Bruges, Belgium is one of the most well-preserved medieval European cities and commonly referred to as “The Venice of the North.” I was drooling over the picturesque houses, charming canals, and cobblestone streets when I first saw pictures of it online.
To experience the magical quality of Bruges in winter, I planned a trip with my husband for my January birthday. We began our journey in Paris and then traveled to Bruges by train.
The flights were super reasonable in mid-January, although we did miss out on the Christmas markets.
However, I imagine we avoided some of the crowds by traveling here a little later in winter (although it was still busier than we anticipated).
Here’s what you can expect if you’re planning to travel to 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.
I wore about four layers of clothing the entire time and still felt cold, so I recommend layering up appropriately for winter.
Give some thought to your choice of shoes as well. Ninety-five percent of the city is cobblestone and many sidewalks are uneven.
I regretted not having my fur-lined winter boots after a couple of days of walking in my dressy boots.
Leave the stilettos back home for this trip. Heel lovers, you’ve been warned! If heels are a must for you, wedge or kitten heel boots are a more appropriate alternative.
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 in summer, 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 with be watering by the end, provided you have taste buds. 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.
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?)
Waffles are a way of life here, but 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 a.m. and the server informed me they were no longer serving breakfast.
However, he was happy to oblige once he realized I wanted a waffle.
For a hearty, warm-your-belly option, I highly recommend the Vol-au-Vent, which is similar to pot pie. This dish has small meatballs inside of it, making for a really robust and tasty meal.
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!
I encountered a few unwanted surprises here, although I’m still a big fan of the city overall.
First off, it was way more touristy than I was expecting. I found myself asking: “Does anyone actually live here?” at various points throughout the trip. I expected that the crowds would’ve died down after the annual Christmas markets, but it was still pretty busy in mid-January.
I recommend visiting anytime from Thanksgiving to New Year’s if you do wish to experience the Christmas markets. Just check the exact dates online before finalizing your plans, as they vary slightly each year.
I was surprised to find that Christmas shops were already closed in mid-January. I was hoping to pick up an ornament (one of my travel traditions), but no dice.
I was also surprised by how early restaurants stopped serving dinner.
Since I tend to dine on “Mediterranean time,” you’ll hardly ever catch me having dinner before 9:00 pm. (You can blame this on my Greece obsession.)
I didn’t think it would be an issue to get a late dinner here, but I was wrong.
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 post-trip.
However, there was one restaurant in Grote Markt that offered us a very limited menu, but even this was hard to come by.
I would suggest dining no later than about 8:30 pm.
You should also be aware that 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 ooze with charm and will transport you to a simpler time. It can be especially magical in the winter, provided you dress warm enough.
However, Bruges is not like a city in the traditional sense. It’s quite small, for one, and it definitely lacks a metropolitan feel. In fact, a day trip from a larger city like Brussels should provide adequate time to see most of the area’s attractions.
That said, I’m glad we had more time to explore the ins and outs of this quaint destination.
Have you ever been to Bruges in winter? What were some of your favorite experiences?