shopping as well. The museum is housed in the old Maison de Croon, dating back to 1480, not far from the Grand Place.
Tip: If you’re visiting during the holiday season, be sure to enjoy the lovely Christmas Market. It’s located in the Markt and Simon Stevinplein, and is great place to stop for hot chocolate and waffles.
3. Bruges Caleche and Boat Tours
Yes, they are touristy beyond belief. But, there’s no denying that kids love horses and water. And the caleches (horse-drawn carriage) and boat tours in particular, are among the best ways to visit and view Bruges.
The canal system in Bruges was once the city’s lifeline to the sea and key to its historical wealth as a medieval city. There are several boat tour departure locations to choose from, and all of the family-friendly tours offer a standard 30-minute floating presentation, in multiple languages, detailing the history, spirit and architecture of Bruges.
The caleche tours leave from the Grand Place and also offer 30-minute guided, horse-drawn carriage rides through the narrow streets of Bruges. The tour stops at the Minnewater, the Lake of Love, to feed and water the horses. Our children took turns riding up front with the guide and they loved every minute of it.
4. Enjoy the Food – Chocolate, Fries and Gaufres (Waffles)
A travelling family must eat, and in Bruges you are in luck as Belgians take their food very seriously.
In terms of what foods to eat in Bruges, you’ll want to stop for a french fried lunch at the ‘Friet Kot‘ in the Grand Place. There are two ‘kots‘ to choose from, and they are essentially camper vans that have been converted to fry kitchens. Just look for the line-ups and huge piles of fresh fries heaped with gloops of mayonnaise. Other toppings are available too.
You can chase that down with chocolate offerings from Galler, also in the Grand Place, or Van Tilborgh, one block away. Or if you want to continue the street food theme, try the tempting Belgian waffles (gaufres de Liege are best) and ice cream from Laurentino.
In search of artisanal Belgian meat and cheese for a picnic lunch for a day trip to Ostend or to fuel a cycling trip to Damme? Stop in at Diksmuids Boterhuis. This small charcuterie shop has been in business since 1933, and is the ideal spot to sample and purchase local Flemish specialties from around the region.
There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Bruges for delicious sit-down meals. If you want a really special Brugeois meal, save your Euros and visit Bistro de Schaar, a neighbourhood restaurant specializing in grilled food. On the way there or back, stop to enjoy one of the few green parks and playgrounds in the city at AstridPark. The kids can feed the swans and play on the swings while you relax and re-energize after a busy day or active weekend visiting the city.
5. Medieval Churches
This might be surprising to read, but you should go to church. Really! Depending upon the age and interest level of your child, a visit to the churches of Bruges should make your to-do list. Visiting churches is economical for families as entrance is usually free. The churches themselves contain many treasures to view, including gold and jewel-encrusted cups and religious artifacts, crypts of dead kings, queens and knights, and relics of holy objects.
Bruges churches showcase magnificent works of art, including the Madonna sculpture by Michaelangelo. Of particular interest are: Basilica de Saint-Sang (Basilica of the Holy Blood), the Church of Notre Dame (Church of Our Lady), and the Church of Saint Sauveur, a 900 AD church in low gothic style that my kids nicknamed ‘the spooky church.’ If the kids get hot and tired, churches are also a great place to simply sit and rest for spell in a cool place.
6. Take the kids to play in Astridpark
Bruges can be very busy during the summer months. For those wondering what to do in Bruges that’s more calm and quiet, head to Astridpark. This is one of the largest green spaces in the city, just a few blocks from the main city center. Astridpark is beautifully landscaped and access is free to the public. The grounds once served as a monastery garden dating back to the 13th century. Today, you can enjoy quiet moments on shaded seating areas, picnics in summer, musical concerts at the large iron bandstand in the middle of the park, and admire its water features. Astridpark also has a large children’s playground on the southeast corner of the park, where kids will enjoy hours of play and active time with local children.
7. The Beguinage
Founded in 1245, the Beguinage is composed of a collection of small houses and a Church. It is now a monastery for Benedictine sisters who still live and worship in this quiet courtyard area. The Beguinage is a place of peace and tranquility that offers a break from hours of walking and sight-seeing. The poplar trees in the courtyard garden all lean towards the church. It’s ‘as if they’re praying too‘ (in the words of my youngest).
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Photo Credits: C. Laroye
Have you spent time in Bruges? What would you add to our list of things to see and do? Share your comments below.