Ghent is located in the Flemish Region of Belgium and is the country’s second largest city behind Antwerp (2020). Throughout the ages it has always been a wealthy city, due to its port and the influence of its university.
Each year, the city of Ghent holds the Ghent festival which brings 1 to 1.5 million tourists (Almost 5x its population) over a ten-day period. It is a music and theatre festival held at the end of July, with staged events and street performers. It is mostly free, and has been occurring in the city since 1843.
Findings have shown settlements in the area since the stone and iron ages due to its ideal location on the Scheldt and Leie rivers.
Today Ghent is sometimes overlooked, as a lot of tourists visit other cities like Brussels and Bruges. However, Ghent has plenty to offer.
I made a day trip to visit Ghent, but there are plenty of places to stay if you’d like to see the city at a slower pace. There are trains throughout the day that come from all major Belgian cities. There is no airport in Ghent, so train car or bus are the only options.
Now for the sites and experiences. During my visit, the city had painted coloured lines on the ground to guide tourists through the city, so they did not miss the major sites. This is helpful if you only want to see the major landmarks, but I did delve off it from time to time to find some hidden gems.
Ghent Castle, also known as the Castle of the Counts or Gravensteen, dates back to 1180 and was the residence of the Counts of Flanders until 1353. It was built over the original structure, which dated from 890-965 for the ruler Arnulf I. Over time there has been much restoration work, and the building has been used for multiple purposes such as a prison, a mint and a cotton factory (random).
A tour of the castle will not only give you some good views of the surrounding city over the castle walls, but will go into detail about the social and political history of the castle. With many rooms to see and castle walls to walk around, you could spend several hours here, and it will only cost you €10 (2019).
Another Castle you should visit in Ghent is Castle of Gerald the Devil. Dating back to the 13th century, this castle has also had many uses, from a madhouse, a knight’s residence, a monastery and even a school. Unfortunately, it is not open to the public, so you can only enjoy its Gothic architecture from the outside.
Being Europe, there are plenty of religious landmarks for you to see. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafs Cathedral) is a Gothic cathedral with a bell tower that looms over its surroundings. Building began in 1274, and tours go into the history of the cathedral, dating back to the remains of the previous church it was built over. It costs €4.00 to enter (with audio guide).
If you want to climb to the top of the tower to get some amazing views of Ghent, you need to go back outside and enter through the bell tower entrance, which will cost you a further €2.00.
Saint Bavo’s Abbey won’t be as easy to find as the Cathedral itself (it’s not found alongside the cathedral), as it is located on the other side of the Leie River. This landmark contains the oldest wall in Ghent (11th century). The Abbey has some beautiful gardens which are has free.
Next to Saint Bavo’s Cathedral is the Ghent Belfry. Construction started in 1313 and it has been made a Unesco World Heritage site. It has served as a bell tower and as a watch tower
to warn of invaders. The Belfry is a symbol of autonomy and independence for the people of Ghent. It was also a place where the municipal privileges have been kept since 1402, and the golden dragon on the top is said to keep an eye on the city, and the privileges too.
To climb to the top of the Belfry will cost €8.00 (2019) for adults and offers stunning views.
The final of three landmarks you’ll see in a row is Saint Nicholas Church. It was built in the early 13th century over a Romanesque church. The church is built in the Scheldt Gothic style and entrance is free. Inside there are some beautiful pieces of work, and an organ from the 1800s that you will hear if you visit on a Sunday.
Other religious stops you should consider include St Peter’s Abbey, which is located just south of the city and dates back to the 7th century. During the 14th and 15th centuries it was in its prime, and even had its own village within its walls. St Michael’s Church has been around since 1105, however it took until 1828 for it to be completed. This Gothic church has some lovely architecture inside and out for you to enjoy and is free.
Ghent has some stunning architecture across the whole city. Ghent town hall has two different styles of architecture – the Hoogpoort side dates back to the 16th century and is in a flamboyant Gothic style, while the Botermarkt side is in the Renaissance style. This is truly one of the most fascinating and unique political buildings in Europe.
Korenmarkt is a very important city square for the locals. Not only is it a notable meeting point, it is where locals have been going to get food and shop for over 1000 years. The buildings within the square are beautifully designed, bringing a sense of charm to the area.
A quaint city square is Vrijdagmarkt, which is located further north. It is not as popular or as well-known as Korenmarkt, but Vrijdagmarkt dates back to 1199 and has many places to grab a bite to eat, people watch and enjoy the views with more amazing architecture surrounding the whole square.
The City Pavilion (Stadshal) certainly takes a more modern approach. The use of wood and glass in an unusual shape really does make it stand out in the middle of the city centre. It has received some backlash since its construction in 2012, however I think it adds a quirkiness to the city and it adds another place for outdoor concerts to be held.
Another building that is used for the arts is De Vooruit, which is now used for concerts and dates back to the early 1900s.
Ghent is like one giant old town, and Patershol is certainly the cultural heart of it all. Its unique medieval vibe has really cosy streets with lots of cobblestones and many bars, cafes, restaurants and pubs for you to have lunch or dinner. It’s certainly a great place for foodies.
Back at the river you will come across Graslei and Korenlei. These docks have been part of the main port system in Ghent since the 11th century. The facades of these buildings give an amazing reflection in the water and compete with those seen in Copenhagen, Bruges, and Amsterdam. It certainly is a great place for a stroll along the river.
While you are here you will come across Saint Michael’s Bridge. The stone arched bridge dates back to the beginning of the 20th century and apparently is one of the romantic spots within Ghent. I can’t attest to this as I was in Ghent in my family, but I can say that it is a great spot to look out along the river, and get the three towers (Belfry, St Nicholas Church and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral) in a photo op.
On the subject of the river, there are a range of options for you to explore the city via boat, with tours at different price points.
Now onto Museums. The most well-known within Ghent is the Huis van Alijin. This museum shows items from the daily life of the general household through the 20th century. For €6.00 (2019) you can reminisce your childhood.
I didn’t manage to visit any other museums, but some others you might consider include:
· MSK – Museum of Fine Arts
· STAM – The city Museum
· MIAT – Museum of Industry
· S.M.A.K – Museum of Contemporary Art
· Dr. Guislain Museum – An old Insane asylum (Certainly sounds interesting).
· Design Museum
No trip to Ghent or any city in Belgium is complete without a sample of chocolate or beer. If you have time, there are three chocolate shops you must visit (of course this was a priority for me :P):
· Chocolaterie Luc Van Hoorebeke
· HD Ghent
· Chocolaterie Cédric Van Hoorebeke
None of these will disappoint.
On the beer front, I just went to a random little pub in one of the small streets and tried some great Belgium beers, but De Charlatan, ‘t Dreupelkot and NOAH all came up with great reviews as well as the single $ value, so you are sure to get some great quality Belgium beer for a reasonable price.
To get around Ghent, I just walked. It’s not overly large and anyone reasonably fit could easily walk around the city to see all the sights. However, this isn’t for everyone, and the city is filled with cobblestones, so there are three other options. You can take cabs or take the tram (choose numbers 1, 2 or 4 to go around the main city centre) costing €1.60 if bought beforehand for a single use or €3.00 (2019) on the tram (Not all stops from memory have places to buy a ticket). Finally, you can catch the train. This is more if you are coming into Ghent and staying a bit further out.
I did the city in a day, but I was running around like a madman from dawn to dusk and I still didn’t see everything. There are tons of churches, monuments like the Dulle Griet Canon, parks, interesting shop fronts like Confectionery Temmerman, and a street dedicated to Graffiti (rivalling those in my home town of Melbourne).
Ghent is certainly a must see on everyone’s Belgium adventure. It is often overlooked, so I hope this encourages you to stop by and visit!