One of my favourite European countries is Belgium, and I have to cast Ghent for my vote for the best place to visit in Belgium. It’s not as high on the list as more popular places like Antwerp or Bruges, but for me it’s got that classic medieval charm, not to mention all the things to do in Ghent while you’re there. It’s easy accessible from the Belgian train network, and once you’re there you can walk all around town without much effort. Here are a few highlights and tips for what to do in Ghent, as if just relaxing on a canalside terrace wasn’t enough.
Once you arrive, one of the best things to do in Ghent will be immediately obvious: the canal. It’s a picturesque canal, very still, especially at night, making it a spectacular place to fill up your camera with postcard snaps. You can take a wee tour on the tourist boat out onto the canal; I’m not sure if I recommend it or not, because, well, it’s very touristy and pretty short. It does offer you a nice view, though, as well as a great orientation to the city if you’ve just arrived. Just be sure afterwards to explore the side streets along the canal properly, because they’re filled with gorgeous architecture.
Ghent has a castle, Het Gravensteen, which isn’t the most grandiose, but it is interesting to climb around on the ramparts and check out the medieval toilet. You’ll also find plenty of cafes along the canal, making beer and coffee stops a frequent (and necessary) highlight.
Ghent also has lots of little shops form ultra-modern housewares to beer paraphernalia and all types of souvenirs in between. Save some space in that suitcase.
Another one of the great things to do in Ghent is to explore the wonderful churches. There are three main buildings:
- St Nicholas’s Church: St Nicholas is the oldest of Ghent’s three churches, and it one point it was divided up into two sections – trades and craft guildsmen had their own section of the chapel dedicated to them, as the church faced onto the Corn Market (the empty square just out front). Random trivia: the organ was built by the same company who built the organ in Notre Dame.
- The Belfy: The gorgeous Belfry was first the city’s treasury and bell town/clock, then a military building, and now it’s just a lovely tower to visit. It sits next to an old trading hall which was a hotspot for the textiles trade that was big business in medieval times.
- St Bravo’s Cathedral: St Bravo’s is a must. It’s a gorgeous church, built between the early 1300s and the late 1500s, but the highlight for me is the Mystic Lamb. I hate to sound like an art geek, but this is one of those paintings which is filled front-to-back with odd mysterious, strange shapes and colours. Admission includes an audio guide, which runs for nearly 40 minutes. Get it, and listen. It’s cool.
Food and Drink
Foodies love Ghent – myself included – gorging yourself on beer, chocolate, and pub goodies is just what to do in Ghent (and in fact one of the best things to do in Ghent when it rains). Here’s the rundown:
- Waterhuis ann de bierkant – this is the local expat hangout. It’s no secret from the tourists, but I loved the wide selection, great service, and the spectacular location.
- ‘t Dreupelkot – known for their 200+ varieties of genever, a type of gin
- Dulle Griet – they have plenty of beers, but their house speciality is a winner (it bubbles in a test tube!)
- Gentse Stoverij – these is meat marinated in a brown beer sauce. It’s yummy and filling and served with french fries (perfect for dipping in the gravy).
- Gentse waterzooi – a lovely fish and veggie stew
- Lahmacun – not exactly Flemish, but tasty – it’s a Turkish pizza
- Groot Vleeshuis – you can have a meal here then shop til you drop in this food market
- Tierentyn – this shop is famous for its mustard. I’m not a mustard fan, but this stuff is legendary.
- Temmerman – this cute place is the city’s sweet shop
You can also just grab a waffle off the street – vendors seem to be around the corner whenever you’re feeling hungry. That’s the beauty of Ghent; you can just relax, stroll around, and do as you please. It’s a no-fuss, no-nonsense vacation spot. Perfect!