Last updated on April 28, 2023 by Wandering our World
If you’re thinking of visiting Belgium and wondering where to stay, the cities of Brussels and Bruges might be at the top of your list. However, if you’ve only got time to visit one of these two places, which should you choose?
Well, it may not be an easy choice as both cities are very different!
As the capital of Belgium, Brussels is absolutely filled with cultural landmarks and fascinating things to see, from the Grand Place to the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert. It’s a lively and eclectic place, perfect for sampling Belgian food and enjoying a diverse range of activities.
Then, there’s Bruges. Beloved by visitors all around the world for its distinctive beauty and well-preserved historic buildings, Bruges provides an inimitable fairy tale feel, with lots of museums, galleries, and churches, coupled with a calming and romantic vibe that washes over the entire city, making it one of Europe’s most special destinations.
There are plenty of big differences between Brussels and Bruges, from their size and populations to their main landmarks, activities, attractions, and even average costs.
In this guide, we’ll be taking a look at all of those factors and more to see how Brussels and Bruges truly compare, giving you all the info you need to pick the right city for your next trip. Let’s get started!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Shopping?
- Which Has The Best Food?
- Which Has The Best Hotels?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
- Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?
- Which Is Better For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview: Brussels vs Bruges
Brussels: A Quick Overview
Brussels is the capital city of Belgium, as well as being the administrative center of the European Union.
Home to more than 188,000 people, it’s one of the largest cities in the nation, with the full Brussels-Capital Region housing over 1.2 million people. Brussels is located in a central position, around 60 miles southeast of Bruges.
The history of Brussels goes back to the year 979, when Charles of Lorraine founded the city in its earliest form.
It was built on the banks of the Senne, giving it an advantageous trading position, and this helped the city prosper and grow as the years went on. It played a key role in several big events in history, with the Belgian Revolution beginning in this very city in 1830.
Nowadays, Brussels is known as Belgium’s main economic, cultural, and transport hub, as well as a leading global city, hosting important events, like NATO summits and EU-related meetings.
It’s also a popular touristic destination, with many travelers eager to explore the city’s historic ‘Pentagon’, which is filled with beautiful old buildings, galleries, monuments, and museums.
Lively and atmospheric, Brussels is an exciting place to spend some time.
It boasts a broad selection of cultural attractions and activities, and travelers may need a few days or even a full week to fully explore this city and appreciate all that it has to offer, from its thrilling nightlife to its fantastic food and shopping experiences.
Bruges: A Quick Overview
Bruges is a Belgian city in the northwest part of the country. It’s the capital of the West Flanders province, and it’s the sixth-biggest city in Belgium in terms of population, with close to 120,000 people living here.
Nicknamed ‘Venice of the North’, Bruges is well-known for its many canals, and it has been an important economic center for Belgium throughout history.
The origins of this city are unclear, but we do know that Bruges saw big development from the 11th century onward.
It became the capital of the County of Flanders in 1089, and many new walls, structures, and canals were formed in the decades after, while the city forged prosperous trading links with England, Scandinavia, and other European countries.
Bruges’ importance as a trading port declined in latter centuries, but it soon emerged as one of Europe’s top touristic destinations in the 19th century, with many wealthy and noble travelers from France and Europe holidaying in this city and enjoying its wonderful medieval buildings, historic monuments, and beautiful churches.
Tourists have continued to adore Bruges into the modern era.
The city’s historical center has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best-kept medieval towns in all of Europe, with key landmarks like the Belfry of Bruges and Church of Our Lady.
Famous films like ‘In Bruges’ have also added to the popularity of this city.
Which Is Best For Activities?
One of the biggest factors to take into account when deciding between Brussels and Bruges is the list of activities and attractions that each of these cities can provide.
They both have historic buildings, interesting museums, and cultural activities for travelers to try, but there are some big differences in terms of the quantity and range of attractions on offer….
Brussels: The Activities
As the busy, bustling capital of Belgium, Brussels has no shortage of fun and interesting activities, and many visitors will spend most of their time in the so-called Pentagon, or historic center.
Here, you can explore Brussels’ many charming quarters and neighborhoods, each with its own landmarks and attractions.
The Royal Quarter, for example, is where you can find the famous Place Royal, an 18th century neoclassical square, as well as the stunning Royal Palace of Brussels – this is the official palace of the Belgian royal family, although they don’t actually live here.
Meanwhile, in the Central Quarter, you can admire the famous Mannekin Pis statue and St. Gudula Cathedral.
Other landmarks include Egmont Palace in the Sablon Quarter, the Palace of Justice in the Marolles Quarter, and the famous Atomium structure and Mini-Europe park in Laeken.
There are also plenty of museums around the city to learn more about Brussels and Belgian history, like the Art & History Museum.
There are lots of other ways to engage with Brussels’ culture, from beer-tasting tours to roams around the flea market in the Marolles Quarter.
The Bozar cultural center is a great place for live events and concerts, while the Comic Strip Center is a fun spot for the whole family to learn about classic Belgian comic characters, like Tintin and The Smurfs.
Bruges: The Activities
Bruges may not be able to boast of quite as many museums and tourist attractions as Brussels, but it’s such a beautiful city, even the simple act of walking along the streets is a terrific way to spend your time.
By doing so you’ll get to enjoy many magical medieval buildings along the way. Or, for a different view, consider taking a ride along the city’s canals.
There are many landmarks to uncover around Bruges, like the famous Basilica of the Holy Blood – it’s believed that this church houses a piece of cloth with the blood of Jesus himself upon it.
The Belfry is another famous sight; dating back to the 15th century, this tower enjoys extraordinary views across the city – try to visit on the hour, so you can hear the bells ring.
This city also has its share of quirky attractions. There’s a museum dedicated to torture, which isn’t for the faint of heart, as well as a ‘beer wall’ – situated at the 2be Beer shop, this wall is perfect for beer fans to snap some selfies.
Romantics will want to kiss on the Lovers’ Bridge, while film fans could take a walking tour to spots where scenes from In Bruges were filmed.
Bruges also happens to host quite a lot of fun festivals and events throughout the year, including the famous MA Festival, which celebrates early music and includes various concerts and competitions, as well as a range of music, food, and culture festivals.
If you time your visit just right, you might be able to enjoy one of these big events.
Overall, in terms of quantity of activities and attractions, Brussels takes the win, as it has more things to see and do.
However, for those seeking a more relaxing getaway, Bruges can offer the romantic and laid-back vibes you seek, while still providing plenty of intriguing landmarks nestled among its winding waterways and narrow alleys.
Which Is Better For Day Trips?
Depending on how long you’re spending in Belgium, you might like to take a day away from Brussels or Bruges to see some other parts of the country, and there are plenty of great day trip destinations to check out.
It’s even possible to do day trips from Brussels to Bruges, and vice versa, as the two cities are only around one hour apart by train.
Trains also run from Brussels to many other Belgian cities, and since the capital is right in the center of the country, it’s absolutely ideal for exploring all four corners of the Belgian territory, from Liege in the east to Antwerp in the north and Charleroi to the south.
Each of these Belgian cities has something special to offer, from the art deco landmarks of Charleroi to the fantastic Flemish Renaissance architecture of Antwerp, and they’re all only an hour or less from Brussels by train.
Meanwhile, visitors to Bruges might like to consider exploring the northern part of the nation. You can quickly and easily access the big cities of Antwerp and Ghent from Bruges, for example, while off-the-beaten-path locations like Kortrijk are also worth checking out.
History buffs might also like to visit the famous World War I battle sites around Ypres, or even cross over the border into France for a trip to Dunkirk, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers were evacuated in one of the most talked-about moments of the Second World War.
Overall, both Brussels and Bruges have great day trip potential. However, we have to give the win to Brussels, as it’s got superior transport links to other cities and is perfectly positioned for adventures all over Belgium.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
Next, let’s talk about nightlife, and it should come as no surprise that Brussels takes the win in this category, as it’s a much larger and busier city overall.
There are lots of good places to hang out in the evenings around Brussels, with a plethora of pubs, bars, and clubs to choose from.
The Sablon or Zael district is one of the top nightlife destinations, filled with trendy bars and eateries, while the Rue des Bouchers is also famed for its lively taverns.
The historic Pentagon also has plenty of thumping clubs to choose from, with some staying open into the early hours and playing a wide variety of musical genres.
Over in Bruges, the nightlife scene is tamer, and parts of this city can feel quite calm after dark.
You won’t find many clubs, but there are still some nice pubs for grabbing a drink and mingling with locals.
Many people also say that Bruges takes on a different air at night, and it can be pleasant to simply walk around the city and visit places like the Belfry once the sun has set.
Which Is Best For Shopping?
Shopping is a fun way to spend some time in both Brussels and Bruges, but, unsurprisingly, it’s the capital city that has the better shopping experiences, and Brussels is a fabulous place for buying typical Belgian souvenirs, from chocolates to beer glasses and intricate lacework.
There are some fabulous spots to shop in Brussels, starting off with the gorgeous Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries – built back in the 1840s, these old shopping arcades are a joy to walk around and full up with fashion stores, chocolatiers, jewelers, and more.
For high-end shopping, the Avenue Louise is the place to be, lined on either side with designer boutiques, while the Quartier Saint Jacques is perfect for browsing eclectic and unusual shops, like a store dedicated to cutlery.
If market shopping is more your style, Brussels can cater to you, too. From the Marche du Midi – one of Europe’s biggest fresh produce and craft markets – to the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market in Marolles, there are lots of options for hunting down one-of-a-kind treasures, special souvenirs, and bargain gifts for friends and family back home.
In Bruges, the shopping scene is a little less rich and deep.
There’s still a nice mixture of recognizable brands and indie boutiques here, especially in streets like Steenstraat and Jakobstraat, as well as weekly markets in Markt Square and Dijver Canal, but the options are pretty limited.
Which Has The Best Food?
When it comes to food, Belgium does a few things better than any other country on Earth!
Crispy Belgian fries, or frites, are out-of-this-world, while Belgian chocolate is some of the finest in Europe, and Belgian waffles are a popular classic for folks of all ages.
You can find all of these treats, and more, in both Bruges and Brussels. But which city has the best overall eating scene in terms of restaurants, recipes, street food, and snacks?
Well, the dining scenes in both of these cities are actually quite similar.
You’ll find the same sorts of restaurants in both Brussels and Bruges, with similar menus and a big focus on fries, craft beers, waffles, pastries, and other delicious treats.
However, Brussels definitely has a wider range of eateries. Along with the typical Belgian pubs, you’ll also find some more gourmet-grade restaurants in the capital city, along with other restaurants specializing in various culinary styles from around the globe, like French, Italian, and Japanese cuisine.
In Bruges, the options are a little more limited. Therefore, those who appreciate a diverse selection of food should opt for Brussels, but if you only want to eat traditional Belgian meals, Bruges should be fine for you.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
How about accommodation options?
Well, once again, with Brussels being so big and popular, it has a huge number of hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses, and private rentals to choose from. You can find everything here from chic boutique hotels to budget chains.
In general, it’s best to get as close to the center as possible, but you can save money by booking a hotel in one of the less-visited quarters and walking into the main center each day.
Over in Bruges, there are fewer accommodation options, but this charming city still has a pretty broad selection of guesthouses and hotels to cater to varying budgets and needs.
Again, it’s recommended to find a spot near the center, especially as Bruges’ public transit isn’t the best.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Hotel Adornes is a fantastic budget accommodation that looks over Bruges’ beautiful canals and is situated right in the heart of the city. For the price, it’s a great choice. See photos and rates!
Luxury: The gorgeous Hotel Van Cleef is one of the best hotels in Belgium, and you’ll see why as soon as you see it! This canal-side, luxurious hotel has world-class service and even spa-style baths. An of course it’s located in the historic city center too. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Set in a gorgeous historic building, the five-star Juliana Hotel Brussels is as photogenic as it is special. Alongside the spa facilities, indoor pool and luxurious feel, this hotel is also smack bang in the middle of the capital. See photos and rates!
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
Heading to Belgium with the whole family? If so, you’ll need to decide between Brussels and Bruges with care, as one of these cities may be much more appealing to both you and your children than the other.
Brussels is often cited as one of the top spots for family vacations in Belgium, thanks to its myriad of attractions.
Kids can marvel at the famous Atomium, for example, or take a tour of Mini Europe, which has around 350 famous landmarks represented in miniature form – young ones, in particular, will enjoy pushing the various buttons to see what happens around the park.
Belgium’s capital also has the aforementioned Comic Strip Center, where kids can find out all about famous Belgian comic heroes, like Tintin.
Or, you could spend some time in the Museum of Chocolate, learning all about the origins of cocoa beans and how they were used in the days of the Aztecs and Mayans.
Funnily enough, Bruges also has its own Chocolate Museum, which just goes to show how important chocolate is in Belgian culture. Other family attractions include the interactive Historium center, the Belfry, and boat rides down the canal.
Overall, there’s clearly much more to do as a family in Brussels, and kids of all ages can appreciate the capital’s attractions, food, shops, and lively vibes.
With that said, if you’re looking for a more laid-back family trip and your kids are a little older, Bruges is still a terrific destination to consider.
Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?
If you’re looking for a romantic getaway with someone special, you’ll need to think about what kinds of activities and experiences you and your partner are looking for when deciding between Bruges and Brussels.
Bruges is definitely the more romantic of the two cities. It’s supremely picturesque, with flawless, fantastic architecture all around and genuine fairy tale vibes throughout its historic center.
Couples can enjoy long evening strolls along the winding streets and relaxing days visiting the various landmarks or touring the canals.
Brussels doesn’t have quite the same aesthetic appeal as Bruges, nor does it feel as traditionally romantic.
However, it has a clear advantage in terms of attractions, with many more things to fill up your travel itinerary.
So, if you’re looking for romance and relaxation, head to Bruges. If you’re seeking more of an exciting and activity-filled trip, with many museums and cultural activities, opt for Brussels instead.
Which Is Better For Backpackers?
Backpackers can have a terrific time in Belgium, as the country’s compact size and great transport links allow you to get around and see a lot of sights quite cheaply and conveniently, with Brussels and Bruges both standing out as super cities to visit.
Brussels has a number of hostels around its historic city center, with great nightly rates and really affordable food, too.
You can easily live on tasty street food snacks and other cheap eats, and the city’s walkable nature means you won’t need to spend too much on public transport, either.
A lot of backpackers and travelers from around the world congregate in Brussels, so it’s also a super spot to mingle with like-minded people.
Plus, the city’s good rail and bus links allow you to plan day trips or onward journeys into France, Germany, or The Netherlands.
Bruges also has a great backpacking scene, with plenty of hostels to choose from and popular bars and hangout spots where you can meet locals or travelers to exchange stories or buddy up for cultural tours and activities.
However, the public transit isn’t quite as good here, and it can be trickier to link Bruges with other cities if you’re planning an extended adventure across Europe.
Overall, we’d recommend Brussels as the best stop for backpackers, but Bruges isn’t a bad choice.
Which Is Cheaper?
When it comes to average costs, there’s really not too much difference between Brussels and Bruges, and if you plan carefully and book in advance, you can have a pretty affordable stay in either one of these cities.
Since Brussels is bigger, it has a wider range of accommodation options and eateries to suit all budgets, but average costs are actually slightly higher in the capital when compared to Bruges.
Because of this, you may end up spending a little more in Brussels on things like hotels and activities.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
First things first, let’s take a look at how you can travel to both Brussels and Bruges. Depending on your starting location, you might find that one of these cities is significantly easier and cheaper to access than the other.
When it comes to accessibility, the big difference between Brussels and Bruges is that the former has two international airports, while the latter has only a small airport (Ostend-Bruges) with very few flights, mostly from Spain and Turkey.
So, if you’re heading to Brussels, you can fly into either Brussels Airport, which is one of the biggest and busiest in Europe, with direct connections to many European countries, as well as Africa, Asia, Canada, and the US. or you can head to Brussels Charleroi Airport, which has a lot of budget flights from low-cost airlines, like Ryanair.
If you’re going to Bruges, however, you’ll most likely have to fly into Brussels to begin with and then hop on a train, with journey times to Bruges of around an hour.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
When it comes to getting around, Brussels has a fantastic public transport system. In fact, it’s one of the best in Europe, with four metro lines and lots of stops and stations in key areas around the city.
There are also buses and trams, and given that Brussels is a key transport hub for Belgium, it has many trains to other big cities across the nation.
There’s no need to rent a car in Brussels, and you won’t need one in Bruges, either.
Bruges is a compact, walkable city. You can get around the center with ease on your own two feet – this is the best way to explore Bruges and uncover all of its many hidden gems and secret streets.
There are some buses here, but you probably won’t need to rely on them.
Overall, Brussels’ public transport system is very impressive, but Bruges is even easier to get around, thanks to its smaller size and pedestrian-friendly center.
Brussels vs Bruges: Which Is The Better Choice?
Overall, there’s clearly a lot to love about both Brussels and Bruges, and it’s easy to see why these cities rank among the top touristic spots in Belgium.
They’re both very charming, filled with history and interesting activities to please all sorts of travelers.
If you have to pick one, we’d recommend Brussels to most people, purely thanks to the fact that it’s bigger, with more things to do and a more diverse range of attractions for people with different interests.
It has better nightlife, a deeper culinary scene, superior shopping, and excellent transport links, not only with the rest of Belgium, but also with neighboring nations.
With that said, Bruges is still a lovely and special city to visit, filled with distinctive, medieval charm.
There’s nowhere else in Belgium quite like it, and if you want to while away the hours walking along pretty streets and admiring the colorful buildings and cute canals, this is a great place to spend a few nights.