Family Vacations to Bruges, Belgium

Family Travel: Bruges, Belgium
Bruges' many canals have led it to be dubbed the "Venice of the North" (Corel)

Bruges Highlights

  • Climb 366 steps to the top of a 13th-century tower.
  • Bicycle past 18th-century windmills.
  • Ride a boat along the canal for views of centuries-old houses.
  • Discover paintings by Flemish artists.
  • Indulge with delicious, handmade chocolates.

Bruges ("Brugge" in Flemish) is situated 55 miles northwest of Brussels and ten miles from the North Sea. The picturesque city, sometimes called the "Venice of the North" for its many canals, blooms with more than 700 buildings from the 17th century. The entire historic city center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.

With medieval town squares, cobblestone streets, cafés, and parks, Bruges is perfect for strolling—just be mindful that the cyclists rolling past you in the bike lanes have the right of way. Or go "native" and rent your own bikes, especially with gradeschoolers and teens. For a relatively easy route, pedal four miles along the canal to Damme, passing windmills along the way. Both the St. John's House Mill, built in 1770, and the Koelewei Mill, built in 1765, still grind grain, looking impressive as their wooden blades harness the breeze.

Highlights of the historic area include the broad Market Square and its Belfry Tower, dating back to 1240. It takes endurance to climb the 366 steps to the top, but the city views are worth it, as are the free carillon concerts. Check the schedule for those—as well as the outdoor concerts in Burg Square, whose buildings display several centuries of architectural styles. Among them are the 12th-century Basilica of the Holy Blood, the 14th-century Stadhuis (City Hall), and the 16th-century Brugse Vrije (Renaissance Hall).

Although kids may be lukewarm about architecture, they often are more excited by boats. On the 30-minute canal boat ride, glide under bridges alongside swans paddling lazily and by houses dating from the 13th to 17th centuries. Many of the houses were built in the Flemish style, with steep gabled roofs, red geraniums in flower boxes, and ivy sprawling across the centuries-old walls. Another fun way to sample the city: board a horse-drawn carriage, a favorite with young kids.

At the Museum of Folklore, housed in a row of 17th-century almshouses, kids can view buildings of an earlier era such as cobbler's and cooper's workshops, a pharmacy, and an inn. Time your visit for a Thursday afternoon when the confectioner bakes treats. For art, visit the Groeninge Museum, known for its paintings by Flemish artists, especially from the 15th century. The Church of Our Lady displays a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo.

Be sure to pause for chocolate, which is perhaps the best souvenir from Bruges. The Brugsch Swaentje (Bruges swan) is the city's edible symbol. Chocolatiers fill their windows with rows of these as well as delicate pyramids of dark, milky, and fruity sweets. The most expensive are handmade. Find out more at Choco-Story, a museum detailing the history of chocolate from its origins 2500 years ago.

Bruges is also famous for their handmade lace, which dangles in almost every shop window. Souvenirs of all sizes and varieties—from curtains to small doilies—evoke thee classical charm of the medieval town and watching the creation of these delicate pieces is a huge pull for younger girls.

Tip: Handmade chocolates, according to their makers, will stay fresh for one month and should not be refrigerated.'s resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 26 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 6 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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