Ghent or Bruges? Top cities in Belgium compared by a local

Bruges and Ghent count as the historic gem cities of Belgium. Both offer visitors a similar medieval backdrop, enchanting cobbled streets, captivating canal tours, 360° Belfry views and waffles galore. Yet both Belgian cities are very different in character and atmosphere. So, which one should you should visit if you’re short on time during your trip to Belgium: Ghent or Bruges? The answer strongly depends on what you’re looking for in a city break or day trip. Let’s have a look at both cities’ attractions and uniqueness.

You’re in expert hands, by the way. We were born and raised in Ghent, still live just a stone’s throw away, and have visited Bruges on countless occasions. So, you can rest assured that you’ll know everything there is to know about Bruges and Ghent after reading this article.

Visiting Bruges, Belgium

Arriving in Bruges feels like stepping into a fairytale. The medieval houses with their step-gable, the canals that criss-cross the city, the rhythm of clip-clopping horse hooves and the many sumptuous treats on display in the chocolate shops aligning the cobbled streets. Let’s have a look at some of the best attractions in Bruges.

– Essential things to do in Bruges

  • Take a canal tour to learn all about Bruges glorious past and see the city from a different angle.
  • Soak in the atmosphere at the Markt or Market Square, the heart of Bruges aligned with pastel-colored stepped gable houses. The historic city center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • Go on a horse carriage ride for a unique guided tour in an enchanting setting.
  • Climb the 366 steps to the top of the Belfry of Bruges to enjoy the view over this picture-perfect city.
  • Admire the incredible detailing and the colorful stained-glass windows inside the Basilica of the Holy Blood chapel.
  • Take a brewery tour at Brewery Halve Maan (Half Moon) and look for the pipeline that pumps beer from the brewery to the bottling facility several miles away.
  • Try the best waffles in Bruges at the waffle stand at Burg Square.
  • Visit the Church of our Lady where you’ll find Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.
  • Admire the art at the Saint John’s Hospital or the Groeningemuseum.
  • Meet the swans at Minnewater, the Lake of Love.
  • Have a break near Bruges’ most photographed bridge, the Bonifaciusbridge.
  • Escape the crowds and head to the windmills and entrance gates to the city.
  • Explore the gardens of the Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde. In spring, you’ll be greeted by a sea of flowers.
  • Get your photo taken at the iconic Rozenhoedkaai.
  • Discover some of the city’s well-hidden beer cafés such as De Garre or ‘t Poatersgat.

– One day in Bruges

Bruges is located furthest away from the capital, take that into account should you decide to take a day trip to Bruges from Brussels. There are plenty of options to explore the city’s many attractions, the Bruges canal tour and carriage ride being the classic choices. Unlike Ghent, Bruges can get very touristy. Expect lines to enter the Bruges must-see sights such as the Belfry tower and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. If you plan on joining tours such as the brewery and chocolate tour and / or visit one of the city’s museums, then you’ll need to spend more than one day in Bruges.

– Brussels to Bruges by train

“From either Brussels Central or Brussels Midi station, you take the IC train to reach Bruges in 1 hour. From there, it’ll take you 20 minutes walking to the city center where you can start your Bruges visit.”

Visiting Ghent, Belgium

Ghent doesn’t have the fairytale vibe that Bruges does. Although it certainly has a similar medieval backdrop, it feels much more authentic. Instead of that open-air museum feeling that you might get in Bruges, Ghent has a more artistic and quirky atmosphere. And that impression is totally consistent with Ghent’s historic rebellious and no-nonsense attitude. Ghent is also one of the largest student cities in Belgium, a true university town, making the center look even more alive and kicking. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t feel touristy and where visitors can easily blend in.

– Essential things to do in Ghent

  • Tour the Castle of the Counts in the heart of the city with its tilts, watchtowers and moat. This medieval fortress was initially built to protect Ghent from the vikings, then transformed into a castle and later housed the supreme court and a textile factory. The collection of torture equipment is pretty impressive.
  • Enjoy the (sunset) views from atop the Belfry of Ghent.
  • See the city from the water on a boat tour.
  • Stroll through the medieval streets of the Patershol and Prinsenhof district.
  • Say hi to Jacob van Artevelde at the Vrijdagmarkt. This merchant played an important role in saving Ghent’s textile industry during the Hundred Years’ War, safeguarding the city’s wealth. He still points towards England.
  • Enjoy the postcard views at the Graslei and Korenlei, once the epicenter for the corn import in Ghent.
  • Try and buy local delicacies at the Great Butcher’s Hall.
  • See the three towers of Ghent from the St Michael’s Bridge.
  • Admire the detailing in the Ghent Altarpiece a.k.a. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in the St Bavo Cathedral.
  • Visit one of the fascinating museums in Ghent, such as the Design Museum Ghent in a stately 18th century mansion, the MSK – Museum of Fine Arts or the SMAK – Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art. Or learn more about the history of Ghent in the STAM – Ghent City Museum.
  • Explore Ghent’s vibrant street art scene.
  • Visit the Sunday flower market at the Kouter.
  • Admire the grand opera building or attend a performance.
  • Eat your heart out at the Holy Food Market, Ghent’s food hall. It’s located in a 17th century chapel, creating a unique setting.
  • Visit the Gruut brewery to try the local Gruut beer.
  • Go beer-tasting in ‘t Galgenhuisje café, the smallest bar in the city dating bak to 1776, or the Dulle Griet, where you trade your shoe for a beer (and get it back after you’ve paid the bill).
  • Enjoy Ghent by night, a magnificent experience thanks to the city’s well-thought-out light plan.

We’ve dedicated an entire post on the best things to do Ghent, it includes a detailed map as well. Feel free to check it out if you want to know even more about Ghent, our lovely hometown.

– One day in Ghent

Since Ghent is located closer to the capital than Bruges, it’s very well possible to make a day trip from Brussels to this lively city. Many of the Ghent attractions can be seen by strolling the quaint cobbled streets or taking a boat tour and hear all about the city’s intriguing past. Since this rebellious city in Belgium is still a bit of a hidden gem, you’ll never have to wait in line to enter some of its landmarks. A visit to the Castle of the Counts is a must, as is climbing the steps to the Belfry for a spectacular view over the city. Should you plan on visiting some of museums in Ghent too, then one day in Ghent might be too tight.

– Brussels to Ghent by train

From either Brussels Central or Brussels Midi station, you take the IC train to reach Ghent Sint-Pieters railway station in just over 30 minutes. From there, it’s a 25 minute walk to the city center.
Alternatively, you could catch tram 1 or tram 22 at the train station to reach the heart of the Korenmarkt in 10 minutes. (You’ll need to buy your ticket before boarding the tram, at the ‘Lijnwinkel’ ticket shop at the railway station or from the vending machine.)

Comparison by topic

– Ghent or Bruges for sightseeing?

Sunset views over Ghent, one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium

That’s a tricky one since both Bruges and Ghent have a lot to offer in terms of sightseeing. Bruges offers many attractions, all of which are located in the compact city center. In Ghent, there’s more to see and visit than the items listed here, which located in the heart of the city. Some of these less obvious sights are located just outside of the historic center. Just a short tram ride will take you to the museum site, the art deco mansions at Miljoenenkwartier and more.

– Bruges or Ghent for canal cruises?

Boat on a canal tour in Bruges, the medieval city in Belgium

Although we like taking an occasional boat tour in Ghent, we do prefer the Bruges canal tours. The waterways in Bruges are simply more picturesque and romantic than the ones in Ghent. Bruges is called the “Venice of the North” for a reason. It’s a must-do attraction, you just can’t leave Bruges without taking one of these iconic tours.

– Ghent or Bruges for foodies?

Apart from the tourist restaurants, Bruges is known to have a more classic restaurant scene. But we do have a feeling that more creative concepts are starting to find their way to Bruges. Sanseveria Bagelsalon, Nxt Door streetfood restaurant, That’s Toast and Nomad to name a few.

Ghent is home to the most creative food scene. From the best waffles to mouth-watering pancakes, from surprising chocolate pralines to oatmeal heaven, from vegan / vegetarian streetfood to trendy international dining. If you’re into exciting food concepts, than Ghent should be on top of your list. Some of our favorite hotspots in Ghent include Luv L’oeuf, Bicho Malo, Madame Baksters, O’yo, Norma, Oats Day Long, Max, Epiphany’s Kitchen and Oak. You’ll need more than a Ghent day trip to taste the best the city has to offer.

– Bruges or Ghent for chocolate lovers?

While Ghent does have some excellent chocolatiers, Bruges is home to many more world-famous chocolate brands and local chocolate artisans. So, when you’re on a mission to go chocolate tasting, then Bruges is where you want to go. The legendary chocolate tour will take you to cloud 9 in no time.

– Ghent or Bruges for art?

Bruges focuses more on thematic houses such as the Choco-Story Chocolate Museum, the Diamond Museum, the Lace Museum and the Belgian Fry (never call it French in Belgium) Museum. Personally, it feels a bit like catering to tourists more than showing a genuine identity. The city is home to just a handful of art museums, none of which focus on international art.

That’s no match for Ghent. Whether you’re looking to admire Fine Arts, Modern Art or Design, you’ll find it in this creative hub. Heck, you’ll even find art around every corner because this Belgian city is renowned for its street art. Just follow the Sorry, Not Sorry itinerary and you’ll know what we mean.

– Ghent or Bruges for Christmas?

Christmas market at Markt square in Bruges Belgium

Nothing beats Christmas in Bruges. The fairytale backdrop and the many stalls create magical moments. And we’re excited to see the new location at Minnewater this year too. Read all about the Bruges Christmas Markets 2019 edition in our dedicated article.

– Bruges or Ghent for nightlife?

Festival in the Belgian city of Ghent, as viewed from the water in between Graslei and Korenlei

The fact that Ghent is one of the most important student cities in Belgium, kind of gives it away. It’s indeed the kind of city where you can have fun 24/7. Bruges doesn’t really have that nightlife scene, apart from some underground cafés that might keep their doors open till late.

– Overall: Bruges vs Ghent

So, let us round up this comparison on these two beautiful Belgian cities:

  • If you’re looking for an open-air museum type of city, where every stone is polished and every house is cute, where the atmosphere is romantic and the setting evokes a fairytale and you don’t mind the crowds of tourists, then you should go to cute Bruges.
  • If you’re more into a bold city with a soft shell, where history meets art, where authenticity meats creativity, where you can truly eat your heart out and be right at home without feeling like a tourist, then edgy Ghent is where you want to go.

Here are some suggestions for organized trips to Bruges and Ghent:

Ghent and Bruges in one trip

– Can you visit both cities in Belgium in one day?

Technically, you can. If you would make it a day trip from Brussels, then you would be looking at around 4 hours of transportation in total (trains, trams and walking to the center). So, if you leave Brussels early enough then yes, you would be able to travel to Bruges and Ghent in one day and visit maybe one or two attractions in each.

But that whirlwind visit wouldn’t do the best cities in Belgium any justice, now would it? Part of the fun of visiting these cities is watching the locals from a comfy terrace chair while sipping on a local beer, climbing the belfries to enjoy the magnificent city views, getting lost in the maze of cobbled streets and watching the city fall asleep. Therefore, we’d strongly recommend staying in either Bruges or Ghent and setting aside at least a day to visit each, preferable even two. It would allow you to experience the best Belgian cities instead of just scratching the surface and getting some instragrammable shots.

– Getting from Bruges to Ghent and from Ghent to Bruges?

You can’t really travel from Bruges to Ghent by boat. So, once more, you’ll need to rely on the trains to take you from one Belgian city to the other.

– Where to stay in Ghent?

Colorful merchants houses behind the Gravensteen in Ghent Belgium

As a former Front Office Manager in one of the Ghent hotels, I’m definitely in the know about the best accommodation options in the city. Here are my favorites:

– Where to stay in Bruges?

Canal tour at Minnewater in Bruges Belgium

Bruges has so many lovely accommodation options that you’ll probably be having a hard time choosing. But we’re here to help:

  • The Secret Garden Luxury Suites: this bed and breakfast is our absolute favorite hideaway, featuring a beautiful garden with heated pool and hot tub yet located in the heart of the city.Other wonderful accommodations are the elegant 
  • Hotel de Castillon: an elegant accommodation where breakfast is served in a unique medieval cellar.
  • Hotel Sablon: a sophisticated hotel featuring one of the most gorgeous hotel interiors we’ve ever come across.

Practical info on these medieval cities in Belgium

– Languages spoken

Both Bruges and Ghent are located in the Flanders region of Belgium: Bruges in West-Flanders and Ghent in East-Flanders. Locals speak Flemish, which resembles Dutch. Most inhabitants, however, speak English very well and also know French.

The Flemish names for these Belgian cities are Brugge for Bruges and Gent for Ghent. The letter g is pronounced as the phonetic letter /x/, a soft g.
Fun fact: Because of the dialect in West-Flanders, the g in Brugge is locally pronounced as /h/.

– Weather in Belgium

Belgian weather is quite unpredictable, especially in terms of rain. Always bring a rain coat or purchase an umbrella, especially when you’re not visiting Belgium in summer. During the winter months, we get temperatures around freezing point but it rarely happens that it’s freezing during the day (maybe a couple of days every year, not more).

Well, that’s it for the comparison of Bruges and Ghent from a local’s point of view. We certainly hope it’ll make your choice a lot easier or better yet, spend an entire day in both of these wonderful cities in Belgium. Do you have a question about either Ghent or Bruges that hasn’t been answered in this post? Then go ahead and comment, we’d be delighted to help you out.

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