Here’s a fun fact for you: Did you know that Ghent was once the second wealthiest city in Europe, after Paris?  Nope, me neither.

Despite being one of the largest cities in Belgium and less than an hour from the capital of Brussels, Ghent is largely unknown amongst travelers.  Maybe this quietness is part of its appeal.  Visiting Ghent feels a little like stepping in to your own private fairytale, and one which isn’t exactly lacking in magical atmosphere; with its ancient cobbled streets, medieval skyline and shimmering canals this is one city I could quite happily lose myself in for days.

What I love about Ghent is that even if you’ve not got days to spare, it’s a beautiful place to visit for a whistlestop tour.  Less than an hour from Brussels and only 30 minutes to Bruges by train, it’s an easy commuting difference if you fancy making a Belgian hat trick out of your trip.  And yet, despite its proximity to the city, Ghent couldn’t feel any further away from the urban sprawl of Brussels.  As both a university and port town, there’s a steady swirl of scholarly types and admiring travelers gracing the streets, and it’s safe to say that it attracts a fairly bohemian crowd.  There’s also a smile-inducing bike to waffle shop ratio.

Fitting a city into a day always seems like an ambitious plan but with a little clever planning it can be done.  Here’s how to make the most out this fairytale town:

Take a canal cruise

There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about exploring a city by boat.  It’s also a handy way to get your bearings and to take note on the beautiful buildings and places you’d like to come back and explore.  So much of Ghent’s culture is based around the canals, from the stunning old townhouses which overlook the water to the students studying along the promenade, catching the last of the summer light.  During the weekend, there’s even a hop-on, hop-off canal cruise, which takes you on a circuit of the city’s main sights!  More on that here.

Climb the Belfry Tower

The Belfry is a much-loved sight in Ghent, partly because it’s pretty spectacular-lookin’, and partly because it symbolizes the city’s independence.  At 91 metres tall, it also offers some of the best views of the city.  If you don’t fancy a climb, you can also take a lift to the top; or if heights just aren’t your thing there’s an informative movie on bell-making which can be enjoyed from ground level.

Indulge your sweet tooth

What’s not to love about a city that’s home to both chocolate and waffles? Sling ’em together and you’re on to a winner.

Wander the colourful streets of Patershol

Patershol is one of those neighbours, like Leith in Edinburgh, which was once known as being a bit rough around the edges, but has since scrubbed up its game and channeled its energy into a hipster-pleasin’ thoroughfare.  The streets are undeniably edgy but that’s part of its appeal.  Expect street art, independent boutiques and quirky little restaurants without the tourist patter in this part of town.

Cross St Michael’s Bridge

With an outlook that takes in the Graslei and Korenlei, the Castle of the Counts, St Michael’s Church and all three of Ghent’s famous towers in a row, views of the city won’t come much better than they do from St Michael’s Bridge.  This is the ultimate spot to take in Ghent at its magical best.

Sample the local beverages

Because a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without trying the national drink of choice!  Belgium is famous for its beer production which is both delicious and quite like anywhere else in the world.  Ghent is home to numerous breweries, and if you fancy visiting one first hand, you won’t go wrong with a trip to the Gruut Brewery, run entirely by women!

Visit St Bavos Cathedral

Home to the famous ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ alterpiece, St Bavos Cathedral is spectacular, both inside and out.  Whether religious sights float your boat or not, it’s hard not to be blown away by the sheer scale and detail of the building.

Dine at the Holy Food Market

Housed in a former 16th Century chapel, the Holy Food Market is one of the most beautiful – and affordable – places to pick up a bite to eat while in town.  With 20 or so food stands, you won’t be short on choice for things to eat, and it’s hard to imagine a more inviting interior.  Just look at those chandeliers!

Tuck into some Cuberdon

What the heck is a cuberdon?! I hear you ask.  A cuberdon, my friend, is a cone-shaped candy.  In dutch, it translates as a “neus”, or nose.  It’s kinda easy to see why when you see one up close.  Anyway, they’re a bit of a big deal in Ghent.  If you head to Groentemarkt, you’ll find two stalls known for their long-standing feud over who makes the best cuberdon.  Want my advice?  Keep it simple; sample both!

Explore the Gravensteen Castle

No fairy tale would be complete without its castle!  Thankfully Ghent has its own one, right in the city centre.  The medieval Gravensteen castle dates back to 1180 and was the residence of the Counts of Flanders until 1353.  It then found its uses as a prison.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d mind a little stint behind these fortress walls!

Gaze in wonder at the City Pavillion

The multifunctional and open city pavilion is an architectural masterpiece designed by the architects Robbrecht & Daem / Marie-José Van Hee. The roof structure and the use of glass, wood and concrete are pretty striking, particularly against the medieval backdrop which characterizes the rest of the city.  The Pavillion hosts numerous concerts, dance performances and markets throughout the year and has a gorgeous grand cafe hidden below.

Step back in time at the Vrijdagmarkt

The Vrijdagmarkt, aptly named because of its weekly Friday markets, is one of the oldiest and prettiest squares in Ghent.  Little has changed here since the early days of cloth and meat traders gathered to sell their wares in the 11th century.  With its open air cafes and stalls and story-book setting, it’s hard to imagine a more gorgeous spot to whittle away an hour people-watching with a truly decadent Belgian hot chocolate.

Watch the city twinkle at night

Whether its the strategically placed lights illuminating the buildings or the way the moonlight bounces across the ancient cobbled roads, there’s something undeniably special about Ghent at night.  Whether it’s a stroll home after a heavy dinner or whether you just fancy a bit of cool evening air, don’t miss out on a nighttime stroll through this pretty city. Even in the darkest of winter nights, the views will bring a glow to your face.

And so they lived happily ever after…because they went to Ghent.  Do you fancy discovering the magic of Belgium?  Check out my other feature on Bruges below:

A weekend in Bruges

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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