By Jim Ferri
Ghent mimics Bruges and Amsterdam in so many ways.
There’s that Old World architecture, of course. But there’s also bicycles, cobblestone streets, legions of cafés and pubs and delicious little restaurants. And old churches and art and an abundance of ambiance. In fact, the similarities seem endless.
The one way Ghent doesn’t mimic its regional neighbors, however, is in attracting crowds of tourists. That’s a godsend since it makes it quite easy to wander about and enjoy this charming and compact city.
In fact, you can see the entire old historic area of Ghent in just one easy day. And still, have plenty of time for lunch and an afternoon beer.
Ghent vs. Bruges
I’d been to Belgium many times, and traveled throughout the country, but somehow never made it to Ghent. That’s astounding when you consider it’s only 30 miles from Brussels, less than an hour by train.
Also amazing, at least historically, is that until the 13th century Ghent was the second-largest city in Europe. Only Paris was larger.
Its merchants grew exceptionally rich on the cloth and wool trades and used their wealth to construct beautiful guild houses and other buildings. Their legacy is in historic buildings, with more in Ghent than in any other Belgian city. In fact, Ghent remains one of the best-preserved medieval cities in all of Europe.
Still, though, given the beauty of both Bruges and Ghent, comparisons of the two are unavoidable. Suffice it to say that while Bruges’s reputation was built on the romantic ambiance of its canals and intimate streets, Ghent showcases its beauty through its wealth of imposing architecture and broad open spaces.
A Well-Preserved Medieval City Center
Modern day Ghent is a city of culture, a place with an abundance of museums, galleries, and different architectural gems.
In addition to its cultural offerings, Ghent’s primary attraction is its well-preserved city center, one of the finest in Europe. Many of its beautiful medieval buildings stand around Graslie, the old merchant’s street that cozies up to the Leie River. It’s a car-free area that’s the largest in Belgium.
It’s also the perfect place to wander about and later relax in one of the area’s many restaurants and cafés.
An Easy Walking Tour
I started my tour across the river at the city tourist office. I found it in the Old Fishmarket off a little café-lined square right next to the Castle of the Counts. The staff was quite helpful, outlining a two-hour walk around the old section of the city for me.
I was quickly off, stopping immediately at the imposing Castle right across the street. Nowhere else have I seen such a massive castle at street level right in the middle of a city. You would think it would seem out of place, but it fits in its urban setting quite nicely. Entrance to the castle is €10 per adult.
I continued, turning here and there, wandering down side streets that looked interesting. It was a comfortable, quiet, and relaxing walk, colorful and historical at the same time.
Walking down Jan Breydelstraat I soon came to Appelbrugparkje, an old picturesque park shoehorned in between the old buildings. It was right across the street from the Design Museum, a modern museum with an 18th-century facade. Its stylish collection includes furnishings ranging from modern, Art Deco and Art Nouveau all the way back to the Renaissance.
Not far beyond is the old St. Michael’s Church (its 500-foot tower incomplete for centuries due to a lack of funds) and, along the river, an old Dominican friary that’s now part of Ghent University. Adjacent is St. Michael’s Bridge, from which scores of tourists immortalize the old skyline with their phones and cameras.
St. Bavo Cathedral
Cross St. Michaels and visit 13th-century St. Bavo, Ghent’s most famous cathedral.
While its Gothic spires are a landmark of the city, it’s what inside that draws the crowds. There you’ll find The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, an altarpiece by the Flemish artists Jan and Hubrecht van Eyck. You can view it in a small chapel in the rear of the cathedral, to your left as you enter.
The cathedral took several hundred years to build and contains features of every phase of Goth style. There are also several other treasures scattered about including a work by Rubens and a rococo pulpit dating from 1745. Although it was once a small parish church, nothing remains of the original.
In front of the cathedral St. Bavo Square is Ghent’s historic center, the local equivalent of London’s Trafalgar. Nearby, the city’s UNESCO-listed 14th-century belfry is topped by a dragon weathervane.
Wandering on through the historic quarter I passed the Sikkel, home of an extremely wealthy 15th-century Ghent family. The evidence of their wealth is the existence of a private well. At the time the house was built the city’s other 65,000 other inhabitants had to share only five.
What is interesting about the Sikkel has nothing to do with family history, however. Today it’s home to the Conservatory of the University College Ghent, and from the street, you’ll hear students rehearsing. As music drifts from the windows, it gives an ethereal ambiance to the neighborhood.
Continue up the street, and you’ll soon come to Ghent’s Town Hall, a schizophrenic building, architecturally speaking. Take a look, and you’ll see it’s 16th-century Gothic on its right side, Italian Renaissance on its left.
The Best Views in the City
After wandering the historic center for an hour or two, you’ll find the best views of medieval Ghent from a café table on either the Graslei or Korenlei sides of the river harbor. The beautiful architecture on both banks tells the story of Ghent’s incredible rise to economic power during the Middle Ages.
Many travel guides – and travelers – laud it as one of the most beautiful city views in Europe. I agree. See for yourself.