My beloved Belgium is definitely an underrated country. And I don’t say that because I was born and raised there. It truly is an amazing place—a place that is filled with beautiful architecture, that is crisscrossed by bicycle paths and that serves some of the world’s greatest food. And lest I not forget the beers!
The majority of people who visit Belgium will only include Brussels, where they would most likely arrive by train or plane, and Bruges, which is the crown jewel of all Belgian cities. However, there is much more to this small Western country than just those two old cities.
It is chock-full with old villages, medieval towns, and spectacular cities. One such city, one that is much too often overlooked by tourists, is Ghent—Gent in Dutch and Gand in French—which is easily reached from Brussels.
The Medieval Beauty of Ghent, Belgium
The capital of the province of East Flanders, Ghent straddles the banks of both the Scheldt and Leie Rivers and is strategically located on the confluence of those rivers. In the Middle Ages, the city grew to become one of Europe’s wealthiest and largest cities. Some accounts even say that it once was the second-largest city north of the Alps, second only after mighty Paris.
It is this history of prosperity and power that makes visiting Ghent, Belgium, an absolutely worthwhile part your travel itinerary. Many of its medieval architecture has been beautifully and successfully preserved, including several striking guild houses and a couple of imposing churches. Actually, the entire city center, which, incidentally, is completely car-free, has kept its undeniable medieval outlook.
This is a city of cobblestone streets, old waterfronts, many old market squares and architecture that is among the greatest in Europe—that really isn’t an overstatement.
Ghent is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, a city whose population is a vibrant mix of students, expats, artist and people who’ve lived there for generations. In addition to its brilliant historic city center, Ghent is also an industrial and university city—a characteristic that keeps this ancient city lively, down-to-earth and “real.”
It’s nothing like bureaucratic Brussels, tourist-flooded Bruges or high-end Antwerp, for example. No, Ghent is a completely different and independent city altogether.
The website of the Ghent Tourism Board has all the information about visiting Ghent you could possibly want.
My Favorite Ghent Highlights
Recently renovated, the Korenmarkt (Corn Market in English) is one of the busiest places in Ghent. It is essentially one huge outdoor terrace, filled with bars, taverns, restaurants and stores. This old market square lies right behind the Graslei (see below) and is home to a few gorgeous buildings.
Ghent’s trams stop at this square, making it almost too easy to get there. Because there’s a certain beauty in getting lost in an old medieval city like this, walking around is strongly recommended, though.
St. Bavo’s Cathedral
Not many people know this, but Ghent was where Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Spanish Empire, was born in 1500. The empire of Charles V was one of the largest the world has ever seen, so expansive that it was described as “the empire where the sun never sets.” There was some truth to this statement, as it also included the newly discovered Americas. St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent is where young Charles was baptized.
Nowadays, this is one of the absolute star attractions in Ghent. Boasting a striking Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque exterior, this enormous cathedral is filled on the inside with many valuable sculptures and paintings. A particular highlight, arguably the greatest painting in Belgium, is the magnificent “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan van Eyck, an altarpiece consisting of no fewer than 24 panels.
The Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts in English) dates from the late 1100s. After being used as the seat of the Counts of Flanders for many decades before it became a prison and a courthouse. Eventually, it fell into disrepair and was even due to be demolished in the late 1800s.
The city of Ghent saved the castle and began renovating it in the late 19th century—its fortified walls were repaired, its dungeons reopened and its inner chambers restored. Nowadays, the Gravensteen housed a fascinating medieval museum, including a section exhibiting various torture devices. The central building can be climbed and offers fine views of the rooftops and towers of the Ghent city center.
Further reading: Urban Belgium in 50 Photos
Belfry and Cloth Hall
The 91-meter belfry symbolized the power, influence and wealth of Ghent in medieval times—belfries were built all over Belgium in those times. The very symbol of the city’s independence, the belfry held bells that rang whenever a major event happened, from danger to celebrations.
The belfry of Ghent is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that comprises all belfries in Belgium and France. It is still a significant landmark in the city to this day. It is possible to reach the belfry’s upper gallery and see the bells and a panoramic view.
Groentenmarkt and Great Butchers’ Hall
The Groentenmarkt in Ghent (Vegetable Market in English) is where you can buy local products, from Ganda hams to Tierentyn mustard to sweet cuberdons, a typical Belgian candy. Appropriately named, this area is home to a fruit and vegetable market every Friday.
The Great Butchers’ Hall stands near the Groentenmarkt and dates from the 15th century. It was built around the time when the sale of meat became concentrated in one place, usually an indoor marketplace, where the quality of the meat could be monitored. This beautiful centuries-old building is where you can now enjoy typical East Flemish cuisine. Its open interior is filled with tables and chairs, above which you can see Ganda hams, Ghent’s specialty ham, hanging from the ceiling.
The Patershol (Literally Friar’s Hole in English) is the medieval heart of the city. One of the oldest structures in this area is the restored 1329 Friary of the Calced Carmelites, which is now a place where exhibitions are held. The Patershol is home to a maze of cobbled streets, countless brown cafés, and excellent restaurants. This is a delightful neighborhood to stroll around in and sample some delicious Flemish food and exquisite Belgian beers.
One of the oldest market squares in the city, the Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market in English) was the very center of political and social life in Ghent. This was where visiting people of importance were received, where celebrations took place and where criminals faced justice.
There is still a public market on the square every Friday morning, as well as Saturday afternoon. It is a popular meeting point for locals, lined with restaurants, bars, and cafés. Anyone who fancies a Belgian beer should visit Tavern Dulle Griet on the Vrijdagmarkt—this legendary bar serves no fewer than 250 different beers.
Further reading: 15 Essential Activities to Do in Belgium
Korenlei and Graslei
The Korenlei and Graslei (literally Corn Alley and Grass Alley in English) area is definitely the most photographed in all of Ghent. Both these streets lie on opposite sides of the Leie River and are flanked by the most beautiful of medieval architecture. This site was, in fact, Ghent’s very first harbor, a place that, with the city, became immensely wealthy.
Medieval guilds, essentially unions of craftsmen and tradesmen, showed off their wealth by building spectacularly ornate houses on both sides of the river. While the Korenlei boasts its share of fine architecture, it is the view of the Graslei that is most striking. This is where Ghent hangs out on summer days, sitting by the water or nursing a beer at one of the riverside cafés and restaurants.
St. Michael’s Bridge
The Sint-Michielsbrug is arguably the most picturesque place in the whole city. Crossing the Leie River right next to the Korenlei and Graslei, this bridge offers a view that essentially takes in all Ghent highlights, from the afore-mentioned streets to the old fish market, the Gravensteen in the far distance, as well as St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the belfry and St. Nicholas’ Church—those last three landmarks are known collectively as the “three-tower row.”
Just try not to take a picture when walking across this small bridge with a big view.
In addition to all these urban attractions, Ghent is also home to several large annual festivals. The ten-day Gentse Feesten is probably the most well-known festival, taking over the city for ten party-filled days with stages all over its medieval center. Other festivals are 10 Days Off, I Love Techno, the Festival of Flanders and the International Film Festival of Ghent.