Comparing the ‘Venice of the North’ to the capital of Europe is a daunting task. Both cities have a long and somewhat illustrious history and offer key insights into the illusive Belgian culture. Read along to find out which city – Brussels or Bruges – I recommend as a local.
The two most visited cities in Belgium are Brussels and Bruges. The former a cosmopolitan city holding the dual title of capital to Belgium and Europe, the latter a small medieval city punctuated by the clippedy-clop of horsedrawn carriages. They could not be more different, so how does one choose between Bruges of Brussels for a visit?
As a Belgian living in Brussels with a strong love for Bruges, I can unabashedly state that both cities still give me goosebumps, albeit for different reasons. Brussels reigns supreme when it comes to international cuisine & Art Nouveau, while Bruges is wonderfully quaint and bursting with culture.
I always encourage friends who come to visit to plan in at least one day in both Brussels and Bruges. Both form a piece of the complex cultural puzzle that is Belgium. To make the comparison of Bruges vs Brussels easier for you the below article collates both cities based on 10 different criteria.
Caroline Muller is an award-winning travel blogger. She writes and photographs full-time while oscillating between Sicily and Brussels as a home base. She has documented over 60 countries across six continents and does not plan to stop any time soon. A staunch vegetarian for over 25 years, she loves exploring local cuisine in search of that perfect (plant-based) mouthful.
With this blog, she hopes to help you travel slower, more sustainably and a hella lot more meaningfully. Pack your bags!
Brussels vs Bruges at a Glance
Pitting a cosmopolitan city (Brussels) against a small provincial city (Bruges) seems rather unfair. I always thought the capital of Europe would win hands-down. Guess what, it turns out I was wrong! Bruges receives a whopping 8 million tourists a year, while Brussels has 6 million visitors yearly.
To ensure you can make the most informed choice, according to your likes and wishes, I have split the comparison of the cities across a variety of different categories ranging from things to do, to more practical items such as accessibility.
GENERAL CONCLUSION: If you have but one day, head to Bruges. The city is smaller and easier to navigate in a day. Brussels has more to offer tourists but requires at least two days to properly delve into the city and get a feel for its beauty.
Bruges or Brussels Summary
|THINGS TO DO
|BRUGES & BRUSSELS
|BRUGES & BRUSSELS
|BRUGES AND BRUSSELS
|BRUGES (Vibes); BRUSSELS (MARKET)
10 Ways to Compare Bruges vs Brussels
1. Things to do in Brussels or Bruges
If you are wondering whether to choose Brussels or Bruges for a weekend or day trip, your first consideration will naturally involve what there is to do in each city. As briefly touched upon, the cities vary greatly in just about every aspect: ambiance, footfall and of course what to see & do.
Things to do in Brussels
Many visitors erroneously think Brussels is somehow boring and centers entirely around the Grand Place (Main Square). While this part of the city is undeniably beautiful, there is much more to see and do. As the capital of Belgium, there is plenty to do in Brussels.
- EXPLORE THE GRAND PLACE: Visit city hall, explore the Brussels City Museum and grab a drink at Le Roy d’Espagne, overlooking the Grand Place.
- FIND THE TRIO OF PEEING STATUES: Yep, there is more than one! Manneken Pis, Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis.
- LEARN ABOUT ART NOUVEAU: Visit the Victor Horta Museum or the lesser known Hôtel Solvay.
- GO UP THE ATOMIUM: On a clear day you can see across the entire city.
- GO BARGAIN HUNTING: Head to the oldest neighborhood in Brussels, the Marolles for some quality vintage furniture and second-hand clothing.
Things to do in Bruges
Bruges is smaller in size and has less things to do in absolute numbers. Most of your time will in fact be spent strolling through the labyrinthine streets, stumbling upon various architectural marvels and romantic bridges as opposed to having a set itinerary and visiting specific spots.
- CLIMB THE BELFRY: An obligatory stop for any first-time visitor in Bruges.
- EXPLORE THE HISTORIUM: The best museum to learn about the history of Bruges. The building holds a museum, bar and a tower with the best view over Bruges.
- TAKE A CANAL CRUISE: There is no denying clambering into these little boats is very touristy, but it is worth it to explore the city from the water. Trust me on this one.
- BEGUINAGE & SWANS: Walk around the courtyard lined with whitewashed houses en exit through the Begijnhof Bridge, under which a bevy of swans is permanently nesting.
- WALK AROUND THE CITY CENTER: See the Church of Our Lady, snap a picture at the Boniface Bridge, grab a boat at the Quay of the Rosary, and chill out in Minnewater Park.
2. Gastronomy in Brussels vs Bruges
I was surprised to read many raving reviews about the food in Bruges ranging from “best food in Belgium” to “most Michelin-stared restaurants in the country”. Let me stop you right there, one is factually incorrect and the other a matter of taste. Let’s break it down.
Food in Bruges
The province of West Flanders (where Bruges is located) has a relatively high density of Michelin-star restaurants. With two notable exceptions, these restaurants are not located within Bruges. In fact, they will require a car to get there from the city.
The city center of Bruges has a decent amount of Bib Gourmand restaurants and has ample offerings to try traditional Belgian food (Flemish stew, eel, French fries, chocolates, waffles and beer). Dishes are not very vegetarian-friendly, however, and the vegetarian portion of the menu could use a bit of help.
Food in Brussels
As a large cosmopolitan city Brussels has a larger array of Michelin-starred restaurants inside the city center and a better offering of international cuisine. Compared to London it is still sorely lacking (my kingdom for a good curry, or a proper hot pot), but truth be told I have had better pizza in Brussels than some places in Sicily (My Sicilian partner wholeheartedly agreed!).
Aside from the international cuisine, it is easier for vegetarians to find a really good meal in Brussels. Even the traditional Belgian brasseries are more accustomed to catering to vegetarians and vegans and have therefore ensured there are tasty plant-based options on the menu.
3. Architecture in Bruges or Brussels
I find comparing Bruges vs Brussels in terms of architecture virtually impossible. At first glance, Bruges is the prettier city of the two. Yet as you start exploring the chaotic urban planning that is quintessential Brussels, a wealth of architectural gems suddenly unveil themselves.
Architecture in Bruges
The city’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features an array of architectural styles. Dominated by Gothic influences iconic structures like the Belfry of Bruges (13th century) and the Basilica of the Holy Blood (12th century) showcase intricate detailing and towering spires.
The Markt square, surrounded by Flemish Renaissance buildings, such as the Provincial Court (16th century), and the colorful guild houses (strikingly similar to those in Gdansk, Poland) provide a glimpse into the city’s flourishing mercantile past. Canals wind through the city, flanked by charming step-gabled houses reminiscent of the Dutch Renaissance.
The Beguinage (13th century) offers tranquility amid its whitewashed houses and a serene courtyard. Additionally, the Church of Our Lady (13th-15th century) displays a blend of Romanesque and Gothic elements, featuring the renowned sculpture “Madonna and Child” by Michelangelo.
Architecture in Brussels
What Brussel lacks in harmony it makes up for in abundance, at least to travelers who take the time to truly explore. The Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, showcases opulent Gothic and Baroque architecture, notably the Town Hall (15th century) and the King’s House (16th century).
You might not know this but Art Nouveau started right here in Brussels. The neighborhoods of Ixelles and Saint Gilles are lined with beautiful Art Nouveau Houses. Victor Horta designed an array of different houses (Victor Horta Museum, Hôtel Solvay can be visited). I am a huge fan of Art Nouveau, which is why Brussels wins for me!
Other architectural landmarks in Brussels include the Atomium, a futuristic marvel built for the 1958 World Expo, symbolizing post-war modernism with its interconnected spheres; Cinquantenaire Park, adorned with neoclassical triumphal arches constructed in the late 19th century to celebrate Belgium’s 50th anniversary and the very modern EU quarter, featuring the Berlaymont building (1969).
4. Nightlife in Brussels and Bruges
When it comes to nightlife, there is simply no comparison. Despite what you might have read, Bruges does not have a flourishing nightlife. It always makes me chuckle when I read “Bruges has a lot of bars to choose from for a night out”. While this is essentially true, what is missing from this statement is the fact the bars are quiet, mostly empty and tend to close at 10.00 pm.
Brussels has a lot more people living in the city and therefore, unsurprisingly, has many more opportunities for a night on the town. If you are staying near the city center, L’archiduc serves the best cocktails, C12 and Fuse are solid nightclubs and the area of Saint Catherine is alive with bars that stay open until the wee hours.
DELVE INTO THE LOCAL NIGHTLIFE | Brussels has a highly rated pubcrawl including four different popular bars. Great if you are traveling alone or on a budget and want to get a taste of nightlife in the city.
5. Museums in Brussels vs Bruges
While objectively Brussels has more museums, I find the quality of museums in Bruges unparalleled. By perusing through the Bruges’ museums you get a real sense of the city’s history and culture. While Brussels has a bit of everything on offer, which a times can feel a little overwhelming.
Museums in Brussels
Brussels has over 128 museums to visit! Ranging from the well-known Belgian Comic Strip Center to the more obscure Cinematek, showing films from the archives. Here are a few of my favorites.
Brussels City Museum: Located on the Grand Place. The museum houses the original Mannekes Pis as well as the history of Brussels.
Magritte Museum: The iconic surrealist painter René Magritte was born and raised in Belgium. This centrally located museum runs through his life & inspiration and houses a few original works.
Victor Horta Museum: My all-time favorite museum in Brussels and an absolute must for all Art Nouveau lovers. Located slightly outside the historical center, but well worth visiting!
House of European History: As the capital of Europe, Brussels is home to a lot of European Institutions, as well as the most comprehensive museum on the history of Europe.
Museums in Bruges
The city has 13 main museums covering the history of Bruges as well as showcasing a few of the works from the abovementioned Flemish Masters. Here are a few I particularly loved visiting.
Historium: An interactive museum showcasing the history of Bruges. Great for families with kids!
Groeninge Museum: Offers a diverse panorama of the history of Belgian visual art, showcasing top-tier paintings by the globally acclaimed Flemish primitives.
Fashion and Lace Museum: Learn about the ancient craftsmanship of lace making and its historical relevance for Bruges. One of the few places in Bruges where you can still buy locally-made lace.
City Hall: Bruges City Hall ranks as one of the oldest in the Low Countries. The ground floor is free to visit. The first floor has a beautiful Gothic hall with 20th-century paintings.
SAVE YOUR PENNIES | If you are looking to visit multiple museums you may want to look into purchasing the Bruges Musea Card (includes entry to 12 museums) and the Brussels City Card (includes entry to 49 museums).
6. Shopping in Bruges or Brussels
That highly depends on what kind of items you are looking to purchase. If you are looking for handmade lace, little boxes of chocolate or other typical products from Belgium, Bruges definitely has more on offer. While Brussels has a better overall shopping experience, offering everything from clothing to vintage furniture and then some.
Shopping in Bruges
While Bruges is a souvenir-shopping heaven, this does come with a caveat. Unfortunately, much of the lace you find in the stores is now made in China to keep costs low. The lace museum and a store called lace paradise have a small selection of locally made lace. For locally-made chocolate head to the Chocolate Line or the Chocolate Factory Brugge.
Shopping in Brussels
Brussels has some top-notch shopping on offer. Luxury brands can be found on the Chaussée de Waterloo and Avenue Louise while retail brands have plentiful stores on Avenue Louise, Rue Neuve and Chaussée d’Ixelles.
If you are looking for vintage clothing and furniture head to the Marolles, where a weekly open-air flea market is held on the Place du Jeu de Balle. This is a very pleasant neighborhood to simply stroll around.
7. Accommodations in Brussels vs Bruges
There is no denying Brussels has a larger offering of accommodations suitable for every type of budget. Yet somehow Bruges manages to win this one as the hotels and B&Bs in the city have a lot more character. Imagine sleeping in one of these beautiful 17th-century gabled houses overlooking a canal.
Where to stay in Brussels
- Budget Pick: B&B Maison Haute located in the heart of the oldest neighborhood of Brussels.
- Best Location: Warwick Grand Place with views over the Grand Place.
- Luxury Pick: 9Hotel Sablon in the Sablon is a wonderful tranquil hotel with a central location.
- Read More: 16 Sustainable Boutique Hotels in Brussels
Where to stay in Bruges
- Budget Pick: Hotel Central right on the Grote Markt of Bruges with views of the Belfry.
- Best Location: B&B Canal Deluxe overlooking a tranquil Canal
- Luxury Pick: B&B Bonifacius housed in a beautiful wooden house with original decor.
TOP PICKS | I love a good hotel with a view! In Brussels, you cannot do better than the Warwick Grand Place overlooking the Grand Place. The surprisingly affordable Hotel Central in Bruges overlooks the Belfry from the comfort of your bed!
8. Accessibility of Bruges & Brussels
Belgium is the size of a pocket square and very well serviced by a robust public transportation system. As such, getting to both Bruges and Brussels is relatively straightforward, depending on where you are traveling from.
Travel from inside Belgium
BRUSSELS: Located at the heart of Belgium and therefore serviced by direct trains connecting it to all major cities in the country. It is the easiest place to travel to, from inside Belgium. It is also the best place to base yourself if you want to explore more of Belgium.
BRUGES: Located in South-Western Belgium, right next to the coast. Chances are high you will have to change trains in either Ghent or Brussels to reach Bruges.
Traveling from outside Belgium
BRUSSELS: As the capital of Europe and the administrative seat of the European governing bodies, Brussels is very well connected via both train and air. Highspeed trains from Amsterdam, Paris, London, Cologne run multiple times a day, stopping at Brussels Midi train station while the Brussel International Airport connects Belgium to the rest of the world. Getting to Brussels is really easy.
BRUGES: Bruges does not have an airport or highspeed train terminal connecting it to the rest of Europe. Travelers will have to pass by Brussels first to get to Bruges. From Brussels, a direct train takes you onward to Bruges in one hour. Traveling from Paris to Bruges takes around 2h30.
9. Overtourism in Bruges or Brussels
Bruges receives a whopping 8 million tourists each year, while Brussels receives 6 million. The former has 112.000 inhabitants, the latter 1.3 million. If your visit to Bruges happens to fall in high season (June-October; December) be prepared to wade through a sea of snap-happy tourists and precarious selfie sticks.
Living in Brussels, I have visited the Grand Place at just about every time of the year. While it does get busy around Christmas and the Summer months, it does not feel cramped. Brussels has an advantage over Bruges: It is larger and the tourist hotspots are more spread out across the city.
Overtourism in Bruges
If your dates for visiting Bruges are not flexible, you will need to plan ahead and be smart about your itinerary. Here are a couple of tips that have helped me in the past.
- SPEND ONE NIGHT: Most tourists and tour groups visit Bruges in a day, meaning between 10.00 am and 06.00 pm the city is packed the rafters. If you spend one night in Bruges, you have more time to explore the city when it is empty.
- GO DURING THE WEEK: Tuesday and Wednesday are the best days to visit as they have reduced footfall.
- PLAN SMART: Visit the Belfry at the opening, take a canal cruise over lunch, or invest in a personal walking tour and ask your guide to start at 08.00, thus avoiding the crowds.
10. Christmas Markets of Bruges vs Brussels
I spent many a December traipsing through both Christmas markets and they both have their charm, albeit for very different reasons.
Christmas in Bruges
Every year at the end of November, the city carpets the historical center in a dazzling array of lights. The horsedrawn carriages are decorated for Christmas and the storefronts go all out in a bid to attract the attention of visitors. In terms of the overall Christmas vibe, there is no place like Bruges.
It is therefore surprising that the Christmas Market itself is rather underwhelming. Unlike Brussels, the stalls are housed in metal containers and have a relatively small offering of food & beverages.
Christmas in Brussels
End of November also sees the kickoff for Christmas in the country’s capital. Over 160 streets are richly decorated with a variety of different lights and a larger-than-life Christmas tree is placed on the Grand Place, where a beautiful light show is held. It is undeniably beautiful, but nowhere near as full-on as Bruges.
The Christmas Market however trumps Bruges, there is no comparison. Wooden chalets mushroom up across the city and offer a wide variety of food, drink, and little trinkets. Two ice skating rings pop up as well as a ferris wheel overlooking the largest Christmas market on the Fish Market.
Additional Considerations Bruges or Brussels
SAFETY: Compared to many other capital cities like for example Amsterdam or Paris, Brussels is super safe. There are pockets of lesser safe streets (mostly around the train stations) but as a general rule, the city is very safe. As Bruges is not a capital city but a little provincial city, it is even safer than Brussels.
CULTURE: Despite receiving a lot of tourists, Bruges is still decidedly Flemish in terms of culture. Flanders is located in northern Belgium and is different in terms of culture to southern Belgium. Thanks to the European Institutions, Brussels has a lot of different nationalities living in the city. This does mean that you will not get a real feel for “Belgian Culture” if you visit the city.
GETTING AROUND: The historical center of Bruges is tiny and therefore you will only require a pair of good walking shoes to get around. Brussels is a much larger city, although the historical center and most of the tourist attractions are within walking distance of each other. Those that are further out can be reached by taking either the metro or the tram.
EXPLORING BELGIUM: Belgium is the size of a pocket square, one with a solid network of public transportation. Therefore getting anywhere can usually be done in under 2 hours. That being said Brussels is more centrally located and therefore easier to use as a base for navigating around Belgium.
Visiting Bruges or Brussels FAQS
Is Brussels worth visiting?
As a local, I can definitely say that my beloved Brussels is well worth a visit. The historical center with the majestic Grand Place will take your breath away. Lovers of Art Nouveau and international cuisine will also want to spend some time exploring the city. In spring it has the beautiful Bluebell Forest to visit!
Is Bruges worth visiting?
Bruges is without a doubt the prettiest city in Belgium. The UNESCO-classified historical center and belfy are unparalleled in the country, add to that the charming canals and abundance of little chocolate stores and you quickly see why so many tourists flock to Bruges every year.
Can I visit Brussels and Bruges in one day?
Technically, yes, practically, no. Bruges is located one hour away from Brussels and connected via a direct train. There is a lot to see in both cities and cramming them both into one blitz visit will mean you do not get to experience the magic of either.
Brussels or Bruges for a day?
That honestly depends on what it is you are hoping to get out of your visit. Have a browse through my one day in Bruges guide and my one day in Brussels guide to get an idea of what you can do in 24 hours in both cities. Bruges is definitely smaller and easier to navigate in one day, it is also undeniably charming and a place you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world.
Is Bruges near Brussels?
Bruges is roughly 95 km (59 mi) from Brussels, so it is relatively close by.
What is the nicest city in Belgium?
I absolutely love tiny Mechelen but few cities can hold a candle to Bruges. Brussels is equally beautiful but it requires a little more research to uncover its beauty.
Is Brussels or Bruges more expensive?
Compared to other tourist hotspots in Belgium, Bruges is relatively affordable. A beer will set you back €3 (US$3), meals start at €20 (US$22) and a night in a hotel is rarely less than €100 (US$110). As the capital of the country, Brussels is more expensive. Meals are more around the €25 (US$28) range and a hotel is oftentimes more around the €120 (US$ 130) range.
Is the Brussels or Bruges Christmas market better?
Bruges at Christmas is absolute magic. The whole city is festooned in twinkling lights and the shops go all out with their window displays. The Christmas vibes in Bruges are definitely better than in Brussels. However, when it comes to the market itself, the Brussels Christmas Market takes the cake. Various pockets of little wooden stalls pop up all over the city offering both local and international cuisine.
A Recap of Bruges or Brussels
Ultimately the choice between the cities is a very personal one. If you have the chance I strongly urge you to spend one day in each. Equally breathtaking, yet so very different. Both cities will highlight a different part of the elusive Belgian culture, which is an eclectic mixture unlike anything you are likely to encounter in Europe.
Bruges is a typical northern Belgian city that runs efficiently. The medieval, Gothic architecture with is picture-perfect canals has remained virtually unchanged for many centuries. It is small and can be visited in a day, although spending at least one night is the best way to avoid the crowds.
Brussels radiates charming chaos and a laid-back vibe rarely found in a capital city. Magnificent Art Nouveau buildings rub shoulders with drab blocks of concrete erected in the 1950s and neoclassical mansions. This is quintessential Brussels. Getting a feel for Brussels will take at least two days as there is a lot to see in the city.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING BELGIUM
BRUGES: Christmas Market in Bruges
BRUGES: One day in Bruges itinerary
BELGIUM: 16 Castle hotels in Belgium
BELGIUM: Beautiful places in Belgium to visit
BELGIUM: Guide to the bluebell forest near Brussels
BRUSSELS: Best areas to stay in Brussels
BRUGES: 15 Sustainable Boutique Hotels in Bruges
BRUSSELS: Day trips from Brussels
NAMUR: Things to do in Namur