Ghent is a bustling medieval city which beautifully blends its stunning history with an arty, vibrant and fascinating present. I’ve described Ghent before as the Game of Thrones counterpart to the more delicate courtly love of Bruges. Also blessed with a spectacular network of canals and ancient streets, Ghent is still less visited than its Flemish sister Bruges. But the word is out, so come and explore Ghent and see why visitors are increasingly attracted to this lively and splendid city. We’ve got time to enjoy just one day in Ghent, so let’s make the most of it.
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- 1 How To Get To Ghent
- 2 The Gravensteen: Castle Of the Counts
- 3 The Graslei: The Prettiest Quay In Europe
- 4 St Michael’s Bridge and the Three Towers
- 5 Lunch In The Vegetarian Capital Of Europe
- 6 The Historical Centre of Ghent
- 7 Belgian Waffles: Where To Find The Best Waffles In Ghent
- 8 One Day In Ghent Deserves Time On The River
- 9 One Day In Ghent to Experience the Street Art Scene
- 10 Explore the Patershol
- 11 One Day In Ghent – And One Night
- 12 Dinner, Drinks and Evening Entertainment In Ghent
- 13 One Day In Ghent: Staying The Night
- 14 When Should I enjoy My One Day In Ghent?
- 15 More To Do In Brilliant Belgium
How To Get To Ghent
With Belgium being small and beautifully formed, it’s an easy trip to Ghent from anywhere else in the country. A fast train from Brussels Midi station will take you less than an hour. As befits a medieval city, the centre of Ghent is made up of small cobbled streets, so if you are driving, it might be wise to park on the outskirts and get a tram to the centre. Tram 1 from outside Sint Pieters Station will take you right into the centre of Ghent, stopping at the Gravensteen. And it’s here we’ll start our one day in Ghent.
The Gravensteen: Castle Of the Counts
You can’t help but notice the Gravensteen. This spot tells you of Ghent’s difficult and turbulent past, while today it’s the city’s most visited attraction and a wedding venue. the Gravensteen is everything a castle should be: tall, imposing, ready to take on all invaders. The original moat remains (this is the only castle in Flanders to have kept its moat), and you can see it at closer quarters later. There’s even a rather large and menacing spiderweb outside, producing goosebumps at the thought of the large and forbidding beast that might have woven such a spectacle.
You can tour the castle itself, including the carefully named Museum of Judicial Objects harking back to the days of more primitive punishments. There is a collection of instruments of torture, plus further displays in the old courtroom. The history of the Gravensteen goes back to Roman times, and the original wooden fortifications were turned into a keep with 24 towers in the Middle Ages. You get a stunning view of Ghent from the top. And if you’re like me, a bit of fantasy castle living comes into your mind as you survey the city from on high.
The Graslei: The Prettiest Quay In Europe
Ships have been sailing into Ghent to trade since the eleventh century. All the activity of the thousand years of trading can be seen on the beautiful Graslei alongside the River Leie. It’s one of the main meeting places of Ghent, as everyone stops here at one point or another: to sit, to chat, to take pleasure in the beauty of this spot. In the 20 years I’ve been visiting Ghent, it’s the place that never fails to take my breath away.
Just stand on one of the wooden bridges for a moment, and let the tram rattle behind you. To your left you can see the old merchant houses, built with the wealth of the guilds of Ghent. Ahead of you is St Michael’s Bridge: tall, atmospheric and with views of its own. Down on the Graslei itself, there are plenty of places to sit, take a coffee or enjoy a meal. It’s Ghent at its most beautiful and most convivial. It may be the place you remember most from your one day in Ghent.
Around the corner you’ll find the Vleeshuis: the guild hall of the butchers. One cold winter night we emerged here to find the river side of the building illuminated by person-sized letters urging us to Search and Destroy. Surprises like this riverside tribute to Iggy Pop are some of the many reasons I love Ghent so well. The old hall is now a dining space, with the local hams – Garda ham – hanging from the ceiling to cure.
A Coffee Or A Beer Riverside
Next door, you’ll find Ghent’s tiniest watering hole. The Galgenhuisje is a small bar with an outside terrace about twice the size of its interior. It is said that prisoners awaiting trial once gathered here. Now it can be the place of enduring but odd memories, like the night we spent here with a German Oompah band during a music festival. Across from the Galgenhuisje is another of Ghent’s well known bars: Waterhuis aan de Bierkant. The Water House on the Beer Canal shares its terrace with t’Dreupelkot, the famous jenever bar. Jenever flavours here include passion fruit and gingerbread. You might want to call in later, or stop by now for a taste of Belgian beer. It’s time to retrace our steps a little, and head back to the Graslei.
St Michael’s Bridge and the Three Towers
There’s a big bridge ahead of you, full of maritime sculptures. This is another of Ghent’s meeting places. The bridge is beautiful from all angles, so don’t hesitate to climb the steps and cross the bridge. When you are about half way across, turn round and look back. This is your viewpoint for the towers of Ghent: the Belfry, St Bavo’s Cathedral and St Nicholas’s Church. Many a picture has been taken from this spot.
Lunch In The Vegetarian Capital Of Europe
Even if you are not vegan or veggie it would be a pity to miss out on Ghent’s gorgeous contribution to plant-based eating. My recommendations for your lunch are all a mere ten minutes from St Michael’s Bridge.
First up is Plus+ on Ajuinlei. The counter offers build your own salads, homemade soups and a wide variety of fresh and fabulous offerings. There’s plenty here to tempt you in light and airy surroundings. Check its opening hours if you are running late.
Alternatively you could try Le Botaniste for a more traditional environment in which to enjoy creative veggie cooking. Gluten free? Both here and at Plus+ you’ll be satisfied. At Le Botaniste you can have mezze with sushi and spring rolls, bowls with chili sin carne, miso broth or vegetable tajine.
In a hurry? Soup Lounge, near the old cannon Dulle Griet, provides a bowl of a choice of four soups, plus garnishes, rolls and an apple.
The Historical Centre of Ghent
When you’re looking to make the most of one day in Ghent, it’s helpful that the historic centre is so compact. Just a few minutes from St Michael’s Bridge or the Graslei, and you will find yourself alongside the three towers of Ghent.
St Nicholas Church
The blue stone for the construction of this elegant church came from Tournai near the French border. Here the tower sits at the centre of the church across the nave and transepts and serves to light up the building. Built in the old centre of Ghent on the Korenmarkt, the building was enhanced by chapels added to it by the guilds in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Ghent’s Belfort or Belfry: World Heritage Site
The Belfort is guarded by a dragon, the symbol of Ghent. He has been there since 1377, keeping the city safe. The Belfort or Belfry is a World Heritage Site, and took responsibility for the safety of the city. It held the Great Triumphant, the bell which sounded the alarm for fires. The bell, nicknamed Roland by the people of Ghent, now sits on Emile Braunplein. You can climb to the top of the Belfort, where a lift is available from first floor level. If you are in the city when the Belfry’s carillion sounds, it’s a wonderful experience; you can almost feel the sound through your bones. You can catch it in full song every Sunday morning. On the first Friday of the month at 8pm, you’ll be treated to the carillon juke box, playing everything from classics to pop.
St Bavo’s Cathedral
St Bavo’s cathedral is the next of the three towers. The cathedral evolved from an early church built on the site and now contains many arty treasures. Here you have a baroque high altar, a rococo pulpit in oak, gilding and marble and the ornate tombs of the Bishops of Ghent. There are works by Rubens and Justus van Gent. Then there’s the world famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by the Van Eyck brothers.
You can tell what painstaking care and conservation has been necessary to keep the vibrant colours alight in this paneled work. It seems to glow. There’s much to enjoy and appreciate on each of the panels, from the plump-cheeked women to Adam and Eve, the great and good of the city depicted in patronage, the prancing horses and the white lamb himself.
The Stadhuis or Town Hall was built in two distinct styles. It took me a couple of visits to Ghent to work out that I was seeing the same building from different sides. The Hoogpoort side is in flamboyant late Gothic style, while the Botermarkt side is late Renaissance. Inside there are 51 beautiful rooms (including a wedding chapel) which you can view with a guide. We’ve seen many a wedding party emerge here, including one with a guard of honour featuring flippers and snorkels.
Belgian Waffles: Where To Find The Best Waffles In Ghent
One day in Ghent is always made better by the presence of a waffle. So you might want to consider stopping off to fuel your explorations with one of Belgium’s favourite treats. Our recommendations for a waffle stop are:
- Brasserie Agrea near St Bavo’s Cathedral, for attentive and personable service in a variety of languages from the long-time hosts. It has a calm and sheltered inner terrace to enjoy your waffle at leisure
- Brasserie Amfora for the choice of indoor or outdoor dining space, and waffles served met warme krieken (cherries) or met vanille-ijs en speculoossaus (with ice cream and a sauce made with the flavour of those fabulous spiced biscuits)
- Cafe Max for hushed, black-aproned waiter service in a splendid tearoom with a sense of ceremony (and consequently rather more expensive)
If waffles aren’t your thing, then you’ll also find pancakes, or else a traditional Belgian ice cream sundae: the Dame Blanche with chocolate sauce or the Coupe Bresillienne with chopped nuts and caramel sauce.
One Day In Ghent Deserves Time On The River
Suitably replenished with waffles, it’s time to see Ghent from the water. This isn’t just a tourist thing – or certainly not so on the longer boat trips. We’ve shared our boat with plenty of families and friends enjoying that very Belgian pastime of taking a river trip. Down on the Graslei you can choose from number of boat trips that will allow you to see the beauties of Ghent from a different angle. Trips in the centre will show you the Gravensteen up close and personal and give you a new angle on all the beautiful bridges.
If you have time for a longer trip, you could make arrangements to dine on the river, or else book a cruise out to the artists’ village of St Maarten in Latem. Along the way you’ll spot plenty of statuary along the river, and a bounteous collection of waterfowl, including herons and moorhens. It’s a genuinely magical experience.
And if you’ve worn something suitable, why not hire a canoe later in the day and take to the waterways on a guided trip by torchlight? Calling it atmospheric doesn’t even come close.
Read More: Check out the alternative choice of One Day In Bruges. (Or why not visit both beautiful cities!)
One Day In Ghent to Experience the Street Art Scene
We’ve seen plenty of historic art, but Ghent’s talents are also fresh and new. The Ghent street art scene is centred around Sleepstraat, Grawpoort and Rodelijvekensstraat. You’ll find a major collaborative piece there. The city also hosts works by Roa and Bue the Warrior. From the tourist office, pick up the wonderfully named guide to Graffiti Street and beyond: Sorry, Not Sorry Street Art Map Gent. You can also download a copy from the link shown.
Explore the Patershol
The area to the far side of the river from the Graslei is known as the Patershol. It’s a place full of interesting restaurants, bars, homes, small shops and curiosities. It’s where you find things that capture your attention and make you appreciate the very Ghentness of Ghent.
Originally the home to artists and bohemians, the Patershol is now a culinary centre for Ghent, crammed with eating places of all kinds in the narrow cobbled streets. Here you’ll find everything from tapas and pasta to more traditional Ghent dishes such as the creamy chicken stew waterzooi or beef cooked in beer stoverij.
The House of Alijn museum will take you through the traditions and customs of Ghent. It’s essentially a social history of living in Ghent, and rich in the detail of people’s lives. In many ways it conveys the essence of the Patershol – a real place where people live their real lives.
One Day In Ghent – And One Night
If at all possible, you should try and stay in Ghent long enough for it to get dark. That’s no challenge in winter, but even in summer, you get to see something rather spectacular at night. I have never found another city whose lights so delicately capture the essence of its beautiful soul. All along the Graslei, stonework and carvings on the buildings are brought into delicate detail. Glass bluebirds hang in a tree. There are intricate shadows cast from the bridges.
The river shimmers, and bounces back all that beauty in reflection. In the still night air, the rumbling of the trams on wooden bridges is even more atmospheric. You hear laughter from the terraces and restaurants. On a chilly night, there are burners and blankets so you can sit outside and enjoy the stillness of the night on the river. Don’t miss it on your one day in Ghent.
Dinner, Drinks and Evening Entertainment In Ghent
You may decide to dine in the Patershol or in one of the restaurants along the Graslei. If you are looking for a change from your veggie lunch, both Spare Rib and Amadeus specialise in ribs. If you’ve enjoyed Plus+ at lunchtime, you could try Le Botainiste in the evening. There’s also more veggie choice at Komkommertidj on Reep, with its cantina-style atmosphere.
Ghent has a number of welcoming bars. In addition to those mentioned earlier, you could also while away sometime considering the bar menu at Dulle Griet. Within its pages lie examples of all kinds of Belgian brews, making up the largest selection in Ghent. We like the atmospheric T’Gouden Mandeken. Visit in winter, and grab a table by the stove for the ultimate in cosyness.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to stay for the evening entertainment, there’s nowhere quite like the Hot Club of Gent. Reached via a tiny alleyway near the Waterhuis, you’re never quite sure what you’ll be hearing that night: jazz, blues, flamenco, songwriters. The same could also be said of Missy Sippy. where an appreciative audience makes the most of whatever ecclectic selection might be available.
One Day In Ghent: Staying The Night
If the charms of Ghent have you eager to stay, there are many choices of accommodation at different prices within the city. Airbnb rooms and apartments are plentiful, and there is a choice of hostels. We’ve enjoyed staying at the nh, which has two hotels in Ghent: one conveniently placed opposite the Stadhuis and the Belfort, the other close to Sint Pieters Station, which works well if you are moving on by train the next morning.
When Should I enjoy My One Day In Ghent?
There is no bad time. Having said that, we’ve seen Ghent in all seasons and all moods over the past 20 years we have been visiting, and it’s true that some times can be better than others. We’ve visited Ghent in winter snow and that’s a spectacular sight. I remember waking up in the hotel opposite the Stadhuis, pulling back the curtain and watching a woman in a long coat battling across a snowy cobbled street. Were it not for the tram cables, I could have believed time had slipped right back to a medieval morning.
Then there are the long, lazy Ghent summers: messing about on the river, wandering the Patershol, drinking crisp sour kriek as the light finally fades over the Graslei. It’s not all been sunshine and snow, but even the rainy days in Ghent have a certain charm. After all, it’s a good excuse to take a waffle break.
More To Do In Brilliant Belgium
I am an unapologetic Belgophile, and I would urge you to explore more of this fascinating and under-visited country. From Brussels with its World Heritage Site of Grand Place and the Art Nouveau commune of Saint Gilles to the plenteous things to do in Antwerp, and the charms of the beautiful Belgian coast, there is an incredible amount to do in Belgium. There are many options to day trip from Brussels using the efficient and easy to use Belgian railways. I also persuaded fellow travel writers to share their best of Belgium travel experiences.
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