A charming medieval city, with beautiful canals and a magical fairytale atmosphere, Bruges will fascinate you immediately. Being a pilgrim destination for art-lovers as well as for beer and chocolate fans, this small exquisite town has no rivals in the art of seduction: laces, tapestry, sweets, swans, cosy cafés with a fireplace … So romantic! You can already imagine yourself discovering the small craft boutiques, sitting at the terrasse in the main city square tasting beers and observing the Belfry Tower or silently admiring the scenery in splendid solitude whilst touring the canals.
If that’s what you’re coming for - you may be very, very disappointed. Three-quarters of the year the city is invaded with crowds of tourists. Most of them have watched the “In Bruges” film and been inspired to experience “the f*ing fairytale” themselves. Don’t worry, they were also surprised and offended to find so many tourists upon their arrival - not much is left from that medieval lonesome beauty once you have to spend an hour queuing to get to the stairs of the Belfry or finding your way among the flocks of people with cameras in the Markt. The Bruges’ fairytale is not a fiction, you just need to arrive at the right time and follow some tips to avoid the crowds. We’ll do our best to help you!
Photo credits to Ken and Nyetta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Which season to choose and which to avoid?
High season in Bruges lasts from April to the end of October, and the tourist flow remains quite high thoughout the whole period, with particular peaks in July-August (busiest months of the year) and May (3rd busiest month).
Christmas Holidays are very popular with decorative lights and street markets. It’s one of the most beautiful periods of the year in Bruges, but not surprisingly it attracts bigger crowds. During this time the only way to avoid crowds is to arrive in early December, before the masses, and try to schedule your stay on weekdays.
The rest of the winter is off-peak season: January sees the lowest number of visitors, followed by February. That’s the moment to come to discover the quiet and fairytale Bruges: you’ll also get better deals at the hotels and will be able to visit the most popular sights without any crowds or queues.
If you’re seeking a warmer season and a moderate quantity of other tourists doesn’t scare you, plan to visit Bruges in March or November for the best crowd/weather ratio.
In September and May weekends are extremely busy, though crowds will not be a big problem on weekdays.
August is the worst time: you’ll have queues for the boat trips, queues to enter the museum or to buy a souvenir. That’s a crazy time when most Europeans tend to fill the city during their usual vacation period.
Japanese tourists also have their favorite month to visit Bruges: it’s April. US visitors can be seen the most often between May and July, while Belgian tourists prefer coming in autumn.
Photo credits to Brian & Jeff via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Fortunately, a big part of visitors to Bruges are city trippers. That means that even during the busiest periods you might be able to avoid crowds because those one-day tourists tend to arrive by 10-11 am and leave Bruges in late afternoon or early evening. Thus the best time to explore the city itself and wander the streets along the canals or take a drink at Markt place is around sunset and later in the evening. Early mornings, are a great time to get to the top attractions without queues.
The day’s itinerary for most city trippers is quite similar: Belfry, boat trip, chocolate and souvenir shops, the Church of Our Lady, Basilica of the Holy Blood and Groeningemuseum (for many, but not for all, so attendance is already smaller compared to Belfry). Most start their day with Belfry.
In late morning and early afternoon, when the city center is the most crowded, get off the beaten path to explore the city’s narrow streets or its lesser-known museums.
There are many more visitors on weekends, coming during the week will already make your visit more pleasant and crowd-free. However, be aware that this rule doesn’t work in July-August and for some school holiday periods (like Easter Week and Christmas holidays). Avoiding the dates of Flandres’ school holidays would be a smart idea. On Monday many museums, shops and restaurants are closed. Try to schedule your visit for another day.
Photo credits to Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The belfry forms part of a 13th century complex of halls, which served as a warehouse and a market hall in the Middle Ages. It’s the most important of Bruges’ towers, which stands 83 metres tall. You have to climb 366 steps to get to the top: well worth it when you get to the breathtaking view of Bruges and the surrounding countryside from above.
Tip: The best time to visit Belfry is right at the opening: the earlier you come - the smaller the queue will be. During high season the queue may already be an hour long by 11 am. Midday is the peak time.
Tip 2: The crowds thin out again in the late afternoon and there’s usually no queue to Belfry after 3 pm from November till March (except for holiday periods). The site closes rather early, and in high season coming shortly before the last entry time may be risky.
Tip 3: Give preference to climbing Belfry on a sunny day. When the weather is bad you won’t see much from the top, and it will be vexing after all that effort to get there!
The focal point of the Groeningemuseum is the world famous collection of Flemish Primitive paintings. The museum closes early, with the last entry at 4.30pm. We advise you to get inside before noon, as the crowds tend to increase afterwards.
Tip: The queue to the Groeningemuseum doubles in size when it’s raining. Choose a sunny day for your visit.
Tip 2: Check before paying the ticket that the main masterpieces are on display. It is not rare that some of the collection’s highlights are exhibited in another museum, often abroad.
Tip 3: It is busier than normal on Tuesdays during high season (due to closure on Mondays).
Photo credits to Chris Brown via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
This basilica is best known as the repository of a venerated phial said to contain a cloth with blood of Jesus Christ. The queue to enter it may be long but it moves fast.
Tip: The relic of the Holy Blood is displayed each Friday, before and after the mass, to be venerated by the faithful. That’s when you’ll see the biggest number of visitors in the Basilica.
Tip 2: Avoid major religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter Week. Ascension Day is the main holiday for the Basilica. Every year, on this day, there’s a Procession of the Holy Blood which you can watch. The Basilica usually remains overcrowded with visitors and pilgrims the whole week.
Tip 3: We suggest visiting early in the morning or after 3 pm. Avoid visiting during mass (11:00-11:30, except Mondays) to avoid crowds.
In low season you may often find you get the whole place just to yourself!
The Bruges museums network consists of 14 sites. Check them out here: apart from Belfry and the Groeningemuseum the others never experience queues, and some smaller ones, that are a bit further away, like the Folklore Museum, may be almost empty even during the busiest periods! They are a great way to escape crowds while discovering the history of Bruges and the way people used to live and work here centuries ago.
You have two options to taste some Belgian beer as a part of a cultural visit. The first one is the Bruges beer museum (€ 15), the second one is to visit the family held De Halve Maan Brewery (€ 9). In both case the drink is included in the ticket price. Long queues are not rare for both sites during high season, but you can book your place in advance online. Otherwise come before noon to avoid crowds!
Why not visit a Chocolate Museum or a Fries Museum? The queues here are never too long, as city trippers don’t have enough time to do all of Bruges in one day, and those museums seldom appear on their priority list. All the better for you!
Photo credits to Dennis Jarvis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
This is one of the main attractions in the city, and people say you haven’t really been to Bruges if you didn’t take a boat trip along its canals. Highly popular amongst tourists, you may often see a long queue, about an hour long in the summer (for a 30-minute cruise it’s definitely too long)!
Tip: Morning is the best time: the cruises start going at 10am, that’s when boats aren’t as packed as they will be later in the day.
Tip 2: There are 5 boat stations, not far from each other and easily reachable by foot (you’ll see them on the city map), they all follow the same itinerary. The closest to the Markt will have the biggest crowd. If you arrive and see a big queue - just walk to the next boarding point to go straight in!
Tip 3: Try to take the boat at about 5 pm: the queue is usually smaller than at noon or early afternoon. You’ll see the city from another point of view, whilst your legs will be pleased with a pause after an entire day of sightseeing.
Tip 4: Boat tours are only guaranteed between March and mid-November. Come to the boarding point in the morning if you arrive in winter to check whether there are any tours scheduled for the day, to be sure not to miss this experience.
We’re waiting for your postcards and goede reis! (have a great trip!)