How to plan a walking tour of Bruges' myths and legends

From holy vials to storied works of art, discover myths and legends on a walking tour of the Belgian city.

By Daniel Stables
Published 30 Dec 2022, 08:00 GMT
A view across Brugge-Zeebrugge Canal to the Belfry of Bruges in the Belgian city of Bruges.

A view across Brugge-Zeebrugge Canal to the Belfry of Bruges in the Belgian city of Bruges.

Photograph by Getty Images

1. The Belfry
Bruges’ most famous landmark, this 13th-century belltower has watched over the city from the market square through a series of disasters, from lightning strikes to raging fires. It’s a sensible place to start a walking tour, particularly as you can ascend the tower’s 366 steps to be rewarded with sweeping views over the city’s gothic rooftops. On the way up, admire the carillon, a vast keyboard instrument which plays tinkling tunes on 47 bells.

2. Rosary Quay
A few minutes’ walk east takes you through the stately Burg Square, past the glorious gothic town hall, to Rosary Quay. This canal-side wooden dock is celebrated as the most photogenic spot in Bruges — no mean feat in a city famed for its beauty — and was named for the rosaries that were once sold here to pious pilgrims. You can follow in their footsteps and visit the neighbouring Basilica of the Holy Blood, home to a vial said to contain the blood of Christ.

3. Church of Our Lady
A five-minute stroll south of the basilica — stopping en route to refuel with some Belgian confectionary at the Old Chocolate House — takes you to the mighty Church of Our Lady. Beneath its flying buttresses and baroque ornamentation lies Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, arguably the city’s greatest treasure. In its 500-year-old life, this sculpture of the Virgin and baby Jesus has survived both the French Revolutionary Wars and theft by the Nazis.

4. Saint John’s Hospital
Right next door is one of Bruges’ most darkly fascinating spots: one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, dating back to the 12th century. Grisly artefacts, such as vintage medical instruments and cabinets full of strange potions, will make you feel grateful for the advances in medical science over the last millennium, while an exhibition of works by the Flemish master Hans Memling includes his Shrine of St Ursula, a gilded wooden reliquary painted with religious scenes.

5. De Halve Maan
You’ll have earned a drink by now, so take Maria’s Bridge over the canal, another popular photo opportunity that takes in the city’s stunning medieval architecture, before heading to De Halve Maan. The most famous brewery in Bruges, it has been producing classic Belgian beers for 500 years and has been run by the same family for the last six generations. If you dare, try the Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel — a potent beer that’s 11% ABV.

6. Minnewater
If you’re not feeling too giddy, finish your stroll at Minnewater. Also known as the Lake of Love, this tree-shaded, rectangular pool is named for star-crossed Minna and Stromberg, two legendary lovers akin to a Belgian Romeo and Juliet. Today, people flock to the surrounding park to enjoy a picnic and take in views of the swans — a symbol of Bruges’ wealth and power for centuries — which glide elegantly beneath the arches of Minnewater Bridge.  

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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