48 Hours In: Bruges

Belgium's loveliest city boasts canals, chocolatiers and medieval charm – all within easy reach for travellers seeking a romantic winter escape

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Why go now?

This picturesque city of chocolates, cobbles and carillon chimes is poetic at any time of year, but Bruges still has a wintry air of romance, with veils of mist and lights twinkling from cosy cafés – so visit right now for bracing walks and fireside ambience. Spring will soon unfurl, with all the attendant attractions of spring flowers and greenery. Should you need an event to focus on, the Cinema Novo Festival takes place from 12-22 March, showing films from Asia, Africa and Latin America (cinemanovo.be).

Touch down

From London and the south-east, the easiest way to reach Bruges is by train, via Brussels. Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) runs up to 10 trains a day from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi. The Eurostar journey takes around two hours, and a ticket to Brussels (from £59 return) entitles you to connect to any other station in Belgium. Take one of the twice-hourly trains to Bruges, a trip of less than an hour.

Alternatively, fly to Brussels and complete the journey by rail, changing at Brussels Nord station (the return rail ticket costs €25.80). British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow; bmi (0870 6070 555; flybmi.com) from Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Leeds and Newcastle; Brussels Airlines (00 32 2 72 23 23 45; brusselsairlines.com) from Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Newcastle; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Manchester and Southampton.

Get your bearings

Bruges lies within a circle of canals and earth banks, the remains of centuries-old fortifications. At its heart are two squares: Markt, the medieval marketplace; and Burg, the ancient seat of government, dominated by the City Hall (1).

Bruges railway station (2) is just outside the south-western edge of the old town. It has a small tourist office, open 10am-5pm daily (weekends to 2pm), and a frequent bus service to Markt, fare €1.

A network of canals winds through the city, from Minnewater (literally the "Lake of Love"), a canal-lake in the south, to the Brugge-Damme waterway lying beyond the fortifications in the north.

Though some cars twist their way around the narrow lanes of the old town, this is a place happily dominated by cyclists and pedestrians, and walking is one of the joys of being here. The main tourist office (3) is west of the city centre in the modern Concertgebouw (Concert Hall) at 't Zand 34 (open daily 10am-6pm; 00 32 50 44 46 46; brugge.be/tourism); city maps are on sale for €0.50.

Check in

The Pand Hotel (4) at Pandreitje 16 (00 32 50 34 06 66; pandhotel.com) is a beautiful boutique establishment set in an 18th-century townhouse in the heart of Bruges. Its atmosphere and décor resonate with the old-world charm of the city, with wood panelling and antiques, and with four-posters in many of the 26 bedrooms. Doubles from €170, without breakfast.

For a cheaper option, head for Hotel Boterhuis (5) at St Jakobsstraat 40 (00 32 50 34 15 11; boterhuis.be), a two-minute walk north of the centre. It has 13 bedrooms and a small brasserie. Doubles start at €95, breakfast included. Or opt for one of Bruges' good-value guesthouses: iRoom (6) at Verversdjik 1 (00 32 50 33 73 53; iroom.be), for example, has three sleek, modern bedrooms in a heritage property located in the old wool-dyeing area. Doubles start at €79, excluding breakfast.

Take a hike

Start your walk just outside the main tourist office (3). Head straight down Zuidzandstraat to the cathedral of St Salvator (7), dating from the 12th century and containing a fine collection of Flemish art in its treasury. Its basic opening hours are 9am-noon and 2-5.30pm, but it is closed on Monday mornings and after 3.30pm on Saturdays; Sundays 9-10am and 2-5pm. You get in free to the cathedral; admission to the treasury is €2.50.

Continue down Steenstraat and turn right into the pretty cobbled square of Simon Stevinplein. Turn left into Oude Burg, making for the medieval Cloth Hall (8) further on your left. It adjoins the Belfry (9) through a courtyard (open 9am-6pm at weekends, from 8am on weekdays). You can climb the 366 steps of the Belfry to get a stunning panorama of the city. On the way up, catch your breath at the treasury where you'll see a display on the clock mechanism and Bruges' celebrated carillon of 47 bells (daily 9.30am-5pm; admission €5).

Walking through the courtyard you emerge into Markt, flanked by gabled houses and guildhalls. Turn right into Breidelstraat and stroll past lace and biscuit shops into Burg, with its wonderful display of architectural styles: straight ahead are the elegant 18th-century administrative offices of the city; on the right are the Renaissance law courts and the gothic City Hall (1) (daily 9.30am-5pm; admission €2); adjacent to this building is the gothic Basilica of the Holy Blood (10am-noon daily; 2-4pm, except Wednesday; free).

Turn right down narrow Blinde Ezelstraat and cross over the canal into arcaded Vismarkt (10), the old fish market. Turn right down Rozenhoedkaai and then left all the way down Eekhoutstraat, lined with medieval and Renaissance townhouses. At the end, turn right along Nieuwe Gentweg. Stop by number 22 to look into the lovely courtyard garden of almshouses (11) built in 1613.

Turn left down Katelijnestraat, past the Diamond Museum (12) (daily 10.30am-5.30pm; admission is €6) and then immediately right into Wijngaardstraat. Follow this street over the canal and into the tranquil Begijnhof, a large enclosed sanctuary founded in 1245 for women whose husbands were fighting in the Crusades. Today it is partly occupied by Benedictine nuns, and is a serene place to finish a walk; note that the gates close at 6.30pm.

Lunch on the run

Take away a generous helping of frites (€1.75) and a ham sandwich (€3) from the counter at the Tearoom (13) at 20 Winjgaardstraat, a sandwich joint around the corner from the Begijnhof.

Window shopping

Bruges' main shopping area is around Zuidandstraat and Steenstraat, where you'll find the likes of clothes stores Zara and Mango. For a good selection of chocolate shops head to Katelijnestraat – Pralinique de Bruges is at No 25, Verheecke at No 22 and Sukerbuyc, one of Bruges' oldest confectioners, at No 5. For a one-stop shop offering a wide range of Belgian gourmet goods, from beer to patés and pastries, head to 2.be (14) at Wollestraat 53.

Take a ride

Hire a bike (€4 per hour) from Koffieboontje (15) at Hallestraat 4 (00 32 50 33 80 27; adventure-bike-renting.be) and head over to the less tourist-trodden reaches of the eastern side of Bruges.

An aperitif

Join the regulars at Vlissinghe (16) in the quiet eastern part of town on Blekerstraat 2 (00 32 50 34 37 37; cafevlissinghe.be; closed Monday and Tuesday). It is the oldest continuously licensed premises in the city, having functioned as some form of hostelry since 1515. Order a Poperings Hommel Bier, which registers a warming 7.5 per cent, or one of the two dozen other brews on offer.

Dining with the locals

Excellent seafood is in plentiful supply, thanks to the proximity of the leading fishing port of Zeebrugge. Gouden Karpel (17) at Huidenvettersplein 4 (00 32 50 33 34 94; dengouden karpel.be) backs on to the fish market and serves some of the best seafood in town: try Cod à la Fammade at €24 or fried plaice at €17.50 (open daily except Mondays, Tuesday afternoons and Sunday evenings).

Alternatively, make for the small, elegant Couvert (18) at Eekhoutstraat 17 (00 32 50 33 37 87; couvert-brugge.be), where mains include baked cod with shrimp at €22. It closes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Sunday morning: Out to Brunch

Make that a morning coffee and cake – brunch is not yet an option in Bruges. And what cakes and pastries you'll find at Patisserie Van Mullen (19), Vlamingstraat 56 (00 32 50 33 05 15; open 7.30am-6pm daily except Tuesday). In 2004, the pastry chef Servaas Van Mullem reopened the celebrated bakery that had belonged to his grandfather, with an elegant salon alongside, where his freshly produced creations are served.

A walk in the park

On the eastern edge of Bruges, four windmills dating from the 18th century stand along a narrow canalside park, with the St Janhuis mill (20), built in 1770, still in operation (from May to September you can explore the inside, 9.30am-12.30pm and 1.30-5pm daily except Mondays; admission €2).

Go to church

The 13th-century Onthaalkerk Onze-Lieve-Vrouw (21) on Mariastraat is one of the city's major landmarks. "The Church of Our Lady" has a tall medieval brick tower, and contains some remarkable treasures, including a lovely Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo. Its basic opening hours are 9.30am-5pm daily, but on Saturday it closes at 4.45pm and on Sunday it does not open until 1.30pm; admission free.

The great tombs of Charles the Bold and Maria of Burgundy as well as recently discovered painted sepulchres from the 1400s lie within the church's museum (admission €2), which opens 9.30am-4.30pm daily except Monday, and on Sundays 1.30-4.30pm. The main Sunday service is at 11am.

Cultural afternoon

The Memling in St-Jan Hospitaalmuseum on Mariastraat 38 (22) ranks as Bruges' most entrancing site.

In this medieval building nuns and monks nursed the sick and provided shelter for pilgrims. Today you can visit their wards, dormitory and pharmacy, and, most significantly, their chapel.

It contains six works by Hans Memling, including the magical Reliquary of St Ursula. The museum is open 9.30am-5pm daily except Monday (note that the pharmacy is closed between 11.45am and 2pm).

Tickets cost €8 and also cover entry to Hospitaalmuseum Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van de Potterie (23) on Potterierei 79; "Our Lady of the Pottery", as it translates, is another medieval hospital and refuge filled with works of art; part of it is now a home for the elderly.

The icing on the cake

The celebrated Groeningemuseum (24) at Dijver 12 is currently closed but will reopen on 27 March with an exhibition showing some of the enormous art collection of Charles the Bold, who controlled much of Western Europe in the 15th century. Opening hours will be 9.30am-5pm daily except Monday, admission €9.

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