Bruges, or Brugge as it is called in Flemish, is possibly the most photogenic city in the world. Summer or winter, wherever you look you see scenes from postcards. With its charming medieval step-roofed houses and imposing churches reflected in the still waters of the canals, it's almost too picturesque to be real.
The historic centre is quite small and contained within a ring of canals, so it's very walkable and easy to just wander through the narrow streets and market squares, exploring the town. To avoid the crowds, try visiting midweek rather than over the weekend, especially during the summer months.
At just three hours from London, with a quick change at Brussels Midi/Zuid on an Any Belgian Station ticket, Bruges has everything for a perfect short break. Whether you're enjoying a romantic horse and carriage tour around the old town with your significant other, sampling the local produce with your chocaholic foodie friends, or exploring the Torture Museum with your Goth teenager, you'll find plenty to appeal in Bruges.
Markt is the main market square in Bruges and the heart of the old town. Traditional medieval step-roof buildings surround a cobblestone plaza, lined with restaurants and bars.
One end of the square is dominated by the Belfort, an 83-metre high belfry with a carillon made up of 47 bells. The building dates back to the 13th century when it was part of a market hall.
If it all seems very familiar to you, the belfry featured quite prominently in the film, In Bruges.
On another side of the square you'll see the imposing, neo-Gothic Provinciaal Hof, between the post office and the Historium. Originally a government building, it's now mainly used for exhibitions and ceremonial occasions.
As a central point between the Hanseatic league 'eastern' states of England, Scandinavia and Germany, and the southern merchants of France, Italy and Spain, Bruges became the biggest trading centre in Northern Europe during the 13th-15th centuries.
The Hansa district is where the foreign traders lived and set up shop along streets known as Spanjaardstraat (Spaniard's Street) and Oosterlingenplein (Easterner's square).
Take a walk through this old quarter to see the mansions of the wealthy merchants, the ornate façade of the old Tollhouse and the atmospheric Jan van Eyckplein, once the old harbour of Bruges, and later named after the painter whose statue stands in the middle of the square.
De Halve Maan brewery dates back to the 16th century and is the only continuously working brewery in Bruges. The brewery is now connected to a bottling plant, two miles away, via the world's first beer pipeline.
The pipeline transports the beer under the city to the plant, where it is bottled and shipped, avoiding the need for heavy beer-tanker traffic disrupting the UNESCO World Heritage Site old town.
A brewery tour includes a beer in the price, but be warned it involves some pretty steep stairs up to the roof where there are fabulous views of Bruges, so it's not suitable for everyone. For the less able or willing, head to the tavern where you can sample some of the brewery's Straffe Hendrik and Brugse Zot to wash down your lunch.
If your preparation for a trip to Bruges was to watch the cult 2008 black comedy with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, you may find things a little quiet. If you're feeling nostalgic for action, the Bruges tourist board have put together a map of the main sites from the film to visit, and it pretty much includes all the town's top sights.
Walk in the footsteps of Ken and Ray as they visit the Groeninge Museum and see The Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch, then head to the Rozenhoedkaai, one of the most photographed parts of Bruges to take a boat trip on the canal. Finish with a 366-step climb to the top of Belfort for some fabulous views. Enjoy the tour, but stay out of trouble!
Bruges is all about chocolate, which is apt considering the chocolate-box perfection of the town. The biggest problem you'll have is deciding which chocolates to buy, when there are so many to choose from.
Most places will let you sample before you buy, so you may want to skip breakfast, and lunch, and dinner on the day you tour the chocolate shops.
Some of the better known chocolatiers are Dumon, The Chocolate Line, and The Old Chocolate House, none of which are cheap but which are well worth visiting. If all the sampling piques your appetite to know more about the chocolate-making process, head to Choco Story - The Chocolate Museum, where you can find out all about where chocolate comes from, and watch it being made.
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The perfect place for a romantic Christmas break, and just 3 hrs 30 mins from London.
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