Ghent is a rebel.
Ghent is a party.
Ghent is an architectural masterpiece.
The city of Ghent is a true gem in the Flanders region of Belgium. Lonely Planet calls it “the best kept secret of Europe”. That will change, it’s no longer a secret as I hereby offer you the 10 most convincing reasons to visit this beautiful city! Walk with me through the historical city center, not only to watch architectural wonders but also to get a sense of the Belgian way of life. Let’s visit Ghent, Belgium!
Street view: an architectural feast
Walking through the city of Ghent is like walking through a historical painting, an architectural masterpiece of castles, cathedrals, churches and old merchant houses. Don’t forget to view the houses from above and go up the Belfry (Belfort) tower for an amazing view!
Ghent is a little rebel. People from Ghent are called rope (or: noose) bearers as they seriously rebelled against the regime of the Roman Emperor and Spanish King Charles (Karel) V back in 1539. Charles won and humiliated the people of Ghent by having them parade around town with white undershirts and ropes around their neck. If you stroll the area around Prinsenhof you will find the famous statue remembering this humiliation. There are even restaurants and bars named after this and I am sure you will find more (hidden) references!
Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen)
This medieval castle is situated in the middle of the city! It’s a great place with superb views from the top. Your kids will have a fab time, but be careful when visiting the torture museum inside the castle…it’s not really for people with a weak stomach so to say.
By the way, don’t look strange if you encounter a knight…
Klein Begijnhof (or Small Beguinage) is a beautiful small historical quarter. Walls surround the houses and the church, dampening the sound from the surrounding city. There are multiple quarters throughout the city of Ghent, most of them just outside the historical center. Because of that you will not encounter many tourists…
Wonders of Ghent: unique and authentic shops
Around every corner you are going to find an interesting shop. Like The Fallen Angels: for all your old and vintage things. Or the flower shop where you can buy flower ice cream (!). The most interesting one was the old wallpaper shop, with designs from all the past 4 or 5 decades. It seems to be quite a famous shop and at least one-of-a-kind.
“Real authentic Ghent noses! Traditional Belgian delicacy! Only…€ 5 for a bag!”
Of course I couldn’t resist buying these (quite expensive) Ghent noses (Ghentse neuzen). It’s indeed a traditional Flemish candy: cone-shaped with tastes of raspberry. The outside is hard, but the inside is very soft. You can buy them on the street at typical stalls selling only Ghent noses. My daughter loved them, my son didn’t care.
What else is nice? You can imagine: when in Belgium you have to eat waffles, chocolate and fries! I am not really talking haute cuisine here and I know it’s very stereotyping, but these are the snacks that Belgium (and Ghent) has become famous for.
My personal favourite: waffles! The smell of freshly baked waffles, on the side of the street. Oh man, a warm waffle with chocolate, sugar or honey, you can wake me up any time for one of these!
The city’s D&A: Doors & Alleys
You recognize the situation: a person is taking photographs of something. But what? You stop and look. Following the line to the point where the camera lens is aiming at, you watch….and see nothing, nothing special. What is the subject of this photo?
I am such a guy. I am that guy people look at when I take pictures of places and things that other find utterly boring. I just love details and typical sceneries that others tend to pass by.
My favourites are alleys and doors. In Ghent I passed many doors where paint was blistered off and other ones showing a true love for modern design. Every picture of a door has something mysterious and you want to know the story of people living behind it. Same goes for alleys: what is happening just around the next corner?
Drinks, company, smallest bar, students (Ghent is a party)
Ghent is a party. With 65,000 students (on a total of 250,000 inhabitants) it’s lively and full of action. In summer there are plenty of festivals, like the Ghentse Feesten and Odegand. De Ghentse Feesten is a truly popular event, drawing many people from out of town to Ghent. Maybe even too many?
There is no country in the world offering such a variety of really tasty (and strong) beers: Belgium. I spend one evening in the Dulle Griet where they offer a beer menu with 250 (or 150, but I forgot about the numbers) types of beer! Luckily I had my online friends on Twitter and Facebook to guide and advise me.
Entering The Dulle Griet you enter a lovely old bar. The smell of beer and wood covers you like a blanket. People at the bar, just enjoying a beer where nothing else is more important. The Dulle Griet is famous for one special beer (Max) that is served in quite an impressive glass. It’s a 1,2 liter tube held in a wooden rack. It’s so expensive, the waiter will ask for your right shoe as deposit. He will winch it to the ceiling and you will get it back only after finishing your beer.
Other bars that are more visited by locals are Pink Flamingo and Parels (a unique bubble bar, but absolutely not over the top or designed with the latest style trends!). Both are surely worth a visit.
Saint Bavo Cathedral and the Mystic Lamb (and the Belfry tower)
Back to history! Visiting Ghent without entering St. Bavo Cathedral is unthinkable. Before entering, go up the Belfry tower first (picture above), which is opposite the cathedral. You will have a great view of the cathedral. Once inside enjoy the great pieces or art that are displayed (there are audio tours available). I was impressed by the Altarpiece and La Bestia…
Ghent Alterpiece (or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb)
This is considered to be a Belgian masterpiece and one of the world’s treasures. It consist of 24 panels, showing God, Jesus, Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Adam, Eve and of course the mystic lamb. Impressive painting…if the chapel with the original piece is closed, you can find a copy in the back of the cathedral…
Cool, an abstract form that reminds us of a wounded animal, standing on a pedestal and bathing in a pool of red engine oil…La Bestia by Bassiri dates from 2004 and is truly ‘emotionally-charged material’. For lovers of extreme art.
You know I’m a big fan of details and here’s one to be found near the entrance to the Belfry tower. This sculpture is called the Mammelokker and depicts the legend of a prisoner, Cimon, who is sentenced to death by starvation, but survives and ultimately gains his freedom thanks to his daughter Pero, a wet nurse who secretly breastfeeds him during her visits. For lovers of Roman legends.
Flanders (and specifically Ghent) is an important area for the design industry (first fashion but also furniture). Flanders is home to 12,000 design businesses and the design museum in Ghent is a great place to get introduced.
Ghent is just big fun!
Yes, I am over-enthusiastic, but great cities are intoxicating. I could choose city trips over any beach destination, you?
Ghent is a rebel. Ghent is a party. And yes, Ghent is also an architectural masterpiece.
Hope you enjoyed the reading and now go and put Ghent on your upcoming European itinerary! Even the Belgian national newspaper and website De Standaard linked to my story about Ghent in one of their weekend features.
“Look at how this over-enthusiastic blogger writes about Ghent”.
“Looks like we’re gonna be welcoming some more tourists in the years to come.”
Not only I wrote about that festive weekend in Ghent, also the Guardian and the Telegraph thought the city was well-worth the attention. I hope the people of Ghent are happy with all the attention as well. Yeah, must be!
Thanks again to Tourism Flanders inviting me for the trip to Ghent.