Halfway between Brussels and popular Bruges, Ghent is often overlooked. Perhaps its a mere train station stop midway on the 45 minute train to Bruges from Brussels to most tourists, Ghent offers so much more. Whenever we spend an afternoon in sometimes hipster, sometimes gritty Ghent, we wish we had several days to give it.
Practical Tips. Ghent is possible to sightsee and get a feel for in a day as the old city is amazingly compact with most of the “must see” sights within a 30 minute walk. Arrival is straightforward: exit the train station toward the signs for the trams and city buses, walk about 100 yards diagonally left to the tram stop, and wait for Tram #1. Take this tram 15 minutes to the Korenmarkt stop. This is where Ghent opens up in front of you.
A Walking Tour. Stopping at Korenmarkt puts us right in the heart of it all. This is one of Ghent’s small squares, which are situated throughout the city that specialized historically in different areas of commerce.
From here we quickly tour the Church of St. Nicholas (the rectangular tower), observe the Belfry (a dragon is on top), and spend most of our time in St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Along the way, the City Market Hall presents as a gathering place for locals and families on weekends to take in the sun, drink a Belgian beer, and listen to music. The reason we stopped in Ghent in the first place was the famous Ghent altarpiece. Just about everything that could ever happen has happened to this painting. Our amazing discovery was that St. Bavo’s is truly an art museum. While the altarpiece itself is located in the rear of the church and subject to strict lighting and atmospheric controls, there are many pieces of Flemish art presented in situ that are must sees. The piece itself is massive – 15 feet wide, 11 feet tall, a dozen separate panels fill with symbolism and rich details. There are no cameras allowed here, nor should there be. The altarpiece transports us to another time and place and we are awestruck. Even today, the art continues to astound.
From St. Bavo’s its a short walk along cobbled streets with gabled buildings to explore the rest of Ghent. The buildings provide a complete historic picture of this city, built on textiles and reinventing itself by the day. Old frontage is reclaimed inside. And Ghent’s dynamic street art scene is not to be missed.
Graffiti Street cuts through a row of gabled buildings, transporting you into art in situ. Further afield in what looks like a back alley to an open air car park, we find the famous Rabbits. Elsewhere, modern apartments form the canvas for more street art. From the historic architecture to modern street art, meander and soak in all of Ghent. It really is a city made for strolling.
Food and Drink. Near the fortress Gravensteen is Naturell, a fantastic and quirky restaurant focusing on locally sourced ingredients. Everything on the price fixe menu is sourced that day. The wine offerings are particularly interesting as Europe embraces organic wines. Here we spent a luxurious lunch, nearby the river, and close enough to people (and local cats) watch while we dined.
An afternoon delight is to pop into the pub. Here, at Gentse Gruut, the pub can be cozy with its wax dripping candles or impressive with its back patio river views of gabled buildings and boat cruises. This is a must stop for us. We grab a pint, play a game, and talk about our favorite sights of the day.
Midway on the 30-minute walk downhill to the train station is ONA, a family-owned neighborhood wine bar. Just about anything is available from the regular to the quirky and all at a reasonable price. Romantic – check; locals – check, check. This place has it.
We often end these posts on why we’ll go back to a city. Well with Ghent, we have. We visited in 2016 and again in 2019. We retraced our steps. We expanded our walk a bit further afield. And we continued to find things to absolutely love about this gritty, second-tier, after-thought, beautiful city. As people from Pittsburgh, who love Baltimore, frankly it’s no surprise that we have this connection. Dear Ghent, we’ll be back.