Brugge is a city that could have sprung from the pages of a Gothic fairy tale. Its cobbled streets, spidery canals, and medieval churches are remarkably well-preserved, having been spared the devastation that saw much of Belgium leveled during the 20th-century wars. The secret got out years ago, though, and avoiding weekends and high season is often the only way to skirt the crowds that flood its many boutique hotels.
Indeed, tourism has long been the principal industry here, and preservation orders and strict bylaws ensure that the center looks much as it did during its medieval pomp (how the modern—and modern-looking—Concertgebouw Brugge concert venue on ‘t Zand got planning permission is still a matter of heated debate).
Today, the center is encircled by a ring road that loosely follows the line of the city's medieval ramparts. The ancient gates—Smedenpoort, Ezelpoort, Kruispoort, and Gentpoort—still stand along this route, and due to the city's size, all of its best sights, such as the impressive basilica or the Groeningemuseum, home to some of the finest paintings by Belgium’s famed Flemish Primitive artists, can easily be reached on foot.
In modern times, Brugge has developed a reputation for culinary indulgence. More than 50 chocolate shops cram its narrow streets; there’s even a museum dedicated to the history of cacao, while local artisans such as The Chocolate Line’s Dominique Persoone have gained international recognition. At the time of writing, Brugge also boasted as many three-starred Michelin restaurants as London. True, prices tend to be on the high side, but there are literally hundreds of places to dine, with some excellent seafood and traditional Belgian cuisine to be found across the city.
For many, though, beer is the main draw, with a number of Brugge’s bars and estiminets considered among the finest around by connoisseurs. The city once housed nearly 60 breweries in its heyday, though today only a few remain–-look out for local Fort Lapin, Straffe Hendrik, and Brugse Zot beers. For other beer-related activities, head to the Brugge Beer Museum or for a brewery tour at De Halve Maan
In truth, though, little changes in Brugge. It’s a city that has been both liberated and constricted by its tourist appeal, and like its famed chocolate, it is best sampled in small doses—preferably one or two nights at the most. However, when the day-trippers head home and the shadows draw in, the wonderfully eerie, Gothic charm of this remarkable city emerges. To stroll its cobbled byways is to be transported back in time, and while you’ll never have them all to yourself, it really is one of the most atmospheric places in Europe.
Note: Although it's often called Bruges (its French name) in many guidebooks and by English-speakers, the city’s official Flemish name is indeed Brugge (bruhg-guh), the spelling you’ll see and hear most often while exploring the city.