For my first vacation of my teaching term, Vacances de Toussaint, I booked a ten-day trip through Belgium and the Netherlands. My first stop – Ghent (or, in French, Gand)! While in Dublin the weekend before this, a fellow traveler I crossed paths with told me that this was his favorite city in Belgium and highly recommended that I check it out.
According to Google, most travelers spend about a day or two in this city. I didn’t intend on staying more than two days, but the only open hostel that weekend had a three night minimum (benefits of booking a trip 24 hours in advance). So three days it was! This ended up being a blessing in disguise, because I absolutely fell in love with Ghent! I got to leisurely explore the city over a long weekend. Ghent is incredibly charming. I’ve been to Bruges, and I loved it as well, but there was something about Ghent that won me over! They say it has the fairytale beauty of Bruges, but with a modern twist as it is still a living, breathing city.
The hostel at which I was staying gives free walking tours everyday at 1:00pm, so that was a great way to start my trip and get to know the city. I loved hearing the local insight and cultural history right off the bat. The tour guide was super funny – he is from Spain, moved to Ghent for a love interest, but by the time that relationship went sour he had already fallen in love with the city!
Below are my top picks for what to do and see in Ghent:
St. Michael's Bridge
St. Michael’s Bridge offers a stunning view in all directions. Standing on the bridge looking east, you get a beautiful view of the three towers the city is known for: St. Nicholas church tower, the Belfry, and St. Bavo Cathedral tower. This is apparently the one place in the city that you can capture all three towers at once.
The bridge has a lampost with a beautiful statue featuring St. Michael. Make sure to take in the views over the Leie River and all the surrounding Gothic architecture.
St. Nicholas Church
St. Nicholas’s Church is a Scheldt Gothic style bluestone church located in Korenmarkt. There are some beautiful views of it from above in the Ghent belfry. Entrance is free and the architecture is pretty spectacular!
A dragon sits in the Ghent Belfry, the proud symbol of the city. This dragon has sat in this Belfry since – wait for it – 1377!! The Belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing the Cloth Hall dedicated to the city’s historic industry. The Belfry hosted the city watchmen looking over the city from 1442 to 1869.
Climb the Belfry for an amazing view over the city in all directions! This is the tallest belfry in Belgium standing at 91m!
On the outside of the Belfry – look for the Mammelokker relief scuplture over the entrance to the jail erected in 1741.
St. Bavo's Cathedral
Before the walking tour, I had totally forgotten that this city is home to the famous Ghent Altarpiece! I studied this tryptic in depth in my art history course! It was amazing to see this piece of artwork in person after studying it. The altarpiece is truly breathtaking and definitely worth the couple euros it costs to view it. You can visit the altarpiece inside the St. Bavo’s Cathedral. One of the panels is a recreation, as it was mysteriously stolen in 1934 and has never been recovered.
At the STAM city museum, one of the rooms goes into detail about the mystery surrounding the robbery of two panels from the altarpiece and the potential thieves. They have some clips from newspapers during the robbery and everything! I loved hearing all the speculation and conspiracies surrounding it.
A well-known attraction is “graffitistraatje” or Graffiti street. Similar to the Lennon wall in Prague, this street is constantly evolving.
Beyond this mini graffiti street, there is also a ton of great street art scattered around the city. Street artists can actually apply for a space to paint and they are paid to paint walls in Ghent!
There are fun boat tours that you can hop on beside the Grasbrug. It’s a fun way to see the city and learn some history along the way!
Enjoy the stunning views of the Graslei and Korenlei on your way to grab a ticket! This is one of my favorite stretches in the city.
Castle of the Counts
This castle is the last remaining Flemish castle with a moat and defense system! The Castle of the Counts is full of complex history, well representative of the city as a whole. You can visit the ramparts, the gatehouse, the keep, and… a collection of torture equipment! It’s a very difficult place to summarize but I highly recommend visiting and reading more about its history.
Ghent Film Festival
The weekend I visited was apparently the tail end of the Ghent Film Festival. After checking out the schedule, I decided to go to the closing film – Souvenir. Before the film started, there was a man announcing things. I have zero context as to what he was saying, because he was speaking in Flemish. I’ve got to say, there is nothing quite like being surrounded by a completely unfamiliar language. It’s humbling, amusing, and terrifying all at once. This experience gave me a whole new appreciation for my French abilities (which are still limited at best)! In the middle of a long spew of strange Flemish words, all of a sudden the whole theater started bending over and reaching under their seats. I tentatively reached under my own seat (monkey see, monkey do), and surprise! There was a card! I won ten euros to play on EuroMillions lottery! 😀
Ghent is a small town, but there’s tons of things to see and do despite the size! Prices are discounted at most places for individuals under 25, but I decided to get a weekend pass anyways. I went to enough museums and attractions to get my money’s worth and more!
Aside from all the amazing attractions, Ghent is a wonderful city to simply take a stroll and take in the view. The city is full of gorgeous Flemish architecture, some original and some recreated. This adorable city is not only easy on the eyes, but it also has a rich history. The Ghent locals call themselves ‘stroppendragers’ or noose bearers.
This name recalls a proud rebellious history, referring back to 1540 when Emperor Charles forced the dignitaries to march through the city with nooses around their necks. One of the local brews is even named for this! Gentse Strop has a man in a noose depicted in the logo.
Ghent quickly jumped up to being ranked one of my top favorite cities in Europe! I’d highly recommend the visit to anyone. It was the perfect way to start off my first holiday while working in France. After my three days in Ghent, I spent a night in Antwerpen, then headed to Rotterdam and Amsterdam before returning home. My next blog will be about the Netherlands. 🙂