It’s hard to talk about Ghent, one of the coolestcities in Belgium without sounding like a tourist brochure. Its car-free city center has that picture-postcard vibe, complete with tangling canals, bridges and towers. Somehow, this picturesque city in East Flanders has managed to dodge the influx of crowds that plague Bruges, so it makes an ideal alternative day trip from Brussels.
Ghent used to be one of Europe’s most powerful cities. After Paris, it was the second-largest city north of the Alps in the middle ages. A strategic position on the meeting point of two rivers (the Scheldt and Leie) drew wealthy tradesmen and artists into the city, not to mention royalty. The Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500.
This explains Ghent’s gorgeous architecture and medieval charm. There’s so much history to discover, but today’s center is also a youthful and lively place. The list of things to do in Ghent is endless, but here is a selection of the very best.
- 19 Fun Things to do in Ghent, Belgium
- 1. Visit Gravensteen Castle
- 2. Check out the Belfry of Ghent
- 3. Sample some local delicacies
- 4. Wander around Patershol
- 5. Go see the House of Alijn
- 6. Visit the Vrijdagmarkt
- 7. Discover Ghent’s Graffiti
- 8. See The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb at St Bavo’s Cathedral
- 9. Marvel at the ruins of St. Bavo’s Abbey
- 10. Take a photo from St Michael’s Bridge
- 11. Admire St Nicholas Church
- 12. Hang out on the Graslei and Korenlei
- 13. Attend Ghent Light Festival
- 14. Take a boat trip on Ghent’s medieval waterways
- 15. Look round the exhibitions at St Peter’s Abbey
- 16. Picnic in Citadelpark
- 17. Stroll through the Kouter flower market
- 18. Visit S.M.A.K Museum
- 19. Look round the Museum of Fine Arts
19 Fun Things to do in Ghent, Belgium
1. Visit Gravensteen Castle
You can’t miss the Gravensteen (the Castle of the Counts in English) in the middle of the city center. An impressive turreted fortification with a medieval moat and fascinating history, the castle is now a museum and a must-see in Ghent.
The site dates back to 1000 CE when it was first fortified, but the current castle was built between 1180 and 1200, by Count Philip of Alsace. During the next two hundred years, it served as the residence of the counts of Flanders (hence its name, Castle of the Counts). Following their departure, it had an important role as a courthouse, prison, and administrative seat.
By the 19th century, parts of the castle had been sold off and a section was converted into a cotton mill. During the period following the Industrial Revolution, it fell into disuse and was even at one point scheduled for demolition. Thankfully, it was rescued, restored and reshaped, and today is a key example of medieval fortification.
Even if you only have time to admire it from the outside, a trip to the castle should be a priority for those wondering what to do in Ghent, Belgium. If you do want to visit the inside and explore, entry is 10 EUR / 11 USD. You’ll find the Arms Museum and the Museum of Judicial Objects – home to weapons and various menacing tools of torture. There is an in-depth video tour available but I found it better to just follow my nose.
Don’t skip the rooftop – the view of the city is amazing!
2. Check out the Belfry of Ghent
The Belfry of Ghent is quite remarkable. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the three famous towers of Ghent city (the other two being St Bavo’s Cathedral and St Nicholas Church). It’s the tallest belfry in Belgium at 91 meters (almost 300 feet) high and the view from the top lets you see all across the city above the rooftops.
Historically this building had a significant role. It used to serve as a watchtower and storage place for the city’s most important documents. The bells would have been rung in the case of danger – attack, fire or anything else the watchmen spotted from the viewpoint, but also on celebratory days. Next to it is the Cloth Hall (now a cafe-restaurant) where the important trade of textiles would have taken place.
Entry to the belfry lets you see the huge carillon (mechanism for ringing the bells) up close, as well as the original bells themselves, and learn a load of interesting information about this historical monument.
3. Sample some local delicacies
If you’re into your food, Ghent is definitely the city for you. As well as its own traditional delicacies, Ghent is known to be a culinary center that features different cuisines from not just Belgium but all over the world.
One signature delicacy that you have to try is the famous “cuberdon” or “neuzeke” that is a conical purple candy, traditionally raspberry-flavored (though they also come in a few other flavors). Two wagons sell these on the Groentenmarkt and are known to be vicious rivals of each other.
Another local dish is the Gentse waterzooi, which is a delicious vegetable-based stew.
If it’s authentic cuisine you want, then the Great Butchers’ Hall is the place to go. There are over 175 traditional regional products from East Flanders, and all of them are showcased and sold here. There’s also a restaurant where you can try them and an infinite amount of East Flemish beer.
The hall itself is an impressive relic, with a great vaulted ceiling where Ganda ham would have been hung up to dry.
Despite all the local meats, Ghent is a haven for vegetarians, calling itself the “Veggie Capital of Europe”. There are more vegetarian meals served here than anywhere else in Belgium, and more vegetarian restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Europe! Thursday is “veggie day” where restaurants fill their menus with non-meat options.
4. Wander around Patershol
For more of a taste of medieval Belgium, wander on past the castle to the charming neighborhood of Patershol. The cobblestone streets are like a labyrinth, lined with quaint and quirky eateries and boutique shops.
This area used to be home to leather workers and the Carmelite Fathers (known as Paters – where the neighborhood gets its name). It's got a chilled out, cozy atmosphere making it the perfect place to lazily roam about and get lost in.
Patershol is a well-known haunt for food-fanatics as the area has an amazing array of cuisines. As well as international restaurants from all corners of the world, you can also find some windows back into Belgium’s history, with traditional candy shops and authentic artist ateliers.
5. Go see the House of Alijn
Patershol is also where you’ll find Ghent’s old almshouse, the House of Alijn (“Huis van Alijn”). This is now a museum where you can explore the day-to-day life of the 20th century, in what would have been a hospice for the sick and elderly people in Ghent.
There’s a delightful little courtyard here and a traditional working-class pub. The museum is open for a small fee every day except Wednesday. This lovely little piece of history is often overlooked but it’s really one of the most interesting attractions in Ghent, Belgium.
6. Visit the Vrijdagmarkt
Vrijdagmarkt translates as “Friday Market” and it’s the site of a traditional weekly market held, unsurprisingly, on Fridays. It’s one of the oldest squares in Ghent, and the market (now held on Saturdays too) has been taking place here ever since the 12th century.
Historically it’s an interesting place. Back in the day, members of royalty would have been officially received here on Vrijdagmarkt. There’s the Toreken (“Little Tower”) which is the original 15th-century building of the tanners’ guild. A statue of Jakob van Artevelde, an important 14th-century political leader, stands in the square.
The square comes alive on these two days with locals perusing stalls that sell everything from local cuisine to clothes. Even on days when the market isn't on, the square is magnificent, surrounded by rustic pubs and restaurants and tempting alleyways. One of the most popular pubs is De Dulle Griet where you famously exchange a shoe as insurance for a beer glass!
Serpentstraat and Baudelostraat are great shopping destinations just off the square, with beautiful colorful buildings and vintage shops.
7. Discover Ghent’s Graffiti
Ghent’s artistic side is clearly visible in its incredible street art. The city has provided areas for legal graffiti, which has encouraged whole generations of street artists, including internationally famous artist ROA with his recognizable rabbits and birds.
One street which is worth a visit is the Werregarenstraat, known as “graffiti alley” or Ghent's graffiti street, of which the artwork covers every surface and changes continuously. The Tweebruggenstraat is also a great place to discover some really innovative legal street art.
You can take a Concrete Canvas tour (get a map from the Tourist Information point or download online). It’s amazing that this creative outlet has been so encouraged and celebrated by the city of Ghent.
8. See The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb at St Bavo’s Cathedral
The majestic St Bavo’s Cathedral is the oldest parish church in the city, with foundations dating back to the 10th century. A Romanesque church was built there in the 12th century, dedicated to St John the Baptist. However, the current Gothic structure was begun in 1274, and in the following centuries, it was added to and enhanced with a chapter house, nave aisles, a choir, chapels and much more. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was baptized in the cathedral.
The cathedral is home to one of the most popular attractions in Ghent – the world-famous Ghent Altarpiece, formally called “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. This is a large 15th-century multi-paneled painting by the Van Eyck brothers. Every day between 12 pm and 1 pm the painting is folded inwards so visitors can see the outside of the panels of the Van Eyck masterpiece.
There’s plenty more art to see here too. The altar itself is a spectacular white, red and black marble piece. There’s the Rubens painting “Saint Bavo enters the Convent at Ghent” as well as works by Lucas de Heere, Frans Pourbus the Elder, Justus van Gent and many more.
It doesn’t cost much to visit the cathedral and there’s a gift shop with posters, books on the art and postcards. You can go up the cathedral tower only during the Ghent Festivities, but if you get the chance it gives you a different view including the belfry tower.
9. Marvel at the ruins of St. Bavo’s Abbey
The 7th-century abbey of St Bavo has a bit more of a grim history, being raided by Vikings in the 9th century and eventually dissolved in 1540 after the Revolt of Ghent. However, it’s a remarkable site which now contains the oldest wall in the city.
The footprint of the Romanesque church is now marked out by a moving arrangement of five-meter (16.4 feet) high hedge columns, conjuring up a feel for this ancient and special place. It’s only open to visitors for a few hours each week (the fee is just a donation), and artists’ shows are sometimes held here.
10. Take a photo from St Michael’s Bridge
St Michael’s Bridge is a beautiful stone bridge that is one of the best spots to get a good look at the medieval heart of Ghent. From it, you can see all three of the Towers Of Ghent as well as the Gravensteen. It used to be a flat swing bridge but was replaced in the early 1900s.
Today it has a statue of Saint Michael standing in the center. On the other side of the Leie is St Michael’s Church, a stunning large Gothic church that’s worth peeking inside for its interesting interior and collection of Baroque artwork.
11. Admire St Nicholas Church
The third of the three famous towers (and visible from St Michael’s Bridge) is the steeple of St Nicholas Church, right next to Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and the belfry. It’s a seriously pretty place, built from bluestone from the Tournai area and turrets on either side. It’s a great specimen of Scheldt Gothic architecture.
Its position next to the old Wheat Market (Korenmarkt) meant that it was frequented by artisans and merchants from the guilds, who eventually had their own chapels added onto the church. It’s not as interesting on the inside but if you’re passing by, it’s still worth a peek.
12. Hang out on the Graslei and Korenlei
Ghent’s medieval waterfront is absolutely beautiful. The Graslei (“Grass Quay”) and Korenlei (“Corn Quay”) are the areas on either side of the Leie river, and they make a fun spot to wander down or stop to sip a delicious Belgian beer.
This was Ghent’s original harbor, and the buildings on the quay are grandiose and very picture-worthy. Graslei is the prettier of the two, which means you get the best views from standing on the Korenlei, on the other side.
As well as being a lively evening spot, the waterfront is home to some of the city’s most remarkable buildings and finest guild houses. Look out for the Flemish Renaissance Customs House (“Tolhuisje”) and the House of the Grain Weighers (“Gildehuis der Graanmeters”), both dating from the 17th century. Even older than that is the Brabant Gothic style House of the Free Boatmen (“Gildehuis der Vrije Schippers”) and the Romanesque Spijker or Koornstapelhuis.
13. Attend Ghent Light Festival
The Ghent Light Festival is a fantastic event that sweeps the city every three years. This free festival showcases the city in a totally new light (literally!) with a carefully curated walking route that takes you past all the most celebrated sights (most of which are mentioned in this post).
The route is 6.5 km (4 miles) in total and leads in a loop all around the city. You can join at any point but you do need to follow the correct direction. Paper maps are available to pick up en route. Be aware it does get very busy throughout the few days of the Light Festival so it’s a good idea to plan thoroughly and book accommodation ahead of time.
The installations and performances themselves are created by international light artists, and the trail will illuminate many lesser-known attractions in Ghent as well as the beloved ones like Gravensteen Castle, Graslei and St Michael’s Bridge.
14. Take a boat trip on Ghent’s medieval waterways
Who doesn’t enjoy a calm and relaxing city boat trip? There are 40-minute boat cruises along the river Leie that you can hop on from Graslei as well as a number of other pick-up points. There aren’t many better ways of experiencing a city than from the water, and these trips give you a unique view of the waterfront, as well as being a let-up for those hard-working legs!
The route will take you past the medieval quay, the Old Butcher’s Hall and the Gravensteen and more. There’s on-board commentary in different language options filling you in on insider facts, and the boats can be open or covered to shelter from all weathers.
15. Look round the exhibitions at St Peter’s Abbey
This former Benedictine Abbey is another of Ghent’s beautiful buildings. It was founded in the 7th century by the same person that founded St Bavo’s Abbey. Although it was plundered viciously by the Normans, it eventually grew to become one of the richest abbeys in Flanders, and its land and buildings extended far and wide.
Today the abbey is a museum, and visitors can take an informative virtual tour of the medieval dining hall, the abbey church, the garden, and the attics. You can also visit some of these places in person too.
16. Picnic in Citadelpark
This oasis in the middle of the city is the largest and oldest park in Ghent, located on top of a hill between the two rivers. It was first formed in 1875 on the site of a former citadel. The citadel itself was demolished ahead of the World Fair that took place in Ghent in 1913. Today, it’s a glorious meeting point of nature and culture and is a favorite among Ghent’s student population.
There are a few things to do and see in the park, such as the botanical gardens, the monument to painter Emile Claus, and the old wrought iron music kiosk in the northern part. However, the best thing about Citadelpark is the chance to immerse yourself in the greenery and atmosphere – wander through, stretch your legs, or settle down for a picnic in the sun.
17. Stroll through the Kouter flower market
Every day of the year there’s a flower market on the Kouter making it a lovely place for a saunter, but each Sunday morning the market expands and is truly a sight (and scent!) to behold. Stalls line the square, overflowing with blooms, greenery and foliage. There’s often a brass band spouting a fanfare from the bandstand, and there’s a myriad of mouth-watering cafes and restaurants to stop off at.
The Blue Kiosk (De Blauwe Kiosk) on the Kouter is a quaint little counter that serves fresh oysters and white wine, which is a favorite ritual for Ghent locals. This little place is one of the original newspaper kiosks that used to be dotted around the city. Out of 38 such kiosks, put in place in 1885, this is the last remaining one, now renovated as an open-air seafood bar.
The Kouter is a great spot for music lovers. As well as the ever-present little orchestra serenading your pleasant flower market stroll, there’s also the legendary De Handelsbeurs concert venue and the 19th-century Opera Gent building.
18. Visit S.M.A.K Museum
A visit to the S.M.A.K (“The Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst” or City Museum for Contemporary Art) is one good way to wake up after your dose in the adjacent Citadelpark. This museum holds sharp, cutting edge and provocative exhibitions. It features permanent shows with work from top Belgian and international contemporary artists alongside temporary exhibitions. It’s now known worldwide for challenging expectations.
19. Look round the Museum of Fine Arts
If contemporary art is not your bag, head to the wonderful Museum of Fine Arts, just the other side of the road from S.M.A.K. The permanent collection features an amazing range of works from the middle ages all the way up to the 20th century, focusing on Belgian creators but also featuring international artists too. You can expect works from Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel the Younger, Emile Claus, Jordaens, Rubens, Tintoretto and so many more.
The museum is part of the Flemish Art Collection which forms a trio with ones in Bruges and Antwerp. This grand museum is definitely one of the best things to do in Ghent in bad weather!
Ghent somehow manages to tick all the boxes, being steeped in history but with a finger on the pulse at the same time. So far, it seems to be Belgium’s best-kept secret, and it has remained off the tourist circuit. Hopefully, this starter-kit for Ghent things to do will give you a few ideas, even if you just have one day to visit the city.
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