Ghent : Flying under the radar
The first and main reason why Ghent is the best city in Belgium is because it is significantly under-rated.
Ghent is a city that was made to be experienced. At almost every turn, there is something fantastic to see, explore, do or eat. It’s cultural, with it’s share of great museums, theatres, and art/design spaces. It’s historical, with castles, a fortress, centuries-old churches and beguinages to while away our day. And, it’s a foodie’s destination, known as much for it’s award winning restaurants as it is for it’s laid back approach to all things food and beer. And, it’s all built around canals and waterways. A city built on water? You’ve won me already.
And, as if there couldn’t possibly be any more to love, Ghent is a city that is best experienced off the beaten path, allowing your mind (as much as your body) to wander in amongst the ancient buildings that merge and mingle with the new. To be jolted out of your gaze by the toot of a tram, because you realise you are actually standing in the middle of the street on a tram track. To breathe in the smells of the fresh seafood and sample the cheese at the Vrijdagmarkt, as you weave in and out amongst the locals picking up their produce, or eating frites for lunch.
Wherever you go, however you do it, Ghent is definitely one city you should not miss in favour of the bigger, well known ones. I think the city of Ghent has been very clever keeping it all under the radar. It makes you feel as though you’ve uncovered a gigantic secret, that’s been hidden forever. It makes you feel special, as though you are the first one discovering it.
To get a better feel for this beautiful city of Ghent, we decided to head to the tourist office, pick ourselves up some maps and do a self-guided walk through the key places of interest for us. Just a tip, we needed all day, such is the incredible array of things to see and do.
These are our highlights, but there are certainly so many more. We’re not big on museums, art galleries and the like. Our artistic and cultural experiences come from being in the real world and soaking up the experiences as they come our way, whatever they may be. A smile from a passer-by, a chat with a local in a bar, a difficult conversation with a bus driver, getting lost or sitting on the square knocking back a cold beer. These are the memories we make and love, and the ones which we remember over and over again.
Welcome to Ghent.
Highlights of the self guided walking tour in Ghent
Visit the tourist office
I know that for most travellers, this might seem like a no-brainer. But this is a tourist office like I haven’t seen before. Nestled inside the refurbishment complex of the Old Fish Market is a state of the art space full of brochures (in several languages), volunteers to help with your questions, books, and touch screen, interactive, table-top computer screens. The ‘slave to technology’ person that I am could have seen me in there for hours. Luckily my husband saw the signs early and moved me on.
Proving that their physical presence is also not something that happened by accident, their Visit Gent website is also brilliant and very user friendly.
Gravensteen Castle (Castle of the Counts)
As we stood on the hallowed grounds of the former “Count’s Land”, immediately in front Gravensteen, it was deathly quiet. Considering some pretty frightful events occurred in the castle many years ago, and knowing a Torture Museum exists inside the walls, I would be a little happier if there was a bit more noise around. It’s an imposing structure and views of the city can be seen from the top.
But, we’ve kicked our walking tour off early, and it’s a wet and dreary day, with the clouds hanging low over the city. I suspect that many are trying to hang out in the warmth of their own homes for a bit longer this morning.
This area of Siint-Veerleplein is a great place to start our self guided walking tour. Having such an incredible castle right in the middle of the city centre is highly unusual, but it’s one of the enduring images I have of Ghent. Like the castle, executions and torture happened in this square.
But today, due to the time, it is almost bare all around us, save for a few tourists who have just arrived in a bus. The chairs that belong to the surrounding coffee shops are all still resting, upside down, until their work for the day begins.
We spy a man sitting in a window of a cosy looking cafe right in the corner of the square, so we head over there. As we enter Cafe Zenon, we know we’ve selected a charming neighbourhood bar. Black and white tiled floors meet the beautiful timber bar, with antique looking beer taps. Marble tables, cute cafe-style timber chairs and an odd selection of parking signs and memorabilia adorn the walls.
Best of all, there’s only us, the wonderfully friendly lady behind the bar and a couple of locals, who are keen to engage in a chat. Today, I really want to know how to say the name of this town. My instinct is to call it “Gent”, as in the shortened version of “gentlemen”, but I suspect this may not be correct.
In an all too funny situation, I first ask the lady who is making us our warming coffee and hot chocolate. She claims to not be a local and therefore is unsure how to pronounce it correctly. Perhaps she was nervous about saying it in front of the locals? It reminded me of our conversation in Basel, Switzerland, where the person we asked was from Zurich, so pronounced it “Barsil”, whereas many other Swiss call it “Baysel”. Makes me feel a little better when I pronounce something that is way off base 🙂
The local man sitting next to me at the bar was quite happy to jump in and advise that it was pronounced “Gent” as in “tent”. Problem solved, I was now able to mention the name of the town in conversation without having to whisper it or speed through it quickly in order not to embarrass myself.
The Old Fish Market
Directly opposite the castle is the Old Fish Market. Today it houses a nice restaurant and the funky Tourist Office. The beautiful entrance is not to be missed. Dating back to the late 1600’s, Neptune keeps guard with his golden trident.
With some added warmth in our tummies from our stop at Cafe Zenon, we now make a left turn across the River Lys, via a bridge that has an important strategic and economic role in Ghent’s history. This bridge became the first man-made link between the city of Ghent and the North Sea.
This bridge, named Hoofdbrug, also adds to the macabre history of this area. Hoofdbrug means Execution or Decapitation Bridge, and was once also a location for public executions.
The waterway here is lined with old buildings. One of these is the only remaining building in the entire city that has a wooden back wall. It took us a while to spot it, even though it is close to the bridge, because some of it has now been overlaid with brick.
Nearby, the building named De Gekroonde Hoofden (The Crowned Heads) is said to watch over the crossing for eternity. No doubt, given this area’s history, the Crowned Heads have seen plenty!
We continue walking along Jan Breydelstraat, a street full of restaurants, some of which have outdoor eating areas right on the canal.
A hidden park
It is along this street that you can stop for a rest and a view across the canal from a hidden park called Appelbrugparkje. There’s plenty of spots to sit on the grass and while away the time, but it’s down on the waterfront that offers the best view. It is here, hidden behind a hedge, that a seat for two sits by itself, offering a chance to take some time out of your day for some quiet time, or a private chat.
A glass bridge connects the park back to the Old Fish Market.
The riverside beauty of Korenlei and Graslei
As we continued to walk, we came to an area noted by the locals as one of the best places in all of Ghent. Korenlei and Graslei is the former medieval trade port. Today, it is a bustling hive of activity, with restaurants lining the promenade, boats queued up to take tourists on a trip through the waterways, and a unique row of historical buildings. I’m with the locals, it is a must see on any visit to this great city.
St Michael’s Bridge and St Michael’s Church
We continue walking along the Korenlei side of the river, and climb the steps at the end up to St Michael’s Bridge. This is one of those spots which will be noted in every guide ever printed about Ghent. But for good reason. This is not one of the destinations to avoid, just because it’s what everyone does. For it is on St Michael’s Bridge that you are afforded a beautiful view along the river, taking in both the Graslei and Korenlei. It is also the only location from where you can see the entire Ghent skyline which offers up a view of three tall towers.
Ghent has no shortage of churches and there are two fine examples right near the bridge. No surprises for guessing that the church that sits closest is the St Michael’s Church. Whilst many European churches have magnificent towers, this church missed out, with the planned 138m tower never completed due to insufficient funds. This strikes me as being a little unusual, given the money that is clearly on show in almost every church I’ve ever seen.
St Nicholas’ Church
From the bridge the three towers of three impressive churches can be seen. First is St Nicholas’ Church, built in the 13th century from bluestone taken from the Tournai region of Belgium.
Masons’ Guild Hall
On our right, we stop to admire the Masons’ Guild Hall, a building with such detail that I think it’s almost the first of it’s kind I can remember seeing. It’s a point of contention with many people who live here due to the ultra modern glass addition that is attached to it’s left hand side. Still, the fact that this building can be seen in such a state is amazing. The facade of this 16th century building was hidden for centuries behind workers’ houses until it was rediscovered in 1976.
Old meets modern – City Pavilion
Even more controversial is the City Pavilion. One of Ghent’s newest buildings, it’s design and use of glass, timber and concrete means it stand out, and perhaps not in a good way. I’m a proponent of change and modernisation, as much as I love the old and historical, but this building leaves me feeling a little cold.
Further along is Ghent’s second tallest tower, the dragon topped Belfry. The dragon has been watching over the city since 1380 and is now a UNESCO heritage site.
St Bavo’s Cathedral
As we continue to walk on our self guided tour, we reach St Bavo’s Cathedral, a beautiful Gothic building, built on the site of a small 12th century chapel. The Cathedral was under scaffold when we visited. Being lovingly restored since 2013, it has another 2-3 years left on this important heritage project.
The city has come alive now as it is now early afternoon. We have been walking for hours. Despite moving along at a reasonable pace, I feel as though we are seeing so much. This city definitely has so much to offer. And, we’ve still got so much to see.
It is here at the Cathedral that our walking route takes a left turn and heads into another neighbourhood. It’s a bit tricky in this area as entire streets have been dug up, metres deep, as new services for the city are replaced. With the rain, there’s plenty of mud and things to trip on, so we’ve got one eye on the ground and another on the buildings that we still have so much to learn from.
We find the Achtersikkel, a building formerly owned by a very rich family. Rich enough to have their own private well in a time (15th century) where there were only five wells for the 65,000 strong Ghent population. Today, it is where aspiring musicians and singers come……it is now the Ghent Conservatory. Check out the original torch snuffer too.
The Ghent Town Hall
Further along the street, we come to a cross roads, and another of my favourite type of building, the Town Hall. This one is a rather confused blend of Italian Renaissance and Gothic architecture. Here columns, windows and arches meet the intricacies and detailed adornments of Gothic style.
We came across the flea market, held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the area immediately outside St James’ Church, and popped in on a local fruit and vegie market as well. We didn’t buy anything here but it was fun watching the locals select and weigh their fresh produce.
We were getting a little peckish so we continued on our walking tour path which guides us straight into the Vrijdagmarkt. For centuries, this enormous square was where everything in the city of Ghent happened. It was the centre of everything, both commercial and social.
Today, it is packed full of vendors trying to convince you to buy the latest pair of skinny jeans, a puffer jacket (who in Europe doesn’t have a puffer jacket just quietly?) or a bag full of socks. Sitting comfortably alongside them are the fresh food sellers, offering up seafood, a range of farm grown produce, cheese and ready made meals, until it closes at 1pm.
We are chasing down a tip we received on the best place to buy frites here (of course we are going to eat them again!)
We’re looking for a green and white striped shop and soon we find it.
Our walk now takers us to the Patershol neighbourhood, a former working class area and the medieval centre of the city. Now, it is well known as a foodie area, with Oudberg St offering a range of different restaurants covering all nationalities.
Old Elizabeth St Beguinage
I have to say that these narrow, cobbled streets full of small buildings have become something of a favourite of mine. Since first learning about them in Leuven I have added them to my compulsory list of things to see in future Belgian towns.
The Great Butchers’ Hall
Our second last stop on what has been an incredible walk is the Great Butchers’ Hall, where meat was sold in the Middle Ages. Now the home of another foodie mecca, you can stop for a bite here, or take home some of the wonderful food on offer. What I loved best though was the perfectly restored interior, especially the enormous roof trusses from which the locally made hams are hung.
We’ve arrived at our final destination on our walking route, and it’s not at all coincidental that it’s Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a pub on the water. The house was built in the water where all the beer barrels were once unloaded. In a funny link to Brussels, a version of the Mannekin Pis sits up high on a building across the river.
We’d worked up a great thirst, lucky there was plenty of Belgian beers available, and a nice view across the river. Phew! I can’t quite believe how much we’ve seen.
Now before I am done with Ghent, I need to tell you about a couple of our eating experiences.
Lunch at Du Progress on Korenmarkt
By 3pm, we were well and truly ready for lunch. Circumstance drove us to our restaurant. The time of day meant that most of the restaurants had closed their kitchens. Lucky for us, the team at Du Progress were more than welcoming and happy to have our custom.
From the moment we walked in, the service was exceptional, with a real sense of humour thrown in. Even though I was hungry, a quick glance to a nearby table sent a warning that the serves were enormous. Without missing a beat, our waiter promptly advised that he would do a half serve for me. He followed this up by setting the table with children’s cutlery. He thought he was funny and so did I.
We both ordered the house pasta which had a special, and unusual blend of bolognaise and carbonara sauce. Weird but very tasty.
I hadn’t seen these small, nose shaped sweets anywhere, ever, on our travels. All of a sudden, in Ghent, they were everywhere. What were they? Why are they here? And why is everyone queuing at the little wooden cart in the Korenmarkt?
All was revealed when we stopped to talk to the vendor (when he was having a rare quiet moment). He explained that they were unique to Belgium, and only produced in three cities in the whole country. Ah, this is why this was the first time I had seen them. As the little candies, vivid in their reds, yellows and oranges kept catching my eye, I tried to listen to what the man had to say. He claimed that his cuberdons were the ‘real deal’. Beware of imposters he urged. Imposters, (like the man selling next to him) made cuberdons with gelatine, not the special ingredient of arabic gum.
Tourists and locals alike (especially students) flock to these carts to buy their little bag of treats; €3 for a small bag and if you need a few more there is a larger bag for €5.
Next time you are in Ghent, find a wooden market cart, ask the vendor if they are made on arabic gum, and once in your hand, promptly bit off the tip of the “nose” to let the fruity syrup run down the side, before popping the whole thing in your mouth.
Whatever you do, don’t do what we did. By the time we had finished conversing with the vendor, the queue had grown considerably and we had to leave him to his craft. Instead of buying from him there and then, we elected to buy from another store later in the day. Enticed by the bright lights and the even brighter colours of the perfectly displayed cuberdons in the window of a shop (oh, and did I say Belgian chocolate), we bought a bag of them here.
As beautiful as they looked, the end result wasn’t up to scratch, and certainly didn’t align with the look of excitement I had on my face as I nibbled on the top of the “nose”.
As we also now know, cuberdons need to be eaten when they are very fresh (usually within three weeks of production). If they are not, they turn into a thickened, sugary, horrible sweet, as per the photo below of our raspberry one. 🙁
Ghent is a paradox. It’s welcoming, friendly and fun and you would imagine they would be happy to shout everything it has to offer from the rooftops. Yet, at the same time, it’s a well kept secret, as though they still want to keep it all to themselves.
We have had such a fabulous time in this wonderful city, but still there is much we didn’t get to see. It is definitely flagged as a place I would love to return to.
So, sssshhhhhh, don’t tell everyone until you’ve been able to visit Ghent yourself. We all need to keep some things quiet, don’t we?
If you are interested in reading about more small European towns, head over to World of Wanderlust. Here she also features Ghent.
Review of motorhome camping site (Aire)
N 51.03765 E 3.76638
Just off the E17
- This site is classified as an Aire. It has no services.
- Free to stay and no limit to the amount of time you can stay here.
- Carpark located in front of a sports and leisure centre.
- Next to a motorway flyover. It’s not super noisy but there is some traffic noise.
- Very clean, well maintained and safe.
- Hard stands for motorhomes.
- Short walking distance to public transport – both bus and tram – which take you directly to city centre.
Have you been to any other cities that are hidden gems ? Let me know below.
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Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.