Beautiful Bruges: Old-world Europe in the present

BRUGES, Belgium — Walking through central Bruges is like a romantic journey into the past.

With centuries-old gabled buildings lining a web of canals and cobblestone streets, the vibe is quintessential old-world Europe.

Bruges also is one of the most beautiful cities in Western Europe, a place that has been called the Venice of the North.

Located about an hour northwest of Brussels not far from the North Sea, Bruges is the capital of West Flanders in the Flemish region of Belgium. The city was spared major damage during the two world wars, so much of its medieval architecture is intact, earning the historic center of town a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2000.

Just walking the streets and along the canals is worth the trip, but there are a few must-see sites around the city, including an early work by Michelangelo. Here are some:

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THE MARKT

The large square at the city center is one of the most picturesque and bustling places in Bruges. A marketplace starting in 958, The Markt (Market Square) is often filled with pedestrians and bicycles crisscrossing past statues of medieval freedom fighters Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. The square is framed by the majestic Belfry Tower and Provincial Palace, seat of the West Flanders Provincial Court. Old, gilded houses with cafes on the ground floor line the rest of the square. Wednesday is market day, where traditional Belgian fare can be found.

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CHURCH OF OUR LADY

The spire of Our Lady towers above the city at 381 feet (116 meters) and claims to be one of the world's tallest brick structures. Inside it's like an art museum, filled with exquisite paintings, detailed woodcarving and elaborately-painted tombs. The real treat is Michelangelo's marble "Madonna and Child," believed to be created around 1505 and the only one of his statues to leave Italy during his lifetime. Tickets for the museum are 6 euros for adults, 5 euros for seniors and kids 11 and under free. Note: The church is currently undergoing a major renovation that won't be completed until next year.

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GROENINGE MUSEUM

Built on the site of the medieval Eekhout Abbey, the Groeninge Museum has a wide range of Belgian art, including paintings from the 18th and 19th century neoclassical and realist periods, Flemish expressionism and postwar modern art. The main focus of the collection is the works of the Flemish Primitives, including Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes. Adults, 8 euros, seniors, 6 euros, kids 11 and under free.

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BEGIJNHOF

This site is a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle in the rest of the city center. Founded in 1245, it was the home of Beguines, a group of women who lived pious lives without being part of a convent or monastery. Now a home for sisters of the St. Benedict Order, it features an expansive lawn planted with poplars, homes, an active church and a small museum that recreates the living quarters of a Beguine.

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SAINT JOHN'S HOUSE MILL

The Netherlands is famous for its multitude of windmills, but Bruges has four of its own. The Saint John's House Mill, built in 1770, is the only one open to visitors. Located on the northeast side of town, the Saint John's House Mill also is the only mill still in its original spot and still grinding grain. Closed on Mondays. Adults, 3 euros; seniors, 2 euros, kids 11 and under free.

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NORTH SEA

Belgium has a small coastline along the North Sea, but it's worth seeing (in the summer, at least) and only about 30 minutes from Bruges. Oostende is the largest town and the main transportation and fishing hub. Beach towns dot the coast, from Knokke near the Netherlands to De Panne near France. The beaches and dunes are perfect for a wide range of outdoor activities, from swimming and wind surfing to land yachting (think sailboat on wheels). The North Sea is very shallow, so low tide could mean a long walk to reach the water.

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Online: https://www.visitbruges.be

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