Why go now? Bruges, one of Europe's most beautiful and best-preserved medieval cities, is to be one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2002 (along with Salamanca in Spain). Beat the inevitable cultural crowds by getting there before Christmas, and enjoy the Yuletide market and ice-rink in the centre. You will also avoid the summer hordes that turn it into an historical theme park.
Why go now?
Bruges, one of Europe's most beautiful and best-preserved medieval cities, is to be one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2002 (along with Salamanca in Spain). Beat the inevitable cultural crowds by getting there before Christmas, and enjoy the Yuletide market and ice-rink in the centre. You will also avoid the summer hordes that turn it into an historical theme park.
The obvious way to get there from southern Britain, with or without a car, is on Hoverspeed (08705 240241, www.hoverspeed.co.uk), which links Dover with Ostend in two hours. By road or rail, Bruges is about 15 minutes away. P&O North Sea Ferries (0870 129 6016, www.mycruiseferries.co.uk) sail every night from Hull to Zeebrugge, also close to Bruges. All the short-sea ferry operators, as well as Eurotunnel and Eurostar, offer deals at this time of year, so shop around.
Get your bearings
The winding, cobbled roads of the old centre fan out from the principal square, the Markt. Bruges is framed by an oval of picturesque canals that follow the city's medieval fortifications. The tourist information office is situated in the Burg, the city's second square, just off the Markt. The train station is a mile south of the Markt, with regular buses between the two.
Prices at the unpretentious hostel Snuffel Sleep In at Ezelstraat 47 (00 32 50 33 3133) start at £7 in a 12-bed dorm. The pretty Hotel De Orangerie is by the canalside at Kartuizerinnenstraat 10 (00 32 50 34 1649, www.hotelorangerie.com); doubles are from £120, not including the Champagne breakfast buffet. Alternatively, opt for an apartment. Paul and Roos Gheeraert (00 32 50 33 5627) have four lovely, spacious apartments in a neoclassical mansion right in the centre at Ridderstraat 18 (the proprietors live at number nine), which start at £35 per night for a studio (minimum of three nights).
Take a hike
Bruges is perfect for an aimless wander, taking in the endless sumptuous shops, and cosy bars and restaurants. But to get a sense of the modest scale and grace of the city, spend an hour drifting from the Markt north along Vlamingstraat, right along Academiestraat, left into Woesnsdagmarkt and along Genthof. Cross the water, hang a right and hop back across. Then thread your way through the still, serene streets before returning to the bustle of Hoogstraat and Burg.
Lunch on the run
The top snack in Bruges has to be chips smothered in thick mayonnaise. You can get some at the green wagons by the Belfort on the Markt. Mussels are also very popular.
Take a ride
Disregard any preconceptions that the 30-minute boat tours are only for cattle-style coach parties. They're an excellent, relatively cheap (£3) way to acquaint you with Bruges' lovely canals. Boats leave every few minutes along the Dijver. Or hop on a horse-drawn carriage at the Markt, about £16 for four passengers, for 35 minutes along the cobbled streets.
Steenstraat is the main shopping street, with chain retailers and department stores. Nearby Noordzandstraat and Geldmuntstraat contain various boutiques. The gorgeous chocolate shops are a must. Try Moeder Babelutte (Mariastraat 21). Get into the festive spirit in shops decked out in and selling beautiful Christmas decorations, such as De Binnetuin (Philipstockstraat 16) which sells silk flowers and candles.
Bars are plentiful, including delightful, De Garre (Garre 1) hidden down a tiny alley off Breidelstraat, with a big choice of beers. There's an even bigger choice (over 300) at 't Brugs Beertje (Kemelstraat 5), while at Kemelstraat 9 is 't Dreupel Huisje, specialising in more than 100 jenevers (Belgian gin). Avoid De Hobbit at Kemelstraat 8, something of a tourist trap with 16th-century murals painted circa 1999.
Dining with the locals
The restaurants around the Markt are invariably rather touristy, although Craenenburg at number 16, where Maximillian of Austria was held captive, is popular with the locals. More expensive, 't Gulden Vlies at Mallebergplein 16 is a romantic little restaurant with great food. Vegetarians will appreciate Lotus (Wapenmakersstraat 5) where the good set meal costs around £5.
Sunday morning: go to church
Tucked in a corner of the architecturally stunning Burg is the Heligbloed Basiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood), boasting a 12th-century darkened Romanesque-style lower chapel and much lighter, more decorated upper one. Two drops of Christ's blood are reputed to be in a phial here.
A walk in the park
Koningin Astrid Park is quite compact but manages to cram in a bandstand and a playground adjacent to the towering church, Magdalenakerk. There's more open space around the picturesque Beguinage and Minnewater Park. Here, there's a large lawn around the still-functioning convent for Benedictine nuns.
Het Dagelijks Brood (Philipstockstraat 21) is part of a delightful small Belgian chain of teashop/cafés. You sit around a huge wooden table and receive impeccably presented open sandwiches, exotic breads, croissants, salads and puddings. Buy a pot of apple and pear syrup to take home.
Write a postcard
The pretty squares – such as Walplein, Simon Steinplein, Burg and the Markt – all have pleasant cafés where you can enjoy a strong coffee and strudel, waffle or pancake as you scribble those postcards.
The principal museums are conveniently located near each other, including the Groeninge (Dijver 12), with an impressive collection of Flemish primitive and other art from the 14th to 20th centuries; the Memling (Mariastraat 38), housed in the chapel of the 12th century St Janshospitaal and featuring a restored 17th century pharmacy; and the Gruuthuse (Dijver 17), with sculptures, tapestry, an oak chapel and terrace with pretty canal views.
Icing on the cake
You can't leave Bruges without climbing the 366 steps to the top of the 84-metre high 13th century belfry on the Markt, the Belfort. You're rewarded with wonderful views at the top.