The most famous Belgian cities are Antwerp, Brussels, and Bruges, yet people often forget Ghent. We’re not sure why, as Ghent has the same splendid architecture as Bruges, it was mostly left untouched by both World Wars, and thanks to its big university it offers great nightlife! We could stop right there and leave it up to you to book the next flight or train, but we’ll give you some more reasons as to why you should visit Ghent.
1. The Astounding Medieval Architecture
The city of Ghent is an architectural feast for the eyes in general. A lot of the buildings date back to the 12th century or earlier and have been preserved amazingly well. For instance, the Patershol neighborhood is located in the shadows of the Gravensteen castle (Castle of the Counts) and the streets mostly look like they did ages ago. Not often you have the chance to encounter such a well-restored 10th-century castle in the middle of a modernized city.
If you’re looking for more information, visit the HQ of the Ghent Tourist board, which is coincidentally located in another nice building. The Old Fish Market‘s gateway dates back to the 17th century.
2. Ghent’s Canals
The city center is a pedestrianized area, the largest in Belgium actually. Which is a great feature for tourists with no time to learn how to ride a bike or for those with only a few days to spend here. The center is made especially beautiful by its previously mentioned architecture and the intersecting canals. The Leie river runs through several pretty canals, the Ajuinlei, the famous Graslei, Korenlei, and Kraanlei. They’re all easy to walk around, but you can also hop on your own rented boat or book a tour.
3. The City’s Grand Churches
The Belfry tower is another highlight portraying the rich history of this city, as a reminder of a time when Ghent was the second largest city in Europe as well as one of the richest and most powerful. This tower is part of the “Three towers of Ghent,” teaming up with St. Bavo’s Cathedral and St. Nicholas’ Church. If you want an iconic snapshot of these three giants, the St. Michael’s bridge is your best vantage point. St. Bavo’s Cathedral is also home to the famous Ghent Altarpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. This renowned piece of history is currently being restored at the MSK museum, but two thirds of the original are back in their rightful place at St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
Luckily the city center isn’t very big so you can easily see all of Ghent’s beautiful churches in a single day. For example, Saint Michael’s Church, completed in the 17th century, is particularly well known for its rich neo-Gothic interior. It includes an altar and pulpit, Rococo and neoclassic statues and Baroque paintings – amongst others “Christ Dying on the Cross” by Anthony Van Dyck. As a side note: Van Dyck was not just a very famous Baroque artist in the 17th century, he also has a style of beard named after him…
4. Belgian Food
No article about a Belgian city can forget about the Belgian cuisine. Some of them are world famous and should definitely be tried in their country of origin. There’s still an ongoing dispute about the origins of fries but that discussion is really kind of irrelevant here. Whether they’re called French fries or Belgian fries, they’re damn tasty.
Order the local stoverij, a stew of beef and beer served with Belgian fries at Eetkaffee Multatuli. Try the traditional meatballs at Balls & Glory and the famous moules et frites at Pakhuis or Belga Queen. Visit Gent, the city’s tourist board, has quite a list for you to try when it comes to Belgian fries. De Frietketel at Papegaaistraat, Frituur Danny at Brugsesteenweg, De Dulle Friet at the Vlasmarkt, Frituur Tartaar… and much more!
Stop by Confiserie Temmerman to try the local sweet ‘Cuberdon‘. You won’t find these sweets outside of Belgium, as they only last for about 3 weeks, after which they start crystallizing. Oh, and the facade of this confectionery is worth a look on its own.
5. Belgian Beers
If you want a typical Belgian ‘brown’ bar experience, visit Damberd where you can try all the matching Belgian beers. Vooruit is a more artsy option and Rock Circus is located in the popular Overpoort, well-known amongst students. Another popular place is De Roos, which has an amazing atmosphere. The set-up makes you feel a bit like you’re being served at the house of a true Belgian grandma, from the traditional food and beer to the decoration!
6. Street Art
We certainly have a sweet spot for all things street art related. Did you know Ghent is well-known for its street art? If you didn’t, you do now. All throughout the city, you’ll be surprised by the broad amount of styles and spots. The street art map from Ghentizm is really handy if you’re looking for a specific spot, but it’s also nice to just stumble upon a piece of art when you don’t expect it. Or go to Grindbakken for example, one of the legal spots in the city with ever-changing graffiti. Don’t forget to look around when exploring Ghent is what you should remember.
Ghent offers quite a lot of museums, but the following four are definitely the most important ones. First of all, STAM is a former city hospital and still a relatively new museum. It takes you on a discovery tour through the many layers of Ghent, a contemporary city with a vast and rich history. The exhibitions show what makes a city a city, and portray Ghent as the city it is today.
Then there’s MSK. The museum always has great exhibitions going on, but at the moment they’re restoring some of the famous altarpiece panels. Which means you have a chance to see the restorers at work. If you’re really a history geek – no judging here – you could even go back from time to time to check up on the progress. Just saying.
Visit Ghent has written a lovely introduction on their website about the House of Alijn. “Traditions and rituals belong to the past and present. Daily routines and special events determine the rhythm of your life. During your weekend trip to Ghent, enjoy the customs, traditions, and rituals at the House of Alijn museum that recall a recent or more distant past. Go ‘back to the future’: rediscover your very first baby photos, marbles in the playground, your first love, the excitement of the summer holidays… The way we approach ‘occasions and emotions’ changes over time: it is both personal and universal. Find out that everyday life is anything but ordinary.”
Finally, S.M.A.K. This is contemporary art at its finest. The museum has the exceptional ability to combine some of the most important national and international works. Which are then represented in combination with original and often daring exhibitions. Well worth your time!
8. Yoga in the City
Former local Julie is an exceptional yogi. She even got 105 people to practice some yoga to relax and stretch their muscles after a hard day of walking at our Spotters Weekend in Athens. For some yoga in Ghent, both current Spotter Nick as former one Julie recommend taking a class at Yoga-on-Call. The perfect break in between all the walking, eating, and sightseeing you’ll be doing.
9. (Vintage) Shopping in Ghent
Even if you only have a few hours in the city, it’s always nice to do a bit of shopping. Over the last few years, many art house cinemas and small theaters have had to close their doors. The good news is that a lot of their furniture has ended up at Antiek Depot. Okay, you might not have room in your carry-on for a director’s chair, true. But this garage full of antique and vintage furniture is worth a visit nonetheless.
For smaller-sized shopping, walk down the Sint-Pieternieuwstraat or head to the Sunday market at Ledeberg. Get your local retro jewelry and other tidbits at Au Bon marché, shop for artsy books at Copyright or do some clothing shopping at Maaike Kleedt. A few other must-visits are the Post Plaza for the gorgeous building and Mus in een plas for the cutest gifts to take home.
“Design museum Gent has one of the most superb Art Nouveau collections in the country.”
“The only design museum in Belgium, devoted to the 20th century and contemporary design.”
True, both of these statements come from the Design museum itself, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true. In fact, Flanders and Ghent, in particular, is an important player in the design industry. As is further proven by our locals. You could, for example, go to the Koperhuis for Scandinavian and Belgian design if you’re with someone who prefers to get a drink while you browse the items on offer. The shop comes with an explicit warning though: you’ll immediately want to redecorate your house.