by Janis / 0 comments - Orginally published:24th January 2023

The Medieval Gravensteen

The charming city of Ghent in Flanders offers so much for the weekend visitor that you’ll be entertained for your entire Flemish mini-break and yearning for more. Especially for their delicious chocolates.

One of the first historic locations we visited in Ghent was the eye-catching Gravensteen. The grand imposing Castle of the Counts sits majestically in the heart of Ghent’s old town and is one of Ghent’s most iconic and beloved sites.

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

Off to the fortress we go and our first opportunity to use our Ghent City Card.

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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.

The ascent of the Castle of the Counts

Ghent’s imposing fortress
The Castle of the Counts in Ghent a literal translation of Gravensteen, was first erected in the 9th-century as a wooden structure by the then-reigning Arnulf I. The Castle of the Counts was built to protect the Count and was strategically positioned at the convergence of the River Leie and River Scheldt.
Looking up at the heavy stone keep of the Castle of the Counts in ghent, on a grey autumnal day
Imposing Gravensteen

The wooden fortress gradually started to deteriorate and became very ineffective for the continued protection required for a citadel.

The magnificent Castle of the Counts that stands today was rebuilt in the 11th-century by Phillip of Alsace. It was constructed on a grander scale of Tournai limestone and became quite an imposing structure.

A stone fireplace under the vaulted roof of the gallery in gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
Grand fireplace in the Castle of the Counts
The vaulted stone roof of the gallery in gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
Majestic gallery in Gravensteen

Progress didn’t wane, the Castle of the Counts was built higher, and the moat was extended. Thus, making Gravensteen a motte and bailey castle, a stone gatehouse was erected separating the inner and outer bailey.

Philip wanted the Castle of the Counts to create a formidable impression, and the central tower grew higher. The encircling ramparts included a staggering 24 watchtowers.

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The decline of the Castle of the Counts

Courts, cruelty, and cotton mills
The Castle of the Counts has had quite a turbulent past; nevertheless, it continued to survive in one form or another through subsequent centuries and divulged many fascinating tales. The Castle of the Counts is now the only remaining medieval moated castle in Flanders with its defences intact.
The stone keep and turreted towers of the Castle of the Counts in ghent, on a grey autumnal day
Keep in the Castle of the Counts

In 1353, once the Counts of Flanders no longer chose to use the Castle of the Counts as a residence, its tumultuous existence continued and, unfortunately its decline too.

The Castle of the Counts took on the face of many guises; from the 14th-century until the 18th-century, the citadel was used as a court and prison. The Gravensteen became the principal location of justice in Flanders.

In fact, the Castle of the Counts contains quite a horrific and gruesome past. During its time as a prison, the castle also housed torture chambers and underground dungeons, flogging and horrendous methods of cruelty were undertaken.
A wooden table and instruments of tourture in the dungeon of the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
Torture chamber at the Castle of the Counts
Then came the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th-centuries, and the Castle of Counts became a cotton mill factory. However, time passed, and the citadel was on the brink of demolition when it was bought by the City of Ghent; it underwent a major restoration and was the centrepiece for the Ghent World Expo in 1913

Where to stay Ghent

Hotel Monasterium PoortAckere

Hotel Monasterium PoortAckere was a former 19th-century monastery located along ‘Oude Houtlei’ and was an incredibly peaceful day and night. The delightful hotel is only a five-minute stroll to the heart of historic Ghent.

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.

Take a peek at our posts on the delightful cities of Mechelen and Leuven.

Arriving at the Castle of the Counts

An audio tour like no other!
A visit to the Castle of the Counts should be high on your Ghent itinerary; it is an out-and-out must if you love digging deeper into local history and discovering the evolution of a city.
A giant stone fire place in one of the many rooms in the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
Historical fireplace in the Castle of the Counts

Another piece of advice we offer is not to take advantage of the humorous audio tour, it’s included in your ticket price, and it is hysterical.

It is voiced by the Flemish comedian Wouter Deprez; I’ve never experienced an audio guide as entertaining. You’ll be climbing the ramparts and in the depths of the dungeons with a smile on your face.

The self-guided audio tour of the Castle of the Counts takes around 1 hour and 30 minutes. Along the way, there are 18 sections which you are directed through, and you’ll be told stories of knight’s tales, life in the citadel and amusing quips and anecdotes around the battlements and chambers.
Janis holding out the audio guide provided on your visit to the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
The audio guide for Gravensteen
A wooden plaque displaying a lone knights horse mounted on a stone wall in the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
A steed has lost his knight
So, as you enter through the main gatehouse, the huge inner courtyard opens beyond. Head up the steps of the Keep and pick up your audio-guide.

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.

We also found that the Visit Flanders website gave some extremely handy pointers when planning your trip to Ghent.

Exploring the Castle of the Counts

Head to the towering rooftop

You’re free to discover the Castle of the Counts at your own pace; just pause the audio guide as you wish; I’m sure Mr Deprez won’t mind and soak up the ancient citadel around you.

As you wander from room to room, you get a true feel of the enormity of the castle; for some reason, the fortress appeared quite compact to me from the outside, especially since it is the heart of the old town.

A suit of amour in a protective glass case in the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
Knight’s armoury
Narrow stone steps leading down from the rooftop in the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
Well-worn steps a the Gravensteen tower

There are so many elements of the castle to explore, and the exhibition in the centre of the tower with glistening knight’s armour and shimmering swords is fascinating. The whole museum is so well managed.

As you wend your way up through the narrowing towers, the old stone steps almost look polished with the amount of wear and tear they have endured over the centuries.

The view across ghent in belgium from the rooftop of the Castle of the Counts
Rooftops of Ghent
Keep heading higher and higher to the castle’s, rooftop and you’ll be rewarded with an unobscured view across the beautiful city of Ghent below.

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.

From the dungeons to the ramparts

A medieval treat
Once you’ve explored the inside of the main Keep and the rooftop, one of your final stops will be to the gruesome dungeons and torture chambers. There is even a dark, cold room with a pit underneath; prisoners were once chained up and starved.
Instruments of torture and manacles attached to the stone walls of the Castle of the Counts in ghent, belgium
Dungeons beneath the Castle of the Counts

On a more positive note, ensure you allow enough time to circumnavigate the castle’s ramparts. All around the battlement, you’ll see the watchtowers that were once used to keep a lookout for the oncoming enemy. Today you can spy on the boat trips below, taking visitors off for a cruise around the rivers and canals of Ghent.

It’s great strolling around the ramparts of the Gravensteen; a visit to an ancient castle wouldn’t be the same without it.

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?


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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