by Janis / 4 comments

A Flemish treat in Belgium

The charismatic city of Ghent is perfect for a European mini break. The meandering waterways and ancient cobbled streets lead you on a voyage to discover Ghent’s culture, counts and chocolate; what more could you want?

Ghent’s aim to lower its environmental impact on the world can be seen throughout this picturesque city centre. It has the largest low-traffic pedestrian zone in Europe, and it’s clear to see the benefits to locals and tourists alike.

The ease of strolling around and exploring the historical heart of Ghent at a relaxed pace was one of the things we loved. Just slip on a pair of comfy shoes and venture off to discover Ghent’s magnificent sites; oh yes, keep an eye out for the cyclists.

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Where is Ghent?

How to get to Ghent

- By Train
Start creating your own Ghent adventure by train and discover the cultural delights of this picturesque city at a relaxed pace. Explore the sites amongst the charming city streets.
In just under 3 hours from the UK, you can hop on the Eurostar to Brussels, change onto a Belgium National Rail train to Gent-Sint-Pieters, and your Flemish fun begins.

- By Car
If you’re venturing from the UK, jump on Le Shuttle and tour Belgium under your own steam.
Alternatively, it’s so easy to visit Flanders on a road trip. Rental Cars search multiple well-known car hire brands and find the best deals that suit you.

A brief history of Ghent

A gem in the heart of Flanders

The vibrant city of Ghent has centuries of history flowing through its historic lanes and waterways. During the medieval period of around the year 1000 and then up until 1550, Ghent played a significant role in Europe. Ghent was the second largest city in Europe after Paris.

It’s hard to believe that during the 11th century, large ships docked along the banks of Graslei and Korenlei. However, the striking merchant buildings with their intricate façades create an amazing vision of how the bustling docks would have appeared.

A view of the Graslei in Ghent, Belgium, at dusk from Grasbrug bridge across the River Leie
The Graslei in Ghent

Ghent cultivated a prominent cloth industry for itself and became a leading city for its production in Europe during the Middle Ages. Significant ties were then made with England as their wool was of the highest quality.

Ghent broke its relations with England to appease the King of France and welcomed the Council of Flanders to Ghent from Bruges; they continued to reside in the Castle of the Counts until 1353.

Centuries passed, and Ghent, along with many neighbouring cities, continued to be governed under different European rulers; it wasn’t until October 1830 that Belgium declared independence from the Netherlands.

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Exploring the city of Ghent

The ‘CityCard Gent’ is a must
During our two-night stay in Ghent, we were hosted by Visit Ghent and Visit Flanders. They were extremely helpful and accommodating in assisting our trip.
A selection of leaflets and Two Gent CityCards laid out on a table to provide plenty of inspiration for our visit to Ghent.
Visit Ghent with a CityCard Gent

If there was one significant piece of advice we’d like to share while visiting Ghent, it is to buy a ‘CityCard Gent’. You’ll be hopping from one attraction to another throughout your visit. The CityCard Gent is €38 for 48hrs and €44 for 72hrs. This allows free access and discounts to many of Ghent’s attractions and free travel on trams and buses in the historic city centre. If you’re feeling energetic, you can even rent a bicycle free for a day.

The CityCard Gent ensured that visiting the local attractions and jumping on and off the trams was effortless.

Visiting the Castle of the Counts

Ensure you experience the audio tour

So, armed with our Ghent city cards, we were off to explore the beautiful, moated ‘Castle of the Counts’.

The Castle of the Counts has had quite a turbulent past; however, it’s lived to tell many tales and is now the only remaining medieval moated castle in Flanders with its defences intact.

The Gravensteen stone medieval castle is a must-see in Ghent, Belgium. This view is of the water in front of the castle walls with the keep in the centre.
The Castle of the Counts in Ghent

Visiting the Castle of the Counts or Gravensteen is not to be missed off your Ghent itinerary; it is an absolute must if you enjoy digging deeper into history. Additionally, please do not pass up the opportunity of the audio tour, it’s included in your ticket price and your CityCard Gent, and it is hysterical. It is voiced by the Flemish comedian Wouter Deprez, and I’ve never known an audio guide to be so entertaining.

The Castle of the Counts can trace its history back to the time of the Romans when there was a settlement of the banks on the River Lys. Fast forward to the Middle Ages, the Counts of Flanders were moving in, and the wooden fortress was rebuilt entirely of stone, which you see today, complete with 24 eye-catching towers.

Looking up at the medieval stone walls of the keep inside the Castle of the Counts in Ghent, Belgium
Inside the walls at Gravensteen
After the departure of the Counts, the castle went into decline, and in the 18th-century, it was used as a court and prison. During the industrial revolution, it was home to a cotton mill. However, time passed, and it was on the brink of demolition when it was bought by the City of Ghent and underwent a major restoration and was the centrepiece for the Ghent World Expo in 1913.

Tourist Information

If you’re tempted to visit Ghent, the local tourist office provides some highly useful information and handy pointers for around the city. They can be found at Sint-Veerleplein 5 in the old Fish Market.

St Bavo’s Cathedral

AR tour of the Ghent Altarpiece

Our next stop on our exploration of Ghent was St Bavo’s Cathedral. We were embarking on the AR tour of Ghent’s famous Altarpiece, ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck. This world-famous masterpiece was painted in Ghent in 1432 and has had a very turbulent past.

You'll understand part of this artwork's journey if you’ve seen the movie Monuments Men starring George Clooney.

The back of Janis wearing her AR headset while experiencing the tour of the Mystic Lamb in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent.
On the AR tour in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent

The AR tour of the Ghent Altarpiece was one of the highlights of our trip, and we can highly recommend it. Don’t forget to use your CityCard Gent to obtain a €10 discount and book your timeslot online. The AR (augmented reality) tour of the Ghent Altarpiece is quite popular.

We headed straight to our tour and explored the cathedral after. I had never done an AR Tour before so; I wasn’t sure what to expect. We were fitted with the headset, and we were off, don’t worry; if you wear glasses, you can keep these on.

The Mystic Lamb painting by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck behind a protective screen in St Bavo’s Cathedral.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent

The AR tour is incredible, and you really become absorbed in the whole experience. As the history of the cathedral unfolds, the city of Ghent comes alive before your eyes. Weirdly you can wander around the vision in front of you and see the image from different angles.

You are effortlessly guided around and the story of the creation of ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ is narrated to you in captivating detail. Each one of the 18 beautiful panels and the scenes they depict from the bible are explained.

The Ghent altarpiece behind its protective screen in St Bavo’s Cathedral.
The Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent
As the AR tour concludes, you get the opportunity to see the magnificent triptych in all its glory fully restored. It is an astonishing masterpiece, and unbelievable that it has survived many thefts.

Discovering Ghent from the water

Guided boat tour
I can honestly say hopping aboard a guided boat tour is essential in Ghent; it’s a perfect way to unwind and relax those weary feet. There is so much to love about this boat trip with De bootjes van Gent, and what is even better, this 40-minute boat tour is included in your CityCard Gent.
A sightseeing boat in front of Saint Michael's Church on the river Leie in Ghent.
A guided boat tour in Ghent

The tour guides aboard the boats are so informative and share snippets of information about the architecture adjoining the river Leie and the Lieve canal. They point out tiny hidden details along the way that you would otherwise miss and can revisit after your tour.

As you meander through the waterways, you pass by the Castle of the Counts, Ghent’s old Fish Market and Meat Hall. And, of course, you see the magnificent buildings along Graslei and Korenlei and then venture on as far as the Rabot Towers.

Umberellas up on a sightseeing boat in front of the fish market in Ghent.
Rain or shine on a boat tour in Ghent
Weaving your way through the Medieval city of Ghent, you can enjoy it from a whole new perspective and grab those unique photos with unobscured views. Although if you’re like us, you encounter a downpour, your photos may include an umbrella or two.

If you’re heading off on a Belgium adventure, then grab a copy of this DK Eyewitness book. I love planning road trips and these guides are so helpful.

I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into discovering more of the back roads.

Visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent

MSK is celebrating its 225th anniversary

The Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, also known as MSK, will be celebrating its 225th anniversary in 2023, making it the oldest museum in Belgium.

The captivating MSK museum is located in Citadel Park, just south of the city of Ghent and accessible by jumping on Tram 1 from Korenmarkt. Not only is the entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts free with your Gent CityCard, but your tram journey is also included on your card.

An oil painting of Thames Bankside by Albert Baertsoen in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent
Bankside, London by Albert Baertsoen
An oil painting of Canon Street Station by Albert Baertsoen in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent
Canon Street Station by Albert Baertsoen
Exhibitions are continually held within the MSK; during our visit, a collection displayed works of art from the Ghent-born artist Albert Baertsoen. Albert Baertsoen’s artwork was new to me; however, I instantly felt connected as he loved painting canals and waterways. Albert lived in London during World War I and painted the River Thames and many of London’s bridges. On display were paintings of Cannon Street Station and St Paul’s Cathedral, where I used to get a train every day for 27 years. Ohh, the memories, although mine were more recent than WWI.
Janis looking at a collection of paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, also known as MSK, in Ghent.
Enjoying the MSK in Ghent
MSK is a lovely museum. I could have spent hours there; it has an incredible collection of pieces from old masters to surrealism and abstract art. Dotted throughout the gallery are incredible sculptures and busts; to ease you along, you can pick up an audio guide. There is also a family route that you can enjoy with your children.

Exploring Ghent City Museum

A journey through time
The next museum we visited near MSK was the Ghent City Museum (STAM). This interesting Ghent Museum looks very contemporary from the outside. However, parts of the museum are located in a former 14th-century abbey and 17th-century convent. Don’t forget to use your CityCard Gent, as you’ll get in for free.
A room-sized aerial view of Ghent that you can walk across in the Ghent City Museum
An aerial photo of Ghent in the Ghent City Museum

The Ghent City Museum takes you on a journey through the Medieval city’s history from the Middle Ages to the present day. What you’ll instantly find on the first floor of the museum is a vast aerial photograph of Ghent measuring 300sq. metres. Take a wander across the new map to see if you can point out the sites you’ve explored on your visit to Ghent.

All through the museum, you’ll discover fascinating facts about the charming city of Ghent from its ancient past, through its cloth-making years and its intertwining stories with its neighbouring lands.

A room in the Ghent City Museum full of religious artifacts from the Flemish city through the ages.
Inside the Ghent City Museum
The Ghent City Museum has recently had a revamp and includes new exhibitions and artefacts, a children’s activity trail and some wonderful new photos of the city. However, some of the old favourites remain. If you’re a Lego fan, you’ll still be able to catch Ghent’s prominent towers entirely made from Lego bricks.

Discovering the streets of Ghent

From street art to Beguines

One of our great pleasures when visiting a town or city is discovering its historic streets on foot, and Ghent is no exception. Ghent is picturesque, eclectic, charismatic and incredibly welcoming and friendly.

The first area we were drawn to was all along Ghent’s waterways, the River Leie and the Lieve canal; if there’s water to be found, I’m there. There are some stunning pieces of architecture throughout Ghent, especially along Graslei and Korenlei, where the historic quay is located. Many striking buildings that line the river date from the Middle Ages, although their beautiful façades were modified and restored during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The grand merchant buildings of Gent, Belgium illuminated at night under a deep blue sky
The Graslei in Ghent at night
Also on the banks of the river is Ghent’s old Fish Market at St-Veerleplein, built in 1689, and the opposite is the Butcher’s Hall in Groentenmarkt, which dates from the 15th-century. Just next to the Butcher’s Hall is Galgenhuisje, a former tripe house.
The Fish Market at the confluence of the River Leie & River Lieve as seen from the Grasbrug bridge in the centre of Ghent.
The Fish Market
Although Gary and I love digging deeper into a location’s history, we also have a soft spot for discovering street art. Luckily, Ghent has plenty of it. They even have an alley dedicated to it known as ‘Graffiti Street’ along Werregarenstraat. If spotting street art is something you love doing too, download a copy of the ‘Sorry, Not Sorry’ street art map. As of 2022, you’ll have 194 to find.
A close section of Graffiti Street in Ghent featuring a haunted face.
Street Art along ‘Graffiti Street’ in Ghent
A piece of street art in Ghent by the artist Resto
Street Art on Oude Houtlei by Resto
A little bit of a modern touch to Ghent is the ‘City Pavilion’. I get the impression from the locals that they either love or hate it, a bit like Marmite. I must say I like it; it adds a quirky aspect to the city and certainly instigates conversations. The City Pavilion was constructed in 2012, and the 40-metre roof contains 1,600 small windows. A local resident told us it has the nickname ‘the sheep pen’.
The modernist City Pavilion in the centre of Ghent, also know as 'the sheep pen'.
The City Pavilion in Ghent
A little further out of Ghent’s historic city centre is the Great St Elizabeth Beguinage. The Beguines were single women who lived in a self-sufficient community and took no religious vows. They lived modest lives and supported the sick and disadvantaged within their surroundings.
The lanes of Great St Elizabeth Beguinage on the edge of Ghent featuring red brick buildings and the spire of church at the centre.
The lanes of the Great St Elizabeth Beguinage
There are a few remaining Beguinages within Flanders, and the Great St Elizabeth Beguinage forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You are free to stroll around the walled community, which is a place of peace and tranquillity. Incredibly in less than two years between 1873 and 1874; 80 houses, 14, convents, a chapel, a church, a communal house, and infirmary were built.

Our video of Ghent

We have created a little YouTube video of Ghent.  Why not take a look?

Also, why not subscribe to our YouTube channel and get the latest clips as we post them?

Where we ate in Ghent

Serving local Belgium fare

On our first night in Ghent, we were hosted by the restaurant Pycke Zot which was slightly out of the city centre but only a 10-minute tram (no. 4) ride.

Pycke Zot was a lovely restaurant; the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, and the staff were very accommodating. They helped us with the Dutch translation as they didn’t have an English menu. I quite liked the fact it was in Dutch; that’s what travelling is all about, go with the flow.

The local dishes were regularly changing on the menu, and the options we chose were incredibly delicious and fresh.

I went for the Belgian dish, a Vol-au-vent; the hollow puff pastry case was filled with chicken, mushrooms, and small meatballs cooked in a lovely white sauce. The dish also came with a crunchy apple salad and croquettes.

Gary chose a regional beef stew braised and cooked in Chimay beer. This was accompanied by a generous portion of applesauce, fries, and a salad. Which was also delicious; both dishes were very filling.

Outside the restaurant Pycke Zot in Ghent at night.
Outside Pycke Zot at night

For our second night in Ghent, we were hosted by the restaurant Brasserie Pakhuis, which was in the heart of the historic city centre.

Brasserie Pakhuis was a large bustling restaurant set in a former warehouse near the Korenmarkt and had a welcoming, relaxed atmosphere.

The menu was in Dutch and English and had a varied selection of fish, vegetarian and meat dishes.

I chose the steak “Limousin” à la plancha, with a mixed salad and fries, accompanied by red wine and shallot sauce. It was a lovely dish and not too filling, so I indulged in a dessert and had Belgian chocolate moelleux with caramel ice cream, which was yummy.

The inside Brasserie Pakhuis in Ghent between services.
Inside Brasserie Pakhuis
Gary chose the traditional Belgian dish of moules-frites, cooked and steamed in white wine with onions and herbs, which he really enjoyed. To follow, Gary opted for the very indulgent Belgian chocolate bombe dessert with a touch of gold leaf. This was created for Brasserie Pakhuis’ 30th anniversary.

Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Ghent

Ghent is committed to being an environmentally friendly city. Therefore, if you are driving your own vehicle to Ghent and it is not registered in Belgium or the Netherlands, then you will need to register it. Use the LEZ Gent website for peace of mind.

It is simple to do and free of charge; it is IMPORTANT to do this; otherwise, you will incur a fine. All the required details for UK drivers should be on your DVLA logbook/V5C document.

Where we stayed in Ghent

The peaceful Monasterium Poortackere

During our stay in Ghent, we were hosted by Monasterium Poortackere.

Monasterium Poortackere is located along ‘Oude Houtlei’ and was incredibly peaceful day and night. The charming hotel was a former 19th-century monastery. The accommodation and communal rooms are situated amongst seven connected buildings with a lovely architectural mixture of the past and present.

The delightful hotel is only a five-minute stroll to the heart of historic Ghent, so perfect for a weekend getaway.

The staff were very welcoming and friendly, allowing us to check in to our room early.

Image
Hotel Monasterium Poortackere in Ghent
The stained glass window at the Monasterium Poortackere in Ghent at night.
The stained glass in Hotel Monasterium Poortackere

Our room was very comfortable and clean and had a lovely private terrace where we could sit and plan our day ahead. The desk area was a reasonable size, allowing us to set up our charging station and work on the laptop.

Our bathroom includes all your essential toiletries and a walk-in shower. The toilet was in its own individual room, and the unique aspect of this room was a large statue of a mother and child looking down upon us, which was a first for us.

Our room at the former monastery, Monasterium Poortackere, in the centre of historic Ghent
Our room at Monasterium Poortackere in Ghent

There was a wide variety of food and drinks for breakfast, and all were served in a very light and airy location within the monastery. The food was constantly being replenished, and ample coffee, tea, and fruit juices.

The Wi-Fi speed from our bedroom was 11.5mbps download and 5.0mbps upload.

We visited Ghent as part of a Flanders road trip, so the on-site car park was perfect and was chargeable at €25 per day.

Disclaimer

This article was produced in partnership with Visit Ghent and Visit Flanders in exchange for an honest review and an account of our personal experiences.

* This post may contain links to affiliated sites where we earn a small commission at no additional charge to you.

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  1. I really enjoyed this post, especially the artist who did pictures of London. Also the restaurants and hotels you stayed in..

    1. Author

      Ahh, thanks very much.

      Yes, we were pretty surprised to see so many pictures of London and the River Thames. His paintings of the canals in Belgium were incredible too; it was a lovely exhibition.

      The high quality of the hotel and restaurants were fantastic, we can highly recommend.

  2. Oh my goodness! So much information in one post! I love a blog post with a nice little history overview, and it sounds like you ate very well on this trip! Thank you for all the information, it will be very useful as I’m hoping to go to Ghent one day soon.

    1. Author

      Thanks very much, Fizz; we love discovering the history of a location, so I always like to include some snippets.

      Ghent is a beautiful city, and as it is pedestrianised, it’s incredibly easy to stroll around the historic centre. There are so many places to explore, and I’m sure you’ll discover even more.

      Yes, the restaurants were fantastic.

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