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Pretty as a gilded postcard, Bruges is a medieval dream of a city. Pack your most comfy flats: the compact historic centre, a jumble of gabled houses, cobblestoned squares and romantic ancanals, is best explored on foot. Start at the Markt – Bruges’s sprawling, imposing main square – for a sense of the city’s glorious past as a wealthy trading port. Made famous by a certain Colin Farrell film, the Belfry is worth a visit: the steep climb up 366 steps yields a bird’s eye view of the Unesco-protected streets below.
Reward yourself with a sip of a local brew. A stone’s throw away, tiny Klein Venetië has a petite terrace looking out over the Rozenhoedkaai canal. Just across the water, the bijou Basilica of the Holy Blood welcomes pilgrims and curious punters alike. Equally small, the Groeninge Museum nonetheless houses a who’s who of Flemish masters: drop in to get your fix of van Eyck, Broodthaers and even Magritte paintings. You could happily spend days flitting from medieval sights to scrummy chocolateries, but it’s worth having a nose around the side streets too. On-trend cafés, gourmet restaurants and swish concept stores await.
Stylishly dressed with stripped floorboards, tactile cowhides and Swedish furnishings, Bonte B takes a democratic approach to fine dining. Artfully plated dishes follow the seasons: feast on brown shrimp emulsions, truffle-laced linguine and just-seared game. Service is cheery and relaxed: all the better to linger over the five-course, good-value tasting menu.
The Belgian answer to Willy Wonka, Dominique Persoone cuts a rock‘n’roll figure in the Bruges chocolate scene. Stock up on chocolate snuff boxes (the Rolling Stones are fans), edible lipstick and madcap pralines laced with kaffir lime, hemp seeds or crispy fried onions. Shop with a clear conscience: The Chocolate Line runs its own ethical chocolate plantation in Mexico.
Walking the medieval city can be hungry work. Soothe mid-day hunger pangs at That’s Toast, a sweet little café with a secret terrace. All-day breakfasts, scrumptious halloumi sandwiches and flavour-packed sashimi salads are on the menu. Dressed with homemade compote and fresh berries, the hearty French toast is particularly hard to resist.
You could sit down for a proper meal in the Gouden Karpel’s elegant dining room, but that would only be half the fun. Grab one of the tiny tables in the fish bar instead, for a sea-fresh feast of prawn croquettes, luscious mussels and freshly shucked oysters. Or stock up on crab sandwiches, salty anchovies and dressed octopus for an extravagant picnic from the traiteur counter.
Packed with Belgian and Scandinavian designer goods, this whitewashed concept store is an interiors lover’s heaven. The shop’s on-trend furniture may be tempting, but there’s plenty here to fit in a suitcase, too. Stock up on quirky ceramics, bold cushion covers, homeware from Dutch brand Deens and delicate watercolour prints from Leo La Douce
Its plain brick walls and green-framed windows may look unassuming, but this Bruges institution is a pillar of old-fashioned Flemish hospitality. Sharing plates of pâté, local cheese and dry sausage may be moreish, but they’re just the supporting act. Settle in to sample more than 300 bottled Belgian beers – or have a sip from one of the five brews on tap that day.
When the bustle of Bruges gets a little too much, head to this serene retreat south of the city, now tended by Benedictine nuns. The convent gardens make a particularly pretty spot for a stroll. The thirty white houses look much the same as they did in the 17th century, and indeed one of them is kept as a museum showcasing the period’s paintings, furniture and lacework.
Come Sunday, skip breakfast and head to Veermarkt for a taste of local produce: farm cheeses, homemade jams and of course delicious Bruges sausage