Awash with culture, cobbles and chocolate, you can’t beat a relaxing break in Bruges, says Gillian Thornton
Small enough to feel intimate, but full of character, the UNESCO-listed city of Bruges is still big enough to offer a tempting range of must-do cultural and culinary adventures.
Best of all, it’s very accessible from Britain. You can travel there by Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels, changing there for a local train, or take your car across the Channel for the short drive to Bruges – around one hour from Dunkirk and 90 minutes from Calais.
After breakfast in England, you could be sitting down to lunch and a Belgian beer by a picturesque canal.
The first stop for most visitors is Market Square with its colourful Guild houses and towering belfry.
There are 366 steps to the top but it’s worth the climb for the stupendous view.
Reward yourself afterwards at one of the many cafes round the square, with a bag of famously good chips from one of Bruges’ street stalls, or perhaps with a relaxing tour by horse-drawn carriage.
Invest €5 in the comprehensive Bruges City Guide and follow the 4km trail ‘Strolling through silent Bruges’ to discover quiet neighbourhoods, windmills and Cafe Vlissinghe, the city’s oldest, founded in 1515.
Make sure your camera (or phone) battery is fully charged because there’s a new picture round every corner.
The Rozenhoedkaai quayside near the belfry is one of the city’s most photographed spots, as is the tranquil inner courtyardof the Beguinage. Founded in 1245, its whitewashed houses are now home to the sisters of the order of Saint Benedict.
Close to the Beguinage is the tranquil Minnewater, or ‘Lake of Love’ – the Dutch word minne means love.
Watch the swans, the symbol of the city, and walk over the lake bridge with your partner to ensure eternal love, as local tradition has it.
A rich history
Compact Bruges is very easy on the feet, with all the main attractions within easy walking distance, but no visit would be complete without a boat trip to see the buildings from water level (around €8 for half an hour).
An important river port from the 12th century, the city’s Golden Age began in the 14th century when Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, married Margaret, daughter of the last Count of Flanders. Suddenly Flanders became Burgundian, and the city buzzed with noblemen, merchants and artists, attracted by the court, which often stayed here.
Fine arts flourished and many important private houses and public buildings were built. Bruges’ City Hall, built in 1376, is one of the oldest in the Low Countries and an exhibition on the ground floor charts the evolution of Burg Square outside its Gothic facade.
Bruges boasts 16 museums, from art to archaeology and folklore to furniture. There’s even one for Belgian fries – of course. The latest additions are the Lace Museum in the historic lace school, and the Beer Museum on Market Square.
If some of the sites look familiar as you walk around the Old Town, it could be because Bruges is a favourite with film directors.
The black crime comedy In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, was an obvious showcase for this picturesque city, but its period settings have often doubled for other locations.
The recent BBC dramatisation of Philippa Gregory’s medieval novel, The White Queen, was shot here – pick up a locations leaflet from the Tourist Office in Market Square to find out more.
History fans can travel back to the 15th century at the Historium on Market Square, where film, music and special effects combine to whisk visitors back to the Middle Ages, when painter Jan Van Eyck was at work in his studio.
The Groeninge Museum includes masterpieces by Van Eyck and other Flemish ‘Primitive’ painters, but also masterpieces of Flemish Expressionism and post-war modern art.
A taste of Belgium
When it’s time to feed the body rather than the soul, Bruges boasts an impressive variety of restaurants, including seven with Michelin stars.
For classic Belgian fare, take a tip from the locals and try De Vlaamsche Pot on Helmstraat, a family-run bistro where chef Mario Cattoor serves dishes from his grandmother’s recipe book.
Belgium is famous for its beer and Bruges has two local brews, Straffe Hendrik and Brugse Zot, both from De Halve Maan Brewery. Beer not your thing?
The city is home to more than 50 chocolatiers making not just traditional varieties but innovative new flavours, too.
There’s even an official city chocolate, the Bruges Swan (Brugsch Swaentje), a white swan filled with a secret mix of spices and local biscuit, which is produced by members of the Bruges Chocolate Guild.
Any of it makes a great edible gift for friends, or for yourself, but for a calorie-free treat, buy a piece of hand-made Bruges lace. Far from being a dated embellishment, this delicate handicraft is much in demand with today’s young fashion designers.
When darkness falls, Bruges casts a different kind of spell as civic buildings are illuminated, lights shine out from historic buildings, and reflections shimmer in the canals.
Whether you sit on a cafe terrace on summer evenings or settle down in front of a cosy log fire on a winter break to enjoy some authentic local cuisine, it’s an unforgettable city at any time of year.