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Ghent Belgium – The History Book of Europe

‘Nie pleuje!’ – Don’t give up!

Ghents moto

You will find beauty and rich history in all of Belgium. When you travel through its cities, it is like reading a history book about Europe. It has ancient medieval architecture, majestic towns & villages, World War sites, and over a dozen UNESCO World Heritage cultural and natural sites almost untouched by time.

The city of Ghent, in the Flemish region of Belgium, is a wonder for tourists and rises to the top of the list of places you can’t miss when visiting this magnificent country. 

If you want to spend a perfect weekend that you will never forget, you should opt for Ghent. With its gothic buildings, majestic castle, and intriguing architecture it feels like an enchanting trip back in time that will capture your heart and imagination. There is a vibe and energy here that will astound you. We came only to visit Gravensteen Castle, and from the first moment entering enchanting Ghent, we were captivated.

Everything in this charming city has a story that mesmerizes you and makes you sing the praises of this city at any opportunity its name comes into the conversation. Ghent has quite a story to tell, and once you have visited, you will also want to praise its wonders.

Where is Ghent, Belgium?

ghent belgium
The historical center of Ghent, view of Prinsenhof and Gravensteen Photo from Adobe Stock Photos

Ghent is located in the northwestern region of Belgium and is at the center of an urban complex that includes Ledeberg, Gentbrugge, and Sint-Amandsberg. It is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province, and the third-largest in the country, with Brussels and Antwerp coming in first. Ghent is a port and university city. It sits on the confluence of the Rivers Leie and Scheldt. With over 262,000 residents, Ghent is Belgium’s second-largest municipality by the number of residents. 

The city is home to many people of foreign origin and immigrants, making Ghent a culturally diverse city. The most recent census showed that 35.5% of the inhabitants have roots outside of Belgium, and 15.3% have a non-Belgian nationality.

Map of Ghent, Belgium

A Long and Storied History

Photo by Joelle’s niece Emma

Archaeological evidence shows human presence around the confluence of the Scheldt and the Leie Rivers going back as far as the Stone and Iron Ages. One of Belgium’s oldest cities, Ghent, was powerful and well-organized due to its wealthy trade associations and was virtually independent until 1584. Along with Bruges and Ypres, Ghent was one of the most prestigious towns in the medieval county of Flanders. It owes its origin to the economic developments in Flanders during the 10th century. The town was born on the banks of the Leie River under the protection of nearby Gravensteen Castle, built by the Counts of Flanders.

Powerhouse of Europe

Ghent multiplied in the 12th century, and by the 13th century, it was one of the largest and most prosperous towns in northern Europe. Its main economic boom was based on cloth manufacturing. Ghent’s luxury fabrics made from English and Scottish wool were renowned throughout Europe until the 15th century. The city’s wealth gave it substantial political power. This situation, though, often led to open conflict. At the start of the Hundred Years’ War in the early 14th century, Ghent sided with England against the count of Flanders and the King of France. Trade with England suffered significantly during the Hundred Years’ War.

The city recovered in the 15th century when Flanders was united with neighboring provinces under the Dukes of Burgundy. The high taxes later imposed by the dukes of Burgundy prompted several uprisings by the town’s citizens in the 15th century. The army of Ghent was massacred by the forces of Philip the Good at the Battle of Gavre in 1453. With the marriage of Mary of Burgundy to the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1477, Ghent passed to the rule of the Habsburgs. The future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500.

Gravensteen Castle

Although native to Ghent, Charles V punished the city after the 1539 Revolt of Ghent and forced the city’s nobles to walk in front of the Emperor barefoot with a noose (Dutch: “strop”) around the neck; since this incident, the people of Ghent have been given the name “Stroppendragers” (noose bearers). 

Centuries of Wars

The late 16th and 17th centuries brought devastation due to the Eighty Years’ War. The war ended the role of Ghent as a center of international importance. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Ghent’s textile industry returned with fervor. Lieven Bauwens (reportedly after having smuggled the industrial and factory machine plans out of England) introduced the first mechanical weaving machine on the European continent in 1800. Ghent subsequently became the center of the Belgian textiles industry and an important port. The docks were accessible to large vessels after extensive improvements were made to the canal and its locks.

After the 19th century Battle of Waterloo, Ghent and Flanders became a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands with the northern Dutch for 15 years. Ghent established a university and a vital connection to the sea during this period.

In the 20th century, Ghent was occupied by the Germans in both World War I and II. Somehow, though, it escaped destruction when many of its neighbors did not. The British and local Belgian fighters liberated the city on 6 September 1944.

What are the top sites to see in Ghent, Belgium?

In the center of the city stands the 14th-century Belfry. At about 300 feet high, it has a 52-bell carillon and is adorned by a gilded copper dragon forged in 1377. The town hall reflects a diversity of styles: it’s north facade (1518–35) is a magnificent example of Flamboyant Gothic. The east face completed almost a century later, is in Renaissance style.

The magnificent castle of the Counts of Flanders, Gravensteen, dates from 1180. Gravensteen Castle is an excellent example of the motte-and-bailey castle, a fortification with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised area called a motte. The Keep and circular walls reveal the incredible restoration efforts, making it one of the most-imposing moated castles in Europe. (See the shadow box below to learn more about the castle.)

Ghent is well known for its extensive public squares and marketplaces, among which is the Vrijdagmarkt, “Friday Market,” the center of the life of the medieval city. If you enjoy life’s little luxuries, you will fall in love with the markets. Every shop is different and has something to suit every taste. For example, people who love flowers can visit “Kouter Square.” This flower market has been active since the 18th century. Flower-lovers from around the globe visit to see the colorful stands selling tulips and the endless varieties of flowers and plants. Even for the Ghent’s residents, it is a favorite ritual to buy flowers from Kouter Square every Sunday morning. 

What charmed us
Photo by Joelle’s niece Emma

In our view, the essence of the Ghent makes this city so remarkable. It would be easy to spend hours wandering the beautiful ancient streets, absorbing the incredible architecture and vibrant community. It is wonderful to feel its pulse and energy and appreciate its uniqueness and character. You will quickly discover why it has won many tourism accolades and international acclaim.

The religious sites
Photo by Joelle’s niece Emma

Of Ghent’s many famous medieval monasteries, the most notable are the ruined 7th-century Abbey of St. Bavo, the birthplace of John of Gaunt, which now houses the Lapidary Museum, and the remains of the Cistercian Abbey of Byloke (1228). The Gothic Cathedral of St. Bavo, dating from the 12th century, contains many valuable works of art, including Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s polyptych altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432).

Other medieval churches include St. Nicholas, which has the third of the great towers of Ghent (the others are the Belfry and St. Bavo’s), and Saint-Michel, containing Anthony Van Dyck’s painting of “Christ on the Cross.” Ghent is also famous for its béguinages (retreats for secular nuns), two of which survived from the 13th century.

Education and the Arts
Photo by Joelle’s niece Emma

Ghent University was founded by Dutch King William I in 1817 before the state of Belgium itself was. The student population is around 44,000 students. The campus is beautiful to explore as the whole city is.

Along with five other Universities in Ghent, more than 25 percent of the city population are students. It makes it understandable why there is such a young vibe and a busy social scene here.

Ghent, as will be of no surprise, has many fine museums, most notably the Museum of Fine Arts, which contains a beautiful collection of paintings by Flemish masters who lived and worked in Ghent during the 16th and 17th centuries. But you don’t need to visit a museum to see fascinating art. The street art here is quite renowned in its own right. It is a city that, at its core, is passionate about art.

Ghent is internationally recognized for its dynamic music scene. Among the most notable sites are the Ghent Opera House dating back to the 19th century, the Bijloke Concert Hall, located in a medieval hospital ward, and the HA Concert Hall, situated in a former stock exchange.

OH, those festivals!
ghent belgium

Ghent is well known for its festivals, which is why it is often referred to as Festival City. If that is your interest, July is your month. The popular Ten-Day Ghent Festivities usually start in mid-July and bring visitors from all over the world. The annual Jazz Festival is the week before. In September, you will find Jazz in the Park, OdeGand, and the Ghent Flanders Festival.

Fun Facts about Ghent Belgium

Ghent is spelled Gent in Dutch and Gand in French.

Historians believe the name Ghent originated from the Celtic word ganda, which means confluence.

Ghent has always been known as a city of rebels. 

According to the tourism office, Ghent is home to over 65 restaurants, 620 cafes, and 250 different kinds of beer.

Ghent is said to have the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita. The city of Ghent promotes a meat-free day every Thursday called Donderdag Veggiedag. 

Ghent has three monuments that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. As a result, it makes sense why Ghent is nicknamed the ‘Medieval Manhattan.’

Ghent is known for purple cone-shaped, jelly-filled candies called cuberdons or neuzekes (‘noses’)

The wool industry was the core of the economy here, and there were enormous amounts of sheep walking around on the grass marshes outside the city center.

Since Ghent is located in the Flemish Region of Belgium, Starbucks uses the Dutch spelling Gent on its coffee mugs.

Top 11 Things to Do in Ghent Belgium

In reality, there are many fun things to do in Ghent to occupy a multi-day visit.

  1. Explore the heart of Ghent, Gravensteen Castle
  2. Spot the fantastic Ghent Belfry and climb to the top
  3. Wander the vibrant street art culture
  4. Check the 15th-Century Butcher’s Hall
  5. Enjoy a meal at Vrijdagmarkt
  6. Take a stroll around the city center
  7. Snap some beautiful pictures on St. Michael’s Bridge
  8. Visit the culinary heart of the city – Patershol
  9. Hop onto a water tram and view this gorgeous city from its canals
  10. Bike, the city like locals.
  11. Participate in the music scene at multiple venues throughout the city or during music festivals

Overall, Ghent has many activities for travelers of all ages and interests. It is especially kid-friendly, with many activities to spike their interest.

Ghent’s Most Attractive Feature – Gravensteen Castle

Gravensteen Castle

We love this majestic medieval fortress, which brought us to Ghent. It did not disappoint.

It is also known as the “Castle of the Counts.” The current castle dates from 1180 and was the residence of the Counts of Flanders until 1353. The castle was subsequently re-purposed as a court, prison, mint, and even a cotton factory. It is massive and has a great history that helps you understand the Belgium culture of the 12th century. You learn about Ghent’s complex political and social issues, turbulent past, military architecture, and torture equipment.

One of the most fascinating spots in this castle is the “Torture Museum.” It has some terrifying and disturbing equipment and devices that tell the story of this castle’s dark and horrific past. You learn how the counts used this equipment in the 12th century to intimidate and punish those who challenged their authority.

Restoration

The city of Ghent began a significant restoration of Gravensteen in a romanticizing Gothic style between 1893 and 1907 under the architect Joseph de Waele. After its restoration, this castle now has a modern vibrancy. It has a decorative moat on three sides, portraying it as a symbol of the power it once had. Gravensteen Castle was the centerpiece of the Ghent World Fair of 1913. The exhibits within the castle are excellent, and the castle’s restoration is exceptional. Make sure to make it to the top of the castle for stunning views of the city of Ghent.

We would suggest choosing the audio visit option for your visit, too, which is voiced by Wouter Deprez (a Flemish comedian). He not only takes you on a journey through its history but also shares the castle’s story and its exciting battles in funny, passionate ways.

How Many Days Should You Spend In Ghent?

ghent belgium
From Adobe Stock Photos

In our opinion, two full days should suffice. This is because it is not a touristy destination, and you can easily see plenty of things in a short amount of time. 

You can visit its most beautiful attractions, have fun with the traveling community and kind residents, and relish its local dishes (especially Gentse Waterzooi and Ironed Mastel Pastry).

If you can only spend just one day, here is a suggested itinerary:

  1. Start your day at “Simon Says” (coffee bar)
  2. Visit Gravensteen Castle
  3. Enjoy a canal cruise – see the city from the water
  4. Check this city’s beginning in Ghent City Museum
  5. Climb the Ghent Belfry for the best view of the city
  6. And enjoy dinner at Roots

Dining and the nightlife in Ghent Belgium

ghent belgium
: Photo from Adobe Stock Photos

The City of Ghent has put a lot of thought into how their city shines at night. The reason is a carefully designed lighting plan by famous designer Ronald Jéol. So striking is Ghent’s internationally acclaimed lighting design; it plays center stage in the Ghent Light Festival. This festival brings light artists from all over the world to Ghent every three years for a spectacular event of the arts and light. It even has the honor of having 3 stars in the Michelin Guide.

Ghent is a happening city with an active social scene and nightlife. Whether it is packed with lunch crowds, locals having a beer after work, or an evening out, it is constantly buzzing. If you love beer, you have come to the right place!! The selection is vast, and many originate here in Ghent. Dulle Griet, The Gentse Gruut Brewery, Trollekelder, and Cafe Den Turk are the best places to sample local brews and have a cocktail.

Ghent has one of the most exciting culinary scenes in Europe. The top restaurants we suggest in Ghent include Viva la Puglia, Heritage, Bistro Illyrian, Midtown Grill, Roots, and La Papa Canaria.

How Do You Get to Ghent?

Gravensteen

The airport closest to Ghent is the Brussels International Airport. This city doesn’t have an airport, but there are four different ways to get there – taxi, bus, car, and train. Trains are likely the most economical and fastest option. Many high-speed trains come to Ghent.

The country’s largest airport is in Brussels. If you opt for the train from Brussels, it will take 37 minutes to reach the city. The central station is Gent-Sint-Pieters can be reached from all Belgian cities. If you travel to Belgium via the European high-speed train network, you can transfer to a train to Ghent at the Bruxelles-Midi, Antwerp, or Lille (France).

If you plan to get on the bus, it takes 55 minutes from Brussels. It may be the slowest way to travel, but it is the cheapest option.

By Car

Ghent is easy to reach by car. The city is only 45 minutes away from Bruges and Brussels and a little less than an hour away from Antwerp. Two European motorways (E17 and E40) intersect in Ghent. Take the exit “Gent Centrum.” We found the roadways easy to navigate. Once you arrive in the city, you can either park your car free of charge at the edge of the town or use one of the pay lots. If you opt for the latter, the electronic signs on the roads leading to the city center will guide you to the different parking lots.

*We do have a warning. Our GPS sent us right through a Pedestrian only square. Let’s say the looks in our direction made us feel awful! Ryan found the experience so embarrassing, and it was straight out of the city after that. Be conscious of where the GPS sends you. This is a bustling city with tons of pedestrians out and about.*

Where to Stay In Ghent

Photo from Joelle’s niece Emma

Ghent, Belgium, is a relatively small city. However, it has many accommodation options. There are luxury and upscale hotels, quality budget hotels, vacation rentals, and private room hostels. There is a place to stay that will complement any budget. 

We recommend staying in the city center. It will save a lot of time as the city center has the largest concentration of attractions and historic buildings. That is where some of the best restaurants and nightlife can be found. It is as if all of them we purposely put together within easy walking distance of each other.

The hotel we are most impressed with, though we did not stay there, is Hotel Harmony. It is elegant, modern, and has a warm décor. It has excellent reviews and is well located.

The links below provide accommodations and vacation rentals in the Ghent area. Compare each site as not all options are available at both sites. Always look closely at recent reviews before booking.

Expedia

Booking.com

When is the best time to visit?

ghent belgium

The best time to visit Ghent is in the Spring and the Fall. That said, there is no wrong time to pay a visit, as the weather in this region of Europe is relatively mild year-round. Highs in the summer average in the 70s with averages in the 60s. In the winter, averages are around the 40s but rarely below freezing. The heaviest rainfall is in November, but it is pretty even year-round. Snow is a rare occurrence.

Final Thoughts

ghent belgium

Undoubtedly, Ghent has some of the richest medieval histories in Europe while having an intriguing young vibe and energy. The city offers a fascinating cultural cocktail where people live life with a passion. It is a medieval gem with a modern contemporary feel. That is not easy to do. Add to that the genuine welcome you get from the friendly and gracious locals, and you have the complete package.

We came to visit the castle and landed up spending several hours visiting the city. It was hard to leave since the town had so much to offer, but we had many hours to drive to our next hotel. Don’t make the same mistake we did and shortchange the wonder this city has to offer. A family member recently visited Europe on a multi-country trip and said her favorite stop was Ghent. It is something special; give it the time it deserves. It will blow you away.

© 2022 Wanderers Compass All Rights Reserved

In case you are looking for more inspiration and want to visit other parts of Belgium too, check out our– Belgium Travel Guide. It will help you plan your trip and save money.

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Squaremouth.com

Our favorite travel insurance site!

If you are booking a trip, don’t forget to get travel insurance within 14 days of your first booking. We could not be stronger advocates of being well insured. Not for the little stuff but the big stuff like medical emergencies. We never leave home without it. Over the years, we have used many sites but have now found our go-to place. Squaremouth.com does a fantastic job; it has a user-friendly interface, they use top-rated and reputable insurance carriers, and most policies cover Covid medical issues and cancellations. They also mediate on your behalf if you have problems with your policy.

MedjetAssist

Medical transport back home from anywhere in the world

They are the premier global air medical transport. One caveat to travel insurance is that medical evacuation usually gets you to the closest facility to care for you. Medjet gets you back to the US to the hospital of your choice once you are stable enough to fly. They cover Covid-related transports as well.

Medjet carries its own policies. The policy is only for transport and no other aspects of travel insurance. They have individual trip policies starting at $99 and annual policies for $295. Most of their policies limit the age to 74 and younger. Prices are not based on age below that.

Expedia.com 

Hotels, home rentals, BNBs, flights, and other transportation & tours 

Expedia is a US-based company whose mission is to power global travel for everyone and everywhere. Whether planning a family vacation, booking for business, or organizing the trip of a lifetime, they are a fantastic resource. Wanderers Compass focuses on independent travel, and using sites like Expedia makes that possible. Every aspect of travel you would need, from airfare, accommodations, rental car, cruises, to activities to do at your destination, can be booked on Expedia.  

Booking.com

Hotels, Home rentals, BNBs, Flights, and other Transportation & Tours 

Booking.com connects millions of travelers to memorable experiences, various transportation options, and incredible places to stay – from homes to hotels and much more. It is one of the world’s largest travel marketplaces for established brands and entrepreneurs of all sizes.

We always start with Expedia to check prices, but it sometimes says it is sold out. We then try Booking.com, and we find it lists plenty of rooms. It could be they are a Europe-based company. Try both before booking accommodations.

Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO)

Traveling with a family or having an extended stay at your destination?

With over 2 million bookable vacation rentals, VRBO connects homeowners with families and vacationers looking for something more than a hotel for their trip. The VRBO community offers families or groups various rental property types such as condos, cabins, lake rentals, beach houses, etc.

VRBO is under the Expedia group ownership now, which many were worried about, but it hasn’t panned out to be a concern. It is a massive network that also has access to all forms of lodging should issues arise. Joelle has used VRBO for many years with her family, with no problems to date.

Tripadvisor

Tripadvisor, the world’s largest travel guidance platform, helps hundreds of millions of people each month become better travelers, from planning to booking to taking a trip. Travelers around the world use the Tripadvisor site and app to discover where to stay, what to do, and where to eat based on guidance from those who have been there before.

With more than 1 billion reviews and opinions from nearly 8 million businesses, travelers turn to Tripadvisor to find deals on accommodations, book experiences, reserve tables at delicious restaurants and discover great places to see nearby. We use them for guidance and research on every trip, it is a valuable app for the independent traveler.

Rail Europe

Discover Europe by Train

Rail Europe sells train and bus tickets for travel across Europe. They cover 24 countries, 105 rail operations, and 20,000 stations. They are the official rail and bus operations agents in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Rail Europe continues to add coverage all the time.

It is a fast, easy and economical way to purchase train and bus tickets for Europe. Eurail passes are also available to buy through their site.

Amazon.com

An excellent source for travel essentials and guides

Amazon is one of the most extensive shopping online sources in the world. On behalf of their customers, teams worldwide provide lower prices, better selection, and rapid delivery. They offer a vast inventory, and it is their 1.7 million small and medium businesses worldwide selling on Amazon.com that provide extensive options for customers.

We buy most of our travel books, accessories, and luggage from Amazon. We have ordered up to two days before travel and get what we need.

Travelpro Luggage

Thoughtfully Designed | Meticulously Constructed | Quality Guaranteed.

We have used this luggage for years, left briefly to try others, and returned to Travelpro. Travelpro luggage is carried by crews from over 90 airlines worldwide.

Travelpro takes the time to learn what travelers want and need, then builds it. The key factor for us is that it must be lightweight upfront and very resistant to rough handling. Their luggage is the best, and we could not recommend it enough. It is our go-to luggage.

iVisa

Travel documentation made more accessible

iVisa.com is dedicated to providing customers with a simple, fast, and reliable way to get travel documentation for their journey. Their online application process makes getting visas, health declarations, or passport photos a breeze, all from your home’s comfort. As a leading independent company in the travel documentation industry, they take pride in making global travel more accessible for everyone. In the end, it is a simple and affordable travel resource to get the necessary entry documents complete for your international travel.

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