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.
Based on the number of chocolate shops in town, you may not want to eat like a local all the time. Chocolate is definitely a theme in Bruges, along with chips and beer but, with the amount of walking you'll be doing, you'll need the calories. (Just keep repeating that to yourself and you'll be fine.)
Bruges is a beautiful medieval city almost untouched by time. If you like jazz, you will be well catered for. If you like chocolate and beer, you will be in heaven.
Despite its quaint, chocolate-box appearance, there is some edginess bubbling beneath the surface of Bruges. So, if you need some darkness to balance the prettiness of the town, here are a few ideas:
Retsin's Lucifernum – if you're at a loose end in Bruges on a Sunday night between 8-11pm, you may want to head to this ultra-secretive venue. You'll need to knock on the door before you're allowed in by the house vampire, and that's where your visit of alternative Bruges begins. It's hard to describe, it's a museum, a bar, a music venue all completely whacky and slightly creepy. You'll either love it or hate it, but you won't be indifferent to it.
The Torture Museum – this museum is located in one of the oldest prisons in Europe, De Oude Steen. Though not the biggest of museums, there is still room for more than a hundred instruments of torture, displayed in chronological order. So, if you find thumbscrews and racks and other devices of execution and pain fascinating, or just want to remind yourself of how lucky you are to have been born in this century, this is the perfect place for you.
Relic of the Holy blood – see the relic, a piece of cloth stained with what is believed to be the blood of Christ, at the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Even better, visit Bruges on 25th May, Ascension day, to experience the Procession of the Blood. This is a 718 year-old tradition, during which the relic is carried through the streets by the Bishop of Bruges. Locals dress up in costumes and act out biblical scenes and a historic re-enactment of the relic's arrival in the city, as it is paraded through town.
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