By Jim Ferri
Like many travelers to Belgium, I had always set my sights on Brussels and Bruges and didn’t even think of visiting Ghent.
Then, blessed with an unexpected extra day to spend in Belgium, a country I greatly enjoy, I made a day trip to Ghent. I was in the city less than a half-hour when I began wondering how had I missed this spectacular city for so many years.
Given the beauty of both Bruges and Ghent, comparisons of the two are unavoidable. Suffice it to say that while Bruges’s reputation has been 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.
In fact, there are more listed historic buildings in Ghent than in any other Belgian city, and all less than an hour from Brussels by train.
Ghent’s Well-Preserved Medieval City Center
In medieval times Ghent was one of the largest cities in Europe, second only to Paris. Today it is a city of culture, a place with an abundance of museums, galleries and assorted architectural gems.
In addition to its cultural offerings, Ghent’s major attraction is its well-preserved medieval city center, one of the finest in Europe. Many of its most beautiful medieval buildings are in the historic areas around the old Graslei harbor, a car-free area that is the largest in Belgium. It’s the perfect place to wander about and later relax in one of the area’s many restaurants and cafés.
A Two-Hour Walking Tour
After arriving my first task was to seek out the city tourist office. I found it the Old Fishmarket off a little café-lined square right next to the Castle of the Counts. The woman there was quite helpful, providing me with some good information including a map outlining a two-hour walk around the old section of the city.
I was quickly off, stopping immediately at the imposing Castle right across the street. Nowhere else in the world will you find such a massive castle right in the middle of a city, not on a hill above it. You would think that it would be out of place but it actually fits in its urban setting quite nicely. Entrance to the castle is €10 per adult.
An Easy Walk Around Old Ghent
I continued on, turning here and there, wandering down side streets that looked interesting. It was an easy, quiet, relaxing walk, colorful and historic 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 popular 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 to it is St. Michael’s Bridge, the best place to get a superb view of the skyline of the old city as evidenced by the numerous travelers on it taking panorama shots of the area with their phones and iPads.
St. Bavo Cathedral
Cross St. Michaels and you’ll be near St. Bavo, Ghent’s most famous cathedral. It is nothing short of magnificent, as is its renown work of art, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, the most important work in Flemish art.
Pay 4 Euros upon entry and you can view it in the rear of the cathedral (to your left as you enter).
Although St. Bavo was once a small parish church, nothing remains of the original. There are, however, several art treasures scattered about including a work by Rubens and a rococo pulpit dating from 1745.
Sint-Baafsplein(St. Bavo Square) in front of the cathedral is the historic center of the city, Ghent’s equivalent of London’s Trafalgar Square. Nearby is the city’s Unesco-listed 14th-century belfry, topped by a dragon weathervane.
Wandering on through the historic quarter I passed the Sikkel, the home of an extremely wealthy 15th century Ghent family. (The family was exceptionally wealthy. since it had its own well at a time when the city’s 65,000 inhabitants had to share only five wells).
What is interesting about the Sikkel has nothing to do with family history, however. Today you can walk along the street and at times hear music drifting from the windows, giving an ethereal ambiance to the neighborhood. The music is coming from students at a music academy which now occupies the building.
Continue on pass the Sikkel and you’ll soon come to Ghent’s Town Hall, a schizophrenic building architecturally speaking, 16th-century Gothic on the right side, Italian Renaissance on the left.
The Best Views in Ghent
After wandering the historic center for an hour or two you’ll find the best views of medieval Ghent to be had from a café table on either the Graslei and Korenlei sides of the river-harbor. Or, perhaps, from a seat on one of the numerous tour boats that slip through the city. The beautiful architecture on both sides of the harbor tell the story of Ghent’s amazing 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. Go see for yourself.