There are many reasons that Bruges is always on the must-see list for tourists visiting Belgium. Walking down the narrow streets and across the arching bridges of Bruges, it’s easy to fall into the trap of appreciating the city for its beauty alone. And Bruges is very beautiful. But wrapped in its exquisite exterior is a place of rich historical importance.

The ornate architecture of the medieval buildings, all turrets, arched windows and gingerbread rooflines, illustrates Bruges’ history as a significant European cloth market. Now, with tourism as its primary industry, people still flock to the cobblestone lanes that wind along picturesque canals to shop and take photos. Sidewalk cafes and tiny shops are almost impossible to resist as you pass.

During the height of the tourist season, Bruges, an hour from Brussels by train, can be crowded. But in the shoulder seasons the crowds vanish and it’s easy to navigate around town.

As you explore the small city, take a few minutes to stroll the tranquil grounds of the Bruges Begijnhof. Founded in the 11th Century, the Begijnhof was the place where the Beguines—an order of laywomen who were not nuns, did not take vows and could leave and even marry if they chose to—could live and work safely. In the 1930s, the cluster of beautiful houses that formed the walled Begijnhof became a monastery for an order of Benedictine sisters who still reside there. In the early spring, a carpet of jonquils covers the grounds highlighting the beauty of the ancient architecture. It is a restful place to escape the busyness of the market.

Be sure to visit The Church of Our Lady to see Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child, and spend some time at the Memling Musuem, housed in the old St. John’s Hospital. Take a short boat tour of the canals and for a panoramic view climb the 366 steps of the belfry overlooking the market square.

There is a quaint fairytale quality to Bruges, built to be beautiful and even with centuries of change and struggle behind it, the city is still worth visiting any time of year.

Bruges Highlights:

  • Chocolate: Don’t leave Bruges without stopping for a sweet treat. It’s no exaggeration to say there is a chocolatier around every corner. Dumon, near the market square, is a relative newcomer but has become a favorite destination.

  • Beer: Belgians know brew, and Bruges is the perfect place to start your Belgian Beer Tour. The De Halve Maan Brewery tour offers the basic information for understanding and appreciating Belgian beer, and after the tour there are plenty of pubs to help you discover your personal favorite.

  • Shopping: Bruges does brisk trade in Belgian lace and there is no shortage of tiny lace shops to help you find a souvenir.

  • Food: From frites, the thick, crisp, delicious original 'French' fry served with mayonaise, to more contemporary and award-winning cuisine, food in Bruges is plentiful and delicious.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane whose essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at Portions of this column first appeared in Spokane Cd'A Woman Magazine.