Brussels or Bruges: which to visit for an amazing Belgian city break?

Brussels Sunset

I feel a little bit of angst pitting Brussels against Bruges in a ‘which is better?’ style competition. These two distinctive Belgian cities both deserve a visit and each offer something unique. They are so different that it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

What’s more, they are only an hour apart by train meaning it’s really easy to combine them in one trip. However, if you’re really pushed for time and you must choose between the two, how do you decide between Brussels or Bruges?

So, here I look at Bruges vs Brussels across a number of categories so that you can decide which one will suit you and your travel objectives best.

A tale of two cities

Let’s start with an overview so that you can get a broad feel about choosing Brussels or Bruges.

Brussels is the capital of Belgium and also the heart of EU politics and NATO. As such, it’s got a business-political feel and it’s highly cosmopolitan.

Brussels Belgium

It is bursting with grand architecture, world class museums and it’s large – with all the positives and negatives that can bring. Brussels is vibrant and packed full of things to do, whatever appeals to you.

Bruges is completely different. It’s smaller and has a fairy tale feel with medieval architecture, meandering waterways and picturesque moments seemingly around every corner.

Beautiful Bruges

It’s world-famous for its food. As such an attractive and walkable city with a relaxed vibe, it’s no surprise that it’s a tourist haven and can be very busy.

As you can see, doing a Brussels vs Bruges comparison is going to be tough, so let’s break it down and look at some of the main factors which might help you decide.

Getting there: Brussels or Bruges

With city breaks, ease of access is all-important. If you’re just visiting for a few days then you don’t want those few days completely taken over with travel. 

You can get to Brussels from London by Eurostar in less than two hours if you select a fast train. It takes around five hours to drive, depending on crossing times, so it’s always worth hopping on a train.

Brussels Architecture

Flights from the main London airports take around an hour, but once you’ve factored in airport time and transfers, the train still comes out on top. You leave from London St Pancras and arrive in the heart of Brussels.

Bruges is closer to London with around four and a half hours of driving. You can get to Bruges by Eurostar too but the trains are slower. Expect your journey to still take a very reasonable 3 hr 25 mins in total. This includes getting into the centre of Bruges on a local train from Brussels-Midi/Zuid – the station where you arrive.

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Two distinct vibes

With a city break, the vibe matters. The atmosphere of the city can make or break your trip. But as travellers, we may be looking for different things, even at different times.

When it comes to Bruges vs Brussels, the vibe is a real differentiator. 

Bruges encapsulates all things ‘history’. It’s what we conjure up in our minds when we think of a classic European getaway. There are cobblestone streets wending through medieval architecture. The buildings capture the imagination and the foodie scene and café-culture is strong.

There’s a relaxed-feel as tourists meander around. It also feels almost regal with a lingering sense of the Flemish bourgeoisie. This is a city you’ll mostly explore by foot, maybe hopping on a boat or a bike occasionally (or a horse-driven carriage or Segway!).

However, especially at the height of summer, the vibe can be a little overwhelming in terms of tourist numbers and day-trippers. There tend to be queues everywhere and cafes become overcrowded. I always recommend visiting Bruges in the shoulder seasons for this reason, as then you get Bruges at its best.

The vibe in Brussels is completely different. It’s a cultural melting pot of expats and a place of business all year around. The cosmopolitan business-centred feel can make it a bit less relaxing for visitors, but it’s got a vibrant buzz that’s quite enticing.

Brussels Sunset

Owing to its size, there are pockets of Brussels which have very different feels – sometimes edgy, sometimes relaxed and sometimes best avoided. Brussels is much bigger so you will likely rely on tourist hop-on-hop-off buses or the easy-to-use metro. 

Brussels vs Bruges – things to see and do

Brussels things to do

In Brussels, the main attraction is probably the Grand Place which is the city’s main square. It’s everything you’d expect in a historical city centre. You probably want to take a walk down Koningstraat, and also make a visit to the Royal Palace and Park.

I highly recommend taking the opportunity to visit the imposing Palace of Justice. The Marolles district is also worth a visit, particularly on a Sunday when the market is trading. Mini-Europe Park is quite fun and the Atomium adds a futuristic centre to this historical city.

Brussels is impressive in the museum stakes with over 70 museums and galleries. Here you will find the Brussels Art Museum; other popular museums include The Magritte Museum and Horta Museum.

Those with specific interests may also find something that puts Brussels in prime position here. For example, the Musical Instruments Museum, with over 7,000 instrument exhibits, the Comics Museum, or the Royal Museum of Central Africa.

There are plenty of places to visit out of the centre too. These include the striking architecture at Place Flagey, Porte Namurm (the African district), high-class Sablon as well as Brussels Park and Parc du Cinquantenaire.

Bruges things to do

Everything in Bruges is much more compact and closer together. As such, you can wander around and do more things at the same time. Indeed, perhaps the single best thing to do is simply take a walk, marvelling at all the beautiful buildings.

The Burg central square is a wonderful place to start, with a climb up Belfry Tower for a good view. Then make your way over various bridges and enjoy a mesmerising visit to Minnewater Lake. Don’t forget to buy gifts of chocolates and stop in cafes just to watch the world go by.

Burg Square

As a visitor to Bruges, you’ll need to be interested in history. There are a plethora of places to visit including the Church of Our Lady, Stadhuis town hall, Jeruzalemkerk Church, and of course the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde. There are a wealth of other attractive photo stops, including medieval gates and windmills.

Bruges is surrounded on three sides by canals and experiences on the water are a key attraction. Boat trips offer unique ways to photograph this picture-perfect city, especially from Rozenhoedkaai. 

Bruges can’t quite compete with Brussels for museums, being much smaller and not the capital. However, don’t overlook it – especially the Lace Centre and the chocolate museum! Discover more of the best things to do in Bruges.

Bruges vs Brussels – food (and drink)!

Any follower of mine will know that food is a highly important part of the travel experience for me. 

On the face of it, being the larger of the two, Brussels has more choice when it comes to restaurants and bars. An excellent place to find somewhere to eat or drink is the Sablon area. As a wealthy neighbourhood, it has good choice.

Check out Patisseries Witamer for a coffee and treat. Place Saint-Gery and the Rue des Bouchers also offer lots of choice. Indeed, as expected, you won’t be short of a place to grab a beer or two. 

Brussels Waffles

However, while Brussels is bigger, Bruges is the winner for me when it comes to food. From Michelin restaurants in Bruges to chocolatier after chocolatier, Bruges is in a class of its own when it comes to cuisine.

At the other end of the scale, Bruges also has plenty of pop-ups and fast food spots where you can grab some iconic Belgian fries or a waffle, especially around the Markt. There are also plenty of spots to enjoy a beer and plate of frites (a Belgian gastronomical attraction!) with historic breweries such as the Half-Moon Brewery and Zot Brewery.

Bruges Fries

The only issue with Bruges is lunchtime eating. Day-trippers mean that reservations are a must. However, have some grab-and-go fries at lunch and then enjoy finer dining in the evening, and it’s not a problem. 

What else matters when comparing Bruges and Brussels?

When it comes to luxury accommodation, I would put Bruges hotels and Brussels hotels on an equal footing.

Die Swaene Hotel Pink Suite

Shopping is distinctly different between the two places. In Brussels, expect well-known brands and luxury boutiques with lots of choice. In Bruges, expect authentic and unusual things, including crafts (lots of lace!).

Just an hour apart, you can expect weather to be very similar between the two. 

As you can see, choosing between Bruges or Brussels is difficult. For me, Bruges wins out, but I highly recommend visiting both. If you can visit both, don’t relegate Bruges to a day trip – it deserves more and staying is the way to see Bruges at its best.

Discover my Bruges travel guide.

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