BRUGES, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000 and known as the Venice of the North, has something to offer visitors of all ages all year round.
The city can be crowded, and sometimes it almost feels like you are still in the UK as you walk around and hear so many English voices, a reminder of Bruges' close proximity to the Channel ports and the Eurostar terminal in Brussels.
If you come here by car, leave it in one of the large, inexpensive car parks on the edge of town (3.50 Euros for 24 hours at the Central Station), as Bruges’ narrow, cobbled streets are not motor vehicle-friendly, and the city is small enough to be explored on foot. Another way to see the city is to take a 30-minute boat trip along the canals (6.50 Euros for adults, 3 Euros for under-11s). These guided tours, which have multiple departure points, will show you parts of Bruges you may otherwise miss.
The streets leading off the Markt, the main square, are usually crowded with tourists. Some seem to assume, wrongly, that these streets are pedestrianised. But take care, as they are open to traffic – cars, cycles (of which there are many here) and the horse-drawn carriages, another popular, if expensive, means of taking a guided tour of the old city (35 Euros per carriage for a 35-minute tour).
Located on the Markt, and a dominant feature of the city’s skyline, is the 83-metre-high Belfry Tower (Belfort). For the energetic, and those with a good head for heights, a 366-step climb up a narrow, winding staircase takes you the top, from where you can enjoy a fantastic panoramic view across the city and beyond. Conveniently, there are several benches and refuges during the steep climb where you can take a break too.
Once the home of the city’s archives, the original 13th century bell tower was destroyed by fire in 1280, and the archives lost forever. Although the tower was rebuilt with a wooden spire, two further fires followed, and after the second, the spire was never replaced. A stone parapet was erected in the 19th century, but the current tower remains somewhat shorter than its predecessors.
The Groenige Museum on Groeningestraat is the city’s museum of fine arts. It houses an extensive collection of paintings dating from the 14th to the 20th century, featuring Flemish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch. The Groenige is open six days a week, but be aware that, like most Bruges museums, it is closed on Mondays.
Well worth a visit for adults and children alike is the Frietmuseum, located on Vlamingstraat, less than five minutes walk to the north of the Markt. Housed in the 14th century Saaihalle building, the museum advertises itself as the only one in the world dedicated to the history of the Belgian potato chip. Here you can learn about the fascinating history of the potato, which has its origins in Peru, and how the term ‘French fries’ came into common usage. In the basement there is, of course, a cafeteria where you can sample some for yourself.
If you are visiting in the pre-Christmas period, Bruges hosts two Christmas markets, one on the Markt and the other on nearby Simon Stevin Square. Although they are not on the same grand scale as those in neighbouring Germany, they do still have a certain ambience which is worth experiencing.
You will not find an abundance of gift-wrapped chocolates and biscuits at these markets - you need to head for the shops in the adjoining streets for that. Apart from woollen hats and scarves, the stalls here are mostly selling hamburgers and hot dogs, to be washed down with liquor coffees, mulled wine and spirits.
For real family fun, there is a skating rink at the Markt too, open until 8PM, later at weekends. But watch out for the grumpy man who frequently appears to sweep up the scuffed ice - he takes no prisoners, and seems quite prepared to sweep up unsuspecting skaters too!
Where to eat
For good value, child-friendly eating, the Tea Room Laurent (Steentraat 79) serves typical Belgian pancakes and waffles for under 10 Euros with a fast and welcoming service.
Another option is Petit Maxim, a tea house and brasserie (Braambergstraat 4, http://www.petitmaxim.be). This is a small, family run establishment and is excellent for morning coffee and waffles.
Where to stay
NH Hotel (link below) - Four-star hotel, opposite the bus terminus on ‘T Zand square, and within 10 minutes walk of the Markt. Standard double rooms cost around 100-120 Euros per night, excluding breakfast.
Although now part of an international chain, this 17th century building has a welcoming feel with its oak beams and open fireplace in the reception area. For summer visits, the hotel also benefits from a secluded garden. Enjoy continental buffet breakfast in the Ter Boeverie restaurant and a Belgian beer in the Bar Jan Breydel.