As someone who loves to escape the crowds and find strange things, I wanted to put together this post about the best off the beaten path things to do in Bruges because it’s great to get away from the crowds especially in peak season. Similarly, I found many of the attractions mentioned on many lists to be quite touristy. This list includes 20 alternative things to do in Bruges and I’ll see if I can add more unusual things on my upcoming research trips.
What a busy month that it’s been! I just arrived back from Bruges after beginning my guidebook research. I haven’t announced it yet on the blog, but I will be authoring a guidebook for Moon Travel Guides that will be focused on Bruges, Amsterdam, and Brussels. I’m very excited and I’ve been spending a lot of time in Bruges with Bruggelingens. It’s been a lot of fun practicing Flemish with the locals and I’m excited to show you how to get off the beaten track in Bruges with some secret spots in Bruges.
Note: Bruges (and much of Belgium) have a tendency to keep strange hours compared to many other places in Europe. Check hours/call ahead before heading to any of these places as many bars tend to be closed on Mondays, Sundays, and occasionally even Wednesdays in the off-peak season. During peak season, this is less of an issue, but Mondays might still be a closed day.
Have a drink at Retsin’s Lucifernum
I was a bit nervous coming here by myself on a sleepy Sunday night in January where I didn’t see a single soul on the streets. I rang the bell and a friendly woman greeted me. I paid the 10 euros entry fee, which includes a free drink. I should warn anyone reading this that the owner goes for shock value and some of the “art” and antiques are outright offensive, especially near the entrance.
Beyond this, you get to explore this strange mansion on your own with nobody accompanying you. Afterward, stop in for a drink with Willy Retsins himself, who might be the friendliest vampire that I’ve ever met, at his namesake bar only open on Sunday nights. We had a nice chat in Dutch between musicians playing the cimbalom and violin. The real reason to come here is for its speakeasy atmosphere, which is something out of a trippy dream. The cocktails are strong and delicious.
See the Basilica of the Holy Blood
This museum/church in Bruges is one of the more quirky churches to say the least and it’s beautiful to boot. Their relic is supposedly the blood of Jesus, which was taken to Bruges during the Crusades. More recent investigations show that this is likely a bottle from the 11th century, but it has been an important place for Bruges for ages.
I was recently here for the veneration of the relic, which was a really interesting and moving experience. This occurs in the afternoons almost daily in the church above, so be sure to pause for a moment to appreciate the beauty of this church along with the chance to see the relic upclose!
Go antique shopping on Langestraat/Hoogstraat
I stayed along Langestraat for part of my time in Bruges and it’s definitely one of my favorite neighborhoods. You’ll find a number of antique stores as well as oddity stores nearby. Depot D’o is for when I finally inherit a million euros. I particularly liked the selection of postcards at Winkel Oekraïense Hulpgroep, but needless to say, you’ll find lots of great shops. I really liked the selection at Madame Mim, which had some beautifully preserved dresses.
Explore the private church of Adornes Domain
One of my favorite attractions had to be the Adornes Domain, which is a private museum and chapel belonging still to the Adornes family. The museum discusses the very well-traveled and interesting ancestor who was murdered in Scotland. Most importantly, the Jerusalem chapel (with its strange shape!) was incredibly interesting and I dare say it, quirky. I particularly liked the fake crypt that you have to crawl into.
Head to a volkscafe/praatcafe
One of the most essential experiences that you can have in Bruges is to visit an old volkscafe/praatcafe. In Flemish, this means a community cafe or a talking cafe. These are simply old-school Flemish bars where everyone is there to chat, have a nice time, and enjoy some beer. The beer selection isn’t always as fancy as other places in the center of Bruges, but they’re nice places to drop into for a drink. I recommend bringing cash if you’re a tourist.
You’ll find a few in Bruges on the outskirts of the city center: In De Reisduif, De Kroon, and ‘t Hof van Beroep. Expect lots of lace, wood, and a nice place to get away from the tourists. I generally find people from Bruges to be very warm, friendly, and eager to chat with tourists, but I should note that I speak Dutch. (The locals tend to be impressed if you’re a non-native speaker who can speak it.)
Learn about life in Bruges at the Volkskundemuseum
One of Bruges’ quieter museum is the Volkskundemuseum, which focuses on life in Bruges in the 19th and 20th century. It recreates key establishments from this time within a beautiful almshouse with original items. There’s also a cafe where you can grab a drink called the De Zwarte Kat for the friendly black cat that lives in the bar.
Explore Bruges’ many almshouses
Bruges, like many places in Flanders and the Netherlands, is full of beautiful almshouses. These were houses constructed often for the poor and elderly. They’re incredibly beautiful and Bruges is spotted with many almshouses. Some feature stunning views of the city that are easy to miss, but it should be noted that this is private property. Please be respectful, quiet, and don’t litter.
I especially loved the view from Godshuis Spanoghe and
Godshuis De Meulenaere. The door to De Meulenaere almshouse is absolutely beautiful and once you step inside, you’ll definitely want to pause to enjoy the view. It was too cold to sit in the garden last time I was there, but I will come back in summer with a book to read here. I also found the De Vette Vispoort almshouse (shown above) to be a beautiful respite from the crowds.
Go shopping for a picnic at the Saturday market on ‘t Zand
Do like the locals and head to ‘t Zand starting at 7:30 am on Saturday mornings to avoid the crowds. There’s a stall open for coffee where about a euro will get you a coffee with no additions to enjoy as you explore the market. This is the major market in Bruges and it’s crowded with locals doing their weekly shopping.
I went with one starting at 7:30 am who comes weekly to pick up fresh bread, meat, and old Bruges cheese for the week. I have a similar routine and I had a lot of fun exploring the market with Hendrik. You’ll also find fabrics, home-goods, and fruit.
Have a drink at the oldest cafe in Bruges
The oldest cafe in Bruges is Cafe Vlissinghe, which dates back to 1515. Although the food is not worth ordering, it’s worth coming here to enjoy a drink. I had their house beer and spent a while lingering next to the old school Flemish heater. I want to write the rest of my book sitting in one of their chairs by the fire in a notebook. In summer, you can also enjoy their spacious garden.
Explore the picturesque home of famous poet Guido Gezelle
Guido Gezelle is a famous Dutch poet who was born-and-raised in Bruges. You can visit the house where he was born to find out more about his life as a monk and a writer, which is located in a picturesque fairytale-esque house along one of the prettiest quiet alleyways in Bruges. (You can enter the garden without a ticket.)
Discover literature at the Engels Klooster
The Engels Klooster has been open to visitors. This cloister in the middle of Bruges is home to nuns who will give you a tour of this stunning cloister. Starting in 2020, they will be opening the cloister with a guide (not a nun) to visitors to show off priceless works of literature within their collection. This needs to be booked online.
Personally, I am a fan of the convent tour, which is possible on certain days. One of the nuns will show you around their stunning convent, including the church. Be sure to ask about the portrait of Thomas More and the frame. If you’re lucky, they’ll sing for you. Ring the bell and come inside between 2pm-3:30 and 4:15pm-5:30pm on Thursday-Saturday to peek inside. (They might be open other days (closed Sunday), but I feel more confident about writing Thursday to Saturday. ) Bring cash to buy a postcard or make a donation.
Say hello to the kitties at Bruges’ cat cafe
One of the newest additions to Bruges is the Kattencafé Puss and Books. This cash-only cafe features kitties available for adoption taken from kill shelters. They serve coffee and cakes. It’s a simple concept, but wonderful.
Take a tour of the fascinating St Sebastiaan Royal Guild of Archers
One of the secret places to visit in Bruges that many people don’t know about is the St. Sebastiaan Royal Guild of Archers, which is an active archers’ guild operating for 600+ years. The British Royal family are members and don’t miss the 16th-century archery range if they’re open. The tower is quite wild and if you can’t get in, you can at least admire the view of the giant sail from Bruges’ windmills. You need to call ahead in the afternoon on Thursdays if you’re to visit.
Step into ‘t Apostelientije
This beautiful lace shop close to the lace museum shows off lace antiquities within an old godshuis. The owner, Anna, is incredibly knowledgable about the techniques used and even labeled many of the displays. She has some more affordable pieces, but it is absolutely stunning and it feels like a portal to another world once you enter. It’s as far from a tourist trap as you can imagine! Cash only.
Enjoy a picturesque walk along the quieter riverwalks
Although people typically say canals in Bruges, the water around the city is called reien in Flemish for the river Reie that once flowed through Bruges. Some of the canals are where the river originally flowed although canals were dug through the city center to make Bruges more accessible to trade by sea. You’ll find many picturesque walks through Bruges once you leave the center. I especially loved Langerei as it’s quiet and it feels like the heart of the city away from the crowds. The walk along Grauwwerkersstraat is also nice as you can peek into hidden gardens! Speelmansrei also feels forgotten.
Step back into the shoes of a nun at the Begijnhof museum
One of the most underestimated museums of Bruges has to be the Begijnhof museum, which is hidden within Bruge’s Begijnhof. I didn’t include the courtyard itself, which is the last active convent of this kind in Bruges, as it’s fairly well-known. Still, the museum is often skipped by visitors. Within the museum, you can explore what would a nun’s house from the 19th century. It’s only 2 euros to go inside.
See a show at the Koninklijke Stadsschouwburg Brugge
Many people don’t know about the Koninklijke Stadsschowburg. A friend of mine works at a historic theatre in the Netherlands and although I never really got into these before this, these old theatres are absolutely beautiful. The one in Bruges is from 1869 and it’s a beautiful building that you’ll want to visit if you happen to see a show that meets your eye.
Discover Bruges’ stranger shrines
The almshouse of Rooms Convent (Katelijnestraat 9) had an interesting little shrine that I spent a while admiring. If the door is open, take a peek inside! My other favorite had to be the small and bizarre shrine on the corner of Carmersstraat and Korte Speelmansstraat that is dedicated to a girl who was tossed down a well–and survived thanks to ice at the bottom.
Learn about medical history at Sint-Janshospitaal
One of the most off the beaten path museums in Brugge has to be Sint-Janshospitaal, which discusses the history of this 12th-century hospital/church. It’s an odd combination of religious art, triptychs, and medical tools used at the time. Your ticket also includes entry to the pharmacy next door.
Discover Bruges’ quieter yet beautiful churches
Although Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe dominates the church scene (rightfully so!), there are so many lovely churches in Bruges worth discovering that are beautiful. Our Lady of the Pottery has a similar history to Sint Jans Hospital, however it is a beautiful church in itself. Women still celebrate the Bruges’ Promise each year by having 12 girls carry a candle in a procession.
Say hello to the sheep grazing at Hofje van Jonghe
Hidden in one of the quieter residential neighborhoods of Bruges, you’ll find this small old courtyard that has three resident sheep that graze here. Need I say more?