Explore Bruges, the ‘Venice of the North’, with its canals, arching bridges, historic squares and romantic medieval streets that are full of charming buildings and welcoming bars
Love at first sight? Definitely. Bruges is a smooth-talker: you can’t fail to be charmed by its tangle of pretty medieval lanes, cute canals, cobbled streets and neat whitewashed houses. It seems to have been frozen in time: horses and carts trundle down the streets, locals ride their bicycles and everyone else ambles around in slow motion. There’s lots to do, or you can do nothing at all. The food is first rate, from melt-in-your-mouth chocolates to top-end Flemish cooking and Michelin-starred chefs. So raise a glass of excellent Belgian beer, drink in the atmosphere and marvel at your luck.
What to do
Get down among the hustle and bustle at the Markt, the old marketplace. The soaring Belfort (Belfry) is the most striking building on the square, so summon up all your strength and make the dizzying climb up the 366 steps. It’s a little bit eerie up top but the views are worth it.
Back on the ground rest your legs and hitch a ride on a horse-drawn carriage from the Markt through the pretty medieval lanes. Potter along a side-street to the small, sweet Burg Square. The most impressive and beautiful buildings of Bruges are clustered here. Tucked into one corner is the Basilica of the Holy Blood (www.holyblood.org) with the relic of the Holy Blood. It was once the subject of fervent devotion; worshippers believed it could heal the sick.
Wind your way south along the canal and pop in for a nosy at the Groeninge museum (00 32 50 448 743); it has an outstanding collection of medieval art. Nearby is the Church of Our Lady, where the main draw is Michelangelo’s beautifully carved sculpture of the Madonna and Child. Don’t leave without a look at the pulpit – it’s magnificently over the top.
Round the corner is the Begijnhof, a group of houses clustered round a garden which is a haven for Benedictine sisters. It is a gated enclave with a peaceful atmosphere, perfect for an afternoon stroll. Then it’s back through streets lined with chocolate and lace shops and little almshouses, to finish your day with a glass of Belgian beer at L’Estaminet (00 32 50 330 916).
Where to kiss
Bruges was made for romancing. Stroll hand-in-hand with your belle or beau around the Minnewater, the so-called ‘Lake of Love’, and toss a coin over your shoulder into the water – it’s said to bring you luck in love. Pucker up next to the statue of The Lovers at Burg Square, or take a boat trip down the pretty canals as the light fades. Then gaze longingly at each other over a candlelit dinner and a glass of champagne. St-Amour ’t Voermanshuys near Burg Square should do the trick, with its cosy corners and award-winning food.
Where to stay
Gorgeously grand Oud Huis De Peellaert oozes old-school glamour. The rooms are luxurious with huge oak wardrobes, lovely big windows and super-comfy beds. The 18th-century Pand Hotel is a 24-room mansion with modern touches. Bag a room that overlooks the cathedral. In a former convent right on the edge of the canal, De Orangerie is a lovely boutique hotel. Enjoy your breakfast on the terrace above the waters.
Where to eat and drink
Stop at a frietkot (snack stand) at the Markt for a cone of chips. The Belgians do them best – served piping hot, crisp and golden. For the sweet of tooth, cosy café Hennon (00 32 50 332 800) specialises in Belgian waffles, pancakes and ice-cream. Stock up on choccies at the family-run Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc (www.sukerbuyc.be), where everything is made by hand and on the premises.
For a pint or two, beer-lovers should head to Brugs Beertje (00 32 50 339 616; www.brugsbeertje.be), which stocks over 300 types – just don’t try and drink them all. Den Dijver (00 32 50 336 069; www.dijver.be) is famed for its dishes cooked and served with Belgian beer. The setting in a Flemish house is gorgeous, the cooking top notch and the service slick but friendly.
For an haute cuisine feast go to Aneth (00 32 50 311 189; www.aneth.be). The menu is inventive with unusual pairings, and each dish is a work of art. It’s a little out of the centre but well worth the journey.
Time running out?
Visit Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan (www.halvemaan. be), the only original brewery still open in Bruges. Go for a tour and a glass of Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henri), its specialist beer.
Hire a bike and whizz around the streets like a local (00 32 50 344 196). Or join Amuse Gueule (www.vizit.be) for a ‘cycling dinner’, visiting four restaurants for each part of a four-course meal.
Currency is the euro. Bruges is one hour ahead of GMT and a one-hour flight, or three-hour 20-minute train journey, from London.
Eurostar (0870 518 6186; www.eurostar.com) has up to 10 departures for Brussels a day and tickets are valid to any Belgian station. There are regular intercity train connections with Bruges. British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) flies daily from Heathrow and Gatwick to Brussels. Take a train to Bruges.
Bruges Tourist Office: 00 32 50 444 646; www.brugge.be.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.