A hot-favorite contender for the title of Europe’s tiniest, most romantic city, Bruges is really one big magical attraction—a fairy-tale confection of gabled houses, meandering canals, magnificent squares, and narrow cobblestone streets. What is most astonishing is the consistently warm welcome its residents provide to the swarms of visitors who swallow the place up every summer. The basis for this goes way beyond mere economics—the good burghers of Bruges have a deep love for their show-stopping city and are only too delighted that others share their enthusiasm.

The Old Walls of Bruges

Medieval Bruges was heavily fortified, totally encircled by its circular walls and further protected by a moat and defense towers. The walls were largely knocked down in the 19th century and today only the moat and four of the nine 14th-century, powerfully fortified gates have survived. Of these, the Kruispoort is the most monumental, looking like a mini-castle complete with drawbridge and defending the city’s eastern approach routes. The others are (clockwise from the railway station in the southwest) the imposing Smedenpoort; Ezelpoort, which is known for the many swans that grace the moat beside it; Kruispoort; and Gentpoort.

A Quiet Corner of Bruges

Since it was founded in 1245 by the Countess Margaret of Constantinople, the Prinselijk Begijnhof ten Wijngaarde (Princely Beguinage of the Vineyard) , Wijngaardstraat (tel 050/330-011; www.monasteria.org), at the Minnewater (Lake of Love), has been one of the most tranquil spots in Bruges, and so it remains today. Begijns were religious women, similar to nuns, who accepted vows of chastity and obedience but drew the line at poverty, preferring to earn a living by looking after the sick and making lace.

The begijns may be no more but the Begijnhof has been occupied by Benedictine nuns since 1928, and they strive to keep the old traditions alive. This beautiful little cluster of 17th-century whitewashed houses surrounds a lawn shaded by poplar trees and makes a marvelous escape from the din of the outside world. One of the houses, the Begijnhuisje (Beguine’s House), is now a museum. The Begijnhof courtyard is always open and admission is free. The Beguine’s House is open daily 10am to 5pm. Admission is 2€ for adults, 1.50€ for seniors, 1€ for students and children 8 to 11.

Bruges’s Windmills

Where once 25 windmills graced the outskirts of Bruges, now only four survive. They are found in the park that abuts the old city walls on their eastern flank between Kruispoort and Dampoort; of these, two are open to the public in summer and both are grain mills coming under the banner of Musea Brugge, which also runs the city’s main museums. The Koeleweimolen was built in 1765 and was moved to its present spot from the Dampoort in 1996, while the Sint-Janshuismolen has been in situ since 1770. Both windmills are found along Kruisvest and share the same opening times and admission: April to September Tuesday through Sunday 9:30am to 12:30pm and 1:30 to 5pm; admission 4€ adults, 3€ seniors and ages 6 to 25, free for children 5 and under.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.