On first impression, Ghent might look like a museum. Its medieval architecture has been incredibly well preserved through the ages. But take a closer look and you’ll see a lively university city with a modern attitude. Indeed the Belgian city is tackling head on concerns related with the climate crisis. They reduced their CO2 emissions by making the centre a car-free zone and encourage its residents to use bikes. You could say that Ghent is a cyclist haven, with the largest designated cyclist area in Europe (400 km of paths).
The city also recognises the detrimental effect the meat industry has on the environment and thus, is a self-proclaimed vegetarian capital. On Thursdays, they promote a meat-free day across work and school cafetarias. And you’d never be hard-pressed to find a vegetarian option as the city counts the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
Ghent as a vibrant and exciting city, is rapidly leaving the shadow cast by sister Bruges, which is only a 25 minute train journey away.
With a short afternoon to get acquainted with this charming place, I came back with this very snappy first-timer’s guide on how to spend a few hours in the Flemish city.
1. EXPLORE ST. BAVO’S CATHEDRAL
On Sint-Baafsplein stands bright and tall Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral. Step inside as it’s very much worth a look (and it’s free). First thing that hit me when I came in was the beautiful vaulted ceiling. On the ground, the rococo pulpit made of gilded wood and marble majestically dominates the space. Above is one impressive organ, with 600 pipes it is the biggest in the Benelux.
The cathedral’s ground floor is also the last resting place of all the bishops who officiated here. That makes a lot of people to fit in!
The cathedral was completed in 1559 but it actually stands on the old grounds of a 12th century church which you can still see the remains in the crypt. Down there, there’s also a collection of objects used during masses over the years such as vestments and liturgical bits and bobs.
But undoubtedly the pièce de résistance of the cathedral is ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb‘, a polyptych painted by the Van Eyck Brothers in 1459. Purposed to be the cathedral’s altarpiece, its fate was not as peaceful and it went through a real rollercoaster. As one of the most coveted paintings in the world, it went through 7 thefts and got nearly destroyed in a bombing orchestrated by the Nazis. Today it rests peacefully, albeit with a panel missing (one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in art theft) back where it belongs in this cathedral (you can admire it for a small entrance fee).
2. CLIMB THE BELFRY
Facing St. Bavo’s Cathedral is the Belfry. You can climb (or take a lift) to the top and admire the best views over the city of Ghent. With a height of 91m, it is the tallest belfry in Belgium. The gilded dragon that lives on its roof keeps an eye on the city and its residents. Completed in 1442, it served as a watchtower as well as a bell tower. It is today a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site.
3. CROSS ST. MICHAEL’S BRIDGE
While arguably one of the most photogenic spots in the city, St. Michael’s Bridge certainly offers a unique vantage point for your lens. Indeed it is here, and only here, where you can catch Ghent’s ‘Three Towers’ (St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry and St. Nicholas’ Church) in one shot. It also gives a most idyllic snapshot over the Leie River and the surrounding quays. As you walk along the railing, spot the bronze statue, it is St. Michael, the man himself.
4. LOUNGE ON THE QUAYS
The facing quays, Korenlei and Graslei, are the beating heart of the city. It is a lovely bustling area, a visual reminder that Ghent is also a student city. Here the students and tourists alike come to sit at cafe terraces or simply let their feet dangle off the river banks, watching the boats go by on the Leie. This is one of the oldest sites in Ghent as we can trace it back to the 5th century when it was the heart of Flanders’ wheat trade. The protected row of buildings on Graslei hails back to the Middle Ages. Among them, spot the Spijker, the oldest example of the iconic stepped gable style.
5. SAMPLE A CUBERDON
You’d have a hard time finding this funny-sounding sweet outside Belgium so while in Rome… Indeed it does not export very well as its conservation does not go past a couple of weeks. Some say that the cuberdon was born in Ghent during the 19th century (other argues that it was in Bruges) so you won’t be hard-pressed to spot these little red cones around the city.
Their shell is crusty while their heart goes gooey. Historically made with arabic gum and elderberry juice, nowadays a soapy raspberry flavour is preferred.
And if you want to sink your sweet teeth into history, get your pick’n’mix in Temmerman, the oldest confectionery shop in town. The shop was set up in the 19th century and has been in the same family over 8 generations. They started by selling gingerbread (quite fitting as the building looks like a cute gingerbread house) but their shelves now stock all kinds of traditional confectionary such as our cuberdons (or neuzekes, little noses in Flemish), mokken, knopkes or meulentrekkers.
6. VISIT GRAVENSTEEN CASTLE
Another major landmark in Ghent is Gravensteen, the last remaining medieval castle with a moat in Flanders. It was built at the end of the 12th century and served as a residence for the counts of Flanders. Later it went through several incarnations: a court, a prison, a mint, a cotton factory, … until it fell into disrepair. The people of Ghent wanted to see it destroyed as it had become a symbol of feudal oppression and the inquisition. It was instead restored and transformed into a museum open to the public in 1913.
The castle became then Ghent’s biggest attraction and you can still today visit the museum which houses a collection of medieval weapons and instruments of torture. Needless to say, the tour is not for the faint-hearted!
If you have time to sit down for a cuppa, Uit Steppe en Oase has a beautiful tea garden hidden in a courtyard. Just opposite stands Proof if you’re looking for something with a bit more kick in a seriously cool decor, perfect for people watching.
Should you feel pressed by time and want to have a fun and quick feel of the city, you can go on a horse cart, a tour boat or even rent your own boat to explore the canals at your own leisure. While these means of transport are crazy expensive in Bruges, they have remained affordable in Ghent… so far!
While I didn’t get to explore the Ghent’s restaurant scene, you can believe that I’ll be back to sample some vegetarian goodness. Also on my list, a wander through Patershol and Prinsenhof, two atmospheric quarters beyond the Gravensteen Castle. As you can see, another trip to Ghent needs to happen… and when it only takes a half an hour train journey from Brussels, there’s really no excuse!
Did you enjoy my Ghent guide? You might find my top of the best photo spots in Bruges useful