I strolled the cobblestone streets of Bruges (Brugge), Belgium, my eyes cataloguing one adorably quaint sight after another: swans gliding under arched bridges, colored lights twinkling from gabled rooftops, and weeping willows trailing branches into the narrow canals. Is this the cutest city in the world? I wondered, before turning the corner to see a horse-drawn carriage trotting past an elderly man playing the accordion. Checkmate.
Bruges, set in northwest Belgium, was once a bustling global commercial power. Today, it is best savored at a leisurely pace. It was founded in 1128 and still maintains much of its medieval architecture; its historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We started our explorations in the heart of the city, the Markt (Market Square). The square’s main landmark is the 12th-century belfry. Climb 366 steep steps to the top of the bell tower for panoramic views of the city, with engraved stones showing the direction and distance to neighboring cities.
The city is compact and walkable. With just an afternoon’s walk, you can pass the Groeningemuseum for primitive Flemish art, Basilica of the Holy Blood for original frescoes, and the serene convent gardens at the Beguinage. There are many other galleries and museums, including one dedicated to chocolate, and the City Card will get you admission to most of them for €38 (valid for 48 hours).
Comfort food is an attraction in itself. We interspersed our walks with stops for thick frites with mayonnaise, waffles with homemade whipped cream, and of course, artisan Belgian chocolates. There are also plenty of craft stores to duck into -- expect lots of lacework and wooden knick-knacks such as Christmas pyramids (delicate Christmas-scene carousels powered by candle heat).
On the perimeter of town, four windmills stand sentry along the canal. The oldest was built in 1770 and houses a small museum. The grassy stretch of park here is a good place for a picnic, with the city’s old walls visible nearby.
Back in the city center, we capped off our day sipping Belgian brews by a pub’s stone fireplace, having fully embraced Bruges’ slower, and decidedly more charming, way of life.