11 reasons to visit Ghent: a city of intrigue, history and charm

Overlooked and underrated, Ghent is so much more than just a stop between Brussels and Bruges.

The rain pelts my face, the wind whips my hair and the haphazard pavers trip me up with single-minded determination. My first day in Ghent is dreary, with storm clouds, puddles and a turned-out umbrella. Despite the weather, the warm glow of a tilt-a-whirl churns over the Christmas market in St. Bavo’s Square and I follow my nose to the food stalls in the throng of it. 

Ghent may be a medieval city, but don’t expect it to have the personality of one. Whereas Bruges is like an open-air museum – its buildings carefully preserved and showcased – Ghent is unapologetically lived in. You’re more likely to find a McDonald’s housed inside its historic buildings than you are a museum. In Ghent, the weary shoulders of ancient landmarks rub affectionately against their contemporary counterparts like flirtatious teens. 

The City Pavilion, built in 2012, shamelessly poses in front of the 14th-century belfry. Meanwhile, the 16th-century Masons Guild House has a modern glass extension grafted onto its side. Although parts of the city date back to the 12th century and earlier, Ghent has a youthful energy and a wicked sense of humour. 

A serving of churros dusted with icing sugar and a hot chocolate later, I’m refuelled and ready for round two with the weather. Despite the dismal forecast, Ghent is a beautiful city built upon canals and cobblestone streets. Spires puncture the skyline and flowers frame the harbour. So much more than a stopover between Brussels and Bruges, Ghent is an overlooked and underrated cultural hub waiting to be discovered. 

Saint Bavo's Cathedral and the Christmas market in Sint-Baafsplein; Chocolate shop
Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and the Christmas market in Sint-Baafsplein; Chocolate shop © Laura Barry

What you need to know about Ghent, Belgium

This easy-going region is tucked away in the northwest of Belgium at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. The largest of six arrondissements in the Province of Flanders, Ghent is the Flemish capital and the third-largest city in the county. This university town is home to six higher education institutions and is happy to go by the name of Ghent (English), Gent (Dutch/German) or Gand (French), depending on your language of choice – and while the native tongue is Flemish (a nuanced Dutch dialect) many Ghentians speak English, too. The city centre is car-free with all of the sites within easy walking distance of one another, though there’s a tram for those with weary feet. 

The history of Ghent, Belgium 

Most of Ghent’s landmarks may be medieval, but legend has it the city dates back to 630 when Catholic missionary St. Amandus chose this site for an abbey. The following centuries saw Ghent, Belgium become a thriving port city with 60,000 inhabitants, bigger than London and smaller only than Paris, with its fair share of conflicts: the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, the Hundred Years’ War from 1338 to 1345, and a rebellion against Prince Charles V in 1539. Economic downturn plagued the city until the 18th century when its first university was founded. Today, Ghent is an urban locale known for its moated castle, imposing cathedrals, belfry and the Insta-famous old town viewpoint from Saint Michael’s Bridge. 

Saint Michael's Bridge from Graslei
Saint Michael’s Bridge, Saint Michael’s Church to the right © Laura Barry

11 of the best things to do in Ghent, Belgium 

Shop the fashion scene 

The rhythm of the East District’s manicured streets taps an almost Parisian beat. This swish neighbourhood is home to high-end boutiques and too-cool cafes serving everything from bagels and pastries to avocado on toast – not a waffle nor frites to be seen. Follow the trail of pretty streets along Henegouwenstraat, Bennesteeg, Mageleinstraat and Voldersstraat for a range of things to do in Ghent, from curated vintage shopping to sampling the wares at sweet shops and delicatessens. 

Visit Ghent’s gothic cathedrals 

One does not require a steadfast belief in a higher power to be humbled by Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. The vaulted ceilings soar to inconceivable heights inside the 1000-year-old sanctuary, beneath which stands a baroque altar, rococo pulpit and the world-renowned Ghent Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a large-scale 15th-century polyptych by the Flemish Van Eyck brothers. Just a few short strides up the street is the Tournai bluestone Saint Nicholas’ Church, a Scheldt Gothic haven for merchants and artisans dating back to the 13th century with an equally awe-inspiring interior. 

While the former Benedictine abbey of St. Peter, Sint-Pietersabdij, is now a museum and exhibition centre and Sint-Jacobskerk (St. James’ Church) showcases 12th-century Romanesque towers and a Gothic central spire, Saint Michael’s Church and it’s beautiful bridge should be your third stop on a cathedral tour. Arguably more beautiful outside than in – despite its dramatic interior – Saint Michael’s Church boasts an enviable canal position and is home to one of the best things to do in Ghent: walking the eponymous bridge. 

St. Nicholas Church Ghent
View of St. Nicholas’ Church from Belfort Van Gent © Laura Barry

See the view from Saint Michael’s Bridge 

A seemingly innocuous bridge built in 1909 to span the Leie River, Saint-Michielsbrug (Saint Michael’s Bridge) offers a vista of incomparable charm. Likened to both Hogwarts and other fantasy realms, the eastern view takes in Ghent’s three towers: St Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry of Ghent and St. Bavo’s Cathedral; The 1898 Post Hotel in the foreground and Saint Michael’s Church to the southwest flank. A lantern featuring none other than the archangel himself stands at the apex, a dragon – the mascot of Ghent – at his feet.  

Complete Ghent’s museum circuit 

Given its status as an educational fulcrum, Ghent, Belgium boasts a collection of art, design and history museums. Huis van Alijn (Museum of Everyday Life) is a somewhat amusing collection of paraphernalia from the 20th century. Expect anything from a nostalgic ‘90s display and retro advertisements to a Chinese tea ceremony. Alternatively, brush up on the local history at STAM Ghent City Museum

Creative folk should drop into Design Museum Gent – the best of its kind in the country – or SMAK (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst) Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art where you’ll find a multi-disciplinary showcase of work by international and Belgian artists. Fine art aficionados can while away an afternoon at Museum voor Schone Kunsten Gent (Museum of Fine Arts) where exhibitions run the gamut from medieval masterpieces to mid-century marvels. Looking for things to do in Ghent that are a little more… rebellious? Check out the street art on Graffiti Street, Werregarenstraat. 

The view from Saint Michael’s Bridge © Adobe Stock

Listen to the audio guide at Gravensteen

An audio guide is rarely so good that it warrants a specific mention, however, Gravensteen’s guide – voiced by Flemish comedian Wouter Depre – narrates the turbulent social and political history of this 12th-century Ghentian icon with irreverent hilarity. Otherwise known as the Castle of the Counts, Gravensteen is a moated castle in the centre of Ghent with a gatehouse, ramparts, keep, count’s residence and stables. Known for its unique assemblage of torture devices and largely intact defence system, one would expect the audio guide to be sombre. Yet, Depre assumes the role of a court knight and pokes fun at the counts, their clothes, the questionable bedtime antics of the aristocracy and cracks some scandalous jokes.

The castle itself is well-preserved (in parts) and beautiful inside, often decorated to reflect the season. Touring the castle is one of the best things to do in Ghent at Christmas, as the halls, rooms and courtyard are decked out with pine trees, fairy lights and glittering ornaments. There’s even a festive pop-up bar in the stables for an evening tipple. 

Gravensteen castle in Ghent
Gravensteen © Adobe Stock

Wander the streets of Ghent 

Having survived centuries of political, economic and social challenges, the capital of Flemish Belgium boasts an eclectic collection of architectural styles. From medieval and gothic heritage sites to art nouveau facades, Flemish revival structures and European interwar design, Ghent, Belgium is a veritable treasure trove of inspiration. Swing by Ghent City Hall to see a curious combination of Renaissance and Gothic styles accompanied by Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, plus pilasters inspired by Italian palazzo. 

Stop by Geeraard the Devil Castle 

Visit Geeraard de Duivelsteen, a tower house built in the 1200s that has functioned as an armory, monastery and episcopal seminary, an asylum, an orphanage and a prison, only to become the base of the state archives in the Industrial Age. Although rarely open to the public, it’s an impressive structure that can be viewed from the corner of Lieven Bauwensplein and Reep. 

The canals in Ghent © Laura Barry

Climb Belfort Van Gent 

Belfort Van Gent is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a Cloth Hall, jailor’s house and carillon built into its 350-stair tower. While the climb to the top of the 14th-century Belfort is considered one of the essential things to do in Ghent, the staircase is claustrophobic and steep, there’s an elevator to go up but guests are expected to make the climb back down. The view? Worth it. 

Explore the neighbourhoods of Ghent 

Guidebooks typically advise visitors an overnight stay in Ghent, but allow a little extra time if you plan to conduct a thorough exploration of the city’s varied neighbourhoods. Citadel Park is a pocket of green perfect for picnics, bike rides and respite from the summer sun. Graslei and Korenlei run alongside the canal where locals and visitors dangle their feet in the quay or sip coffee at a waterfront cafe. Cobbled alleyways and fine dining abound in Patershol, the culinary heart of Ghent, while Kraanlei offers a harbourfront locale with fewer crowds than Graslei. On Fridays and Saturdays, a market fills Vrijdagmarkt, and Korenmarkt is the place to be for shopping and dining. 

A canal lined with Flemish buildings
Graslei © Laura Barry

Take a canal tour 

Like any city port city with picturesque waterways, Ghent has an abundance of boat tours that traverse the canals. The sailings might present as a typical tourist trap at first glance, but pick the right one and you’ll be rewarded with a cheeky local guide who shares delicious tidbits of Ghentian history while pointing out sites of note. I walked away with the knowledge that on 16 November 1949, 138 students from the University of Ghent protested the rising price of beer – which they considered a basic right – by holing up in Gravensteen for a day. While their plight was unsuccessful, the event came to be known (a little facetiously) as the Battle of Gravensteen Castle. It’s undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Ghent. 

See the Christmas market 

December in Belgium may be cold, rainy and dark, but the Christmas market will lift the spirits of even the Grinchiest Ebenezer Scrooge. The 150-stall-strong village spills from Sint-Baaftsplein onto Botermarkt and Klein Turkije before stretching to the end of Korenmarkt. Rides, rollerskating and a Ferris Wheel are the centrepieces, surrounded by stalls selling snacks, mulled wine, hot chocolate, gifts, ornaments and sweets. 

How to get to Ghent, Belgium 

Set at the halfway point between Brussels and Bruges, Ghent is accessible by train, boat, car and bike. The easiest method of arrival is a train from Brussels which takes just 36 minutes, with up to 80 departures per day. 

Read more: 
48 hours in Bruges, Belgium’s secret fairytale village
28 of the best Christmas markets in Europe
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