Ghent: Belgium's best-kept secret

by Kristi Adams
Stripes Europe

If you think a trip to Belgium means either Brussels or Bruges, then you’ve missed the country’s best-kept secret of Ghent!

With its picturesque canal bridges, gently lilting architecture and gabled façades, Ghent reminded me of Amsterdam. As Belgium’s third-largest city, Ghent is a bit bigger than Bruges. However, it is just as walkable and offers more things to do, with a wider selection of cafés and restaurants. 

But when I discovered the city also had several dragons and a secret behind the flickering, nighttime city lights – Ghent now firmly ranks high among my favorite European cities.

See

Belfort Tower – Towering above the Ghent skyline is the Old Belfry. The first gilded copper dragon was put on top of the tower in 1382. One has been perched on the tower protecting the city ever since. A huge plus for touring the Belfort is an elevator that makes several stops in the tower, giving you amazing views of the city – without having to climb quite so many steps.  

Belfort Tower, topped with a dragon.

One of the previous guards on display in the belfry. If he looks familiar, there’s a reason: it’s the face of Gulden Draak beer! © Claudine Van Massenhove | rf123.com

Gravensteen Castle – The former castle of the counts is a 12th-century stone fortress complete with a moat, turrets and arrow slits. There’s also a sizable weapons museum with torture devices and an actual guillotine – with an original blade. TIP: Arrive early to beat the tour buses. 

Gravensteen Castle and moat © kasto | rf123.com

Graslei and Korenlei markets – Meander through these delightful city centers, hop on a boat for a canal tour or just enjoy a nice Belgian beer at a waterside café.   

St. Bavo’s Cathedral – Along with stunning architecture and a magnificent crypt, the cathedral houses the most-frequently stolen artwork of all time; the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Known as the Ghent Altarpiece, this monumental oil painting completed in 1432 contains 12 massive oak panels. In WWII, the Nazi’s paranormal research group thought the masterpiece contained a hidden map to the Holy Grail, creating a race among the Nazi art theft unit to see who could capture it first. They succeeded, but the piece was eventually rescued and returned by the US’s Monuments Men.  

Interior nave, St. Bavo’s Cathedral © Boris Breytman | rf123.com

Graffiti Street – Just past the Korenlei market is a delightful little gem known as Graffiti Street. The actual street name is Werregarenstraat. Once you find it, you’re treated to an explosion of colorful wall murals.

 

Nighttime Magic

Ghent is beautiful during the day, but becomes absolutely stunning at night when the city comes alive with light. The nighttime splendor of the city is a carefully crafted network of thousands of lights developed by the famous lighting designer Roland Jéol. The city has won several international awards for its lighting plan, including the highest rating of three stars by the prestigious Michelin travel guide.

Standing on St. Michael’s Bridge, one of the best nighttime views of the city, we saw the city lights flicker. At first, I thought it was my imagination – until they flickered again.

The flickering is in fact part of an art installation titled “Ai Nati Oggi” meaning, “For Those Born Today”. Artist Alberto Garutti partnered with the Ghent City Council to connect the square’s streetlights to the local maternity hospitals! When a newborn arrives, the parents can press a button in the hospital, which subtly announces to the world via flickering light that they’ve welcomed a bright new addition to their family, and to the city.

Canalside, Korenlei market

 

Eat & Drink

There’s no shortage of great food and drinks to be had in Ghent. These were our favorites:

Lunch

Restaurant De Graslei – For a gourmet lunch at a bargain price – you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than De Graslei. Located in one of the most charming market squares in the city, the view is just as stunning as the food. Treat yourself to a three-course lunch, for just 17 – 19 euros per person! Reservations are smart for lunch and a must for dinner. 

 

Drinks

‘t Galgenhuisje – As the smallest and coziest pub in Ghent, “The Gallows House” offers a wonderfully quaint, medieval ambiance and one of the neatest places to grab a nice Belgian beer. It might take a few tries to snag a seat but a stop is worth it.

Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant – Located next to the river, the Waterhouse offers a large selection of beers, including several great house beers, in addition to some very nice salads and snacks.  

The Drifter and The Mix. If you find yourself craving something different, take a rum-filled journey through these two Tiki bars. Tiki bars, you ask? You betcha, since these two bars whip up some of the best cocktails in the city using top spirits and the freshest ingredients.

 

Dinner

Amatsu – Take advantage of Ghent’s nautical access and head to one of the best sushi restaurants we’ve found since stationed in Europe. Amatsu offers a wide range of a la carte items as well as full-tasting menus, in a lovely dining setting. Reservations are a must. TIP – For a romantic and quiet candle-lit dinner, ask to sit in the courtyard. 

Ankara – For a Mediterranean treat, head to one of the top-rated restaurants in the city. Ankara offers excellent value, with large sharing platters meant for two people but loaded down with enough delicious meats, cheeses, and sides that it could easily be shared by four.  

 

If you drive to Ghent, don’t forget to swing by the Carrefour market to stock up on those hard-to-find Belgian brews. After one visit to Ghent – you might just find yourself counting down the days until the next trip.

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