“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~ Aristotle.
If you haven’t heard about this intriguing city, you’re not alone. I first heard about Ghent from a Lonely Planet guidebook as I was planning my first trip to Belgium. After a flicking through its chapter I quickly realised there were so many interesting things to do in Ghent – this enchanting city was demanding my attention!
Why visit Ghent?
When it comes to Belgium, you really can’t get much better than Ghent. Sure, we’ve all heard of the big drawcards offering up something unique: Brussels is home to European Parliament and comics, Bruges is the fairytale “Venice of the North” and Antwerp is Belgium’s historic diamond and Art Deco capital.
Despite no other city in Belgium having as many classified buildings as Ghent, you probably haven’t heard of her. So, where does she fit here?
You may be surprised to learn that Ghent (Dutch: Gent) is actually the largest city of the Flanders region in Belgium after Antwerp. This stunning port destination is located in the country’s north-west and easily accessible from numerous cities.
What to expect in Ghent
Construction began in the mid 7th century due to the strategic location where the Leie & Scheldt rivers met. This meant that from the 11th to 16th centuries Ghent was one of the most important cities in Europe during the Dark Ages (and bigger than Cologne or Moscow!). Today, Ghent is bursting great food, beer and ample history to uncover if you give her the time.
The tourist board is right when they say “more than a one night stay” – there are so many things to discover, you couldn’t possibly do it all in a single day. From beautiful castles to famous fruity beers, intriguing architecture to sparkling canals, medieval structures and (strange to me) frittes with mayonnaise, Ghent has something for everyone. What’s not to like? If you’re as intrigued as I was, read on for more!
This Ghent attractions and tourist guide will cover:
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Where to stay in Ghent
With a mid-range budget, Hotel de Flandreis a gorgeous restored 19th century building in the heart of the city centre. Couldn’t beat the location! Rooms very clean, tidy and comfortable. Only a few moments walk to Graslei & Korenlei, Gravensteen and Patershol. My travel buddy and I had a great view of the Medieval Towers of Ghent from our window!
ROOM TIP: If booking Hotel de Flandre, request a room on a high floor to be treated to the view below!
16 memorable things to do in Ghent, the gem of Belgium
I recommend spending 3 days in Ghent to see all the sights below (including the bonus ones!) without having to rush so you make the most of your visit to this enchanting city.
1. Discover life in medieval Ghent at Gravensteen
Also known as “Castle of the Counts” in Dutch, this incredible structure was built in 1180. Today it houses the Arms Museum and the Museum of Judicial Objects. These display various weapons used in warfare and other contraptions used for punishment and torture during medieval times.
Interesting items include the guillotine and “Mask of Shame”. Not for the faint-hearted! To conclude your visit, make sure you go to the rooftop for 360° views of the city and one of the few places you can see the 4 Medieval Towers of Ghent piercing the skyline.
You can find out more about its fascinating history here.
COST: Adults €12
2. Admire the picturesque St Michael’s Bridge (Sint-Michielshelling)
Perhaps one of the most picturesque areas in Ghent, it’s a great place to gaze at the surrounding architecture and down the river to Korenmarkt (Wheat Market).
The angle of this bridge means it’s the only place you can see the Medieval Towers of Ghent – St Nicholas’ Church (Sint Niklaaskirk), the Belfry of Ghent and St Bavo’s Cathedral – all aligned for a great photo opportunity. Don’t forget your camera!
3. Marvel at the beauty of St Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal)
This historic 11th century icon of Ghent was a major factor in my decision to visit. Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) was baptised there!
This is where you’ll find The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The significance of this alterpiece is definitely reason to visit as it was painted by the great masters Hubert and Jan van Eyck around 1432. Unfortunately the ‘Just Judges’ panel was stolen in 1934 and is yet to be found.
You can take a closer look and find out more about the Ghent Alterpiece here.
COST: Adults €4
4. Be amazed by St Bavo’s Abbey (Sint-Baafsabdij)
Anyway, this abbey sure made up for the fact I couldn’t visit the cathedral. It was a very sobering feeling walking around these grounds knowing it’s history dates back to the 7th century. Unfortunately during the Revolt of Ghent in 1539 much of the abbey was torn down by Charles V. What’s left has been taken back by nature and it’s amazing that any of the structure is still standing!
St Bavo’s Abbey is not open to the public every day to help preserve it, so be sure to check here first.
TIP: Please remember to “be invisible” and respectful during your visit to help preserve this gift from the past.
5. Spot the iconic Ghent Belfry (Belfort)
Standing at 91m high makes this UNESCO World Heritage belfry the tallest in Belgium. During my visit it chimed out theme songs to The Simpsons and Pirates of the Caribbean, which echoed across the city. Pretty cool, huh!
You can also climb to the top for magnificent views and to see the copper dragon that has been watching over the city and guarding the Belfry since the 14th century! More info on opening times here.
COST: Adults €8.00
6. Enjoy a the sights along Graslei & Korenlei
Arguably the most beautiful place in the city, the Graslei (Grass Quay) and Korenlei (Corn Quay) lie at the very heart of Ghent. These quays stretch along the Leie river with Graslei and its unique medieval buildings on the right bank, Korenlei along the left.
It’s also considered one of the oldest locations in Ghent and is a popular meeting place with many café’s to be enjoyed today.
7. Go shopping amongst stunning architecture in Patershol
Patershol is a picturesque little neighbourhood beneath the Castle of the Counts dotted with restaurants and boutique specialty shops. The cobblestone alleys here have remained unchanged since medieval times which makes you feel like you’re part of a storybook – go and get wonderfully lost!
8. Enjoy a drink or meal at Vrijdagmarkt
“Vrijdagmarkt” translates to Friday Market. You may have guessed by this title that market stalls have been hosted here each Friday since the 12th century. What a tradition! Today it’s a bustling meeting point for locals and visitors alike and market stalls are held on Friday mornings and Saturday afternoons.
Admire the buildings in the square and see if you can find one of the skinniest buildings in Ghent! Vrijdagmarkt has a buzzing atmosphere especially in late afternoon with cute Belgian pubs and restaurants in abundance. Keep an eye out for Tavern Dulle Griet, a famed café that serves more than 350 Belgian beers, the largest collection in Ghent!
What to eat? Be sure to try a traditional Flemish dish, “waterzooi“. This delicious meal originated in Ghent and is a Belgian delicacy!
Which brings me to…
9. Try Local Belgian Beers
Beer is renown in Belgium and there are thousands to try. So if you aren’t a beer drinker, you’re actually going to love this. Yes, I know that sounds contradictory but hear me out! I’m not a beer drinker myself but in Ghent after one sip of a Lindeman’s Apple beer, I was hooked. By hooked I mean a bit OBSESSED!
It’s not heavy and doesn’t even taste like beer. Woohoo!
There are a variety of fruity flavours such as Raspberry (Framboise), Peach (Pêcheresse), and Cherry (Kriek). You can find Lindemans throughout Belgium but I enjoyed it more often in Ghent than I did in Bruges or Brussels. I think it was down to Ghent’s more relaxed atmosphere.
COST: Maybe your head!
TIP: Be warned – Alcohol content in Belgian beer can range anywhere from 5-12% so it will catch up with you faster than most other beers!
Ghent Beer & Sightseeing Tour
One of the best ways to learn more about local life is though cultural experiences! If you’re a beer lover or want to sample Belgian beer whilst exploring the city, this Ghent beer & sightseeing tour will be for you.
Spend an afternoon bar hopping around hidden taverns throughout the city with a local guide who can also answer any questions you have about Ghent. To top it off, the tour includes a canal cruise and chocolate tasting, too. But if you prefer, this dedicated chocolate tour in Ghent could be for you!
10. Discover a different perspective of Ghent on a canal cruise
Canal cruises are a must in Ghent as they are a wonderful way to see and learn about the city from a local’s interesting perspective. Spending a few days in Ghent means you can choose a fine weather day during your visit to get the most out of the boat tour.
There are a few locations over the city where you can hop on board and your captain doubles as your guide. Simply choose a location, pay for your ticket, wait for the next boat and enjoy! If you enjoy being organised like me, you can purchase tickets in advance for a Ghent canal cruise here.
COST: Adults approx €7.50 ea
11. Citadel Park
If you need an escape from the bustle of the city make your way down to Citadel Park in Ghent’s south. Keep in mind it’s a leisurely 25min walk from the city centre or you can catch Trams 21 or 22 (18mins) if you prefer. More info on the gardens here.
12. Castle of Gerald the Devil (Geraard de Duivelsteen)
13th century fortress where the Devil never actually resided. The castle has a chequered past – Throughout history it has been used as a knights’ residence, an arsenal, a monastery, and a school and a fire station to name a few. More info here.
13. Great Butchers’ Hall (Groot Vleeshuis) on Groentenmarkt
Restored butcher’s hall from the 15th century. Today you can see traditional Ganda hams hanging from the roof whilst you enjoy lunch or coffee with an assortment of local sweets.
14. Hunt down street art
Ghent has several street art hotspots where you can catch a glimpse of Van Eyck-inspired works, meander along Graffiti Alley, and spot creativity along some canals. Take a look at where to find street art in Ghent here.
TIP: To make things easy, take a street art cycling tour around the city with a local to show you hidden spots!
15. Enjoy a scavenger hunt around Ghent
If you love riddles, finding clues, solving challenges and love using your imagination, a self-guided scavenger hunt in Ghent may be up your alley!
16. Saint Nicholas’ Church (Sint-Niklaaskerk)
One of the oldest and most prominent landmarks in Ghent, this 13th century church was constructed to replace an earlier Romanesque structure. Built in Scheldt Gothic style the church features blue-gray stone from the Tournai area. It is one of the 4 Medieval Towers of Ghent.
How to get to Ghent
Ghent is easily accessible by train from Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp via Belgian Rail.
- From Brussels: 30 minutes from Bruxelles-Midi Station. Cost: Adult €9.20 one way
- From Bruges: 25 minutes from Brugge Station. Cost: Adult €6.80 one way
- From Antwerp: 1 hour from Antwerpen-Centraal Station. Cost: Adult €9.90 one way
LOCAL’S TIP: If you’re arriving from Antwerp, alternatively you can stop at station Gent-Dampoort, which will shave 10 minutes off your travel time. It’s a nice 15 minute walk from there to the city centre and you’ll see all the towers approaching from that alternative angle!
You can buy tickets online in advance via Belgian Rail (be sure to confirm the prices there) or simply purchase your tickets at the train station, as I did without any issues.
More information on Ghent
If you would like more information about Ghent that may not be mentioned in this post, you can book a walking tour in advance. I personally made my own walking tour with the research I found, but if you prefer a guide you can find out more information here on different types of Ghent walking tours and more!
Overall, you can see Ghent is worth more that just one day of your time. With some of the richest medieval history in Europe, Ghent still continues to stun today and is very underrated in my opinion!
Until next time,
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