With cobbled streets and fairy tale-like architecture, this medieval city has much more than the exquisite chocolate for which it is known, says Imogen Lepere
Why go? If Venice was reimagined by Hans Christian Andersen it would look something like Bruges. The historic centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site where charming canals slide past gothic mansions, intimate laneways lead to medieval footbridges and wonky, timbered buildings look like gingerbread houses. Being one of Europe’s most perfectly preserved cities comes at a price; admirers flock to it from all over the world. Post summer and pre-Christmas, November is one of its quieter months. With a little research you can discover tranquil towpaths which you can explore on a bike, appreciate endlessly enchanting architecture and visit shadowy bars where stylish Belgians sip their drinks.
What to do Wake up early and stroll along Breidelstraat until you reach Markt. This cobblestone square is home to a 13th-century belfry and traditional houses with crow-stepped gables. On a Wednesday morning you’ll see traders setting up for the weekly market. Carry on along Peerdenstraat until you reach Peerdebrug (Horse Bridge). It was first mentioned in 1392 and has views of the 17th-century mansions that line the Green Canal. The Groeningemuseum museabrugge.be with its lovely courtyard, has a rather unusual collection of art, boasting Flemish primitives and Belgian symbolists such as Fernand Khnopff. Nearby, the Basilica of the Holy Blood feels like a work of art, thanks to its neo-gothic exterior and colourful murals. Chocolate is Belgium’s other religion, and you’ll find plenty of places in which to pay homage. Dominique Persoone’s thechocolateline.be modern approach (think wasabi, saffron and curry) earned him the top spot in the National Chocolate Awards 2016, while Chocolatier Spegelaer 00 32 5033 6052, sweetchocolatedreams.be is the choice of locals. If the icy winds get a bit too much for you, head to the Frietmuseum 00 32 5034 0150, frietmuseum.be which is ‘the first and only museum dedicated to potato fries’.
Where to stay Like most things in Bruges, hotels are gracious, romantic and rather traditional. At first glance, Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce 00 32 5033 7926, relaisbourgondischcruyce.be seems the obvious choice. A favourite with European royalty, its half-timbered facade and stained-glass windows look directly over a canal and it has an art collection that includes works by Matisse and Klimt. Hotel Castillon 00 32 5034 3001, castillion.be is a 17th-century palace in the shadow of St Salvator’s Cathedral.
If you value an airy, peaceful bedroom, Hotel de Orangerie’s 00 32 5034 1649, hotelorangerie.be are 20sq m, with many overlooking a courtyard. Even the bed and breakfasts have a quietly glamorous air, harking back to the days of dukes, duels and dancing slippers. At Côté Canal 00 32 5033 3542, bruges-bedandbreakfast.be you can take your breakfast beneath the centuries-old pear tree from which Winston Churchill painted when he visited the city.
Where to eat and drink Despite its olde-worlde persona, Bruges’ approach to food is surprisingly contemporary. Geert Van Hecke is the reigning king of the fine dining scene and his De Karmeliet restaurant 00 32 5033 8259, dekarmeliet.be has held three Michelin stars since 1996. Essentially a fishmonger with tables, Den Gouden Karpel 00 32 5033 3389, dengoudenkarpel.be is directly behind the Old Fish Market, where it doesn’t get much more Belgian than moulle natuur (mussels cooked in parsley and celery) with pomme frites (potato chips). On a cold day, there are few restaurants as inviting as Den Huzaar 00 32 5033 3797, denhuzaar.be bistro. Expect beer-based stews, bouillabaisse and pan-fried goose liver. And no guide to Bruges is complete without mentioning beer. Watch it being made at De Halve Maan brewery 00 32 5044 4222, halvemaan.be before sampling a glass or two of Straffe Hendrik by their log fire.
Time running out? Take in the highlights of the city on a bicycle tour. Your guide will provide background information as well as pointing out hidden spots. bajabikes.eu
Trip tip The flatlands around the city are a haven for eels. Try them at Siphon 00 32 5062 0202, siphon.be just 7km from the city.
Currency is the euro. Time is one hour ahead of GMT. The cost to carbon-offset is $12.98, for more details visit climatecare.org
Emirates airlines flies from Dubai to Brussels twice daily emirates.com
Qatar Airways flies daily from Doha to Brussels each day qatarairways.com
Visit Bruges is an online resource full of inspiration for what to see and do, as well as practical advice. bezoekers.brugge.be
The Bruges Engagement by Madeleine Ker (Harlequin, $6) is the tale of an art expert who finds her fortune in the galleries of Bruges, taking her on a tour across the city.