Touristy, overcrowded and a tad fake: preface any other city like this and it would be left for dead. Not Bruges. This medieval town is Belgium's most popular destination and, despite the crowds, it's not to be missed.
Bruges dreamily evokes a world long since gone. But its reputation as a perfectly preserved city is partly fabrication – much of the town was rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries to reflect medieval times. By the 14th century, Bruges was one of Europe's leading trade centres. But during the following century, the waterway linking the city to the sea silted up. Despite attempts to build a new canal, Bruges' economic lifeline was gone. Traders and townsfolk abandoned the city, leaving it suspended in time.
For a modern take on this medieval masterpiece, track down In Bruges, a British film released in 2008. Don't let the blood and violence put you off – it's well worth watching.
Bruges’ main square, the Markt, is about 1.5km north of the train station; to get there jump on any bus marked ‘Centrum’.
ATM (Markt 5) Attached to the main post office.
Toerisme Brugge (Tel 050 44 46 46; http://www.brugge.be/internet/en/index.htm; ’t Zand; h10am-6pm) Tourist office located inside the Concertgebouw.
Train station tourist office (Tel 050 38 80 83; h10am-5pm Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm Sat & Sun)
Bruges’ nerve centre is the historic Markt, a large open square from which rises Belgium’s most famous Belfort (Belfry; Markt; adult/ concession €5/4; h9.30am-5pm, last tickets sold 4.15pm). Squeeze up the 366 steps.
The nearby Burg features Belgium’s oldest stadhuis (Town Hall; adult/concession €2.50/2; h9.30am-5pm Tue-Sun), along with the Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed (Basilica of the Holy Blood; admission €1.50; h9.30am-noon & 2-5.50pm Apr-Sep, 10am-noon & 2-4pm Oct-Mar), where a few coagulated drops of Christ’s blood are kept and cherished.
Bruges’ prized collection of art dating from the 14th to 20th centuries is housed in the small Groeningemuseum (Dijver 12; adult/ concession €8/6; h9.30am-5pm Tue-Sun). Don’t miss the Flemish Primitives.
The Hospitaalmuseum Memling in St Jan (Mariastraat 38; adult/concession €8/6; h9.30am-5pm Tue-Sun) is home to a handful of masterpieces by Hans Memling, one of the early Flemish Primitives, plus a wealth of other artworks. Seek out Memling’s reliquary of St Ursula – the attention to detail is stunning.
The Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady; Mariastraat; adult/concession €2.50/2; h9.30am-5pm Tue-Fri, 9.30am-4.20pm Sat, 1.30-5pm Sun) has one remarkable art treasure: Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. This small marble statue (1504) was the only work of art by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime.
The Begijnhof (admission free; h6.30am-6.30pm) was home to a 13th-century religious community of unmarried or widowed women, known as Begijnen. A 10-minute walk south of the Markt, it’s a must visit.
Two private museums devoted to Belgian specialities are worth a squiz – Choco-Story (Tel 050 61 22 37; http://www.choco-story.be/ENG/; Wijnzakstraat 2; admission €6; h10am-5pm) is about all things rich, dark and yummy, while the new Frietmuseum (Tel 050 34 01 50; http://www.frietmuseum.be/; Vlamingstraat33; admission €6; h10am-5pm) traces the history of the humble friet (chip).
Canal tours (Steenhouwersdijk & Dijver; €6.50; h10am-6pm Mar-Oct) Touristy but essential. Boats depart from jettiessouth of the Burg, and tours last 30 minutes.Horse-drawn carriages (Markt; 5 passengers€34; 10am-10pm) Trips (35 minutes) departfrom the Markt.
From cosy estaminets (taverns) to firstclass restaurants, Bruges has all bases covered. All of Bruges’ hostels have bars, and some have restaurants – you’ll find many travellers hang out at these.
Baggings (Tel 050 67 95 94; Kuipersstraat 17; snacks €2-10; hnoon-6am Fri & Sat, until 4am Thu, Sun & Mon) Snack bar with a Lord of the Rings slant, and great for a late-night bite.
Medard (Tel 050 34 86 84; St Amandsstraat 18; mains from €3; h11am-8pm Fri-Wed) Just one of many eateries on this quiet tree-lined square near the Markt. This little cafe is noted for its homey atmosphere and substantial plates of spaghetti (including vegetarian sauces).
Salade Folle (Tel 050 34 94 43; Walplein 13; mains €10-15; hnoon-3pm & 6-10pm Mon-Fri, noon-10pm Sat & Sun; i) Warm and cold salads, pasta and quiche are the staples of this modern new restaurant. Vegetarians are catered for, and some of the food is bio (organic).
’t Gulden Vlies (Tel 050 33 47 09; Mallebergplaats 17; mains €14-19; h7pm-3am Wed-Sun; i) Cosy latenight restaurant with old-fashioned decor and excellent Belgian cuisine. The threecourse menú (€16) is superb value.
Joey’s Café (Tel 050 34 12 64; Zilversteeg 4; hfrom 11.30am Mon-Sat Oct-May, daily Jun-Sep) Loose the tourists at this muso’s bar, strangely located inside the Zilverpand shopping centre. Also recommended:
De Garre (Tel 050 34 10 29; Garre 1; hnoon-midnight) Well hidden specialist beer pub.
De Republiek (Tel 050 34 02 29; St Jakobsstraat 36; hfrom 11am) One of Bruges’ most congenial pubs. Cheap meals are available until midnight.
Food markets (Markt; h7am-1pm Wed; ’t Zand; h8am-1pm Sat)
Proxy/Delhaize (Geldmuntstraat) Supermarket.
A small network of buses operated by DeLijn (Tel 070 22 02 00) covers destinations in andaround Bruges.
Bruges is ideal for cyclists. Rent a bikefrom Fietsen Popelier (Tel 050 34 32 62; Mariastraat26; per hr/half/full day €3.50/7/10; h10am-7pm).