Bruges, Belgium is one of the most striking and well-preserved medieval European cities.
While it maintains its charm year-round, Bruges in winter is especially magical. Although this “Venice of the North” is small, it’s rich in belly-warming delicacies and holiday cheer.
Whether you’re strolling the quaint cobblestone streets, indulging in the region’s magnificent chocolate and beer, or admiring the architecture of a bygone age, you’re sure to get swept away in the season’s magic.
Here’s what to expect when visiting fairytale Bruges in winter.
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I truly wasn’t prepared for how cold Bruges was in January. The reason for this is that Bruges is populated with canals that run like arteries throughout the city. The exposed water from the canals creates moisture in the air, making it feel colder.
Plus, as Belgium is a low-lying country, cold sea air blows far inland, adding to the wind chill.
The average temperature for Bruges in January ranges from 34° Fahrenheit (1° Celsius) to 43° Fahrenheit (6° Celsius). Refer to this handy page of weather averages before you go.
- Dress appropriately – You’ll definitely want to bundle up before strolling around. I wore about four layers of clothing the entire time and still felt cold, so I recommend layering up for winter. Warm winter boots, gloves, a scarf, and a winter hat are a must. Also, the majority of the city is cobblestone, so leave the heels at home!
- Go ice skating – Taking to the ice rink is a perfect way to get your blood pumping and keep warm. Typically, the Market Square ice skating rink is open until just after New Year’s Day as part of the Christmas market festivities. Unfortunately, however, the 2020 Christmas Market is canceled.
- Indulge in a Belgian hot chocolate – If you love Belgian chocolate, don’t miss the chance to toast up with a proper hot cocoa! The Old Chocolate House comes highly recommended, offering over a dozen varieties of delicious chocolate.
- Cozy up by a fire – When winter winds are too blustery, it’s time to go in search of a fireplace! Fortunately, a number of restaurants in Grote Markt have them. We also enjoyed the fireplace at the charming Pand Hotel, where we spent two unforgettable nights.
Ostend-Bruges International Airport is the nearest airport to Bruges. However, it’s quite small and has very limited flights.
Your best bet is probably to fly into Brussels, Belgium’s capital city, and then catch a train to Bruges.
The average travel time between the cities is just one hour and thirteen minutes by train. Plus, the trains are heated and cozy, making for a pleasant experience in winter. We enjoyed a convenient and comfortable ride.
There are actually two exits at the Bruges train station, which threw us for a bit of a loop.
One leads to the Old Town and the other leads to the outermost part of the city which is more modern. The Old Town is typically what people come to Bruges to see.
Bruges is an incredibly walkable city (provided cobblestone isn’t an issue for you).
In fact, it’s so walkable that it doesn’t operate on a subway system the way major metropolitan cities like Brussels do.
I would actually rank walking as one of the top modes of transportation in Bruges, along with bikes, busses, and horse & carriage rides (if you’re feeling touristy).
Bruges also offers a convenient bus service that runs from the station to the city center and back every five minutes. This can come in handy on chillier days when you may not feel like walking.
You can read more about the bus lines and pricing here.
Driving in the city is not ideal, although it’s possible. One-way cobblestone streets aren’t particularly conducive to cars, as the Old Town was built before motorized vehicles.
On-street parking is also limited and costly, so unless your hotel has reserved spaces, your best bet is to hire a driver.
There are a number of charming boutique hotels in Bruges and some even offer canal views.
We spent our first night at Hotel Bourgoensch Hof, which was right on the canal. This is a great low-cost option in a prime location.
After that, we spent two incredible nights at The Pand Hotel, which I highly recommend. This four-star property is one of the “Small Luxury Hotels of the World” and it did not disappoint.
I loved cozying up in this intimate hotel after a few cold days of exploring.
We stayed in a classic “Ralph Lauren Suite” and enjoyed picturesque views of the classic storybook homes.
You can read more about my stay here.
Regardless of where you stay, most anywhere you choose in Bruges will be a convenient location, given the intimate size of this city.
Fortunately, you can enjoy many of the same attractions in the winter as you would during warmer months, provided you’re dressed appropriately.
One of the most striking things about Bruges is that the majority of its medieval architecture is still intact, similar to Prague. It’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time as you walk around. I felt like we walked onto a movie set or entered a magical wardrobe portal into a European “Narnia.”
The Market Square (Grote Markt) is the centerpiece of beautiful Bruges.
Markt is also where you can catch a horse & carriage ride for a fun tour around the city.
The Market Square is almost always flocked with tourists, hence why the guild houses were converted into restaurants.
This main hub of the city is a must-see, but don’t go in expecting a “local” feel here; it’s tourist central.
I recommend coming in the morning, before the crowds take over. Plus, you’ll find it’s significantly warmer when the sun is out.
Burg Square is packed with history and has a highly cinematic feel to it.
Encompassing architectural styles from Neo-Classicist, to Gothic, to Renaissance, there is many a photo opportunity to be had here.
If you’re a fan of doors, you’ll love the Basilica of the Holy Blood.
The Palace of the Liberty of Bruges is also striking, as it’s adorned in real gold.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the largest fireplace in Europe. Sadly, we didn’t learn about this until after we left, but I highly recommend stopping inside to warm up and check it out!
There’s also the iconic City Hall, standing tall since 1376.
If you love the charm of storybook windmills, you can’t miss the four remaining gems in Bruges.
The windmills run along the canal path and are only about a 10-15 minute stroll outside the Markt. I was doubtful whether we’d have enough time to visit them until I discovered just how walkable the city really is!
This is a fun, free, and totally accessible activity you can enjoy while in Bruges.
You can also pay a small fee to go up the windmills at specific times. Head here for pricing information and to explore this option further.
The canals of Bruges are part of what make this city so special.
Unfortunately, boat trips aren’t typically available in Bruges in winter, but you can catch a half-hour boat ride from March 1 – November 15. For the full operating schedule, head here.
That said, the canals definitely make a beautiful backdrop for a romantic winter stroll.
I also recommend making a stop at one of the most iconic spots in all of Bruges. It was made famous by the film, In Bruges.
There’s something magical about seeing this spot in winter, but keep in mind that the main tree will be bare at this time.
Had enough of the cold? Not to worry! A visit to the Frietmuseum is the perfect way to warm up with a signature Belgian treat: frites.
You’ll discover how French fries came to be – and the trade secrets responsible for their irresistible flavor!
After paying a small entrance fee, you’ll walk through several floors and learn everything from the origins of potatoes to the two-step frying method used to cook the perfect frite.
Your mouth will definitely be watering by the end. Fortunately, the little café downstairs has you covered with frites, over a dozen sauces, and other tasty snacks.
This is the perfect way to warm your belly on a cold winter day!
I’m partial to the classic mayo dipping sauce as well as the mayo/ketchup combo.
Unfortunately, the 2020 Bruges Christmas Market is canceled.
However, this is typically one of the main draws in wintertime. This festive event normally runs from late November into the new year. There are generally two markets, a main one in Grote Markt and another in Simon Stevinplein Square.
Attendees can browse vendors for holiday gifts as well as indulge in everything from mulled wine to Belgian waffles and frites.
Outside of trying authentic Belgian frites, you’ll obviously have to try Belgian waffles at least once. (Can you even say you came to Belgium if you don’t?)
Although waffles are a way of life here, they aren’t considered a breakfast food as they are in the states. They’re more of an anytime snack/dessert.
I learned this when we walked into a restaurant at 11:30 AM and the server informed me they were no longer serving breakfast.
However, he was happy to oblige once he realized I wanted a waffle!
Also, I highly recommend the Vol-au-Vent for a hearty, warm-your-belly option. This dish is similar to pot pie and has small meatballs inside of it. It’s a really robust and hearty meal that will leave you satisfied.
I’m also partial to the fondue. In Bruges, it’s typically prepared with Swiss and served with sliced meats and bread for dipping. There’s just something about cozying up to a warm fondue pot that soothes the soul.
Did I mention Bruges is a chocolate lover’s dream? Here, you can find multiple chocolate shops on every street.
This is the perfect opportunity to pick up some treats for Valentine’s Day!
The cute chocolate shops are also incredibly charming and fun to photograph!
Bruges is all about the beer. I seriously gained a tremendous appreciation for Belgian beer after this trip.
I highly recommend doing a beer flight so that you can try multiple varieties. Or, try a Belgian Tripel if you’re not afraid of a more robust variety. This strong pale ale is made with three times the malt in the wort and has a higher ABV than many Belgian alternatives.
That’s right, you can enjoy any of their delicious Belgian varieties while cozying up to one of their gigantic outdoor heaters!
You may also consider doing a brewery tour if you have some extra time to spend in Bruges. This is a great indoor activity that enables you to taste the best that Bruges has to offer!
Although I’m a big fan of the city overall, I did encounter a few unwanted surprises here.
First, the city was much more touristy than I anticipated. I found myself asking: “Does anyone actually live here?” at various points throughout the trip. I expected that crowds would’ve died down after the Christmas market, but it was still pretty busy in mid-January.
I was also surprised to find that Christmas shops were already closed in mid-January.
I was also surprised by how early restaurants stopped serving dinner. As a result, I’d suggest dining no later than about 8:30 PM.
You’ll hardly ever catch me having dinner before 9:00 PM, since I tend to dine on “Mediterranean time.” (You can blame this on my Greece obsession.)
However, we ventured out at about 9:30 one night and almost all the restaurants had closed their kitchens or closed completely. I have a hunch that this may be a winter practice based on a conversation with a friend.
Fortunately, there was one restaurant in Grote Markt that offered us a very limited menu.
Additionally, restaurants will not serve you free tap water. You’ll have to pay for either still or sparkling bottled water. (I’ve come to realize this is pretty common practice in Europe.)
Bruges offers a truly unique and historical city experience unlike any other. The streets, canals, horse-drawn carriages, and buildings will truly transport you to a simpler time. Plus, the city is undoubtedly magical in winter, in particular, provided you bundle up!
That said, Bruges isn’t a traditional city, as it lacks a metropolitan feel. Fortunately, a day trip from a larger city like Brussels can provide enough time to see most of the area’s attractions.
Alternatively, a multi-day trip is ideal for a slower experience.
I sincerely hope this guide provides you with ample inspiration for a magical winter trip, no matter how long you decide to stay.
Have you ever visited Bruges in winter? What were some of your favorite experiences? Let me know in the comments below!