BRUGES, Belgium (Reuters) - The well-preserved historic Bruges city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and with eight Michelin star restaurants and the most independent chocolatiers in Belgium, it is worth a visit even for those who do not like museums.
The Belgian city of just over 100,000 inhabitants had its heyday in the 14th and 15th century until its access to the sea silted up, cutting it off from world trade routes and leaving it untouched by world affairs for the centuries to come.
This changed when Georges Rodenbach published his book “Bruges-la-Morte” in 1892, turning the city into a tourist destination.
Trains from Brussels run twice an hour and take about 70 minutes. Bruges is also well connected to the road network with the E40 motorway leading to Brussels or the French border. Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a 48-hour visit.
6 p.m. - While station neighborhoods in other cities can be daunting, Bruges has a clean and modern railway station just on the southern tip of the historic city centre. Standing on the square in front of the railway station, you can already see some of the old towers rising up behind the trees of a lush park that circles the centre. Head across the main road and turn right into the park to immediately stumble across the first attraction, the Poedertoren, an old gun powder deposit. Stroll along the Minnewater canal until a small gate on the left opens up towards the Beguinage.
6:30 p.m. - The Beguinage, a type of convent that from the 13th century onwards accommodated religious women who took no formal vows, is a beautiful row of small, white houses set around a circular square with tall poplar trees. The Beguinage was taken over by Benedictine nuns in the early 20th century and about 20 nuns still live there today. Visitors are reminded to keep noise to a minimum and large tour groups are not allowed to enter, making it one of the most tranquil places in the city.
7 p.m. - Cross the small bridge, continue into Wijngaardstraat and take a left at the end to enter Katelijnestraat. The tranquility that marked the early part of our route fades as the first tourist shops, selling lace, chocolate and beer as well as less tasteful t-shirts, appear. If you want to see the city from a very different perspective, a boat tour is a good way to do it. Boats leave from Katelijnestraat on the left, just before the bridge. A tour takes 30 minutes and costs 7.60 euros.
8 p.m. - Cross the bridge and head for dinner at Gruuthusehof, wedged in between Mariastraat and Heilige-Geeststraat. The restaurant serves local specialties such as “Vlaamse Stoverij”, a beef stew.
9:30 p.m. - Head straight up Mariastraat and turn right at Steenstraat and you will reach the impressive central Markt square, with a very tall belfry towering above it.
10 p.m. - Continue along Breidelstraat which connects Markt to the next major square Burg. On the right, hidden in between two shops is a tiny alley at the end of which is the surprising bar De Garre, with an impressive selection of craft beers. De Garre also brews its own beer, an 11.5 percent tipple.
9:30 a.m. - Get up early and find your way to Markt square. It is time to climb the belfry and enjoy the stunning panoramic views of the city. As queues can be very long, the earlier the better (it opens at 9:30 a.m.). There are 366 steps to be negotiated in a winding staircase that is not much wider than a meter (yard) at its narrowest part near the top - not enormous fun for the claustrophobic, obese or unfit. There are people walking in both directions so coming close to your fellow tourist is unavoidable.
11 a.m. - Head to the neighboring Burg square, which used to be a fortified stronghold. Standing out in the middle of the square is the town hall built in the 14th century. It also houses a museum. The gothic hall with its 19th century wall paintings is especially impressive.
12:30 p.m. - From Burg head down Hoogstraat and across the bridge. Just at the start of Molenmeers street is Refter, the second restaurant of chef Geert Van Hecke, who gained three Michelin stars for his other restaurant De Karmeliet. Refter, which received 14 out of 20 at a 2012 Gault Millau review, is much more accessible, serving lunch for 25 euros ($32.88).
2 p.m. - Continuing to walk up Molenmeers you will find the Bruges Lace Museum at the end of the street. As you will have gathered by the many shops selling lace items around the city, this handicraft has great importance here. There is even the opportunity to see how lace is made. For those who aren’t that interested in lace, there is still something to see here. The Jerusalem Church, on the museum grounds, was largely spared the destructive chaos of the Dutch revolt that swept through the low countries in 1566 and therefore still has its original windows, which give the small church a very special atmosphere.
3 p.m. - As many shops in Belgium are closed on Sundays, it may be best to go for the obligatory souvenir hunt on the Saturday. The more obvious items to bring home are beer, chocolate or something made out of lace.
For those looking for something more exclusive, consider the Chocolate Line on Stevinplein, one of Bruges' many chocolatiers, which sells the "Chocolate Shooter", a device made for sniffing chocolate powder. www.chocolateshooter.be/
If budget is not an issue, Jean Moust sells original 17th century paintings mainly by artists from the Low Countries in his shop on Mariastraat. Prices range from 4,000 to 100,000 euros. www.jeanmoust.com/
5:30 p.m. - The Church of our Lady is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the city. Mary of Burgundy, wife of Emperor Maximilian I, lies buried here. There is also a Michelangelo statue depicting the virgin and child.
7 p.m. - Head up Mariastraat and turn right at Simon Stevin Plein where you will find De Koetse which serves local specialties such as “Paling in’t groen”, a local eel dish.
9 p.m. - Brugs Beertje, just crossing Simon Stevin Plein in Kemelstraat, has 300 different beers to try.
9:30 a.m. - Another way of seeing Bruges is by bicycle, there are several rental shops all over town and the city centre is surrounded by a more or less continuous park. Going around the city centre by bike takes less than an hour. The St Janshuis windmill is probably one of the best picture opportunities. For those with more active legs, the Damse Vaart canal in the north of town offers a perfectly flat cycling path which links Bruges to The Netherlands 15 km away.
11 a.m. - Returning to Bruges, head to Walplein where you can take a tour of Halve Maan, the only remaining brewery within the centre of Bruges. Tours last about an hour and there’s a beer to be had at the end. Stay at the tavern which is part of the complex and serves a three course lunch for 16 euros.
1 p.m. - The St Janshospitaal, located in Mariastraat, is one of the oldest hospital buildings in Europe. Inside you can see portraits showing former doctors, one even pictured poking a sharp device into a patient’s eye, as well as paintings by 15th century artist Hans Memling. The building itself, with its beautiful roof framework is worth a visit alone.
3 p.m. - The Groeningemuseum, across the canal from the main square, houses a good collection of Flemish art of the 15th and 16th century. There are paintings by Van Eyck and Bosch but there are also some more modern examples of local art.
5 p.m. - Head to De Proeverie in Katelijnestraat for their signature hot chocolate which comes with all ingredients -- milk, cream, chocolate -- served separately, turning your farewell drink into somewhat of a ceremony. ($1 = 0.7603 euros)
Reporting By Robert-Jan Bartunek