What to see and do
A leisurely walk through picturesque Bruges is a worthwhile experience all on its own. Two particularly stroll-worthy neighbourhoods are Gouden-Handrei and Sint-Anna Quarter, both less touristy but equally historic. Other popular ways to explore Bruges are boat rides along the criss-crossing canals or by bike – the way most locals get around. A major attraction – and workout – is climbing the 366-step belfry tower overlooking the main market square. The panoramic view from the top is great for getting a feel for the general layout of the city from the start, not to mention the carillonneur’s impressive bell mechanism that’s up there. On the same square lies the Bruges City Hall, dating back to 1376, with its magnificent polychrome vaulted ceiling inside.
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Having always been a city of the elite, it’s no surprise that Bruges attracted many of yesteryear’s great artists and their work. The Groeningemuseum has assembled a world-renowned collection of works by the Flemish primitives, including Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. In addition, the Church of Our Lady holds one of Michelangelo’s few sculptures found outside Italy, the Madonna of Bruges. Other religious highlights include the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where a vial of what some people believe to be Jesus’s actual blood is kept, and the curious, 15th-century Jerusalem Chapel, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Naturally, all that Medieval splendour tugs at the heartstrings, and Bruges, with its legions of swans and cobbled alleyways, is more than accommodating to the romantically inclined. Legend has it that walking across the bridge of the Minnewater (the Lake of Love) will grant eternal love to a couple, which you can celebrate by having a picnic at the neighbouring Minnewaterpark. Also, it’s a tradition for tourists to share a slightly colder kiss with the frog statue in Burg Square in hopes of turning the animal into a prince or princess charming after smooch number 100,000.
As far as aphrodisiacs go, the Old Chocolate House, Olivier’s Chocolate Shop & Bar, and Dominique Persoone’s pioneering the Chocolate Line project are your best friends. Cafe Rose Red is the most romantic bar, with a revolving selection of artisanal beers, intimate decor and red roses dangling from the ceiling. Fellow beer hotspots to stand out from the pack are the homely ‘t Brugs Beertje, the 500-year-old Café Vlissinghe and student hotspot ‘t Poatersgat.
Where to stay
Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce
Canal views, period furniture, Ralph Lauren fabrics and marble bathrooms come with most rooms in this half-timbered waterfront residence in the historic centre. Watch swans glide over the water as you tuck into a freshly cooked waffle breakfast before strolling to major attractions such as the market, Burg Square and the Groeningemuseum. Other amenities include a bar, covered parking and a staff that can arrange guided tours, opera tickets and restaurant bookings.
Named after the historic bridge right next to it, this gabled 16th-century residence has a rooftop terrace with views over the Church of Our Lady and the Gruuthuse Palace. There’s also a lounge with an open log fire and a chessboard, plus a breakfast room with a beamed ceiling, a black Aga cooker and hanging copper pans. All rooms feature antique furniture and granite bathrooms with whirlpool baths and separate walk-in showers; many also have four-poster beds.
Van Cleef Hotel
This whitewashed Italianate mansion – home to successive members of the Van Cleef dynasty for more than 700 years – offers some of the most luxurious suites in Bruges, featuring king-size beds, Hermès fabrics and French windows opening to canal and rooftop views. Admire the eclectic collection of modern art on display in the Green Room over breakfast or an afternoon tea of finger sandwiches and home-made pastries. Take an early-evening appetiser and cocktail on the bar’s canalside terrace.
The oldest hotel in Bruges also has one of the sharpest interiors, with communal spaces enlivened with contemporary art and sculptures. The chic, colourful bar was once a favourite hangout of French poet Paul Verlaine, who adored Bruges and called it Little Amsterdam. His verses adorn the walls of the rooms and suites, which come with white marble bathrooms or free-standing bathtubs next to the bed. The hotel’s loft-inspired room is the biggest suite in Bruges.
Where to eat
While Bruges is a city of excellent gastronomy, it can be a costly surprise for many visitors. Some bistros, such as lunch favourite Locàle by Kok au Vin, try to ease the pain by producing the affordable without losing the delectable. The same goes for star chef Geert Van Hecke, who runs Michelin-star restaurant Zet’Joe and the more accessible side project, Refter.
Ganzespel serves authentic Flemish food for a great price. Classics such as waterzooi (a type of stew) and steak béarnaise provide comfort and warmth. As the afterglow of a good meal for less than €20 (£17) sets in, you can play the traditional board game for which this snug place was named.
Meanwhile, at Brutal by Bruut, chef Bruno Timperman brings together people on long, unpolished wooden tables to treat them to Belgian dishes with a twist. Within a casual atmosphere, the chef uses seasonal produce, all as fresh as can be.
How to get there
The easiest way to get to Bruges when arriving by flight at Brussels Airport is through the direct railway connection that leaves every hour. However, if you missed the last connection, you can take a train to Brussels-Zuid and then transfer. Both routes should take about an hour and a half. Once at the Bruges station, you can either take a bus – there are plenty – to the centre or enjoy a brisk, 20-minute walk. Do not plan on driving your car around cobbled Bruges with its narrow alleys; it’s better to park outside the city.
Mark Nayler contributed additional reporting.
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