If you set out to design a fairy-tale medieval town, it would be hard to improve on central Bruges (Brugge in Dutch). Picturesque cobbled lanes and dreamy canals link photogenic market squares lined with soaring towers, historic churches and old whitewashed almshouses. And there’s plenty of it. The only downside is that everyone knows. That means that there’s a constant crush of tourists in the centre, especially through the summer months. So to really enjoy Bruges stay overnight (day trippers miss the fabulous evening floodlighting) and try to visit midweek (avoiding floods of weekend visitors). There’s a special charm in spring when daffodils carpet the tranquil courtyard of the historic begijnhof retreat, or in winter (except Christmas) when you can have the magnificent, if icy, town almost to yourself.
Bruges’ most celebrated art gallery boasts an astonishingly rich collection whose strengths are in superb Flemish Primitive and Renaissance works, depicting the conspicuous wealth of the city with glitteringly realistic artistry. In room 2 are meditative works including Jan Van Eyck’s 1436 radiant masterpiece Madonna with Canon George Van der Paele (1436) and the Madonna by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, where the rich fabric of the Madonna’s robe meets the ‘real’ foliage at her feet with exquisite detail.
Most eye-catching with its early baroque gabling, gilt highlights and golden statuettes, this was once the palace of the ‘Liberty of Bruges’, the large autonomous territory and administrative body that ruled from Bruges (1121–1794). Much of the building is still used for city offices, but you can visit the former aldermen’s room, the Renaissancezaal, to admire its remarkable 1531 carved chimney piece.
This large, somewhat sober 13th-century church sports an enormous tower that’s currently ‘wrapped’ for extensive renovation. Inside, it’s best known for Michelangelo’s serenely contemplative 1504 Madonna and Child statue, the only such work by Michelangelo to leave Italy during the artist’s lifetime; look out also for the Adoration of the Shepherds by Pieter Pourbus.
Towering 83m above the square like a gigantic medieval rocket is the fabulous 13th-century belfort. There’s relatively little to see inside, but it’s worth the mildly claustrophobic 366-step climb for the fine views. Look out through wide-gauge chicken wire for panoramas across the spires and red-tiled rooftops towards the wind turbines and giant cranes of Zeebrugge. Visitor numbers are limited to 70 at once, which can cause queues at peak times.