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City life: In Bruges

Blessed with a historic centre, Bruges captivates with its timeless splendour, cultural wonders and, of course, the luxurious chocolate and the local beers

City life: In Bruges

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Bruges is a place you drink in with your eyes. For visitors taking advantage of its easy rail connections from London, the city offers a sense of enchantment on arrival. Slipping down the city’s winding cobbled alleys, past gabled houses and over stone bridges leaves you feeling slightly disoriented, but also intrigued. This is a city you want to get lost in.

Considered one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe, Bruges’ historic centre was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2000. Enveloped by a canal ring and barely a mile wide in parts, the city is simple to navigate, with all major attractions within easy walking distance of the Markt (Market Square), forming the heart of the city.

Medieval towers pierce the sky, canals divide the city and horse-drawn carriages lend their rhythm to streets lined with stunning examples of gothic, baroque and classical architecture. Yet Bruges also has layers of beauty that have to be searched out by the inquisitive eye, such as the small almshouses scattered throughout the city — public places filled with private beauty.

Apart from its splendour, Bruges also packs a powerful cultural punch. Inside the city’s 11 museums you’ll find an internationally renowned art collection and, within the walls of the Basilica of the Holy Blood, one of Europe’s most revered relics.

While there’s plenty of opportunity to reflect, there’s also plenty of ways to indulge. Bruges has always been famous for its beer, and, whether sipped on a summer terrace or by a warm winter fire, it’s one of the best ways to appreciate Flemish culture.

The other way is through the city’s chocolate parlours. While chocolate continues to be re-imagined in this city by a new generation of skilled chocolatiers, Bruges is increasingly recognised for its strong culinary credentials. There are no fewer than eight Michelin-starred restaurants making up just a fraction of its dynamic and varied dining scene.

While the city isn’t renowned for its nightlife, it does take on a mysterious and ethereal quality at night. White swans glide like silver ghosts on the canals, shadows play among the cobblestones and the historic towers are lit by golden light.

It was the promise of chocolate and beer that first convinced me to visit Bruges years ago. Today, the easy nature of the city, the hospitality of its people and the timeless beauty of the destination keep bringing me back.

See & do

■ Belfry: At over 270-ft high, the iconic Belfry offers a postcard-perfect panorama of the historic centre, city limits and countryside surrounding Bruges. The medieval tower’s 47-bell carillon chimes on the hour, every hour.

■ Museum: Art lovers won’t want to miss the Groeninge Museum and its exceptional collection of work by the Flemish Primitives, the 15th-century group of artists characterised by their luminous palette and realistic, sensual depictions of the human form. The comprehensive collection also includes more recent works, including the Last Supper, painted by Gustave Van de Woestijne in 1927. www.museabrugge.be

■ On the water: Seeing Bruges by boat is the best way to appreciate the city and its centuries-old waterways. Half-hour boat tours are informative, affordable and leave regularly from different locations; twisting through canals and under ancient stone bridges to the commentary of quirky captains.

■ Béguinage: Established in the 1200s as a collective for unmarried women, the Béguinage offers a glimpse into this sisterhood. Benedictine nuns now occupy the whitewashed buildings and tree-lined park, open to the public daily. With no photos, groups or noise allowed, the serene atmosphere makes it one of the most peaceful places in Bruges.
www.monasteria.org

■ Choco-Story: This museum offers a comprehensive look at the production, history, consumption and manufacture of chocolate, from Mayan origins to the creation of the Belgium praline. Entry includes chocolate-making demonstrations and tastings while the gift shop sells pure blocks of the brown stuff sourced from around the world. www.choco-story.be

■ Brewery Tours: Run by six generations of the same family, De Halve Maan Brewery is one of Bruges’ last surviving breweries. Quick-witted guides set a cracking pace during their hour-long brewery tour, which finishes with a glass of its Zot Blonde in the large canal-side bar. www.halvemaan.be

■ Basilica of the Holy Blood: Up a winding medieval staircase in a discreet corner of the Burg Square is one of Europe’s most sacred religious relics; a chalice said to hold a few drops of Christ’s blood. It only goes on display on Friday afternoons for a few hours, however the Roman Catholic Basilica itself is worth a visit for its warm atmosphere and beautiful stained glass windows. www.holyblood.org

Like a local

■ Music box: A short walk from the Markt, music store Rombaux is an institution. Selling rare and cult CDs as well as musical instruments, the store’s retro high cupboards and stacked shelves are a visual feast. www.rombaux.be

■ Something fishy: Bruges is known for its incredible seafood, sold at the traditional Vismarkt fish market on the Groenerei canal every morning from Tuesday to Saturday. Fishmongers were forced to move to this open-air arcade from the Markt in the 19th century because of the smell.

■ Get on your bike: Bruges is surrounded by countryside and a number of picturesque villages are easily reached by bike from the centre, including Damme, a well-preserved market town less than two miles away. Plenty of places in town hire out bikes by the hour or half-day and routes are well-signposted, with maps available from the tourist office.

Eat

Bruges has an outstanding collection of dining options, but be sure to book ahead.

£   Chez Vincent
Still king of Flemish street food, Chez Vincent serves crispy frites in cones with lashings of creamy mayonnaise. T: 00 32 50 684 395.

££  Cafedraal
The Flemish menu at local hot-spot Cafedraal offers twists on traditional Bruges seafood specialities. www.cafedraal.be

£££  Den Dyver
Dishes such as pickled pork with blueberry sauce, radish, hazelnut and spicy rhubarb are expertly matched to frothy regional beers. www.dijver.be

Buy 

■ Boutique stop: On the Wollestraat is a cluster of über-hip stores including Callebent Design and 2Be, a pub/shop stocking Belgium-made produce.
www.2-be.biz  www.callebert.be

■ Street life: Steenstraat is Bruges’ main shopping street. Up the alleys off the main street you’ll find arcades and speciality shops.

■ Market trader: For bargains, hit the Dijver flea market along the Dijver canal on weekends, or the stalls of ’t Zand on Saturday morning.

■ Cocoa focus: Bruges has more than 50 chocolate shops. Recommended are the creations of Michelin-starred chef Bart Desmidt at BbyB.  www.bbyb.be

Sleep

£   Hotel Ter Reien
This canal-side hotel is a smart budget option just five minutes from the centre. Based around a small courtyard, rooms are simple but well-lit. www.hotelterreien.be

££  Hotel Heritage
The staff at the Hotel Heritage make this a stand-out choice. Located behind the Markt, rooms are small but elegant and include valet parking and free wi-fi.
www.hotel-heritage.com

£££  Hotel de Orangerie
Be sure to have a nightcap in the sumptuous bar of the Hotel de Orangerie, a former 15th-century convent with a private canal terrace. www.slh.com/orangerie

After hours

■ Bruges’ nightlife is more fine-dining than thumping beats, but there are still a few choice spots to make merry.

■ Ma Rica Rokk: With a reasonably priced cocktail list and a young crowd, this lounge has a terrace perfect for a late-afternoon ale and an upstairs nightclub guaranteed to get you dancing.
www.maricarokk.be

■ The Duke: The Duke Bar in the Hotel Navarra is known for its classic jazz tunes and intimate atmosphere. Live jazz piano on a Wednesday and Thursday night packs in a friendly mixed crowd. www.hotelnavarra.com

■ ’t Brugs Beertje: A haven for beer buffs, the city’s most famous alehouse serves more than 300 Belgium beers, from boutique brews of Trappist monks to the ales of Bruges’ last three surviving breweries. www.brugsbeertje.be

ESSENTIALS Bruges

Getting there

With a change in Brussels en route, Eurostar offers the best connections between London St Pancras and Brussels (3h). www.eurostar.com
Ferries from Dover reach Dunkirk in under two hours. From Dunkirk, it’s a 50-minute drive to Bruges. www.norfolkline.com
BMI, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, EasyJet and Flybe all fly direct to Brussels National Airport from airports across the UK. From there, a rail connection to Bruges is necessary. www.flybmi.com 
www.britishairways.com
www.brusselsairlines.com  www.easyjet.com  www.flybe.com
Average flight time: 1h20m.

Getting around

Bruges is easily navigated on foot, however there are frequent bus connections on city line 12 between the Markt, Biekorf, and railway station. Parking is limited and driving is not advised in the city centre. Parking at the large underground car park at Centrum-station (railway station) includes a free bus transfer to the centre.

When to go

Bruges is appealing year round but spring and autumn are best with mild temperatures. Summer is sunny and often cloudless but it’scrowded; winter is a good option for the Christmas markets, ice skating in the Markt and ice sculpture festival (25 November-15 January).

Need to know

Currency: Euro (€) £1 = €1.14.
International dial code: 00 32 50.
Time Difference: GMT +1

More info

www.bruges.be/tourism
Bruges Insight Smart Guide. RRP: £6.99.
Rough Guide Direction Bruges & Ghent. RRP: £6.99.
Bruges InsideOut. RRP: £6.99.

How to do it

Railbookers.com offers two nights with breakfast at the Hotel Orangerie, return Eurostar tickets and a free weekday city tour from £319 per person.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)