Bruges is an absolutely lovely city! It is a small town, but a very well perserved example of Gothic Europe. The city center lies within a ring of canals that used to serve as a moat for the city. It is a beautiful place to just wander around and walk the streets. The city is so picture-perfect that it felt a little like wandering around in an old Flemish painting. It was such a relaxing place to spend a couple of days.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, Bruges was the place to be. It was one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in Europe (the population was bigger than London). It was known as a huge trading center, and eventually became the center of the cloth-making industry. In the 16th century, the harbor silted up and Bruges' heyday was over. The city was pretty much fogotten about for a couple of centuries, until tourists found their way there and discovered it's charm. According to the city map, tourists were initially drawn to Bruges for the wrong reasons. A book was published discussing how Bruges was a terrible place, full of dark Gothic buildings. People wanted to see it for themselves, so they started visiting. It is a little ironic, but the same thing is happening now. A couple of years ago the movie In Bruges was released. It is a funny movie, full of dark humor about two hitmen stashed away in Bruges after botching a job. The whole premise of the movie is how much they hate Bruges and what a terrible place it is. Of course, since the release of the movie, even more tourists are making their way to Bruges!
The city itself is centered around Markt and Burg Squares. Markt square was the commercial part of the city, and is a huge open plaza full of cafes, horse-drawn carriages, and tourists. On one side of the square is the Belfry. I walked up the stairs (all 366 of them!) and got an amazing view of the town. Burg Square is the governmental part of the city. The Gothic city hall, the Governors Palace, and the Church of the Holy Blood are all on the Square. There were so many beautiful churches in Bruges; it was so nice to wander in and out of them. I really enjoyed the Church of Our Lady, a church made famous by Michelangelo's Madonna and Child -- a statue that was purchased for the church during Michelangelo's lifetime. That's how wealthy Bruges used to be.
Bruges was also the center of Flemish art. Flemish painting is (in my opinion) some of the most detailed and beautiful art. At a time when the Reformation forbid the Protestant church from hiring artists, the Flemish masters started painting everyday scenes, rather than church art. Wealthy merchants wanted portraits of their families, their guilds and their towns. I really love the scenes of everyday life found in Flemish art. I especially like Peter Brughel, Jan Vermeer and Franz Hals. Bruges has a couple of great museums dedicated to Flemish art.
Bruges is very much a city of canals. I found it very easy to get lost just wandering back streets along the canal banks. It was so peaceful. Parks are dotted all along the ring of canals that forms the city boundaries. There are even four windmills scattered along the banks. I absolutely loved it and spent most of my time there just walking around. The food was terrific too! I really liked the frites stands -- take away French fry stands complete with mayo for dipping.