The residents of Ghent will be the first to tell you that their city is an undiscovered jewel. Known for its medieval architecture, Ghent is approximately 40 minutes by train from Brussels (catch the same train as you would to go to Bruges) and yet, still remains relatively untouched by tourism unlike its larger Flemish city counterpart, Bruges. The Leie river cuts through the centre of town making it largely a pedestrian zone. Use this to your advantage as you’re best to explore this charming city by foot. Admire the canalside architecture, enjoy its wealth of vegetarian eateries and take in the burgeoning art scene. While the weather wasn’t always in our favour, we resolutely joined the throng of visitors and locals to discover the city. If you thought that there is only chocolate and fries in Belgium, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
Travel Guide: Ghent day trip from Brussels
WHAT TO SEE
Medieval architecture fans and church enthusiasts rejoice as Ghent offers several historic monuments that are open to the public (most for a small fee).
You can start your sightseeing at St Bavo’s Cathedral, an example of 10th century Romanesque architecture that also houses the famous painting “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. You can see this painting for a small fee (audio guide included). Across the forecourt is the UNESCO listed Belfry of Ghent. The bell and watch tower has stood in the square since the 14th century (entrance fees apply). Behind the belfry, continue to St Nicholas’ Church renowned for its rich interiors, before arriving at the historic town square Korenmarkt. Here, you can grab a bite to eat at one of the outdoor restaurants or continue towards St Michael’s Bridge, a popular photo spot offering views of Graslei and Korenlei. St Michael’s Church (Closed Sun), containing numerous paintings and sculptures is located at the end of St Michael’s Bridge.
Walk down either Graslei or Korenlai to appreciate the medieval port, arguably the most beautiful part of the city. Many of the tourist boats begin and end their canal tours from here. Head north towards Gravensteen, the imposing 10th century castle with moat and views. Your admission fee comes with a movie guide. Get lost among the medieval alleys in Patershol, then head towards the statue of Jacob van Artevelde at Vrijdagmarkt. Finish your city walk at Saint Jacob’s Church, which combines Romanesque and Gothic architectural features (limited visiting hours Fri-Sat).
WHERE TO EAT
OR Espresso Bar
The owners of OR Coffee turned their passion into a business. Today, they source the beans from origin, roast the beans and prepare the coffee. Now operating four coffee shops (two in Ghent and two in Brussels), we visited the shop on Walpoortstraat (thankfully open on a Sunday!). Large open windows let light and air into the brightly lit shop where you are greeted with an extensive coffee and tea menu.
A picturesque neighbourhood north of the city centre, the cobblestone lanes are lined with restaurants, art galleries and specialist shops. Wander in this direction to get away from the tourist crowds.
Chocolaterie Cédric Van Hoorebeke
The window display caught my eye first and then a sugary goodness wafted out the door. The artisanal skills in chocolate making have been passed down from father to son and remains a true family business. This shop is owned by son Cédric, with father Luc’s shop situated in the shadow of The Belfry of Ghent. You can see just how much passion goes into creating the scrumptious pralines, from the intimate details on the chocolate square pieces to the elegant packaging.
Frituur Het Puntzakje
A small ‘frituur’ on the corner of Saint Veerleplein, buy a portion of frites in small, medium or large sizes with a generous dollop of ketchup and/or mayonnaise. Take your snack and sit along Vleeshuistragel and wave to the little boats cruising by.
** Unfortunately, our day adventure to Ghent didn’t involve a sit down lunch or dinner but other culinary recommendations (that we wish to visit next time!) from locals that we encountered include:
WHERE TO SHOP
A women’s clothing and accessories store offering several Scandinavian brands, it was refreshing to find a boutique with a unique selection of quality labels in the mid-range price point. A mix of daywear and occasion pieces in stock, there is also an online store (in English!).
I wanted to buy various items from Koperhuis after visiting this lifestyle and interior design store. Modern minimalism through furniture, lighting and accessories, I practically had to be dragged from the store so I wouldn’t buy another black bag and marble homewares.
Translating loosely to “The Ear Cushion” in English, this small boutique sits on the edge of Vrijdagmarkt. The shop stocks wares created by the best Belgian designers including Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Maison Margiela.
Elle et Gand
A small tasteful boutique stocking women’s clothing and accessories from Scandinavian brands and young Belgian designers, re-stock your everyday wardrobe with high quality comfortable separates.
WHAT TO KNOW
Point me in the right direction
You can walk from the train station (Gent-Sint-Pieters) to the centre of town in approximately 30 minutes. Alternatively, catch tram 1 or 2 from outside the train station to the centre of town; the ride takes around 20 minutes. You can buy public transport tickets at the ‘Lijnwinkels’ at the train station or at the bus stops for €3.00 one-way.
Get out of my way!
Graslei, Korenmarkt & Hoogpoort are the most populous streets housing the majority of food and drink establishments and are often crowded with tourists. Walk a little further up to Patershol where Oudburg and the surrounding streets are far less crowded. Here, you will have lots of restaurants to choose from.
Many retail shops and culinary establishments are closed on Sundays. Be sure to double check opening hours before you arrive, particularly during the summer as many business owners also go away for their summer vacation!
I can’t be in two places at once!
We visited Ghent from Brussels for the day (€10.20 adult return on weekends). If you are planning to be in Ghent for longer than 24 hours, consider purchasing the CityCard Gent for 48 or 72 hours. This all-in access card provides individual visitors with entrance into the main historical buildings, museum and top attractions in the city. More information at this helpful website.