Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Ghent, strategically located at the confluence of the Lys and Scheldt Rivers was a powerful trading city during the medieval times, boomed during the industrial revolution starting in the 18th century, and today is Belgium’s largest student town. The dynamic city of Ghent is refreshing and trendy, while being full of history as highlighted by its varied architecture encompassing over a millennium, its contrasted art from the classic Flemish Primitive masters to funky street art, picturesque canals and gardens, authentic markets, excellent restaurants and great nightlife: an ideal off the beaten path city for the perfect eclectic city trip. In this article we list our must-do’s and reveal some hidden gems for you to craft your perfect 3-day itinerary in the vibrant capital of East Flanders.
The weather is definitely an element to take into account in Belgium, so experiences are described by theme so that you can just pick and choose based on your centres of interest and how sunny it is.
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On a sunny day
Meet and greet with the legendary dragon: The Belfry [UNESCO World Heritage Site]
The Belfry has been standing proudly in the cityscape of Ghent since 1377, its 95 meters topped off by its large legendary dragon. In the Middle Ages, belfries represented the wealth, independence and power of their city-states, often guarding the trading privileges of the city in their safes. Also defensive, watchmen scrutinized the horizons for threatening troops or fires. Today, take the climb, see its impressive carillon (and even better, listen to it), and admire the view on Ghent from its belfry: the modern City Pavilion Hall at its feet, the 12th century Saint Nicholas’ Church looking after merchants and sailors, the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, the Gothic Saint Michael’s Church with its flat tower, the Castle of the Counts…
Insider’s Tip: Count about 45 minutes to fully enjoy Ghent’s pride!
Go boating on the rivers & canals
It is thanks to its waterways that Ghent boomed in the 11th century, so hop on a boat at the Graslei, that used to be the town’s beating heart and harbour to take in the city from the water. Today, the cobblestone street of the Graslei is the most touristic spot of Ghent, lined up with cafés and restaurants. During the Middle Ages, it was also bustling: boats were constantly docked here, porters would carry heavy grain bags to warehouses, taxes would be collected at the toll house, the narrow house in-between the beautiful historical guild houses…
Insider’s Tip: The boat tours last for about 30 minutes. It is also possible to rent a kayak at the Korenlei to appreciate the city at your own pace. As you debark, make sure to cross the Saint Michael’s Bridge, Ghent’s most romantic bridge for some snapshots or selfies!
Take a romantic evening stroll along the Graslei and Korenlei quays
Wherever you go for dinner, make sure to stroll back to your hotel via the Graslei and Korenlei quays along the Lys River. At night, the richly decorated façades of the buildings of the guilds are reflected in the river in a romantic atmosphere. Can you notice the pulley systems on some of the façades that used to pull up the bags of grains? The façades themselves are slightly tilted to facilitate the job. You will also enjoy the view on the three largest towers of Ghent from the Saint Michael’s Bridge and the tree with blue birds. This lit artwork entitled The Birds of Mr. Maeterlinck pays s tribute to the eponym Ghent Nobel Prize in Literature winner for his fairy tale The Blue Bird.
Stroll the markets of Ghent
Ghent hosts authentic markets that are a real pleasure to stroll:
- the book market on the Ajuinlei on Sunday mornings,
- the food market on the Vrijdagsmarkt square on Friday mornings (since 1199!),
- the flea market around the Sint-Jacobs church on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings,
- the Groentemarkt (Dutch for “vegetable market”) on Fridays,
- the craft market on the Groentemarkt on Saturdays and Sundays,
- the flower market on the Kouter on Sunday mornings (a weekly tradition since 1772!). The wealthy liked to show off in their Sunday outfits on the Kouter. Today, it remains a place for festivities and music, where locals hang out to drink a glass of wine, savour some oysters and have brunch in one of the many restaurants around.
Take a walk through time
Ghent is a fantastic city to enjoy on foot. The brown loop described on our interactive map is an interesting walking tour (and enjoyable running loop, too!) which passes by many of the city’s centres of interests described in this article. It takes you through medieval Ghent, along its industrial history from the elegant squares and mansions of the bourgeoisie to the working class areas and the stronghold of the unions at the Vooruit Arts Centre, by the modern De Krook building hosting the municipal library and multimedia centre (whose architects RCR Arquitectes won the Pritzker Architecture Prize often referred to as the Architecture Nobel), by the Devil’s Castle, the Art Deco pool and the confluence area close to Saint Bavo’s Abbey and back along the water on the tow-path. Between the bridge of the Krommewal and the Zuivelbrugstraat, a narrow walking path borders the river. Former tow-path, it is now an enjoyable short walk from where you can head West into the Patershol neighbourhood. Here you will find winding atmospheric alleys with a rich history. At the foot of the Castle of the Counts, it used to be inhabited by magistrates and lawyers in the 15th century, then by craftsmen and merchants before it turned into a neighbourhood for working class people during the industrialisation. Today cosy pubs and restaurants make this vibrant and trendy area a locals’ favourite.
Insider’s Tip: Depending on how much shopping you want to do, or beers or coffees you want to taste along the way, plan for about 2.5 hours to complete this 6km (3.7mi) loop (or 3 hours for the 8.6km (5.3mi) loop with the extension to the Saint Peter’s Abbey). Note that every pin on the interactive map describes the sites you pass by with interesting and historical info – make sure you download it prior.
Wander through Graffiti Street!
Ghent is a paradise for street artists, and any walk through town will have you uncover excellent examples. Graffiti street is a lively canvas, an alley of artwork that is regularly erased white and painted over again.
Shop in the Veldstraat while admiring its architecture
Passing along Saint Nicholas Church to enter the Veldstraat shopping street, you will pass by the Mason’s Guild Hall unmistakable with its dancing statues. It may remind you of the Guildhall of the Free Sailors along the Graslei (believe it or not, this original façade had been lost for centuries, and that copy was built for the 1913 world fair in Ghent based on drawings… and one day, during a renovation in 1976 the original façade of this remarkable building was found back!).
Push into the Veldstraat for the best shopping in Ghent! Enjoy the windows of course, but also pay attention to the architecture as the wealthy started to settle along this street in the Middle Ages in sturdy stone houses. Then they moved to the Kouter in the 19th century as attested by its mansions and airy planted square.
Enjoy its atmospheric garden of the Saint Bavo’s Abbey
At the confluence of the Lys and Scheldt Rivers, the ruins of the Saint Bavo Abbey take you back to the founding of Ghent (check this article out). There is not a whole lot left of the abbey but a very enjoyable garden surrounded by romantic ruins that is perfect on a sunny day (check out the legend of the noose bearers to know why the abbey was to be destroyed). The massive hedge shapes the original outlines of where once the abbey stood to give you a feel for how large this place once was!
Admire one of world’s most influential paintings: The Ghent Altarpiece
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, or in short, The Ghent Altarpiece, by the Van Eyck brothers justifies by itself any visit to Ghent! The most famous painting of the greatest Flemish Primitive Jan van Eyck has been housed in the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral for over 600 years (mind me, when it was not stolen… Check this article for juicy details!).
Insider’s Tip: Count about 45 minutes to appreciate this wonderful piece of art and the interior of the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral amongst which a masterpiece by Rubens.
Step back in time in a medieval castle in the city centre!
Today you do not need an invitation by the count anymore to cross the once deterrent moat and enter the Castle of the Counts with its thick stone walls. Step back in time: you are now in the heart of the Middle Ages, in 1180! The noble ruler, Philippe d’Alsace needed to remind the rich traders who they were answering to – and more importantly, that they did have to honour their taxes! He topped off all of their modern stone houses by a gigantic fortress, twice as high as the highest merchant’s house, and even more luxurious with the first fireplace of Ghent! The message was clear. Today, the visit of the castle is a very interesting exploration of life during the Middle Ages with an excellent and hilarious audio-guide.
Insider’s Tip: Count about 1 hour to visit the Castle of the Counts including taking in the views from its rooftop. Make sure to take the audio-tour!
Dive into the technical ups & social downs of industrialisation: The Museum of Industry
Started in the U.K., it was in Ghent that the Industrial Revolution got introduced to mainland Europe at the end of the 18th century, changing the world forever. A cotton mill that operated until 1970 was turned into the Industry Museum that pays tribute to Ghent’s rich industrial past, and more specifically its textile and printing industries. The technical aspects are detailed (a gigantic spinning machine like the one smuggled by the industrial spy Lieven Bauwens is exhibited), as well as the deep social implications technologies of the time have had on Ghent to this day.
Insider’s Tip: Count about 1.5 hours to enjoy the museum of industry and make sure to admire the stunning views on Ghent from its top floor.
Stroll the vineyards (!): Saint Peter’s Abbey
A short walk away from the Old Town, the Saint Peter’s Abbey is one of these unexpected gems to be discovered. Its pleasant garden with medicinal plants, ruins, orchards and vineyard is one of Ghent’s best kept secrets. Another one is the stunning painted wooden arched ceiling of the medieval refectory of the monks. It is now visible again after no less than 22 years of restauration! A true hidden gem that not too many visitors to Ghent know about…
As a short background, this Benedictine Abbey, founded in the 7th century, has a turbulent past and rich history. At its prime, it was the wealthiest Abbey of Flanders, schooling people from all over the known world. The Revolt of Ghent in 1539 and the raids of the iconoclasts in 1566 triggered its decline as it was badly damaged. In 1629, the abbey started flourishing again with the rebuilding of its church in Baroque style, an absolute highlight. A few of Flander’s most prominent medieval rulers are buried here.
Insider’s Tip: Count about 1.5 hours to visit Saint Peter’s Abbey (and if the idea of the crime-solving audio-guide was fantastic when launched, it is completely outdated today: skip on it).
Visit the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK)
The Museum of Fine Arts showcases an interesting collection from the masterpieces of the Flemish Primitives to contemporary art, focusing on paintings from the Southern Netherlands.
Marvel at the supernatural details of the Saint Jerome (1485) and Christ Carrying the Cross (1510) by Jheronimus Bosch (1450-1516). Find the portraits of Jan Provoost’s contemporaries in The Calvary (1520) amidst biblical elements (look for the man with the black beret, the man in pink or the one in armour) with Bruges in the background. Read the comic strip by Frans Pourbus of the Story of Saint Andreas (1572). Have fun spotting the naughty details in the extremely well depicted Village Fair (1629) by Droochsloot or in the satirical Village Lawyer (1621) by Pieter II Brueghel where a greedy lawyer impresses naïve peasants paying him in kind. Pay attention to the finely depicted veins on the Portrait of a Woman (1663) by Nicolas Maes. Admire Skaters (1891) by Emile Clause, inspired by the French Impressionists: if it seems rather traditional today, it was revolutionary when it was purchased by the museum in 1892. Check out the development of modern art in Belgium with Gustave Van de Woestyne’s (1881-1947) paintings.
Insider’s Tip: Count about 1 hour to enjoy the MSK. The Citadel Park on which it is built is well worth a stroll.
Indulge yourself: Ghent’s gastronomy!
To pick the best places to enjoy Ghent’s specialties (which go way further than beer, waffles and fries!) and select restaurants to experience, refer to this article. The highlights? The stunning Great Butcher’s Hall where you can taste local specialties from all over East Flanders, the best-selling mustard of Ghent in a historical shop, the famous Cuberdon candy (only in Ghent), the best bakery in town, and of course your guide to excellent local beers and chocolates crafted in an ethical lab (with vegan options).
Insider’s Tip: for dinner, it is always better to book your table (English is not an issue in most instances, and The Fork app is also an option). Belgians tend to have dinner between 6pm and 8pm. Breakfasts are rather simple (and having waffles is a big no go!) and lunches are rather quick for most Belgians who consider dinner as the social moment to share with family and friends.
- To help you plan your trip make sure to check out Visit Ghent!
- To appreciate Ghent to the fullest, get a City Card which gives you access to all the museums, public transport and some other attractions.
- For a comfortable stay in style a stone’s throw away from the heart of Ghent, with a spa to recover from your day exploring the city and an excellent service, we warmly recommend the 4-star Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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