Ghent is a short 50 minute drive, or a quick 30 minute direct train ride from Bruges, which makes it perfect for a day trip. Much like Bruges, Ghent is exploding with medieval architecture in its original form. The belfry of Ghent and the towers of the Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church are examples of architectural landmarks remaining from the late middle ages. Back in the 13th century, many wealthy and influential figures of that time helped grow the city of Ghent to be the second largest in Europe north of the Alps, Paris as the first. However, still larger than today’s powerhouses such as Berlin or Moscow, at that time. Ghent may feel like a small city in today’s world, but if you walk around pretending like you’ve stepped back to the Middle Ages, everything gets a lot larger. Today, the area on the right bank of the Leie River, the river encompassing the historic center of the city, is known as the Graslei which is described as the most scenic area in all of Ghent and was historically part of the medieval port. Now this area is a cultural center of the city, with a high concentration of cafés with outdoor patios, museums, and original medieval architecture.
Things to do:
Admire Sint-Michiels Bridge
From this bridge, looking into the city of Ghent, it appears that all the spires and towers from Saint Nicholas’ Church and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral can be captured in one frame of view. This is a great viewpoint to get introduced to the architecture of Ghent. Unknowingly, we parked on one of the backroads in the outskirts of the city and then just google-mapped “Ghent” with no real plan of what to see. To our surprise, we walked right over this bridge and it was the best entrance we could have asked for. The canal boat tours are right around the corner from this spot – so definitely check it out!
Canal boat tour
There are many different canal boat options in Ghent that you can explore here. We made no prior reservations and had done no previous research, we just happened to walk by and notice a tour was leaving in 10 minutes so we jumped on the boat, dog and all. We enjoyed the open boat experience with De bootjes van Gent – Rederij Dewaele and they even provided us blankets as the wind on the water was a little chilly in February. This was not an absolute must activity, but if you have an hour to sit back and enjoy some time on the water, go for it!
Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen)
The Gravensteen is a moated castle in the heart of Ghent which dates back to the middle ages. In the 10th century, the castle was built by Phillip of Alsace to resemble crusade castles he had seen during the 2nd crusades. The castle has been largely restored since then and now allows you to tour inside, visiting the Museum of Torture and even climb to the top for a great view!
Drink Belgian beer
This is a must for any stop in a Belgian city! A few bars in Ghent are worth a mention here. De Geus van Gent sits right next to the water just around the corner from Sint-Pietersplein which is a little further out from all the tourist areas. Here you can enjoy 20 beers from the barrel, a cozy atmosphere and live music. Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant (Waterhouse on the Beerkant) is located near the historic Ghent city center and likely will pass by if you take a canal cruise. They sell many different beers, including three home-made brews, and have small snack plates including cheese and mustards to pair nicely with their beers. Belgian beer festivals are also very popular during many different times in the year. Any local festival is also a great way to get outside and mingle with locals and other tourists alike, so make sure to check out the events page here to see if there will be a beer festival during your travels.
View from the Belfort
The Het Belfort van Gent, which is a short walk from the Sint-Michiels Bridge, is open everyday from 10am to 6pm and offers a view of Saint Nicholas’ Church and the city below. We didn’t make our way up this trip, but if you have the time, the views from the top at dusk when Ghent lights up are worth the visit.
Try some spirits
Just off the street following the main canal is a new concept, “try and buy” liquor store called Proof, which has a very laid back vibe and makes you feel like you are sitting in your living room. We had no idea this place even existed when we made our day trip to Ghent, but stumbled on it just passing by. As soon as we walked in we were warmly greeted and introduced to the liquor wall for a tasting. Well a tasting is basically a cocktail, so pull up a chair and get comfortable. What a concept – this is essentially a homey cocktail bar and if you try something that you like, you can walk away with that bottle in hand!