If you’ve been seduced by pretty Bruges but found it just a teeny bit sweet, then it’s time to look slightly further across Belgium to the delight that is Ghent. More Game of Thrones than Bruges’ courtly love, Ghent has a history full of attitude and rebellion. You can see that in the buildings of the city, but more importantly in its vibrant and spirited population. So here’s how to get yourself under the skin of Ghent as I walk you through some of the best things to do in Ghent.
Get Your Art On
The city might be full of architectural magnificence, but it’s not shy of getting its public art on in the most unconventional of ways. Over the years we’ve been visiting Ghent, we’ve seen everything from Mr. Maeterlinck’s Blue Birds –a beautiful installation of lighted glass bluebirds in a tree – to a water feature in the canal depicting a hapless kneeling punter, rather the worse for wear, revisiting the contents of his stomach after a lively evening.
My favourite, however, has to be the night that homage to the World’s Forgotten Boy appeared alongside the River Leie in a series of person-sized letters spelling out Search and Destroy. I can’t tell you what will be there when you visit Ghent, but in truth, that’s the point. It’s ever-changing, and always interesting. Don’t forget to check out the Ghent street art scene too, especially around Sleepstraat, Grawpoort and Rodelijvekensstraat, where there’s a big collaborative piece. And for even more contemporary art, S.M.A.K. is a vibrant eye-feast.
See Ghent from the Water
There are all kinds of ways of achieving this, some using your own power. Year round, you can take a boat trip or water taxi through the centre of the city, where you’ll spot all kinds of extra details from water level. In summer, you can take a boat trip to nearby Sint Martens Latem the artist’s village. Not only is this fun in its own right, but it’s a great insight into how people live their lives. The boat is packed with locals, not other visitors, and you’ll find celebrations happening all around you. Plus you’ll spot more wildfowl than you can identify, particularly when the boat’s galley sheds its leftover bread on arrival at Sint Martens – I’ve never seen a bird move so fast!
For a higher powered experience, it’s possible to rent a motorboat with a captain, and see much more of the waterways. You can also hire rafts for up to twelve people, although you shouldn’t expect a whitewater experience. In summer, you can take a kayak out on the canals and rivers. These tours are accompanied and last for around five hours, so you can paddle down the Leie into the historical centre. You can also take an evening torchlight kayak tour to see Ghent at its most magical.
Get up Close to Ghent’s Gory Past
It may look beautiful, but Ghent’s got enough creepiness to satisfy the most demanding lover of things horror and Gothic. Firstly, there’s the Gravensteen: the Castle of the Counts. In the twelfth century, no punishment could be administered without a confession, which the Gravensteen was used to deliver. Here at the castle, everything from the giant spiderweb artwork outside – my, that’s a big beast – to the museum of torture inside with a rack and thumbscrews, offers plenty to send a shiver rolling down your spine. It would be mighty difficult to escape the Gravensteen even today.
Then take yourself over to St Bavo’s Cathedral. The painting of the Mystic Lamb is probably one of the city’s top tourist attractions. But there’s a darker side to this beauty. The work on the altarpiece was started by Hubert van Eyck, but finished by his brother Jan. No one really knows what happened to Hubert. It is said that his arm – the key tool for any painter – was severed and placed in a casket over the cathedral door.
Head down to the quayside at the Graslei, and you’ll spot a tiny bar called ‘t Galgenhuis. When you snuggle up at one of its six or so tables, you’ll notice a series of nooses hanging from the ceiling. Ghent undertook one of its many acts of rebellion against the tyranny of Emperor Charles V, with the nobles of the city refusing to pay taxes that were not helping the people of Ghent. Charles had the city leaders executed and beforehand paraded them through the streets wearing a noose; that noose is now the symbol of Ghent. ‘t Galgenhuis is also where scandal punishments for less serious crimes were administered in public view so that the good people of the city could view justice being done.
And if you want to explore further, why not think about hiring a Vespa for the day to see Ghent and its surroundings with an air of retro cool. There are a number of routes available, or you can tailor your own tour.
Ghent’s Having a Party
In fact, it seems to do so pretty regularly. From our first trip, when the hotel sorrowfully announced that there might be a little noise that night, due to a beer festival outside, there’s always been something to get excited about in the city. The main draw is the Gentse Feesten, held in July. Basically a festival of music and theatre, it includes street performers, mime, buskers, in fact all human life is there. You’ll find comedy, jazz, puppets, dance music, funk…just full on pleasure time. The last day is known as the Day Of The Empty Wallets, representing how much cash people have blown on celebrations.
Don’t forget the Kerstmarkt, in December and January, where you can eat, drink, shop and make merry. You can also get your ice skates on, although that might be better achieved before any of the above takes place. Ghent’s particularly magnificent in the winter, with a beautiful street lighting plan that really accentuates the surroundings and makes for an atmospheric experience even before the Christmas decorations are in place. If you’re really lucky, it might even snow for you. If you’re looking for other Christmas destinations, I spent Christmas in Antwerp in the Kerstmarkt and had a blast.
Stuff Yourself With Veggie Treats
Ghent has the reputation of being the vegetarian capital of the world. In fact, there’s a meatless Thursday each week, where meat dishes get the side billing on menus. You’d find it difficult not to encounter creative veggie and vegan cooking across the city. Try Komkommertidj on Reep with its buffet, cantina-style atmosphere, and also Le Petit Botanique with its ingredients sourced from Ghent city farms and an ethical opportunity-based employment policy. Or try our favourite, Plus+, on Ajuinlei, where you can get fabulous bowls of exuberant salad lunches, and enough good soups to keep out Ghent’s winter chill.
Drinking and Other Nightlife
It’s Belgium, so there are some key local treats to consider. Firstly, there’s the legendary Belgian beer. For perhaps the widest selection in town, and a bar filled with cosy flagstoned rooms, try Dulle Griet in the Vrijdagmarkt. If you’re a beer aficionado, allow ten minutes to peruse the extensive menu. The bar is named after Ghent’s massive cannon, now perched waterside, which could despatch 250kg cannonballs. You could also try De Brouwzaele, situated out of the centre near the cinema, which contains the enormous copper brewing kettle inside a triangular building. You can eat at a boat moored next to the bar, a great option for a summer night.
For sunny canalside views in summer and a mightily powerful stove in winter, get yourself across to Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (the Waterhouse on the Beer Canal). This is close neighbour to t’Dreupelkot, where a vast range of genever is on sale from passion fruit to gingerbread. And both are just around the corner from the narrow alley down which you’ll find the ever-popular Hot Club de Gand for jazz, flamenco, folk, or possibly anything at all. One bridge down, and you’ll find Missy Sippy Blues and Roots club focused on the sounds of the delta blues.
For cocktails, sadly the classy Old Fashioned has now mixed its last. But you can get a similar speakeasy feel at Jiggers on Oudburg, where foraged flowers and herbs are added to interesting infusions.
Things to Know about Ghent
Ghent is Belgium’s third largest city. It will take less than an hour to get there from Brussels airport. You can also get connecting trains from other Belgian cities. Belgium is part of the EU and the Schengen visa area. The currency is the Euro, and, since you are in Flanders, the language is Flemish. The visitor guide is here. Alternatively, check out this article, if you want to find out how to visit Ghent with the Ghent city card.
Adventure in You Recommendations: Where to Stay in Ghent
This city may look like straight out of the medieval age, but Ghent’s pioneering sustainable projects, underground music scene, and a brewing gastronomic scene makes it a must-visit in Belgium. Check out these top hotels when planning where to stay in Ghent for your trip.
Treck Hostel – This hostel exudes a “happy vibe” among guests, thanks to the abundance of shared spaces and common rooms. You have the option to share a room at any of the dorms available or the themed caravans, which is an experience itself. Treck Hostel is also nearby to some of the popular attractions in Ghent, and you can even rent bikes at the hostel for 5 euros a day.
Hostel Uppelink – Located right in the heart of all Ghent’s attractions, Hostel Uppelink is a perfect place for travelers who also want to have a little sense of privacy. Although set in an old-looking building, the inside is styled and equipped with modern furnishings and facilities. The hostel’s lounge and dining area are great places to strike a convo with a new friend.
Ganda Rooms and Suites – This modern-styled hotel is housed in a property that’s over 260 years old, which is pretty amazing if you’re into history and architecture. There is a lovely & characterful sitting room and a sunroom/lounge that looks like it came straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. The breakfast spread at Ganda Rooms and Suites are a favorite among guests and bike rentals are available on the front desk.
Aparthotel Castelnou – With its non-smoking rooms and facilities for guests, Aparthotel Castelnou is perfect for the sensitive traveler. It’s also located in a residential area as well, and is walkable to some of Ghent’s popular places to visit and bus transport. Do dine on traditional and international dishes at the hotel’s Dali restaurant, or sip on cocktails at the onsite bar for a nightcap.
1898 The Post – Every corner of this uniquely designed and furnished 5-star property is Instagram worthy. The guest service here too is also exceptional – staff can all speak English and can attend to your special requests or needs. It’s also near several of Ghent’s famous landmarks, including Ghent Christmas Market, Great Butchers’ Hall, Design Museum Ghent, and the Belfry of Ghent.
Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof- This grand 18th-century property features elegant decor, modern facilities, and is a Green Key holder — meaning the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof is environmentally-friendly. The rich, French-style decorated rooms and spa center are something to look forward to after a whole day of sightseeing. The hotel’s gourmet restaurant called the Lof has a champagne bar centerpiece you’d want to take a selfie with. There’s a public transportation stop 5 minutes away from the hotel and is walkable to some of Ghent’s landmarks.