It took me quite some time to write up a first post on my fabulous hometown Ghent in Belgium. The reason for that delay is that I found it difficult to summarize the city I know so well in an article. So, I had to trim it down to the essential must-sees. Here’s the result: the best things to do in Ghent for first-time visitors, cherry-picked by a local. You’ll see that Ghent is not just an excellent day trip from Brussels but also a great place to spend a weekend, possibly combined with a one-day visit to Brussels or Bruges.
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Ghent has a rich history, one of wealthy tradesman and might emperors, and you’ll see this reflected in the many well-preserved buildings and merchant houses. From the 11th century onwards, the city has long been the second largest in Northwestern Europe, after Paris. Thanks to the Count of Flanders, Ghent became an autonomous power. Ever since, the inhabitants have defended that autonomy. Throughout history, Ghentians have proven to be rebellious by defending that freedom and those privileges, a spirit that’s still very much alive.
Ghent is also an important student-city in Belgium, guaranteeing a lively and somewhat hipster-like vibe against a gorgeous historic backdrop. The historic center is mostly car-free, so that you can have your eyes peeled and take in all its beauty. A big plus compared to that other Belgian gem, Bruges, is that Ghent is much less touristy. No open-air museum like atmosphere here but a welcoming city that’s very much alive and where you’ll feel right at home. We made an in-depth comparison on Ghent vs Bruges, feel free to check it out. Now then, without further ado, let’s dive into the best things to do in Ghent.
There’s a map at the end of this article on which we’ve indicated all of our favorite things to do in Ghent as mentioned in this article.
What’s in a name
In Flemish, the language spoken in the northern region of Belgium called Flanders, Ghent is known as Gent (/ʝɛnt/pronounced with a hard ‘h’). The original name for Ghent was acutally Ganda and several languages kept those first letters. In French, for example, Ghent is referred to as Gand (/ɡɑ̃/) and in Spanish, it’s known as Gante (/ɡɑntɛi/).
Top things to do in Ghent
– Enjoy the views from the Belfry of Ghent
As one of the ‘Belfries of Belgium and France’, the Ghent Belfry is a recognised Unesco World Heritage site. The 300 feet (91 meters) high tower was completed in the 14th century. During the Middle Ages, the city privileges were kept here in chest and guarded by the dragon up on the tower. Last year, in 2018, the dragon spit fire during the Ghent Festival (Gentse Feesten in Flemish) like it did centuries ago during major events.
For almost 500 years, the Ghent Belfry also served as a watch tower. When a fire was detected by one of the watchmen or when an enemy approached, the alarm bell alerted the citizens. That bell was named Roland (Klokke Roeland in Flemish). In the 17th century, Roland was melted and turned into a carillon. The largest bell, the Great Triumphant, kept the name Roland and can be admired at the Emile Braun square, across the street. The Cloth Hall was built onto the Ghent Belfry, a marketplace for the wool and cloth trade.
Climbing the Belfry’s 366 steps is one of the top things to do in Ghent. The views are priceless.
– Saunter down the Graslei & Korenlei
Where the Leie river is flanked by the Graslei and Korenlei, you’ll find Ghent’s most beloved cityscape. This exact spot actually used to form the city’s harbour. Since Ghent was the only city in Flanders allowed to stack corn, it became the epicenter for the corn import. The many historic buildings along these two quays are reminders of that important economic activity:
- At the Graslei, you’ll find the corn measurement house (Korenmetershuis) at n° 9, the corn warehouse (Korenstapelhuis) with the world’s oldest step-gable at n° 10 and a guild house (Gildehuis der Vrije Schippers at n° 14.
- At the Korenlei, you’ll find a guild house at n° 7. You can easily recognize this building thanks to the gold-pleated weather vane in the shape of a ship.
– Take a Ghent boat tour
The magnificent waterfront views from the banks of the Lys or Leie river attract both locals and tourists. Learn about Ghent’s impressive history by taking one of the boat tours that start from this location.
– Step into history at the Castle of the Counts
This medieval fortress dates back to the 9th century, when it was built to protect the settlement against the vikings. It was made out of wood and consisted of a main building with outbuildings that served as warehouses. In the early middle ages, Ghent had become a wealthy city thanks to the thriving wool industry. Merchants had the most luxurious houses built in expensive Tournai limestone. When Count Philip of Alsace visited Ghent after one of his crusades, he couldn’t stand being surpassed by those wealthy merchants. Therefore, in the late 12th century, he ordered to transform the Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen in Flemish) into the most impressive and luxuriant building of the city to prove his supremacy.
The existing moat was extended, the central building was expanded and a massive wall with 24 watchtowers was erected. When you look out over the city from amidst the battlements, you can easily imagine how superior the count must have felt in his mighty fortress.
Yet, the Castle never became his main residence because Philip of Alsace wasn’t fond of rebellious Ghent. The Counts that succeeded him didn’t like living in this uncomfortable castle either. The fortress first became an administrative centre and later the supreme court, where justice was served and prisoners were held. There’s still an important collection of torture equipment on display in the former dungeons.
In the 18th century, the Council of Flanders moved elsewhere and the Gravensteen Castle was converted in an industrial complex where textile was produced. A century later, the textile trade moved to the outskirts of the building. Luckily, the fortress was saved from demolishment. It’s one of the best kept military buildings in this part of Europe.
– Escape the crowds at Prinsenhof
A castle named Hof ten Walle, or the Walled Court, was built almost simultaneously with the Castle of the Counts. Since the Hof ten Walle was much more comfortable, with its 300 rooms with their own fire place and with a lion park, the Counts of Flanders preferred it as their residence. In the year 1500, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was born here and the castle was renamed to Prinsenhof, the Court of Princes. By the end of the 18th century, the castle was demolished and the buildings sold to make room for new houses and factories. The Prinsenhof district is now an expensive residential area.
– Discover the infamous-turned-classy Patershol neighbourhood
The Patershol district, consisting of thirteen narrow streets and a square, has always been a residential area. Initially, in the Middle Ages, the rich wool and cloth merchants lived in Patershol. Then afterwards, the district’s history was linked to that of the Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen): When the fortress became a court, the magistrates called Patershol home. Later, at the time of the industrial revolution, it became a blue collar housing area for the many textile workers. Often, multiple families shared a house. When the textile industry moved to the city’s outskirts, Patershol became an infamous and dangerous area in Ghent. Especially in the interbellum, it was a place of violence and prostitution.
In the 70s, the City Council of Ghent decided to implement high taxes in an attempt to ban the many shady pubs and brothels. Artists found their way to the The Patershol district, dilapidated houses into their atelier. When the city revamped the area in the 80s, its popularity increased. Nowadays, it’s one of the most expensive residential areas in the city center.
he name Patershol literally means Priests’ hole, after a small opening behind the Carmelite monastery, in the Trommelstraat, that allowed inhabitants access to water from the small ditch.
– Visit an art galerie at the Kraanlei
You’ll find plenty of inspiring art galeries at Kraanlei, a privileged waterside location in Ghent.
– Discover Ghent’s street art scene
Admire the city’s street art in the Werregarenstraat or follow the Sorry, not Sorry itinerary to discover all of Ghent’s street art spots.
– Meet Jacob at the Friday Market
Throughout history, celebrations were held and royalty was welcomed at the Friday Market (Vrijdagsmarkt). In the middle of the square, you’ll notice the statue of Jacob van Artevelde. He was a prominent cloth merchant who chose the side of England in the Hundred Years’ War in order to end the boycot of the English wool import, against the Count’s decision to support France. Jakob became a local hero for saving Ghent’s important textile activities. Even now, the city of Ghent is still referred to as the ‘Artevelde City’. This statue shows him pointing towards England.
– Visit one of the fascinating museums in Ghent
- STAM – Ghent City Museum: If you want to learn more about Ghent, its history and citizens, then this museum is the place to be.
- Design Museum Ghent: Housed in a stately 18th century mansion, with an enchanting facade, you’ll find this family-friendly museum with a selection of applied arts and industrial design. Follow the visitor route to learn more about the design theme of your choice.
- MSK – Museum of Fine Arts: This museum offers an impressive collection of art, from 16th century Flemish Primitives and Netherlandish work to 20th century surrealist pieces an everything in between.
- SMAK – Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art: Daring art from both local and international artists to thought-provoking temporary exhibitions, can be found in this innovative museum.
- GUM – Ghent University Museum: A sparkling new science museum, located amidst the botanical garden.
- Hotel d’Hane-Steenhuyse: This 18th century city palace from an aristocratic family is located in the middle of the popular shopping street. Take a tour around the rooms and salons to see how this noble family once lived and entertained their guests.
– Smell the roses at the Flower market
Visit the Sunday flower market at the Kouter, one of Ghent’s most beautiful and stately places. While you’re there, admire the grand opera building.
– See the hams at the Great Butcher’s Hall (Groot Vleeshuis)
During the Middle Ages, this was the only place to buy meat. Since Ghent was a Roman catholic area, there was no meat trade on Fridays. Because of that, the tables in the Great Butcher’s Hall were rented out to others, like the hangman who sold pieces of the rope or finger bones from thieves that were hung to the superstitious citizens of Ghent.
When you enter the Great Butcher’s Hall, you’ll still see the hams on the ceiling. The building is now used to promote local delicacies such as:
- Ganda ham is a local ham that’s traditionally prepared with sea salt and without nitrates.
- Gentse sneeuwballen (Ghent snowballs ) consist of margarine under a fine layer of chocolate, topped with icing sugar. These candies are only available during the fall and winter season: they would simply melt in warmer temperatures.
– Taste some of those legendary Belgian beers
Visit the Gruut brewery and try the local Gruut beer. If you’re looking to go beer-tasting, then head to ‘t Galgenhuisje café, the smallest bar in the city dating bak to 1776, or the Dulle Griet, where you can trade your shoe for a beer (and get it back after settling the bill).
– Buy some vintage mustard
Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard has been around since 1790. It can be purchased at the Groentenmarkt, across from the Great Butcher’s Hall. The shop’s decor remains untouched since around 1860.
– Head to the Korenmarkt
The Wheat Market is the place where the corn was actually traded. A warehouse and weighing-house used to be at the spot where you’ll now find the old Post building.
When the Korenmarkt became the place where coaches arrived and departed, the old warehouse was replaced by a Post building. It was built in an eclectic style, adorned with many fascinating details such as coat of arms, the heads of state and the 5 continents.
Nowadays, you’ll find a shopping mall on the lower level of this former post building and the 4* hotel 1898 The Post, on the first floor. Oh, and the hotel serves a mean selection of homemade treat for their afternoon tea.
– See the Three Towers from St Michael’s Bridge
For a postcard view over Ghent’s historic center, head to the St Michael’s Bridge (Sint-Michielshelling in Flemish) where you’ll see Ghent’s three towers: the Saint Nicholas Church in gothic style, the Ghent Belfry and the St Bavo’s Cathedral. Or enjoy the picture-perfect views over the Leie or Lys river, with the Korenlei on your left and the Graslei on your right.
– Taste the typical Ghent candy called Neuzekes
Gentse neuzen (Ghent noses) or cuberdons are a cone-shaped candy from Arabic gum with a raspberry-flavored gelatinous filling. You can buy them at Confectionary Temmerman, housed in a beautiful house with baroque facade or from one of the food stalls at the Groentemarkt. The two competitors who sell them are in a perpetual state of war, referred to as the ‘war of the noses’. Do note that the shell-life of the Ghent nozes is limited to 3 weeks.
– Look up at the St Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal)
Originally, this was a Romanesque church, dating back to the 10th century. In the late Middle Ages, the wealthy city of Ghent has rebuilt the church multiple times. Then in the 16th century, the church became the St Bavo’s Cathedral. In one of its chapels, you can admire the Ghent Altarpiece.
– See the Ghent Altarpiece a.k.a. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Lam Gods in Flemish), also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is one of the masterpieces of European art. It’s a triptych, consisting of 24 panels divided over 2 vertical registers, that was painted on oak by the Belgian Van Eyck brothers in the 15th century. One of the panels, ‘The Just Judges’, has been stolen en is still missing. Until it has been recovered, there’s a copy of the stolen panel in place.
A thorough restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, including the central panel with ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, has been completed by the Ghent Museum for Fine Arts (MSK) in recent years. Since January 2020, the result can be admired in the St Bavo Cathedral’s chapel. In spring 2021, a new visitors’ centre will open its doors in the cathedral.
As a way to promote the release of the movie ‘The Monuments Men’, in which the Ghent Altarpiece was featured and which is based on true facts, a local graffiti artist created a mural at the corner of the Prediherenlei and the Van Stopenberghestraat. You can admire this artwork, which also centers around the Altarpiece, from the St Michael’s Bridge.
– Discover St Bavo’s Abbey (Sint-Baafsabdij)
In the 7th century, missionaries were sent to Ghent to convert the citizens to Christianity. The St Bavo’s Abbey was built to serve that purpose. Later, in 1540, after Ghent refused to fund Carl V’s wars in Europe, the Emperor felt so insulted that he ordered to demolish the abbey. A Spanish fortress was built on this exact spot to remind the locals of their defeat. It was destroyed in the 19th century.
Today, green shrubs mark the shape of the original church. A stage replaces the altar and is the site is often the spectacular decor for local performances. In a way, you could say that the people of Ghent dance on Carl V’s symbolic grave.