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WHY GO NOW?
To beat the crowds, visit the jewel of Flanders, and one of Europe's most perfectly preserved medieval cities, in early summer. If you hurry, you can experience its most traditional festival: on Thursday, 17 May, the Procession of the Holy Blood takes place. An ornately cased phial of what is said to be Christ's blood is taken from the Basilica of the Holy Blood (1) and winds through the streets in an elaborate procession.
Eurostar (0870 518 6186; www.eurostar.com) runs frequently from London Waterloo to Brussels Midi in as little as two hours and 15 minutes; some trains also call at Ashford International. Return fares start at £59, and the ticket entitles you to travel to and from any Belgian station at no extra cost. At Brussels Midi, look for trains on the departure board for Ostend, Blankenberge or Zeebrugge; Bruges is a stop along the way, about an hour away. By air, Brussels National is the main gateway, with frequent train links to Brussels Midi; some also run direct to Bruges.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Bruges railway station (2) is just outside the egg-shaped city centre - all of which is a World Heritage Site, with traffic excluded or restricted. In 1500, Bruges was twice the size of London with dozens of ships entering and leaving its port each day. The silting of the Het Zwin estuary and the transfer of the Hanseatic League capital from Bruges to Antwerp in 1545 led to decline, which saved the city from redevelopment. The tourist office (00 32 50 44 46 46; www.brugge.be ) is located in the new concert hall (3), which is dressed in 68,000 terracotta tiles. It opens 9am-5pm daily.
In a quiet location overlooking a canal, Relais Ravestein (4) at Molenmeers 11 (00 32 50 47 69 47; www.relaisravenstein.be) is a generously windowed neo-classical building that has been given a modern feel without losing its features. Double rooms start at €161 (£115), excluding breakfast.
For a different ambience, Hotel de Orangerie (5) at Kartuizerinnenstraat 10 (00 32 50 34 16 49; www.hotelorangerie.com) is located in a small 15th-century convent full of period furniture which complements the wood panelling and working fireplaces. Afternoon tea is one of its traditions. Doubles from €175 (£125) excluding breakfast.
Just off the Burg at Cordoeanierstraat 16-18 is Hotel Cordoeanier (6) (00 32 50 33 90 51; www.cordoeanier.be), an early 19th-century building with doubles from €70 (£50) including a buffet breakfast.
TAKE A VIEW
The Belfry (7) on Markt is the most prominent feature of the city. The climb of 366 steps can be broken at the Treasury Room where 13th-century ironwork grills protect the cavities where the city's documents and money were stored. The top provides magnificent views. Try to time your ascent to coincide with the hour, when an enormous brass drum with pegs in square sockets activates the bells. Admission is €5 (£3.60). Open daily 9.30am-5pm.
TAKE A HIKE
For anyone interested in vernacular buildings, it is a joy simply to walk the streets of Bruges. The following itinerary takes you past some of the highlights. Founded in 1245, the Beguinage (8) was built as a gated oasis of peace for women outside holy orders whose husbands were away, perhaps on Crusade, though today it is inhabited by Benedictine nuns. From here, meander in a vaguely north-easterly direction and appreciate the many delightful touches such as stone letterboxes set into the brickwork of houses.
The Burg is the most historic square in Bruges and was the site of the cathedral until the French tore it down in 1799. It is home to a food and flower market on Wednesdays. In the south-east corner is the Renaissance Old Recorders' House (9), worth visiting for the 1529 chimneypiece in the law court, on which figures carved from oak spread out on either side of the fireplace. In the centre is Charles V, flanked by his grandparents, Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy on his right, and Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile to his left. Admission is €2.50 (£1.80). Open daily 9.30am-12.30pm, 1.30-5pm.
A little to the west is the oldest Gothic town hall (10) in Belgium, dating from 1376-1420 and encrusted with colourful heraldry. The ceiling of the first-floor Gothic Hall is ablaze with colour, while the walls are covered by murals depicting scenes from Bruges' history; they were so faded that they had to be repainted in the 19th century. Open daily 9.30am-5pm, admission €2.50 (£1.80).
Even more extraordinary is the Basilica of the Holy Blood (1) in the south-west corner. This is where the phial of what is believed to be Christ's blood is kept, in the upper of two contrasting chapels. The austere but extremely elegant early 12th-century lower chapel is Romanesque, while the upper chapel is neo-Gothic and boasts stained-glass windows dating from 1847 and colourful, some might say gaudy, decoration.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Salads or pasta can be found in De Medici "Sorbetière" (11) at Geldmuntstraat 9 (00 32 50 33 93 41), a rare bit of art deco near Markt, with a first-floor terrace.
The Groeninge Museum (12) at Dijver 12 (00 32 50 44 87 11; www.brugge.be) has an exceptional collection of Flemish Primitives and works from the 15th and 16th centuries by such painters as Memling, van der Weyden, Bosch and Pourbus. Some of the images by Jan Provoost and Gerard David are gruesome and sure to engage the gleeful prurience of the young, but the striking compositions and colours of more pacific subjects make many of these works tremendously appealing. It opens 9.30am-5pm daily except Monday; admission is €8 (£5.70), but a combined ticket covering five museums can be bought for €15 (£10.70).
Lace has been a traditional product of Bruges for centuries. Though much of it is now made in China, there are as many shops selling it as outlets for irresistible piles of handmade and mass-produced chocolates.
As Tintin was a creation of the Belgian author Hergé and comics are extremely popular in Belgium, it's not surprising to find the Tintin Shop (13) devoted to the plus-foured hero, at Steenstraat 3 (00 32 50 33 42 92; www.tintinshopbrugge.be), just off the Burg and open seven days a week.
Down an alley off Breidelstraat which links Burg and Markt squares is Staminee de Garre (14) at De Garre 1 (00 32 50 34 10 29), with 130 different beers and authentic Old Flemish fare too.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Den Dijver (15) at Dijver 5 (00 32 50 33 60 69; www.dyver.be) has been matching food and beer since it opened in 1992. Imaginative amuse-bouches precede three-, four- or five-course menus with such starters as white asparagus, and shrimps with herb egg mimosa and ginger vinaigrette, followed by baby monkfish in lobster sauce with white and green asparagus and tarragon mash. Prices begin at €41 (£29) for three courses with beer selection and rise to €91 (£65) for five courses with wine.
SUNDAY MORNING: TAKE A RIDE
Hire a bike from the station (2) or one of seven other outlets for around €9.50 (£6.80) a day. Cycle the six kilometres beside the Damse Vaart canal, past a fine windmill, to the old Flemish town of Damme. Here the town hall hosted the marriage of Margaret of York (the sister of Richard III) to Charles the Bold in 1468. The town has attractive restaurants in period buildings. The winds off the North Sea can make cycling a struggle, so if they're blowing hard take the train.
GO TO CHURCH
The Church of Our Lady (18) dates from the 13th to 15th centuries and has an impressive 122-metre brick tower and spire. Its main glory is the white marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo, situated to the right as you enter. Commissioned by a merchant of Bruges, it has had an eventful life, having been stolen by the French in 1794 and the Germans in 1944. The church (which is hard to miss because its tower is the highest in Belgium) also has paintings by Van Dyck, Pourbus and Caravaggio. On Sundays it opens 2-5pm (Monday-Friday 9am-12.30pm, 1.30-5pm; Saturday 9am-12.30pm, 1.30-4pm).
OUT TO BRUNCH
The Café-Brasserie Craenenburg (16) occupies prime tourist territory at Markt 16 (00 32 50 33 34 02; www.craenenburg.be) but is frequented by locals and offers a warm welcome. In a building on this site, Maximilian, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, was imprisoned in 1488.
A WALK IN THE PARK
A compact park for a compact city: the botanical Astrid Park (17) is named after Queen Astrid of the Belgians, who was killed in a car crash in Switzerland in 1935; a bust of her stands in the park. The park also incorporates the neo-Gothic de la Faille castle and watchtower.
WRITE A POSTCARD
A table in the open air overlooking a canal should provide inspiration at the café/restaurant Uilenspiegel (18) at Langestraat 2 (00 32 50 34 65 55; www.uilenspiegelbvba.be).
ICING ON THE CAKE
Choco-Story (19) at Wijnzakstraat 2 (00 32 50 61 22 37; www.choco-story.be) examines the history of chocolate with demonstrations and tastings. It opens daily 10am-5pm, admission €6 (£4.30).
Additional research by Sam GammonReuse content