While mind reading is admittedly a tricky skill, it’s probably safe to assume that most visitors do not disembark from their cruise ship in Zeebrugge with the intention to explore this Belgian destination. For most travellers, nearby Bruges is the main reason to put this region of the world on their list of places to visit. The capital of the province of West Flanders, Bruges is world famous for its historic city center. As important as Zeebrugge is from an economic perspective – primarily due to the port – it is probably not a wild guess to assume that Zeebrugge (literally: Bruges-on-sea) will continue to live in the shadows when it comes to tourism.
In all honesty, Zeebrugge will be in good company. Bruges is a difficult destination to compete with in almost any field, whether it concerns history or atmosphere. It’s not a coincidence that the entire historical city center has been included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. This city of some 120,000 inhabitants even features 100 kilometers of canals, something that has resulted in the city being referred to as “the Venice of the north” (a nickname that, of course, also applies to a couple of other northern cities, such as Amsterdam and Stockholm).
What makes this destination truly unique, however, is the fact that the city was not redeveloped for some 400 years. After experiencing its golden age as an important economic hub from the 12th to the 15th century, it lied more or less dormant in until the end of the 19th century. Then the novelist George Rodenbach came along. He wrote the novel Bruges-la-Morte (Bruges the Dead), which is widely considered to have sparked the second (ongoing) golden age of this destination: The city became fashionable once again.
Although important, history is only one aspect of this fascinating city where fortifications from the first century B.C. have been encountered. There is, of course, also a modern side to Bruges – not least following the role the city had as European Capital of Culture in 2002. In connection with that event, a number of modern buildings were erected as a way to nuance the city’s image. The international music and performing arts center Concertgebouw is one example, located not far from the city center.
Bruges is also famous for its many museums, which no doubt bear witness to the city’s rich heritage. Among the highlights: a chocolate museum and a French fries museum. This is, after all, Belgium.
Cruise ships dock at one of Europe’s most modern (and most important) ports: Zeebrugge. The distance to Bruges and its medieval charm is some 10 miles/16 kilometers.
You will find a number of museums here. Based on their respective collections, the museums are divided into three main groups.
- For fine arts visit the Groeningemuseum with its collection of artworks from the south Netherlands and Belgium over a period of six centuries. At Arentshuis, experience the rich drawing collection of the Steinmetzkabinet as well as a permanent presentation base on the artist Frank Brangwyn.
- If the history of this fascinating city interests you more, there are a dozen historical museums to choose from. Each tells the story of Bruges from a different perspective. Speaking of perspectives: the Belfort, a 276 feet/84 meters high, 13th-century belfry (included among the historical museums) provides a view over the city to the sea.
- At Hospitaalmuseum, learn about the role of two of the city’s old hospitals: Memling in Sint-Jan, with eight centuries of history, and Our Lady of the Potterie with its impressive collection of different artworks.
For a more contemporary take on this destination (and Belgium), visit the French fries museum. And if you’re interested in learning one or two secrets about how the world-famous Belgian chocolates are prepared, don’t miss the chocolate museum Choco Story.
Minnewater, or the Lake of Love, is arguably one of the most romantic spots in Bruges. At one time, this area constituted the city’s port at the same time that it was home to the Begijnhof community – a sisterhood who lived as nuns. They did not take vows, however, meaning that they could return to the material world.
The locals usually do not use the canals, but for sightseeing it’s hard to beat the view of the city’s medieval architecture from the water.
If you’ve ever had the faintest interest in lace, this is your destination. The city is world famous for its outstanding lace.
If you fancy doing some exploring on your own, rent a bicycle and go for a ride along the moat.
A number of shore excursions can be on offer in Zeebrugge/Bruges and the surrounding area. Examples include:
- Tours to Male, a town three miles from Bruges. This is where you will find the Castle of Male, once constructed to defend the inhabitants from Viking raids.
- Experience Bruges during a themed excursion, focusing on beer or chocolate. Belgium and Bruges are world famous for both.
- Brussels, Belgium’s capital, is accessible from Zeebrugge. The drive to Brussels with its many monuments takes approximately two hours.
- The medieval city of Ghent can be reached in an hour from Zeebrugge. Ghent is sometimes featured on shore excursions.
Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is situated some 68 miles/110 kilometers from Zeebrugge.
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