GHENT RIVALS BRUGES FOR ITS RICH TREASURY OF MEDIEVAL HERITAGE:
With it’s quaint and medieval town centre made up of narrow canals, cobbled traffic-free streets and a fine castle and cathedral, Ghent (Gent in Dutch) is a very alluring place to visit, especially when it’s just a half hour train ride from Brussels. In the past, the capital of East Flanders and the largest city of the province had always been under-rated as a tourist spot, but not after George Clooney and his Monuments Men put Ghent back in the international spotlight when, in the movie, they restored “The Mystic Lamb” to Saint Bavo Cathedral, its rightful home. Ghent easily rivals Bruges for its rich treasury of medieval heritage.
In terms of inhabitants (known as “Gentenaars”), Ghent is Belgium’s second largest municipality and there is a lot to see and do in this town. We unfortunately were here only for a short stay, and so we concentrated on the must-see sights which included:
Ghent’s town centre – The fabric of the town centre was built in the 13th and 14th century and much of the city’s medieval architecture remains in tact. The centre is the largest car-free area in Belgium which is great for sightseeing. We were able to safely gaze upwards towards the city’s towers and church spires without fear of being run down by a car.
As we entered the city from the eastern end of town, our first port of call was St Baafskathedraal (Saint Bavo’s Cathedral) – Ghent’s most extensive and oldest Cathedral took approximately six hundred years to complete. Some parts of this Gothic masterpiece stretch back to the twelfth century. St Bavo is of course home to The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the much admired altarpiece by the van Eyck brothers. This masterpiece was the subject of George Clooney’s Monuments Men.
From St Bavo’s Cathedral we headed to St Michael’s Bridge and from here you get a view of much of what the city has to offer.
Ghent’s town hall, the impressive Stadhius Gent is the largest town hall in Belgium. The building dates back to the early 15th century and combines both flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles. Close by are the Old Post Office, Saint Nicholas Church and the Belfry which was built in the 14th century and offers striking vistas over the city.
Graslei, the medieval port area is the city’s favourite meeting place. Lined with medieval buildings, shops and cafes, this is the heart of the medieval inner city. On a sunny day, a nice thing to do is a boat cruise on the canal, but we were not so lucky and had grey skies instead.
Gravensteen Castle – the Castle of the Counts, was constructed in the eleventh century and it’s one of the most renowned landmarks of Ghent.
Markets – To the right of the castle is Vrijdagmarkt. On Friday mornings and Saturday afternoons there is a large open market here. During medieval times, the market square was where political and social life took place. Here you’ll see the statue of Jacob van Artevelde, the Wise Man pointing to England, and hear his legend. Today, this pleasant market and restaurant area is peppered with market stalls and quaint cafés/bars. For beer lovers, the Tavern dulle Griet is a legendary café serving more than 250 Belgian beers!A little south of Vrijdagmarkt is Groentenmarkt where a market is held every Friday. This is where you can pick up tasty Belgian products and where I found my cuberdons. Groentenmarkt was an execution yard during medieval times, but you need not worry as there’s nothing left of its gory past today.
Museums – Close by are the Design Museum Gent, the Museum voor Sierkunst en Vormgeving (with various displays depicting Ghent life over the past couple of centuries). There are alternative museums to visit – the Museum voor Schone Kunsten has a large display of art dating back to the 14th century while the Bijlolemuseum is located in a building that was first constructed in the 13th century.
Ghent has some stunning listed buildings (many of which are a thousand years old) and you can see many of them in and around the area that runs from St Michielsbrug to St Baafskathedral.
Stroll along the River Leie for one of the most pleasant walks available anywhere in Belgium.
Restaurants in Ghent
Ghent has a large selection of restaurants, cafes and bars, ranging from pokey student type affairs to more elegant and expensive offerings for foodies in search of gourmet foods.
The south of the city is known for its student population so you’re more likely to find a youthful crowd here and more budget eateries. There’s a reasonably wide selection of choices throughout the city – from traditional Belgian fare to Thai, Italian and Asian.
Vegetarians will be pleased to know that Ghent is a vegetarian-friendly city. To play its part in reducing the detrimental environmental effects from meat production, this progressive city has a meat-free day on Thursdays which is called Donderdag Veggiedag. On this day all government canteens and city funded schools promote vegetarian meals. It’s not surprising then that Ghent has the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
Like Brussels it’s easy to navigate through Ghent, thanks to a comprehensive and well run public transport system.
Staying the Night
There is a lot to see and do in Ghent and it is certainly worth staying a couple of nights here. Accommodation is typically fairly easy to secure, except for the month of July when the town hosts Gentse Feesten. There’s a good range of accommodation in Ghent, from the basic room to the more elegant establishments like the Ghent Marriott Hotel in the historic centre. Check the range of accommodation and book Ghent hotels Here.