With meandering canals and pristinely-preserved medieval architecture, Belgium’s city of Bruges is often referred to as the “Venice of the North.” The city’s colorful history stretches all the way back to the 9th century, when it was founded by Vikings. Bruges flourished in the 14th century, thanks largely to its cloth industry, which attracted merchants and traders from all over Europe.
The real pleasure in visiting Bruges with kids comes from walking down narrow medieval streets, gazing down at the canals from a narrow bridge, squawks of white swans squabbling downstream, and contemplating life as it was lived years ago.
For kids, a boat ride down the canal, a peek at or climb up the famous belfry, a visit to one of the town’s historical museums, and a stroll to the Astrid playground, capped off with a traditional (read copious) Belgian dinner might just constitute the perfect day.
Here are four family activities to help you get a feel for the city as well as medieval life. Top off your day with a Belgian feast and a good night’s sleep at one of Bruges’ finest hotels.
Activity 1: Climb the Belfry Tower
If, like me, you find it impossible to resist the sweet smell of street waffles and inviting chocolate shop windows, you’ll be happy to burn some of it off with a visit to the Belfry. The 366-step climb is well worth the effort for the magnificent views of the city.
The belfry was first constructed in 1280 at the height of Bruges’ power and splendor. History dealt the building several severe blows over the centuries. Parts were struck by lightning, damaged in a thunderstorm, and consumed by flames a third time, before reaching its present state in the 1800s. Still it stands, an iconic symbol of the city’s past.
The first part of your climb is relatively easy but it becomes increasingly steep and narrow as you near the top. On the way up, you’ll pass some interesting chambers, including the Treasury Room, where the town charters and money were once tightly locked and guarded. The carillon with its 47 bells is operated by a full-time bell ringer who puts on regular carillon concerts. https://www.visitbruges.be/en/belfort-belfry
Tip: They only allow a maximum of 70 people in the tower at a time so there is often a wait. Try to do this as your first activity of the day.
Activity 2: Live the Life Medieval
Set in a row of 17th century almshouses, the Folklore Museum (Museum voor Volkskunde) gives kids a glimpse of what everyday life was like for Bruges’ poorest families in the 17th century. Almshouses were built by wealthy families to aid poor widows and widowers or by guilds to help their members in need. These tiny dwellings belonged to the Bruges cobbler’s corporation (yes, I know, it does sound like a fairy tale).
Each room in the museum is a careful reconstruction of a period room, including a classroom, a hat-making workshop, a pharmacy, a candy maker, and a kitchen. The diminutive cobbler’s workshop may bring to mind “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” https://www.visitbruges.be/en/volkskundemuseum-folklore-museum
Activity 3: Cruise the Canals
Taking a boat tour is a must with kids and a great way to give their little legs a break from all the walking you’re bound to do in Bruges. Because the canals are narrow and the bridges very low (you’ll need to duck your head passing under some of them), the boats are relatively small.
On your narrated tour, you’ll get a feel for the canals and a great view of some of the city’s oldest homes. You’ll also see plenty of swans and ducks to keep the littlest ones entertained. Boat tours are about ½ hour long. Expect lines in the summer months.
Boottochten Brugge tours leave from Niewstraat 11, in front of the Gruuthuse Museum. http://www.boottochten-brugge.be/en
Activity 4: Picnic at Koningin Astridpark
Sometimes, you just need to recharge. And a visit to Astridpark is just the thing. This neighborhood park is tucked away in a residential area just a few blocks away from the busy center of town. It has a playground, a beautiful little park with a fountain, a duck pond, and a brightly covered pavilion. It’s a perfect place for a picnic. Pick one up at the Freyne Deli right off the park (Predikherend Straat 1).
1 Great Place to Stay: Martin’s Relais
Continue your journey back in time by staying at Martin’s Relais, a gorgeous four-star boutique hotel made up of five patrician homes dating back to the 14th century. It’s ideally located just a few blocks from Market Square. The family rooms are spacious and kids will love the refuge of the charming central garden.
Martin’s Relais is part of the small Belgian boutique hotel company, Martin’s Hotels, which specializes in converting historical properties into small boutique hotels. http://www.martinshotels.com/en/hotel/martins-relais-oud-huis-amsterdam
1 Great Place to Eat: Arthies
Arthies stands out not just for its bright eclectic décor, which really appealed to our family, but also for its excellent and reasonably priced Belgian cuisine, both of which can be hard to come by in the touristy town center. They serve cheese or shrimp croquettes, Belgian beef stew, roast chicken, mussels, steak, and pasta dishes, as well as lighter fare such as omelets and croquet monsieurs. In short, you should be able to find something for everyone in your brood. The portions are huge but if you still have room, the dessert menu doesn’t disappoint. Don’t worry. You can start tomorrow with a brisk walk up a narrow belfry staircase. http://www.arthies.be/index.php/menu-eng
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