You’re cruising down Spiegelrei. The canal is surrounded by stone houses with watermarks around the bases. Jan Van Eyckplein, a cobbled square, is ahead. Poortersloge’s turret peeks above the medieval-style buildings. The Koningstraat Bridge barely looks high enough to clear. Water laps against the side of the boat. And two swans silently glide ahead. It’s love at first sight in Bruges.
Bruges is the capital and the largest city of West Flanders, one of the Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium. The walls and the canals of “the Venice of the North” were built in the early half of the 12th century. The city quickly became an important stop along the European trade route. Zeebrugge, the harbor, was used to house a fleet of German U-boats during World War I. Today, it’s the country’s second-largest port. The heart of the city, surrounded by a ring of canals, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After cruising along the canals, stroll to Markt, the city’s main square. It’s filled with guildhalls, open-air cafés, and horse-drawn carriages. Climb 366 steps to the top of the belfry for panoramic views over the city, the canals, and the windmills in the distance. Visit the Church of Our Lady, one of the world’s highest brick towers, to see Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child marble sculpture. Check out artwork by the Flemish masters—Jan van Eyck, Adriaen Isenbrandt, and Hugo van der Goes—at the Groeningemuseum. And stop at the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where a vial of blood supposedly belonging to Jesus is kept, on Burg Square.
By now you’re surely ready for a break. Tour De Halve Maan Brewery, which has been operating since 1856. Taste their fruity Brugse Zot and bitter Straffe Hendrik. Give in to temptation and stop at some of the many chocolate shops you keep passing. Sample white chocolate ganache flavored with saffron and curry at the Chocolate Line or chocolate slabs slathered with Speculoos or papaya at Chocolatier Roose. Then sip a glass of Flemish sparkling wine, made with Chardonnay grapes, at Wijnbar Est.
Just leave plenty of time to walk to Restaurant Patrick Devos for dinner. The building is from the 13th century and the decor is Art Deco, but the menu is completely modern. Start with an apéritif in the salon, before moving to a table with a garden view. Eat codfish with razor clams; sea bass with a zucchini-and-eggplant compote; and fried morels, shiitake, and chestnut mushrooms with snails and a red onion sauce. You barely have room for the poached rhubarb at the end of the meal.
Walk off dinner along the Dijver Canal that snakes through the city. Lights dance off the water. The almost-full moon illuminates the cobblestone streets. And church steeples glow up ahead. Bruges is quiet and peaceful now. By the time you reach your hotel, you realize it wasn’t just a first-sight thing. You have truly fallen in love with this enchanting little city.