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.
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.
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/).
Map of Ghent (Belgium)
Ghent is the capital of the province of East-Flanders and located right in the middle of the two most popular cities in Belgium: Brussels and Bruges. For your convenience, I’ve indicated the very best things to do in Ghent, as mentioned in this blog post, on this map.
Top things to do in Ghent
Explore Ghent’s many classic attractions
– 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
– 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 the Ganda ham and other local delicacies.
– Graslei & Korenlei
The Graslei and Korenlei, one of Ghent’s most spectacular cityscapes, 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.
This magnificent waterfront setting is a popular hang-out for both locals and tourists. Learn about Ghent’s impressive history by taking one of the boat tours that start from this location.
– 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 St. Nicholas’ Church, the Ghent Belfry and the St Bavo’s Cathedral. Or enjoy the picture-perfect views over the Lys river, with the Korenlei on your left and the Graslei on your right.
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.
– 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.
– Ghent Belfry (Belfort)
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.
– 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.
– The Ghent Altarpiece, 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.
Since 2012, the Ghent Altarpiece is being restored. The first phase has been completed and the result can be admired in the St Bavo Cathedral’s chapel. The second phase, including the central panel with ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, is currently taking place. You can witness this restoration live in the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), behind glass. The renovation should be completed by the end of this year because in 2020, the museum pays tribute to its painter with the exhibition ‘Van Eyck. An optical revolution’.
As a way to promote the release of the movie ‘The Monuments Men’, in which the Ghent Altarpiece was featured, 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.
– 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.
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.
- 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.
Fun things to do in Ghent
- 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.
- Take a boat tour for a guided visit and explore Ghent from the river.
- Visit the Sunday flower market at the Kouter, one of Ghent’s most beautiful squares, and while you’re there, admire the grand opera building.
- Enjoy the gorgeous city views from the Appelbrugparkje.
- 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 one of the art galeries at the Kraanlei.
- Leave the main roads and explore the smaller, enchanting streets of Ghent, like the Donkersteeg or Serpentstraat.
- Enjoy Ghent by night, a magical experience thanks to the city’s well-thought-out light plan.
- Head to the Sint-Veerleplein where the street lanterns light up every time a baby is born in one of Ghent’s maternity hospitals. In the delivery-rooms, there’s a button to serve this purpose. This is actually a light artwork project called ‘Ai Nati Oggi‘ from Italian artist Alberto Garutti.
- 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).
- Have a picnic at the secret garden of the St Peter’s abbey (Sint-Pietersabdij in Flemish) and explore its vineyard in the city.
- Take a bike tour or a walking tour with a local to get even more insider travel tips on what to see in Ghent.
Try some of Ghent’s typical foods
- Waterzooi is a local stew dish of either fish or chicken, carrots, leeks, potatoes, eggs, butter and cream usually served as a soup. You can try it in restaurants De Raadkamer en ‘t Klokhuys.
- 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.
- 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. You can find them at the Great Butcher’s Hall or at Confectionary Larmuseau near the Gent Sint-Pieters railway station.
- 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 late jaren 1860.
- Ganda ham is a local ham that’s traditionally prepared with sea salt and without nitrates. You can buy it at the Great Butcher’s Hall.
Attend one of Ghent’s captivating events
The Ghent Festival (Gentse Feesten in Flemish) is a yearly 10-day long party during which street artists, open-air concerts, theatre companies and other entertainment groups transform the city center to one big festival.
The first edition was held in 1843: In an attempt to decrease the workplace absenteeism in the factories on Monday morning, the city united the various weekly festivities in one major festival. For the citizens of Ghent, the Procession of the Noose Carriers (the Rondgang van de Stroppendragers) has become a highlight of the festivities: It commemorates the rise against Charles V in 1540 after the citizens of Ghent refused to pay more taxes. They were sentenced to a humiliating walk of shame through the city: barefoot, wearing a white gown and with a noose around their neck.
The 2019 edition of the Gentse Feesten takes place from 19 to 28 July.
Ghent Light Festival
Every 3 years in January, the city of Ghent lights up. Artworks by international light artists create a magical spectacle in the historic center, showing Ghent’s attractions in a different light. A light walk takes you on a 2h tour to explore this fairytale setting.
The next edition of the Ghent Light Festival will take place from 27 to 31 January 2021.
My favorite places to eat in Ghent
- OAK for the best lunch and dinner restaurant in Ghent. I love Chef Marcelo Ballardin’s cuisine, presented as a fixed 5-course dinner menu. OAK was awarded with its first Michelin star in 2018. (Closed during weekends. Advance-booking is essential, for diners sometimes even months head.)
- Max for the best waffles, a Belgian delicacy. Enjoy your waffle in the art deco interior or al-fresco during the summer months.
- Madame Bakster for the best guilt-free cakes (vegan, no refined sugar and no artificial flavors). Rosalie is my favorite summer cake: raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, pure chocolate, coconut and oats.
- Joost Arijs for the best chocolate bonbons (pralines in Flemish) and Belgian macarons.
- The BE O Versbar for the best organic late breakfast and light lunch options. I love their açai bowls, coconut yoghurt and avocado toast. It’s tucked away in the small Heilige Geeststraat (Holy Ghost street).
- Aux Merveilleux de Fred for the best chocolate-chip bread ‘kramiek’ and meringue.
Getting from Brussels to Ghent
Getting from Brussels to Ghent is easy: There’s a direct 35m train from Brussel Central and Brussels Midi station to Ghent Sint-Pieters station. If you’re coming from Brussels Airport, there’s a 1h direct train (or more options if your transfer in Brussels Midi station).
From Ghent Sint-Pieters, it’s a 25-minute walk to the city center. Alternatively, you can take tram 1 or tram 22 to the Korenmarkt. (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.)
If you’re looking to visit Ghent as a day trip from Brussels, then here are some excursion options:
Ghent City Card
With the Ghent City Card, you’ll enjoy free access to the city’s monuments and museums. A 48h card is available for €30. (Do note that kids mostly enjoy free access to the tourist attractions, even without the card.)
The City Card Ghent also includes free use of the city’s trams, buses and the hop-on-hop-off water tram service.
Where to stay in Ghent
As a former Front Office Manager in one of the Ghent hotels, I’m certainly in the know about the best accommodation options in the city. Here are my favorites:
- 1898 The Post: gorgeous hotel, located in the former Post building.
- Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof: luxurious Louis XIV style townhouse with a beautiful courtyard.
- NH Gent Belfort: Stylish hotel in the heart of Ghent, across the City Hall.
- B&B De Waterzooi: a 18th century house across from the Castle of the Counts. The owners can take you on a private boat tour.
- B&B Hotel Verhaegen: a 18th century townhouse with a wonderful garden oasis.
When will you visit Ghent?
So, this is my take on the very best things to do in Ghent, Belgium. I truly hope that these travel tips inspire you to visit this European gem I call home and explore Ghent’s many tourist attractions. See you soon?
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