Locals and tourists alike love Ghent. What’s not to love in the city after all, there is great art, great food and it is one of the countries best kept secrets. Ghent still feels fairly small compared to other cities in Europe and despite being a great place for a break, it is not overrun by tourists and sightseers.
Ghent is a perfect blend of industry and medieval architecture which will appease every travellers European city palette. Nightlife and food are also good with some truly great food being served at a range of restaurants that will suit all budgets. Beer is king in Belgium and Ghent is home to the famous Gruut beer.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Ghent!
1. Be Awestruck By Gravensteen
Quite probably the most breathtaking sight in Ghent, Gravensteen is a 12th Century castle built for the count of Flanders. The castle has been sensationally restored to all its former glory after operating for a short time as a cotton mill. The interior may somewhat lack furnishings but makes up for this with a guillotine and suits of armor. If you want to see what the castle was like all those years ago, there is a slightly silly costume drama set in many of the castles rooms and battlements. For the best photo of the castle from afar, try St Widostraat.
2. Adore the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is thought to be one of the world’s earliest oil paintings and dates back to the early 15th Century. Huge queues to see the work are common and like the Mona Lisa, the history of the painting is much more fascinating than the work itself. The history of the painting includes an Austrian Emperor “clothing” the nude Adam and Eve as well as a period of time where the work was stolen and hidden in a salt mine. The painting is open year round for viewings and is almost returned to its former glory although one stolen panel remains missing to this day.
3. See Fine Art at the MSK
The MSK art gallery is housed in what looks much like an Ancient Greek temple. The artwork will soon remind you that you are in fact still in Belgium however due to the great collection of works from Belgian and Low Counties artists. The works range from as early as the 14th century up until the 20th century and English language notes are available for each piece. The permanent collections are constantly backed up by a series of notable temporary exhibits.
4. Eat out in Patershol
A well hidden home of many great restaurants, Patershol is the former location of the leather tradesmen in Ghent. The winding cobbled lanes and houses haven’t much changed from this time and are a great way to experience what Ghent was like many years ago. All that exploring is bound to make you hungry and, luckily, Patershol is home to a number of good restaurants including t’ Klaverblad which serves French cuisine and is arguably the best place to eat in all of Ghent.
5. Marvel at the Sint-Pietersabdij Abbey
One of the biggest abbeys in all of Belgium, the St Pietersabdij was the centre of Ghent for a long time and the city began to grow outwards from the abbey. The orchards and gardens are free to explore and are a great place to be on a summer’s day. The abbey itself boats an impressive mural in what was once the monk’s refectory and a state-of-the-art video tour lasting an hour and a half. If you are rushed you can easily select just a few points from the tour before moving on.
6. See the St Baafskathedraal
This cathedral is the home of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb mentioned earlier but it also deserves a visits for its own merits. The building itself is an imposing structure made from an unusual blend of stone and brick with some stunning stained glass windows thrown into the mix. The mural in the crypts of the building are well worth seeing as is the original Rubens artwork on display. If you fancy a look at the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb but don’t fancy queuing, there is a print of the work on display in chapel 30.
7. Watch Some Home Movies at Huis van Alijn
This house was formerly a children’s hospice. It has since been restored and is a great museum detailing what life was like in the city between the end of the 18th century to the early 20th century. Within the museum, there are old shops to explore with accurate period interiors. There are also old wedding photos and family movies which prove to be surprisingly emotional. You will find that not all of the exhibits are in English but they are straightforward and don’t really require an explanation.
8. See a Dragon at the Belfort
Ghent may not be from a Game of Thrones novel but is still has its own dragon. The belfry dates back to the 14th century and has a dragon sat atop of the tower in weathervane form. If you want to make the climb to the top you will see two more dragons whilst on your way. There is also an exhibition of bell making but the real attraction for most people that visit the Belfort is the view from the top of the tower. Make sure to see Ghent’s cloth hall whilst you are here. The hall began construction in the mid 15th century but was not completed until 1903.
9. Grab a coffee from Mokabon
Ignore the bold, brand-new Starbucks and head into Mokabon, the cosy coffee house that is as they were and as they should be. The cafe is one of the best places to chill out in the city with good snacks and great coffee. The coffee on offer is classic Belgian fare with espresso topped with whipped cream. Ignore the Starbucks and treat yourself to a proper Belgian coffee.
10. Learn at the MIAT
The MIAT is the place to go if you want to learn about the history of industry in Ghent. The museum is set in a former mill-building (what better place to learn about industry in Belgium) and covers five floors. Whilst travelling through 250 years worth of industry, you will see and learn about plenty of machinery, which is even still operated on certain days of the week. It is deafeningly loud but luckily earplugs are provided! As an added bonus, there are great views of the city from the building’s top floor.
11. Learn some more at STAM
If you have room for more learning and knowledge then a visit to STAM is an absolute must. STAM explores Ghent’s history and pre-history by rewinding 70,000 years into the past. The museum is another old building that has found a new use, formerly it was a nunnery. Interactive exhibits show what Ghent has looked like throughout various periods of time and how the city has evolved. As if 70,000 years worth of history wasn’t enough, the museum even gives you the chance to look into the future of the city.
12. Shop at the Vrijdagmarkt
This square, which gets its name from the weekly market that still takes place every Friday, was once also the city’s spot for public executions and important city meetings. The cafes dotted around the square all provide great vantage points for admiring the statue of Ghent’s famous leader, Artevelde who was prominently anti-French. Nearby is a so-called super cannon, which due to its rather large 250kg balls, was one of the biggest siege cannons in all of the middle ages.
Even in Ghent, a city with many beautiful buildings, this building stands out. The Stadhuis, or city hall, took almost a century to build before it was finally completed in 1600. The architecture is flamboyant and Gothic the building is often referred to as the building with many faces. The rooms of the interior are varied in style but all are stunningly decorated and preserved. The hall is obviously a popular spot for weddings but tourist access is limited. Hour long tours begin at the tourist office and cost 5 euros per person.
14. Try some Ghent Cuisine
The food in Ghent, like in all of Belgium’s big cities, is diverse and tasty. There is truly something for everybody and food lovers will fell right at home. Some traditional Belgium treats to try are Gruut Beer, the brewery is based in Ghent and is a great introduction to Belgium beer, Stoverij, a hearty Belgian beef stew and Waterzooi, a sfish stew dating back to the middle ages. If you have a sweet tooth then Belgium is also a great place for chocolate and Ghent is arguably the best of the best. Be sure to try pralines before you leave the city.
15. Hop onto a water tram
For a truly different way of seeing the city, why not try the Ghent’s hop on hop off water tram. There are six stops to embark from or disembark to including the Castle of the Counts and St Peters Abbey. Not only does the tram get you from A to B but it is a unique way to see some of the city’s sights while you are at it. As an added bonus, if you buy the Ghent City Card, travel on the water tram is included and you can use it as much as you like for no further cost.