A first-timer’s guide on what to see and do when in Ghent, Belgium.
I was in Belgium for work and extended my trip to explore Bruges. After two days I was… bored. A recommendation led me to the city of Ghent, just a half hour train ride away from Bruges.
Ghent is a lot like Bruges, except with a lot less cute and a lot more grit. It’s a student city, so there’s a younger, hip vibe. In the late afternoons, you’ll see youths chilling by the canals and the waft of marijuana in the air is not uncommon.
This is what to see and do when you have two days in Ghent.
1. St Bavo’s Cathedral
The St Bavo’s Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in Ghent. It has an expansive interior that is worth a tour around.
The cathedral is also where you’ll find the famous Ghent Alterpiece: the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It’s considered Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s most important works and and a prominent artpiece in Belgium… Or you might better recognise it as the artwork the Allies were trying to recover from the Nazis in the movie The Monuments Men.
The cathedral is free to enter and roam, but you’ll have to pay to view the artwork. You get an audio guide with your ticket, and for non-art connoisseurs such as myself, it added some context to the experience.
2. See Ghent from above up the Belfry
Located just ahead of St Bavo’s Cathedral is the Belfry. At 91m, it is the tallest Belfry in the country. You can climb up OR you can take the elevator up. I took the convenient elevator up – no surprises there. The view of Ghent city from up there is incredible and worth a trip up.
3. City Pavilion
Amidst the medieval architecture of the city, the city pavilion, or Stadshal, sticks out like a sore thumb. The pavilion is a modern architectural masterpiece that houses seasonal market halls. I personally find it looks much more interesting at night, when light strategically filters the interior.
4. St Nicholas Church
Located close to the Belfry is the St Nicholas Church. It’s a smaller church than St Baavos Cathedral, and therefore a lot less impressive, but you’re going to walk past it anyway so might as well have a quick pop in. St Bavos has a strict no-photography policy within the cathedral but you’re seemingly free to snap photos of St Nicholas’ church interior.
5. St Michael’s Bridge
This bridge is here for being simply picturesque. Overlooking the bridge you get a great view of the canal lined with the iconic medieval buildings. If you look back the bridge, you get a fantastic view of St Baavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry, and St Nicholas Church to offer up yet another statement view of Ghent.
6. St Michael’s Church
The bridge was named after, surprise, St Michael’s Church. While I never explored the insides, I did think the Gothic exterior an impressive sight.
7. Graslei & Korenlei
Graslei and Korenlei are two opposite quays flanking the canal in the heart of Ghent. Picturesque medieval buildings line up the two streets. This is an iconic spot in Ghent, and with good reason. It’s extremely charming and photogenic. There are cafes and bars along Graslei & Korenlei for you to while an afternoon away people-watching. Or you can be like me and just hang out by the canal.
The Patershol is a whole neighbourhood with more medieval buildings. When I first read about Patershol, I was expecting a whole neighbourhood of cute ol’ houses. Not really. While there are some charming buildings, they stand alongside more modern, renovated counterparts. It made sense with the vibe of Ghent. It’s a residential area as well, so people will be milling about their daily activity. This neighbourhood has a lot of restaurants, cafes and boutique shops.
9. The Gravensteen
Ghent’s very own castle is the Gravensteen. Unlike most castles, this one is on level ground and not on a hill or fort. Today it’s a museum. If you walk further along behind the castle, you’ll come to a grassy area that’s not only picturesque but makes for a great resting area.
10. Great Butcher’s Hall
The Great Butcher’s Hall was an indoor market selling meat in medieval times. The most interesting part about this place are the rows of ham just hanging off the ceiling. Apparently this is suppose to be an appetising sight. I beg to differ.
11. Graffiti Street
Graffiti Street is an alleyway that’s dedicated to just graffiti. This alley is an open canvas, meaning anyone can put their mark here. When I visited there were a couple of youngsters with spray paints getting creative. This also means that the alley will look different the next time you visit, kind of cool.
This lane was also where I tragically dropped my camera and rendered it useless. I may be bitter to graffiti.
12. Explore Ghent at Night – Illuminated Walk
After exploring Bruges at night, I was excited to see Ghent after the sun sets. The city commissioned an atmospheric light plan throughout the city centre. Ghent looked even more magical at night so this was definitely one of the top highlights of the city. At midnight, the purposeful lights make way for practical but uglier street lights so don’t be too late.
13. Go on a Canal Cruise
Much like in Bruges, canal cruises are a popular way to spend a couple of hours as a tourist in Ghent. The cruises are said to be informative as you’re given a commentary of historic places around Ghent as you sail past. I joined a walking tour instead, so I didn’t take part in this.
14. Eat Cuberdons (I Guess)
Cuberdons are a candy product with a hard jelly outer and an oozing center. It’s shaped like a rounded pyramid and comes in many flavours, but the purple blackcurrant is the original. I tried this while in Bruges and honestly am not a fan, but it is a Ghent specialty.
15. Eat some Frites
Because Belgium! Although by the time I got to Ghent, I was admittedly getting sick of fries.
When I came across Frites Atelier in Groetenmarkt which marketed artisanal fries, I couldn’t resist. This is a fancy fast food place offering fries with a special twist. It also costs more than your average Belgian plate of fries. I ordered the Shakshuka special and while I thought the fries were very… normal, I did appreciate the fancier change of pace to the humble fries.
For your no-frills, authentic, good ol’ Belgian fries, I recommend Frituur x Tartaar. I was recommended this place and would wholeheartedly forward on this spot for your Belgian fries fix. Good freshly fried fries that they generously pile on your tray, the friendliest staff and lots of sauce options. I love their Spicy Mayo. Most importantly, this place was affordable.
WHERE TO STAY
I recommend staying within the city centre because all of Ghent’s sites are easily walkable. I stayed at The Ibis Gent Centrum St. Baafs Kathedral, which is a fantastic budget hotel option. For its price, the location is unbelievably good. It’s located right beside St Bavo’s Cathedral. I enjoyed nipping back in the afternoon to rest as I look out into the Cathedral courtyard. The windows are heavily sealed, in case you’re worried about cathedral bells disrupting your sleep.
Like other Ibis hotels, the rooms are small and facilities minimal, but extremely clean and with comfortable beds. There is a tram stop right at the door so you can get here easily. Since I had luggage, I took the cab from the train station which was a flat 8.50 Euros.