For an avid and unapologetic Belgophile such as myself, the reasons to visit Ghent are many and varied. If you’ve already ventured to Bruges, you’ll understand the heady cocktail of impressive architecture, civic beauty and the tranquility of the waterways in Flanders. Ghent has many of those same charms, but I like to explain the difference in this way. While Bruges is all medieval courtly love, Ghent is Game of Thrones, and full of excitement and attitude amidst its beauty. It’s been described as one of the most beautiful and underrated cities in Europe, and is very much worth exploring.
Getting to Ghent
Wherever you arrive in Belgium, getting to Ghent won’t take long. If you’re entering the country via the airport at Zavantem or via the Eurostar at Brussels Midi, less than an hour will see you at Ghent Sint Pieters Station. From Antwerp or Zeebrugge if arriving by ship will be around the same.
Sint Pieter’s Station is walkable into the centre of Ghent, but if you have bags it’s easier to take a tram or a cab. You’ll find it simpler to wrangle your bags onto one of the more modern trams than the older ones, which have narrow steps. You can now buy your tram tickets from a machine at the stop, right outside the station.
1. Visit the Gravensteen
Ghent may look beautiful, but it’s got plenty of attitude in its past. Meet the Gravensteen – the Castle of the Counts. Back in the twelfth century, punishment could only be delivered after a confession, and that’s where the Gravensteen was needed. Now it contains a museum of “judicial objects” including a rack, a leg-hold trap and thumbscrew, plus a collection of weaponry.
Today it’s Ghent’s most visited tourist attraction, and also a wedding venue. From the giant spiderweb outside – fortunately not containing a proportionately sized beast – to the imposing walls, it’s a magnificent sight. For a really stunning view of its imposing strength, try and see it from water level on a boat trip.
2. Explore the Stadhuis
The Stadhuis – the city hall – is one of Ghent’s key landmarks. It stands at the corner near the cathedral, so you can appreciate the key architectural landmarks in one short walk. The building dates back to the fourteenth century and was built in different phases, some more ornate than others. It took me a couple of visits to work out that I was seeing the same building, but from different angles.
It’s a popular venue for weddings; we’ve watched more than a few leave there, including one with an impressive arch of flippers and snorkels. On a snowy day, early in the morning, I’ll swear I could imagine it entirely in its medieval incarnation.
3. Admire The Spires
Rooflines in Belgium have a distinctive shape with lots of gorgeous higgledy-piggledy gables. But even that won’t prepare you for the pleasure of looking up in Ghent.
The Belfry tower is part of the Ghent tower row, and is a UNESCO Wrold Heritage Site. It contains the Ghent carillon, which has 54 notes and is still played now. Catch it in full song on every Sunday morning. If you’re lucky enough to be there on the first Friday of the month at 8pm, you’ll catch the carillon juke box, playing everything from classics to pop. There’s a dragon on the spire watching over the city, and you can climb the 366 steps to the top to appreciate his view.
Below you can see the roofline of the Mason’s Guild – Den Enghel – full of Gothic extravagance.
4. Meet Van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, or the Ghent Altarpiece, is a big and complex work covering many panels. It’s housed in St Bavo’s Cathedral and is attributed to the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, early Flemish painters. This is one of the most renowned art works in European history.
There’s general agreement by historians that Hubert set out the panels, and that Jan painted many of them, but, it’s still not entirely clear who did what. Amidst the religious figures, angels and Adam and Eve, you can see the sponsors of the piece, also captured in oils.
In the cathedral, itself a Romanesque Brabant spectacle, you’ll also find work by Rubens.
5. Get Your Art On
You may have gathered by now that Ghent gives good art. Over the years that we’ve been lucky enough to visit, we’ve seen fascinating street art, Mr. Maeterlinck’s Blue Birds (below) and even water features on the river, one depicting a hapless punter revisiting the contents of his stomach after a night on the town.
You should check out the Ghent street art scene too. It’s focused around Sleepstraat, Grawpoort and Rodelijvekensstraat, where you’ll find a big collaborative piece. Don’t forget contemporary art venue, SMAK, for more celebration for the eyes.
Ghent’s happy to throw its arty spotlight on musical inspiration. We’ve seen everything from a line of mannequins in a shop window spelling out Shine On You Crazy Diamond, to the fabulous illuminated Search and Destroy letters that appeared late one night on the Graslei (pictured later in this piece). A rather different inspriation created the cow below, just one of the inhabitants of a side street leading to the river.
6. Wander the City
Not only is Ghent brilliantly walkable, but its centre is the largest car free area in Belgium, giving you scope to roam. Be aware that a lot of it is cobbled, so suitable footwear will have you focused on enjoying yourself, rather than staying upright. In addition to seeing the big beasts of Ghent’s architecture, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in admiring the details of places you just happen to stumble upon in side streets.
I’d recommend you set aside at least half a day to walk the city. If you keep your bearings in relation to the River Leie and the Graslei, it’ll be easy to find your way back. On the far side of the river from the Belfry, you’ll find the Patershol, full of narrow cobbled streets and plenty of places to eat, making it a fine place to explore.
7. Take To The Water
You get a whole new perspective on Ghent from the water. A boat reaches places you wouldn’t see from the land, and the sheer height and magnificence of sights like the Gravensteen is enhanced at water level. You can take a short half hour trip from the centre of the city, which will show you the main sights and also orientate you for your visit.
At the weekends, there’s a water tram where you can hop on and hop off as you wish. You can also hire your own speedboat, or a raft, or a kayak. It’s possible to paddle the waterways at night by torchlight, surely one of the most atmospheric ways to see one of the most atmospheric cities around. You can find details of all the boat trips and hire facilities available here.
8. Eat Local
Belgian cuisine has plenty to offer outside of the staples of moules frites, waffles and chocolate. Here in Ghent, the specialities include waterzooi, described as a chicken stew. In practice, we’ve eaten it in every incarnation from soup to a gooey, cheesy offering. It’s comfort food at its best.
Also local to Ghent is the beef stew stoverij. It’s made with a slow simmer of the ingredients including onions, a dark Belgian beer, and, for purists, a slice of gingerbread spread with the local mustard on top which smushes down to thicken the sauce. In practice, most people we’ve spoken to who make it at home have many variants of the recipe. But it’s another delight on a chilly day, and even on a warmer one, served with fries and salad.
Ghent’s also got its own aged ham, which is air dried for at least ten months. Its name, Ganda ham, comes from the old name for the city. Seen a flash of purple on a stall? That’ll be cubedons, the little noses. These conical sweets are filled with soft raspberry and are a Ghent favourite.
9. Eat Vegetarian
If you don’t eat meat, then Ghent will be a celebration, as it’s billed as the vegetarian capital of the world. It has a brilliant range of vegetarian restaurants and observes veggie day once a week on Thursdays.
There’s a great range of creative veggie and vegan cookery throughout the city. You’ll find the well-regarded Komkommertidj on Reep, with its buffet, cantina-style atmosphere. Le Petit Botanique sources its ingredients from Ghent city farms and has an ethical opportunity-based employment policy. You’ll see lunch from Plus+ on Ajuinlei shown above. Here you can get big fabulous bowls of salads and plenty of creative soups.
10. Enjoy Gentse Feesten
Ghent’s known to like a good party. From the first weekend we ever visited, when the hotel receptionist apologized about a beer festival – with live music – taking place in the square outside, to more festivals and the pretty Kerstmarkt at Christmas, there’s always lots to do.
Gentse Feesten takes this to another level. Held in July, it’s a festival of music and theatre. You’ll find comedy, jazz, dance, funk, street performers, mime and buskers. In fact the city lets its hair down big time. The last day of Feesten is known as the Day Of The Empty Wallets, showing dedication to the pursuit of pleasure during the celebrations.
11. Spend a Night In The Hot Club
Just around the corner from the Graslei, you’ll find a square with a tiny alley leading from the corner of the handbag shop. Spot the sign above, venture down there, and you’ll be in the Hot Club de Gand. It’s open during the day, for a quieter look at its pleasures, but for the full on Hot Club experience, you need to visit at night.
It’s the kind of venue where you’re never sure exactly what you’ll be listening to. It could be jazz, flamenco, blues, songwriters; you name it, the Hot Club has probably had it. It’s an atmospheric venue, and well worth your time.
12. Check Out the Music And Club Scene
In addition to the Hot Club, Ghent’s well supplied with venues to enjoy live music. Last trip, we ended up in the Missy Sippy Blues & Roots Club, where the turn for the night was acoustic folk, and very listenable. Ghent’s Jazz Festival takes place over eight days in July.
Charlatan has three dance floors, weekly free gigs, and a laissez faire approach to mixing genres, meaning that your ears will never be bored. Another great place to hear live music is the Kinky Star on Vlasmarkt. Below is one of my favourite finds in Ghent: a – sadly temporary – tribute to the World’s Forgotten Boy.
13. Visit The Graslei
Described as the prettiest quay in Europe, the Graslei is full of walkways, restaurants, bars and splendid sights. It’s home to the guildhouses and trade halls of the prosperous medieval city, many now open as bars and restaurants. There’s a broad river bank with steps, making it a great spot for a picnic too. Pick up some supplies, and settle down for some time people watching. You won’t have to wander far to collect a waffle, frites or an ice cream either.
Along the Graslei, you’ll find the beautiful St Michael’s bridge, which makes a great landmark for meeting up with friends. You can also join a boat trip here, and explore the river further.
14. Experience The Beauty Of ghent By Night
Most cities have given some thought to their street lighting, but Ghent takes this to another level. The lighting scheme that sets Ghent afire by night was specially conceived to show off the beauty of the city, and it’s totally magical. We’ve walked the centre of Ghent in all seasons and all weathers, and it’s truly atmospheric. Make sure to set aside time to appreciate the beauty of the city after dark.
Warm lights bounce off the old building walls and highlight their shadows and shapes. The spiderweb outside the Gravensteen glistens. As you stand on the wooden bridge with the tram rumbling behind you, you can see all the guildhouses of the Graslei beautifully lit. The spires of the buildings catch your eye as you look up. If you don’t have a shred of romance in your soul, I swear Ghent by night will generate a tiny warmth in your psyche.
15. Take The Boat To The Artist’s Village
If you walk along the banks of the River Leie out of the city centre, you’ll come to a dock where you can take the boat to St Martens in Latem. The trip will last a few hours, heading along the river to this artist’s village. The village itself is beautiful, with places to eat and to view – or if you’re feeling in the zone, to buy – art.
But the journey is as important as the destination. On the way, you’ve got the tranquil river life all around you. You’ll have house, garden and sculpture envy. And if you like bird life, you’ll see more than you could ever have imagined. From all kinds of waterfowl traveling alongside the boat – ready to raid its galley once it docks – to hawks idly riding the thermals and even a heron flexing its wings at the dock, they’re all there.
You’ll also see all Belgian life at its finest. Groups of friends and families make an occasion of the journey, tucking into plates of cheese or stoverij and catching up on life while watching the countryside float by. You can find out more about the trip here.
16. Enjoy Belgian Beer In Ghent’s Bars
Trying out Belgian beer is a fine thing to do in Ghent. One of the bars with the most extensive beer list is Dulle Griet in the Vrijdagmarkt. Named after Ghent’s big cannon above, Dulle Griet is full of flagstoned anterooms where you can peruse the extensive beer menu.
Out of the centre near the cinema, try De Brouwzaele, which contains the enormous copper brewing kettle inside a triangular building. We’ve had good food here, and you can also eat at the boat moored alongside on a warm summer night.
You should try Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (the Waterhouse on the Beer Canal). There are beautiful river views from the terrace for warmer days, and mightily powerful stove inside for the chilly months.
Not far away, you’ll find the tiny Galgenhuis, which has just a few tables, including an almost secret mezzanine table. You’ll notice nooses hanging from the ceiling. The noose is the symbol of Ghent, representing its act of rebellion against Emperor Charles V. The nobles refused to pay taxes that were not helping the city, and so Charles had them paraded through town wearing the said nooses. t’Galgenhuis is also where so-called scandal punishments were administered, so as to enable justice to be seen to be done.
17. Try Jenever
There’s gin, then there’s jenever.
Jenever is the parent spirit, and alcohol under that name can only be produced in the Netherlands, Belgium and specific neighbouring French and German regions. There is evidence to suggest that jenever was well known in the 1500s, when it was used as medicine.
Jenever can be old or young, which refers to its processing method, not the age of the spirit. Jonge jenever is fairly neutral in taste, like vodka, with a slight hint of juniper. Oude jenever is smoother and maltier. Aalst, a mere half hour from Ghent on the train, is one of the so-called “jenever cities”. You’ll find jenever in the supermarkets and many bars, including the specialist t’Dreupelkot, next to the Waterhuis in Ghent. It has a vast range of genever on sale from passion fruit to gingerbread.
Where To Stay In Ghent
Over the years that we’ve been visiting Ghent, we’ve stayed in many different kinds of accommodation. Our hotel preference is one of the two nh Hotels. One is located immediately opposite the Stadhuis, giving great views (including the wedding with the guard of flippers), and immediate easy access to all of the city centre. It has a rather nice hotel bar too. We’ve also stayed at the nh Sint Pieters, near the station. Your euro goes a lot further at this location, and we plead guilty to the pleasure of the suite featuring a sunken bath.
The city’s visitor bureau has a great set of accommodation listings from boutique to budget.
More Brilliant Belgium
I’m an unashamed Belgophile, and I’ve explored many beautiful places in Belgium. If you’re interested in visiting more of Belgium’s treasures, head on over to:
- Grand Place in Brussels to explore this UNESCO World Heritage site
- see what Tintin’s detectives can find out about Belgian culture from Brussels
- explore Saint-Gilles the multicultural Art Nouveau commune
- Leuven, the university city, with stunning architecture and the longest bar in the world
- Bruges, to see the check out your answer to that eternal question: Bruges or Ghent?
- Antwerp for a look at what this beautiful city has to offer at Christmas and also what to expect at Antwerp’s Kerstmarkt
- check out the Belgian coast via the Kusttram
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