Lonely Planet calls it “the best kept secret of Europe” and we visited last year we could see why the respected travel guide fell for its quaint charms. Filled with canals, culture and beautiful medieval architecture in abundance, here are our reasons why we think you should add Ghent to your travel wish list, sooner rather than later…
Ghent is fast topping the list for foodies from all over the world, as local chefs come to dominate the food scene with dynamic takes on traditional dishes, championing locally sourced products and offering diners a taste experience to remember from a basket of shrimps at the medieval fish market to an oyster tasting bar to the best cuts of Kobe beef, Ghent’s restaurants will leave even the fussiest Foodie’s tastebuds hankering for more.
However, no article about Belgium would be complete without mentioning chocolate. Temmerman’s offers a veritable smorgasbord of old-fashioned and eccentric candies while Yuzu provides Chocoholics with fresh, homemade chocolates which draw their inspiration from all over the globe, ranging in taste, texture and design. If you’re looking to sample some traditional Belgian beer, head to Friday Market Square which is the largest and most popular in Ghent and an excellent place to soak up the atmosphere in the car-free city centre.
Firstly, try Delirium Tremens Beer which, is brewed locally outside the town itself in the original brewery which, is about 350 years old and is considered one of the best in the world. Another favourite is the trappist beer at Trappistenhuis or better still head to Café Het Spijker who have a vast selection of Belgian beers in their 13th century café. And after all that beer sampling, soak it up with a street-side Belgian waffle.
The first thing most people notice on arrival to Ghent is the bicycles. The city centre in Ghent is the biggest car free zone in Belgium and everyone commutes via bicycle which gives the city an added relaxed and laid back feel. The first port of call is to the STAM museum where history comes to life, visitors come to discover the rich history of Ghent using the most modern techniques like, allowing visitors to build a Ghent tower from Lego or do their own research into that famous stolen Van Eyck.
To understand the true essence of the Flemish culture, visit the folklore museum. Sound dusty and boring? You’re wrong! This museum is full of interesting nooks and crannies choc full of snippets of times past ranging from typical commercials of the seventies to the clothes worn by Ghent’s women in the fifties. The city itself hosts all kinds of cultural festivals, small boutique art galleries and antique shops pay homage to the history of the city and the city’s artists have been making a name for themselves in the international stage.
It’s hard to imagine ever getting tired of the wandering around Ghent’s cobbled streets but if you feel like trying something different, try a canal cruise and see graceful Ghent from a different angle. Construction began on the Ghent-Terneuzen canal in the early nineteenth century and has been a success ever since, originally used for sea access, the canal now is home the many boat tour companies which offer guided tours of Ghent from a different perspective. Each company has its quirks depending on what you’re looking for, ranging from historic round trips, to an architectural specialities to party and thematic trips.
Gravensteen was originally built in the 12th century but went through a troubled history before being finally bought by the city of Ghent at the end of the 19th century and restored to its original condition. Every year the castle attracts thousands of visitors who are now able to walk around the castle walls, investigate the original moat, climb to the top of the turrets and peruse the traditional torture instruments in the dungeon.
It has been said that Ghent became quite rich during the middle ages due to its ability to manufacture textiles and the great and good were only too happy to share their wealth with the Catholic Church which, accounts for the number of spectacular churches around the city. St. Bravo’s is the first and was built in the ninth century and is full of religious works of art, none more famous than the altarpiece which, is more than worth the short queue and small entrance fee. St. Nicholas’ and the 14th century Belfort are also must-sees.
Ghent’s character oozes from every brick in the wall and cobble on the street. The city has extremely well preserved medieval architecture with cathedrals, towers and even breweries dating back as far as the 11th century. While walking through the city, you feel like you are taking a walk through the ages as medieval blends into art nouveau and then art deco. The city is full of quirks with bicycles cluttering junk shop windows, interesting shops are around every corner selling anything from retro products, vintage pieces, flower ice cream and wallpaper from the fifties. Even the most opposed of shoppers will struggle not to be lured in to buy a unique, one-of-a-kind souvenir of their visit to Ghent.
We believe no one will leave Ghent disappointed. The air of a well-preserved tradition and culture permeates the city at every turn with something to amaze and enthral every tourist. The locals are friendly and eager to impart their secret tips for shopping, hints for sight-seeing and recommendations for food and drinks to visitors. It cannot help but be noticed how proud the locals are of their city and its history.
Written by Emma and all images taken by Gray.