Ghent and Bruges, the charming ‘darlings‘ of Belgium, have long been pitted against one another — not only by tourists but even by locals themselves! I still fondly remember how a mini debate ensued when I first asked my Belgian friends’ thoughts on the most beautiful town/city in Belgium. As soon as the question rolled out off my lips, there was instantly a divide: the Ghent team and the Bruges team. (Of course there were biased people in the bunch since they lived in or close to either of the two.)
At the end of the day though, there wasn’t a ‘winner’ in the argument so I simply decided that I will check these two places for myself! Having lived here in Belgium for almost more than a year now, I’ve surely visited both for several times already. So, the final verdict?
Well, trust me when I say this: BOTH were soooo lovely may it be day time or night time and it’s all because of their equally spell-binding structures and canals — naturally, I can’t just pick one! Of course they’re not entirely the same, but both Ghent and Bruges have their individual strengths and weaknesses that in the end, they just balanced out.
For instance, Bruges wins in the ‘cuteness‘ department for being such a small yet enchanting historical and medieval city (some would even say that it’s like a ‘city museum’ in itself); however, due to its long-standing popularity as one of Europe’s stunning little cities, it typically results to a very touristy atmosphere. On the other hand, Ghent has a bigger area, resulting to a more dynamic city with lesser tourists (it’s even contested as an underrated picturesque destination in the country); however, some would say that it loses a bit on the romantic side of things as compared to Bruges, especially with the more urban atmosphere that surrounds Ghent.
Given these points, I bet you can imagine by now that if you combine the two, they would surely become an unbeatable pair! So I say: arrange a trip for the both of them if you have the time. But if you don’t, then with your knowledge now of the pros and cons of each, as per your traveling style, you can determine the best destination for yourself.
To read and know more about Bruges as well as the things that you can do, come and check out my post here:
Meanwhile, to know more about the city of Ghent, do continue reading through this article especially since what I am sharing with you today is my own self-guided walking route/tour! This would absolutely make your traveling ordeal a lot more hassle-free. I really hope it helps!
[box_title class=”” subtitle=”” subtitle_font_size=”15″ font_size=”23″ border_color=”#ed2665″ animation_delay=”0″ font_alignment=”center” border=”around” animate=”” ]Exploring Ghent: A Self-Guided Walking Route[/box_title]
QUICK FACTS ABOUT GHENT:
- It is Gent in Dutch and Gand in French. (It helps to know since Belgium predominantly speaks [Flemish] Dutch and French).
- It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province with a population that is around 248,000+ as of January 2013.
- One of the well-known festivities would be Ghent Festival / Festivities or ‘Gentse Feesten’ which is held every year for 10 days by mid-July and attended by millions of visitors!
- Ghent residents are called as rope or ‘noose bearers’ (Stroppendragers) since in the past, after revolting in 1539 against the regime of Charles V (who was the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain in 1539) and failing in doing so, Charles made the nobles of Ghent to parade around town barefoot and with a noose rope around their neck. (You’ll see a statue somewhere in Prinsenhof commemorating this time in the past, and you will also notice that some signs feature this ‘element’).
Now, even though it’s big city, you can actually explore the town by foot in just a day! For your ease, I have included a map below showing the address and routes of the top hotspots in Ghent, followed by a listed section that briefly explains each of these places.
#1 – Patershol
Photo by VisitGent / CC
An old and medieval quarter in Ghent, Patershol is your go-to place if you truly want to find the ‘gastronomic’ or ‘foodie’ center of the city. Lined with an array of small cafes and restaurants, there is definitely something for everyone here. Besides, this area holds a charm given its closed street pattern — truth be told, this is said to be one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city!
TRIVIA: This side of the river is called as the ‘Domain of the Counts’ as it was originally the property of the count (meaning that it was not owned by the city).
#2 – Kraanlei
(L) Photo by Donar Reiskoffer / CC and (R) Photo by VisitGent / CC
Follow the route indicated in the map above and you will arrive at the street of Kraanlei which is by the river. Right somewhere in the middle of this stretch, you will see two interesting houses. First will be Kraanlei 81 which is a baroque house richly-decorated with a flute player, the five senses, a flying deer, and many others. Next will be Kraanlei 79 which is just beside it. It’s called as the Six Works of Mercy adorned with 6 figures. However, historians are arguing that there was a seventh which depicts the burial of the dead and they claim that it could have been omitted as it was too grim.
NOTE: Today, this house is a shop that sells Ghent specialties. A must-try would be the cuberdons, that are sweet raspberry-flavored gum. It’s fondly called as ‘Gentse neus‘ or Ghent nose because, as it is, it looks like a human’s nose.
» Another surrounding sight to see: Ghent’s version of Manneken Pis which they claim to be older than the Manneken Pis in Brussels.
#3 – Gravensteen
Smacked right in the middle of the city stands the imposing Gravensteen or ‘Castle of the Counts’ that is referred to as one of the strongest moated fortresses in Western Europe. Originating from the Middle Ages, this was built by the past count Philip of Alsace and has since then became the seat of the Counts of Flanders. But somewhere along the way, it was abandoned which lead the castle to become a courthouse and a prison at certain points in time.
Today though, it is a museum that does not only showcase medieval armors but medieval torturing devices as well. I took the chance to do the tour here and it was interesting and… refreshing. (I say this because the first time that I visited this castle, I had just finished visiting the castles in France which were predominantly filled with stuff from royalty. Therefore it was quite a new experience when I finally landed into a castle that actually shows historical weapons, warfare, and the like).
» Fees: Basic price €10.00 / For +65 years €7.50 For those below 26 years €6.00 / For 19 years and below €0.00
#4 – De Oude Vismijn
Or ‘Old Fishmarket’ is located in the square of Sint-Veerleplein and it is one of the oldest markets in the city. In here, you will see the gatehouse built in Rococo-style. It was originally decorated with three statues of sea gods but after a fire in 1872, only the statue of Neptune (in the middle) was saved. The rest were replaced by statues of a man and a woman that respectively represents the River Scheldt and River Leie.
NOTE: It’s in this area where you will find Ghent’s Tourist Office.
#5 – Jan Breydelstraat
If you are into unique finds, make sure that you pass by this narrow yet picturesque street of Jan Breydelstraat. In here you will find several interesting shops and restaurants such as that of:
- The Fallen Angels: for those who want a touch of nostalgia, you will find here a lot of old and vintage stuff!
- Bloemenijs: come try out a unique flower ice cream.
- House of Elliot: one of the top restaurants in Ghent and a Michelin-accredited restaurant, it’s a must to try their lobsters! Just make sure you reserve in advance.
You will also find key spots like:
- Het Design Museum: this is a good place to visit if you’re into contemporary and interior design.
- Appelbrugparkje: one of the many hidden gems in Ghent, this is a park that has a really nice view of the river.
#6 – Graslei & Korenlei
The most-pictured area in Ghent is this area around and between the streets of Graslei and Korenlei. (If you’re following my map above, you’ll be standing at the Korenlei side with the Graslei street on the other side of the water).
A lot of the locals would proudly claim that this is the most beautiful spot in their city and I have to agree with them! It was truly and absolutely magical both during the day and the night. Back in the 11th century, these both formed the city’s first trading harbor. In this time though, amidst several medieval guild houses that have survived the years (such as the Grain Weighers, the Guildhall of the Free Boatmen, and more), it is mainly a ‘hangout place’ speckled by cafes and restaurants here and there so that visitors and locals alike can enjoy the amazing view while eating. (You will also find a lot of people who would just resort to sitting by the river, so feel free to do the same!)
#7 – Sint-Michielsbrug
(St. Michael’s Bridge) Walk down a bit further and go up the bridge! This is the best place to enjoy a panoramic 360 view of almost all the top attractions in Ghent. You will see the Graslei and Korenlei in front of you, the St. Michael’s Church behind you, the Castle of the Counts in the distance, and the main ‘three towers’ ahead: Saint Nicholas Church, Belfry Tower, and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. You should NOT miss taking a view and a shot from this vantage point!
#8 – Sint-Michielskerk
As I’ve mentioned above, just beside the St. Michael’s Bridge would be Saint Michael’s Church (that’s why the bridge was called as such). Clearly, as you have seen from the featured photo of this post as well as from the photo above, this Roman Catholic church is a wondrous sight! Supposedly, this was planned to be 134 meters high, but due to delays and cost concerns, the tower was never completed and it just stands now at 24 meters — which is absolutely fine. I personally think that it looks really good this way!
NOTE: You will find here the famous painting ‘Christ on the Cross’ by Anthony Van Dyck.
#9 – Het Pand
Photo by Demeester / CC
Walk a little bit further and you will see Het Pand, a former Dominican monastery and hospital which is now a cultural and congress center owned by Ghent University. As a recognized monument, this is worth checking out! Besides, the courtyard is quite a pretty sight.
#10 – Sint-Niklaaskerk
Photo by VisitGent / CC
By now, you are at the commercial heart of Ghent, but smacked right in the middle would be the old St. Nicholas’ church which is an exemplary example of the Scheldt Gothic architectural style. One of the highlights of this church would be its organ which is produced by the famous French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
#11 – Metselaarshuis
Photo by Tania Dey / CC
Called as Masons’ Guild Hall in English, this structure that’s just opposite of St. Nicholas’ church is the original 16th century Masons’ Guild Hall (“original” since there’s an exact copy of it on the Graslei). And like any other typical guild hall, you will see on the top of their stepped gable some distinguishing statues — this one has 6 dancers that look like they’re merrily frolicking around. (This was placed by Ghent sculptor and folk-singer Walter De Buck, the one who spearheads the Ghent Festival).
#12 – Stadshal
Photo by VisitGent / CC
After a string of old historical landmarks, this will be the first modern structure that you will see in the city! A large open canopy structure that demands attention in the middle of the Emile Braun square, Stadshal or ‘Town Hall’ was erected as part of the urban reconstruction goals for this public area. Underneath, there is an area that includes a brasserie, dressing rooms, public toilets, and a bicycle park.
Nearby you will see other landmarks like:
- Emile Braunplein: a small park that also has the…
- De Bron der Geknielden: (The Fountain of the Kneelers) a masterpiece composed of 6 naked young men who are seemingly staring into the reflection of the fountain’s water. Made by a Belgian artist, George Minne, this artpiece is said to signify Narcissus from the Greek mythology who did the same thing out of narcissism.
- Mammelokker: this was quite a sight! It depicts the legend of Cimon who was condemned to starve to death, but he was saved by his daughter who breastfed him every day. (The name means exactly as is! “Mamme” = breast. “Lokken” = suck.)
#13 – Het Belfort van Gent
Right poto by Johan Bakker / CC
The ‘Belfry of Ghent’ is about 91 meters high, making it the tallest belfry in the whole of Belgium. In the past, it used to be a bell tower, a watch tower, and the place where records of municipal privileges were kept. With its adjoining rectangular hall, it also used to be the cloth hall which handled the cloth trade in the city during the Middle Ages (at the entrance of the small annex connected to this hall, you will see Mammelokker which I’ve just discussed above).
NOTE: This is listed under the UNESCO World Heritage List.
#14 – Koninklijke Nederlandse Schouwburg (NTGent)
Photo by VisitGent / CC
The Royal Dutch Theatre is the city’s municipal auditorium where you can enjoy both of the classical and contemporary plays. Not only is it a spectacle from the inside, but from the outside as well as the god, Apollo, stands in the middle of the square upon a fountain! To learn more about the theatre’s schedule, see here.
#15 – Sint-Baafskathedraal Gent
Photo by VisitGent / CC
(St. Bavo’s Cathedral) This is the ‘seat’ of the diocese or bishop of Ghent. In 942, this used to be a small wooden church but later on expanded in Romanesque style by 1038 and onwards. Come 1559 when the Diocese of Ghent was founded, this church became its cathedral. Today, St. Bavo’s Cathedral holds a lot of treasures! From famous paintings (Saint Bavo enters the Convent at Ghent and The Calvary Triptych by Justus van Gent, View of Gent by Lucas de Heere, etc.) to key treasures (rococo pulpit, Baroque high altar, tombs of bishops, etc.), there are surely a lot of things to see here.
But of course, the one work that stands out from all of the rest is the world-famous 12-paneled Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb). As one of Belgium and the world’s greatest masterpieces (for being the first major oil painting depicting the A to Z of Christianity), it is said to be the most stolen artwork of all time! Why so? Well, it was robbed by Napoleon, nearly burned by Calvinists, hunted in WWI, and repeatedly stolen in WWII (Hitler and Nazis really wanted to own it). In fact, up till now, a part of it is still missing which is ‘The Just Judges’ panel.
TRIVIA: If you watched the movie, The Monuments Men, this is one of the paintings that they were trying to recover.
When I first visited Ghent in 2013, I saw this painting up close in Museum voor Schone Kunsten* (Gent Museum of Fine Arts) as they were doing a routine fix for it. It’s still there since they are doing a 7-year restoration, so you can definitely visit this museum to get a look of it up close and LIVE as they do their work. So what then is in St. Bavo’s Cathedral? Two thirds of the original work and the missing panels that are being restored are replaced by black and white replicas.
*The location of the museum is a bit far outside the city center so I didn’t include it in the map above.
#16 – Geeraard de Duivelsteen
Photo by Lech Linkel / CC
This is the ‘Castle of Gerald the Devil’ named after the Knight, Geeraard Vilain. He was no devil but he was nicknamed that way and this edifice played a vital role in defending the Portus Ganda, a trading post which was the foundation of the creation of Ghent in the past. Over time, it has been a knight’s residence, an arsenal, a monastery, a school, a bishop’s seminary, a madhouse and a prison.
#17 – Stadhuis
This is the official Town or City Hall of Ghent (not to be confused with #12) and you would immediately be struck by awe with its two ‘faces’: the flamboyant Gothic style on the right (by Hoogpoort street) and the dark Renaissance style on the left (by Botermarkt street).
You can also see a lot of architectural styles in this building: the Arsenal Hall’s wooden vaulting, the Pacification Hall with its labyrinth, the Wedding Chapel with its stained glass windows and so much more!
NOTE: Nearby, you will see Sint Jorishof which is the oldest hotel in Western Europe where Maria of Burgundy stayed in 1477.
#18 – Werregarenstraat or Graffitistraatje
Launched as a graffiti project during the 1995 Ghent Festival, this has since remained as a ‘tolerant zone’ for all types of graffiti and where all street art are to be placed. Artists are even given the freedom to change the artworks as they please; therefore, you could expect that the view here will change from time to time. This was a fun place to visit so keep your camera on hand!
#19 – Sint-Jacobskerk
Photo by Paul Hermans / CC
(St. James’ Church) Dating back to the Romanesque period, this church has gone through a lot of renovation, destruction, and expansion. Meanwhile, the surrounding square called as Bij Sint-Jacobs and the Trefpunt café is the epicenter of the Ghent Festivities every year.
#20 – Vrijdagmarkt
(Friday Market) This is another one of the oldest squares in the city and it played a big role in history as it used to be where all political and social life in Ghent took place — though it’s also where public executions were done. Surrounding this area are restaurants as well as key landmarks that you could check out:
- Toreken: a 15th century tower where trade regulations were used to be announced from
- Ons Huis: (Our House) a monumental home of socialist trade unions
- Jacob van Artevelde statue: a key figure and the ‘Wise Man of Ghent’ whose support of the English King kept the city (as well as Flanders) to remain neutral and unharmed during the Hundred Years War. He was murdered years later by rivals and Ghent is still called today sometimes as the ‘City of Artvelde’
- Tavern Dulle Griet: this is not a historical spot per se, but I highlighted this since it’s a legendary café to go to for Belgian beers! They have over 260 types, and customers can swap one of their shoes for a Max beer (served in a boot-shaped glass). But don’t worry, you can get your shoe back afterwards.
#21 – Dulle Griet
Bottom photo by Wernervc / CC
By the River Leie, you will chance upon this quaint-looking spot where you can not only unwind but also glance upon the Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) which is a medieval supergun bombard constructed in the first half of the 15th century. This was employed by the city in the siege of Oudenaarde (a nearby municipality).
#22 – Groentenmarkt
Bottom photo by Paul Hermans / CC
Yet another Ghent square but this time around, it holds establishments where you can primarily buy fresh products and Flemish specialties like Ganda ham, sweet cuberdons, or the Tierentyn mustard. Make sure that you visit the medieval Great Butcher’s Hall which has an impressive open wooden roof and great selections of Flanders cuisine.
[box_title class=”” subtitle=”” subtitle_font_size=”15″ font_size=”23″ border_color=”#ed2665″ animation_delay=”0″ font_alignment=”center” border=”around” animate=”” ]Helpful Tips[/box_title]
» How to Get to Ghent?
By Car. Belgium has an impressive motorway so it’s very easy to reach Ghent by car. Just take either the two main highways E40 or E17 and you’ll see ample signs that will lead you to the city. (These two highways intersect to Ghent).
By Train. Likewise, Belgium has a good train system and from the capital, Brussels, heading to Ghent will only take you 30 minutes. Depending on your location, you can pick either Gent-Dampoort or Gent-Sint-Pieters for your arrival station. Gent-Sint-Pieters is the main station and all trains pass through this, whereas Gent-Dampoort mainly serves towards/from Antwerp and closest to the city center.
TIP: Pick the “IC” marked trains since they travel faster as compared to “IR”. The “L” trains are the slowest since they travel ‘locally’, meaning that it stops at more stations.
By Bus. Eurolines and Megabus both go to/from Ghent.
By Plane. The closest airport would be Brussels Airport (Zaventem Airport).
» If you want a more detailed transportation planner, try using Rome2Rio! I am in love with this platform since it gives you all the possible routes.
» Where to Stay in Ghent?
Having landed in such a medieval city like Ghent, you should absolutely grab the chance of making the most of your experience by staying in an equally-historic accommodation! With Historic Hotels Ghent’s collection of 3 privately-owned establishments — the Ghent River Hotel (4 stars), the Hotel de Flandre (4 stars) and the Hotel Gravensteen (3 stars) — you are sure to have a meaningful and comfortable stay! Guaranteed.
Besides, with their range, you can pick the hotel that best suits your needs whether it be by price or by location (but then again all 3 have a prime location within the city center). To know more about these hotels, come visit their website, or stay tuned for my upcoming review!
» If you happen to have a tighter budget, you can always check by Booking.com for the best deals on other hotels, inns, and hostels in Ghent!
• • •
You can clearly see that Ghent is full of wonders that you must explore! Add the fact that it’s a car-free city, you’ll never have to worry about traffic and you can even take your sweet time in enjoying the charming streets fully.
All in all, I hope you’ll enjoy your trip fully with the help of my guide. Do tell me how it goes!