Bruges, Belgium: The city of arts and crafts, a cultural hub for the last 700 years

Mary Miers visited all the artisanal wonders Bruges has to offer, from Flemish Masters to chocolate-makers.

As the medieval trading capital of Flanders and the home of the world’s first stock exchange, Bruges was a leading centre of the finest craftsmanship, Arts and luxury goods by the 15th century – the golden age of the Dukes of Burgundy, whose court was the most fashionable in Europe. Anybody interested in the cultural and religious world of the early Flemish Masters should come to this restored Gothic city and wander the network of waterways that connected it to the sea, explore the cobbled streets of the mercantile Hansa quarter, listen to the carillion of 47 bells ringing out from the belfry towering over the cloth hall and marvel at the inventiveness of the step-gabled facades.

Tourists being taken on city tour with a horse and trap in the Markt Square, Bruges

Tourists being taken on city tour with a horse and trap in the Markt Square, Bruges.

William Caxton, an English merchant in Bruges, published the first book printed in English here in 1473 and the city gave refuge to two exiled English kings, Edward IV and Charles II (who raised the first troop of the Life Guards in Bruges in 1658). Today, the city is a magnet for tourists, but there’s still much evidence of its medieval glory.

Belgium, Bruges, The Markt, market square buildings

Belgium, Bruges. The Markt.

What to do/see

  • This is the Year of van Eyck, who lived here from 1432–41; follow in his footsteps with a local guide (email david.serlet@telenet.be).‘Van Eyck in Bruges’ at the newly renovated Groeningemuseum will run from March 12 until July 12 (don’t miss the outstanding permanent collection). It includes an altarpiece of the Madonna he painted in 1435, still in its original frame.
  • Absorb the wealth and luxury of the Burgundian courtly culture with a visit to the Gothic mansion of the Gruuthuse family, which is now a museum devoted to the history, craftsmanship and many mercantile networks of Bruges. Click on www.museabrugge.be to visit.

bruges, belguim

  • Other houses of the city’s elite members of the Order of the Golden Fleece include Bladelin Court on Naaldenstraat and Prinsenhof on Geldmuntstraat, the once vast palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, which is now the five-star Hotel Dukes’ Palace.
  • Sint-Janshospitaal – incorporating medieval sick wards, a church and 17th-century pharmacy – houses paintings by Hans Memling and other Flemish Masters. The exhibition ‘Memling Now’ (April 4–September 6) will look at his influence on artists today.
  • The best artisan chocolate-maker is the third-generation family business V-Chocolatier at 29, Philipstockstraat. There is a chocolate museum (Choco-Story) at 2, Wijnzakstraat.
  • Polyphonic music was conceived here; the Gold 2020 festival of voices/music from the Bruges Renaissance runs from May 20–24. Visit www.concertgebouw.be/en/gold-2020 to find out more.

Where to stay

The Classical façade of Hotel De Tuilerieën overlooks Den Dijver, one of the city’s oldest canals, shaded by weeping birches and an easy stroll from Markt, the central square. Inside, all is gracious and peaceful. Many of the 48 rooms and suites have traditional chimney-pieces and furnishings, but still feel fresh and luxurious. There’s a cosy bar, terrace and pool with sauna.

In the late 16th century, this was the home of the Spanish alderman Juan Perez de Malvenda, who rescued a relic of the Holy Blood and hid it here for six years (it’s now in the city’s Basilica of the Holy Blood).

Where to eat

Patrick Devos on Zilverstraat 41: the well-known chef offers a fresh, gastronomic experience in a historic house with a garden in the heart of Bruges.

Café ’t Klein Venetië on Braambergstraat: find a seat on the terrace and enjoy the wonderful view over the Rozenhoedkaai.

Twijfelaar in Eekhoutstraat: a bistro with Belgian/French cuisine.