Bruges's reputation as one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in western Europe has made it the most popular tourist destination in Belgium, packed with visitors throughout the summer season. Inevitably, the crowds tend to overwhelm the city, but you'd be mad to come to Flanders and miss the place: its museums hold some of the country's finest collections of Flemish art, and its intimate, winding streets, woven around a skein of narrow canals and lined with gorgeous ancient buildings, live up to even the most inflated tourist hype. See it out of season, or in the early morning before the hordes have descended, and it can be memorable – though not so much on Mondays, when most of the sights are closed.
The obvious place to start an exploration of the city is in the two principal squares: the Markt, overlooked by the mighty belfry, and the Burg, flanked by the city's most impressive architectural ensemble. Almost within shouting distance, along the Dijver, are the city's three main museums, among which the Groeninge Museum offers a wonderful sample of early Flemish art. Another short hop brings you to St Janshospitaal and the important paintings of the fifteenth-century artist Hans Memling, as well as Bruges's most impressive churches, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk and Sint Salvatorskathedraal.
Further afield, the gentle canals and maze-like cobbled streets of eastern Bruges are extraordinarily pretty. There are one or two obvious targets here, principally the Kantcentrum (Lace Centre), where you can buy locally made lace and watch its manufacture, and the city's most unusual church, the adjacent Jeruzalemkerk. Above all, however, eastern Bruges excels in the detail, surprising the eye again and again with its sober and subtle variety, featuring everything from intimate arched doorways and bendy tiled roofs to wonky chimneys and a bevy of discrete shrines and miniature statues.