If you are keen to discover the historical, cultural and culinary highlights of Ghent, fill yourself up with Cuberdons, a cone-shaped sugary Belgian candy, hard on the outside – gooey on the inside and catch a boat trip on the canals to take in the view from the water that gives you the full experience of Ghent, then a trip to Belgium’s third-largest city should be on your travel wish list.
Once you arrive, begin your day in Kouter, a grand square, that has for centuries been the meeting place for both working people and the bourgeoisie of the city.
From here, you can head over to the historic Patershol neighbourhood which is full of beautiful old houses and tiny, winding streets, and most importantly, a great selection of delicious restaurants. Or, you can walk to the Graslei, a picturesque quay lining the banks of the Leie River, which runs through Ghent. It’s an ideal place for an aperitif, as it has numerous cafés.
If you do nothing else during your visit, sitting on a bench, drinking in the blue skies and basking in the sun would be more than enough to soak up the relaxing vibe.
Without further ado, here are just a few of our favourite things to do in Ghent.
Did you know?
Ghent used to be one of Europe’s most powerful cities. After Paris, it was the second-largest city north of the Alps in the middle ages. A strategic position on the meeting point of two rivers (the Scheldt and Leie) drew wealthy tradesmen and artists into the city, not to mention royalty.
First of all – Ghent or Bruges?
Planning a trip to Belgium and debating whether you should visit Bruges or Ghent? Or possibly you just want to know where you should allocate more time. I had the same dilemma when researching my trip. Luckily, over the years we were able to visit both Bruges and Ghent.
When discussing Bruges vs. Ghent, everyone seems to have a strong opinion. Many argue Ghent feels more authentic than touristy Bruges and Brussels. It is after all home to about 50,000 students attending the University of Ghent, giving the city a young/hipster vibe. I really enjoyed visiting both cities. you are either short on time or would like to explore one city to the fullest and not feel rushed, and therefore fitting both cities into your itinerary is not an option.
In short – Ghent is less touristy therefore it gives a more realistic look into a living, working Belgian city. Once you leave the centre of the “tourist zone” surrounding Saint Michael’s Bridge, you’ll notice an imperfect, slightly gritty city where people actually live, work and go on with their daily lives.
Visit Castle Gravensteen – The Castle of the Counts
One of the most impressive sights in Ghent and a perfect place to explore for a few hours whether you are a local or a visitor is a 12th Century castle built for the count of Flanders.
The Gravensteen you see today was built in 1180 by count Philip of Alsace and was modelled after castles he had seen while participating in the second large crusade launched from Europe. When you enter Gravensteen you embark on a journey that takes you through all the castle’s most important rooms including an impressive big hall, the Knight’s Hall, the pantry and the chapel.
While the interior may lack furnishing, it makes up for it with a guillotine, swords, torture instruments, knights, toilets with a “dump-hole” to the street and a room where a unique weapons collection from the Middle Ages is displayed.
Where: Sint-Veerleplein 11.
Price: 10 € for adults. Children under 19 years of age are free.
See one of its many churches
Stop by Saint Michael’s Church built in Gothic style. It deserves a visit for its rich interior design. Its construction began in 1440 but was not finished until the 19th century.
Visit St Nicholas Church in Limburgstraat and marvel at the prolific artwork on the cathedral walls and then the Rococo pulpit, built in Danish oak and marble by the Belgian sculptor Laurent Delvaux in 1745
The majestic St Bavo’s Cathedral is the oldest parish church in the city, with foundations dating back to the 10th century. The cathedral is home to one of the most popular attractions in Ghent – the world-famous Ghent Altarpiece, formally called “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”.
This is a large 15th-century multi-panelled painting by the Van Eyck brothers. Every day between 12 pm and 1 pm the painting is folded inwards so visitors can see the outside of the panels of the Van Eyck masterpiece.
Climb the Belfry Tower
Head to the top of Belfry to admire the views over the city and the impressive carillon. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the tallest belfry in Belgium at 91 meters high. Back in the day, it used to serve as a watchtower and storage place for the city’s most important documents.
The bells would have been rung in the case of danger – attack, fire or anything else the watchmen spotted from the viewpoint, but also on celebratory days.
For a bell-ringing experience that’s hard to beat, climb the 300ft (91m) Belfort just before midday to see the clock chiming in its full glory.
Opening hours: 10h – 18h Every day
Entrance fees: Adult €10, Groups (+15) €8, Children under 12 – free
See the city at night and try the Ghent Illuminated Walk
Take a walk through the city in the evening, when most of the important buildings are illuminated, and see Ghent twinkle. When the darkness falls, the city undergoes a transformation and the medieval and gothic buildings all lit up with lights make the town look like something right out of a fairytale.
Architectural gems, cobbled streets, impressive monuments and well-visited squares are lit up to display them at their best. If you decide to walk the walk – you will be exposed to 30 of the 55 beautifully lit buildings in the city centre. Remember to give yourself enough time as the functional lightning takes over from the atmospheric illumination at midnight.
The Ghent Light Plan / Ghent designed the elaborate Ghent Light Plan in 1998 in order to provide sustainable lighting for the city without wasting energy. As a side effect, Ghent is today one of the most beautifully lit cities in the world. The city has even won several international prizes for its light plan.
Every three years Ghent explodes in a fantastic display of lights during the Ghent Light Festival. During the festival, international light artists light up the city through performances, events and spectacles based on light. Read more about the Light Festival here: The Ghent Light Festival.
Go on a day trip
If you fancy travelling further afield, Burges, known as the ”Venice of The North” is a lively and historic place that’s full of character and is only half an hour away from Gent-Sint-Pieters train station with trains departing every 20 minutes or so.
You could also travel to Brussels, which has become a prominent centre for global politics and houses a lot of tourist attractions. It has a lot of outdoor and indoor activities to enjoy. You will find a lot of attractions, even when it rains every day.
You can take regular trains from Brussels to Ghent and vice versa to have panoramic views of the city.
Sample local delicatessen
Belgian gastronomy is too often summed up as beer, chocolate and waffles. While you should definitely try them, there is a lot more to it, and Ghent is the perfect city to explore the wide range of yummy foods and innovative drinks!
To start your culinary experience, head over to the Great Butchers’ Hall, the unmistakable 15th-century covered market hall located along the Lys River. Until the late 19th century the building was the only place in town where meat could be inspected and sold.
Despite all the local meats, Ghent is a haven for vegetarians, calling itself the “Veggie Capital of Europe”. There are more vegetarian meals served here than anywhere else in Belgium, and more vegetarian restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Europe! Thursday is “veggie day” where restaurants fill their menus with non-meat options.
- Try a nose | Officially registered as a regional product, the cone-shaped purple Cuberdons are a real treat for the people of Ghent and you can buy them from the carts on the Groentemarkt or at the candy stores. The Flemish call them “Neuzen” (noses) or affectionately “Neuzekes” (little noses).
- Fries | going to Ghent without trying them would be a shame!
Did you know: During the Middle Ages, there were about 500 breweries in town as beer was safer to drink than water!
Simply walk around and admire its architecture
Flemish architecture is a photographer’s dream. The busy squares, cobblestoned streets, cosy cafes, and friendly locals are sure to make your trip to Belgium memorable.
The Old Town which also contains the historical city centre has the Korenmarkt, Gravensteen, Graslei and Korenlei areas. It is here you will find medieval and historic architecture, traditional restaurants, shops and bakeries.
Mostly a car-free area, the highlight of the old town is the Gothic Saint Bavo Cathedral which contains the Ghent altarpiece. The Belfry, Gravensteen castle and the Graslei harbour are located nearby and have the best-preserved architecture in the area.
The city also houses three béguinages, architectural complexes where beguines (religious women who stayed without taking vows)
Discover your inner photographer
If you are keen on taking many incredible photos to remember from your trip to Ghent and sharing those photos on social media platforms such as Instagram, then you’ll be pleased to discover that Ghent is a perfect Instagrammable place with many beautiful places, both human-made and natural.
The Ghent area around St Michael’s Bridge serves up a kaleidoscopic array of photogenic features, inviting you to explore your camera settings and capture some cool images. Lens-ready subjects here include bridges, old houses, floating boats and even some quirky restaurant signs.
If you are looking for top places to photograph in Ghent, here are a few:
- Patershol area of Gent is famous as a vibrant and fashionable area. It has the most comfortable and delicious cafes and restaurants, which makes it more stunning.
- Lievekaai is a romantic place in the Patershol area of Gent. There are many weeping willows
- Sint-Baafsplein is another fantastic place to photograph in Ghent. At this place, you will see impressive late Gothic buildings such as Gent’s Belfort, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Saint Nicholas’ Church, and the Ghent City Hall.
Getting to and around Ghent
Ghent is Belgium’s third-largest city. Ghent is easy to access from Brussels, Antwerp, and Bruges by train. It is located thirty minutes from Bruxelles-Midi Station and one hour from Antwerp Antwerpen-Central station.
Ghent has two railway stations: Gent-Sint-Pieters and Gent-Dampoort. There are train connections to the main station Gent-Sint-Pieters from all Belgian cities.
Public transport in the city is well organized. Buses and trams will take you to every possible destination in and around Ghent from early in the morning till late at night. If you take the tram or bus only a few times a year, it is best to purchase a single ticket.
Ghent is small enough to explore on foot or by bike, but tram number 1 is also handy between the historical centre and the station.
Pro tips for visiting Ghent
- Do invest in a Gent City Card as public transport is included in the price. There’s also a boat tour, use of the tram, and bike rental for a day included. The more you use, the more you save!
- If you’re looking to explore more things to do in Ghent and other itineraries, why not visit the Official website for Gent tourism, there’s so much info on things to do!
- Be careful about getting in the way of those cyclists – the delineation between the cycle lane and pavement is not always clear, and cyclists are the kings in Ghent.
- Paardenlookworst on a restaurant menu, if you’re not too adventurous in your culinary tastes – it’s traditional horsemeat and garlic sausage
- Don’t take the ”wandelbus”. The cute little minibus is a new initiative, meant for senior citizens that have trouble getting from A to B without a car.
- Allocate at least 3-4 days to explore Ghent. There’s ample street art in Gent, murals and graffiti that you can explore as well as Botanical Gardens, artsy hotspots and museums.
- Most museums close on Wednesday and many bars and restaurants close on Monday.
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Now, over to you!
Have you ever been to Ghent? Let us know in the comments!
Let us know if you are plotting a visit to Ghent and have travel-related questions!