Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Ghent located in the Flemish region of Belgium. It’s the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province and the perfect option when deciding where to take your next European city break. When people think about visiting Belgium most consider Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges and having visited them all, I have to be honest – Ghent, is a hidden gem and has that something extra special. It has everything to keep you occupied for at least a long weekend, yet without the hustle and bustle of the larger, more popular cities.
As a major port and university town it is a busy city and even though there is plenty for tourists to do, it does not feel overly touristy and still retains its Belgian authenticity. With more waterfront cafe bars then you can shake a stick at, beautiful fairytalesque cobblestone streets in the Patershol district and UNESCO recognised sites, there is something for everyone. It has a laid back and relaxed vibe and one that I wish more cities had. It made exploring it an extremely enjoyable experience and below I have listed some of the things I highly recommend you do when you visit Ghent.
Invest in a Gent City Card
I love City Cards and have quite a collection now. If like me you love to explore new cities and save a bit of cash then City Cards are for you too. The Gent City Card came in handy from the second I got off the train at Ghent’s main train station Gent-Sint-Pieters.
The historical centre of Ghent is around a 30-minute walk from the train station and as I had my luggage with me and as the use of public transport is included in the cost of the Gent City Card it seemed sensible to use, so I jumped on the tram and made the short journey.
I used my Gent City Card throughout my visit and as with any city card, the more you use it the more money you save. You are able to save almost € 15.00 in low season (November-March) and more than € 20.00 in high season (April-October).
Not only is public transport included but also admission to top attractions, monuments and museums, a guided boat tour, bike rental and use of hop on hop off water-tramway, making it a great investment. Just be careful not to lose yours like I nearly did a million and one times, I have a bad habit of putting things down and forgetting where I’ve put them.
Pick the Perfect Accommodation
The historical centre of Ghent is the place to be, not only is it picturesque but it also has most of the cities attractions in it or on its doorstep. Therefore, I would suggest picking a central hotel for your stay, especially if it is a short one like mine was. With less than 40 hotels in the city, the choice is quite limited, however, there is still somewhere to suit most people’s budgets.
I stayed at Hotel de Flandre, a 19th-century guest house in a neoclassical building, a mere hop skip and a jump from bars, restaurants and the main waterway through the city, the Leie River. Making it the perfect place to stay for exploring Ghent on foot.
My spacious, clean room was located on the 3rd floor, at the back of the building, meaning it was extremely quiet, which, coupled with the amount of walking I did sure helped ensure that I slept like a baby during my stay.
The breakfast at the hotel was also great with so much choice. I’m not one for a massive breakfast if I know I will be hitting the streets and indulging in some of the local delights, therefore a couple of slices of toast and a juice did me, however, there was a large choice of fruits, cereals, pastries and hot food if breakfast is your thing.
Eat ALL the Food
Belgium is famous for a number of foodie things, predominantly sweet treats like waffles and chocolates which of course I had to try during my visit, it would have been rude not too, that’s what I’m telling myself anyway.
Ghent itself also has many local delicacies, in fact, too many to list here, therefore I intend to write a separate post about all the yummy things you can try when in Ghent, both sweet and savoury. Needless to say, even though I am one of the fussiest eaters in the world, I did not struggle to find things to eat, which is often the case when I travel.
As with accommodation, there is somewhere to eat regardless of budget, from street vendors to fine dining, and everything in between. During my visit, I had the pleasure of eating at two fantastic restaurants in the city.
The first was the Belga Queen, located on the banks of the Leie River. From the outside, it really doesn’t look that special but the second I walked through the door I realised it was. The design, atmosphere and food were lovely and in a great location. I also tried out Pakhuis, which is a predominantly seafood restaurant, which unfortunately I’m not a fan of, but luckily for me, it also served up some amazing vegetarian dishes too.
Take a Boat Trip
A great way of seeing any city is by taking a boat trip, if possible, as you really get to see it from such a different and unique angle and in Ghent, it is no different. The 45-minute numerous sightseeing boats run frequently from different spots around the city at a cost of €7, which if you have a Ghent City Card like I did, is included.
Even when I visited in September the boats filled up very quickly proving how popular it is, therefore if you want a good seat, ensure you get there early or if the boat is too full, hover around for the next one like I did. I only had to wait around 15 or so minutes and as I was the first on, I got my pick of the seats on board.
The tour along the inland waterways was great, as was the guide, who gave us loads of information about the sights and areas we were passing by and he did it in a number of different languages. It was a very relaxed, yet extremely informative way to spend time and also as it was one of the last things I did in the city, my legs were in need of the rest.
Unfortunately for me, I had the loudest group of people next to me who talked constantly throughout the tour, even a polite ‘can you keep it down please’ didn’t work! Tut – some people!
Be the Queen (or King) of the Castle
One of the main attractions in Ghent is the Gravensteen which is a castle originating from the Middle Ages and somewhere you must visit when in the city. Even though I have visited Ghent before, many years ago and saw the castle which stands in the centre of the city, I never had the opportunity to visit inside and learn more about it. It may also be interesting to know, that it is the most photographed site in Ghent, and once seen I understood why.
The admission fee is €10 for an adult and less for kids and students and is again included in the Ghent City Card. The weather was fantastic on the day I visited meaning that I could explore the fortress and the ramparts, which offer magnificent views over Ghent, to my heart’s content.
Even if the weather had not been great, there are so many exhibitions within the castle, a visit would have still been worthwhile. The castle has a diverse history including its original use as a castle followed by it being court and then a prison. It has also been used in more recent history as a filming location for a number of TV shows and movies.
During its years of being a courthouse, the accused were kept in the castle’s dungeons before and during their trial. The ‘torture chambers’ in the castle were host to a lot of horrifying methods of extracting a confession, some of the torture devices are now on show throughout the castle, maybe something to pass on if travelling with small children?
No, not like in Amsterdam! In Ghent there are a number of buildings you can get to the top of which offer amazing views over the city. As mentioned above the ramparts at the top of the Gravensteen is one great option. From up there you can see down over the city and spot the three spires which dominate the Ghent skyline.
The first is Sint Niklaaskerk (St. Nicholas’ Church) which is one of the oldest landmarks in Ghent, it has a single large tower. The second is the Belfry at the Ghent Belfort, which was built in 1380 and the third spire belongs to Sint Baafskathedral (Saint Bavo Cathedral) which is also home to two pieces of art, one is a painting by Ruebens entitled St. Bavo Entering the Monastery of Ghent and the other is by Van Eyck called the Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb).
Not only is the view of the Belfry awesome, but the view from it is too. The entrance fee is €8 and again included in the Gent City Card and for an extra €3 per person you can join a guided tour which runs every day at 3.30pm. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a clear day when I headed up there, however, I imagine if it had have been I would have been able to see for miles. I get quite claustrophobic and I was worried, I’d have a mini-meltdown on the way up, especially, if it was a tight, narrow staircase. Yes, there are a few stairs, but nothing I couldn’t handle and the best, yet laziest part – a lift (elevator) which made the climb to the top super easy.
Another great place to get an unobstructed view of the 3 spires is from St Michael’s Bridge. Be warned this bridge is one of the busiest spots in Ghent because of the view. Therefore you may need to fight your way through the tour groups to get the shot of the spires you want. The Graslei and Korenlei, the renovated Old Fish Market, the Castle, St Michael’s Church and the back of ‘Het Pand’, the culture and congress centre of Ghent University, can also be viewed from the bridge.
Mingle at the Markets
There are loads of markets in Ghent, seriously there are so many I could have spent my whole three-day visit to the city, hopping between them and probably still would not have experienced them all. I love a market but as I did not have time to visit them all, I had to cherry pick the ones I really wanted to visit and wander around.
With options including a flea market open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Bij Sint-Jacobs Square, a book market open on Sundays along the waterfront and the general market open every Friday morning and Saturday afternoon at Vrijdagmarktm a large open market square surrounding by cafes and bars.
I had very limited time so chose the two that interested me the most flowers and food! The flower market at Kouter is open every day, however, Monday to Saturday is a scaled-back version, whereas on a Sunday morning the full market is in full swing. As I visited on a Sunday I had the pleasure of experiencing the lovely atmosphere of people milling around and the sweet smell of the flowers.
I then headed to the Holy Food Market, located in the 16th century, Baudelo Chapel. I was expecting local delicacies however instead I found food, and drinks from all over the world. Even though it was not what I expected it was still a great place to grab a cocktail and a light bite.
Be Sorry Not Sorry
Street art is massive and when done well it looks amazing and even though I am not the biggest fan, I must admit some of it is fantastic in Ghent – true works of art, that have obviously taken a lot of time and effort to complete. ‘Sorry, Not Sorry’ or ‘192 days of street art in Ghent’ was a successful street art trail in 2015-2016 and the guys behind it have put together a map to allow people, me included, to walk around the city and admire it.
I think if I didn’t have the map, I would have stumbled across a couple of them. Even though there are over 40 pieces throughout the city a lot of them are under bridges, or down side streets and do not overshadow the medieval aesthetic of the city.
Street art is one thing, but graffiti is another and in Ghent they have both covered. Graffiti was a big issue in Ghent and in a bid to combat it and protect and preserve the historic buildings, Werregarenstraat, which is a narrow street in the city, was handed over to graffiti artists to do what they wish with. Therefore, the look of it changes all of the time, with new graffiti popping up all of the time.
As soon as I arrived in Ghent and had dumped my bag, I headed straight here to see it for myself. I was lucky enough to have it to myself so could take my time walking up and down and taking photos. Some of the stuff was great, almost, if not, as good as the street art around the rest of the city but some of it, I just didn’t get.
Light up your life
Ghent is a beautiful city during the day and just as beautiful at night and the main reason for that is because of the Ghent Light Plan that has been in place across the city since 1998. The idea behind the light plan is to create atmosphere and allow people to see the city in a completely different way by lighting important monuments, buildings, gateways, streets, parks and squares in the city.
Another reason behind the plan is to increase security and allow locals and visitors alike to feel safe when wandering the streets at night. I must admit Ghent feels like a safe city regardless and if anything the lights just make the buildings look stunning, especially as they reflect in the river.
One of the most beautiful light installations in Ghent is the origami style blue birds which appear to be frozen mid-flight and can be found in a tree next to the river beside the late gothic style Saint Michael’s Church. Its full title is ‘Les Oiseaux de Mr Maeterlinck’ or more commonly and locally known as the Blue Birds by Pitaya
It is based on the story ‘The Blue Bird‘ by Maurice Maeterlinck, who was born in the city and to commemorate his Nobel Prize for Literature. Originally the birds were part of Gent’s 2012 Light Festival but were then bought by the city and is now a permanent fixture and one that you should see when visiting Ghent. They are stunning.
Indulge in Literature, Art & History
There are loads of museums in Ghent, with something from everyone. Again there are so many I simply did not get the chance to visit them all during my stay. However, I did have the opportunity to visit both S.M.A.K., the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art Ghent and STAM, Ghent City Museum. Entrance to both was included in my Gent City Card.
There are many more that I would have loved to have visited if I’d had more time in Ghent including Museum of Fine Arts, Design museum Gent and MIAT, Museum about Industry, Labour and Textile. However, as the weather was relatively nice when I visited, it seemed more fitting to stay outside and explore the streets of the city centre. If it had rained more, they would have been the perfect place to seek shelter.
The nice weather gave me the opportunity to check out the two new works of art which were only installed a couple of days before I visited on The Korenmarkt. “Broche” by Ayşe Erkmen which is a brass piece reaches 20 metres into the air and resembles a chain and links is an ode to historic Ghent. The second is “HD400” by Ann Veronica Janssens, it’s a gigantic steel bar soaring 19 metres high, it was designed to pay homage to modern architecture.
One of my favourite buildings in the city, which is a complete contradiction to almost every other building in the area, is The Krook, Ghent’s recently renovated public library. I’d ditched the map and simply stumbled across it, well, in reality, it is hard to miss. The large modern building is home to the new city library, laboratories, offices of Ghent University and a café, Krookcafé which is a great, sociable and reasonably priced place to grab lunch and a drink. I can personally recommend the Croque-monsieur, yum!
Ghent truly is a great place and a great destination if you are looking for somewhere for your next city break.
- I was a guest of Visit Flanders, however, my love of the city is all my own.
- For more information about Ghent, check out Visit Gent’s official website.