Five Things in Ghent You Shouldn’t Miss
To be honest, there are more than five things in Ghent you shouldn’t miss. But, for those of you unfamiliar with Belgian geography, you’re still probably trying to figure out where Ghent is. Is it east or west of Brussels…? If you are indeed one of those people, don’t feel too bad because the city of Ghent is considered one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
Located in Flanders, the northern part of Belgium, Ghent was a city known for its wealth and size during the Middle Ages (it was bigger than London). Today, it is a city filled with university students. But, because Ghent suffered little bomb damage in World War I and II, its amazing architecture is still intact. This makes it one of the most beautiful cities to walk around.
It’s also really easy to get here. Ghent is about a 40-45 minute train ride (WEST!) from Brussels. The trains are really easy to navigate in Belgium. From Brussels, it’s just a two-hour ride to Amsterdam and a four-hour ride to Paris.
One of my friends, Katrijn, lives in Ghent. (We met through Couchsurfing when she stayed with us in Philadelphia.) The more I researched places to visit in Belgium, the more I kept hearing about Ghent. It’s not as touristy as other places like Bruges. Not only did we walk EVERYWHERE on the cobblestone streets, but I got to see Ghent from a local’s perspective. So, although there are way more than five things in Ghent you shouldn’t miss, if you’re planning a visit, add these to your list:
Ghent Night Walk: First, you should definitely walk around Ghent during the day to view the amazing architecture. But, what I really recommend is walking around Ghent at night. When the sun sets, thousands of lights come on to illuminate the prominent buildings and monuments. The lights stay on until around midnight. This was actually one my favorite things I did in Ghent. It gives you a totally different perspective of the same city. There’s even a recommended Walking Map, which you can access here. Take your time and only see a few things, or try and complete the entire loop, it’s up to you.
Gravensteen Castle: The “Castle of the Counts” dates back to 1180 AD and is modeled after crusader castles. It is difficult to miss a castle and its moat, because it’s literally in the middle of downtown. Although you would like to imagine it was built for battle, it was more of an attempt by Count Phillip (who built it) to upstage the wealthy aristocrats who lived in Ghent. While the castle started as mostly a residential dwelling, it later was controlled by the judicial system. The castle became a place where suspected criminals were detained and sometimes tortured to confess their crimes. The castle was restored in the 19th century. The tour allows you to walk through the different rooms in the castle, learning about what each room was used for. There are also a few rooms dedicated to medieval torture, including authentic items donated by the family of the town’s final executioner. Torture aside, Gravensteen Castle also has some great photo opportunities.
Ghent Alter Piece: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is an art masterpiece painted by the Van Eyck brothers in 1432 AD that can be found inside St. Bavo’s Church in Ghent. It is currently undergoing restoration, but totally worth the four euro it costs to view it. (You’re not supposed to take photos, so this image is courtesy of the website “Art and the Bible”.) I would highly recommend doing some research before going because there is not much explanation about the painting once you’re inside to view it. There are audio guides available for an extra fee. While you can spend as much time in there as you want, it does get crowded very quickly.
Graffiti Street: I won’t tell you this is the only street in Ghent where you will find graffiti, but it does have significance. This is the designated “graffiti street” where artists are free to spray as they like. It was part of an initiative that started more than 10 years ago. The government gave graffiti artists a street with the idea that it would decrease the graffiti elsewhere in the city. What I loved about the idea of this street is that the images are always changing. If I walk by here two months or two years from now, I will see something different. We also learned about efforts in different places of the city for “graffiti with a purpose”. We walked down a street outside an elementary school where graffiti artists portrayed a theme surrounding the health benefits and efficiency of “cycling”. Whether or not you consider graffiti as art, visiting Graffiti Street, or Werregarenstraat, is worth it.
Try the Local Beer: I should start this by saying I’m not a big beer drinker. But, Belgium is known for its brew. So, I had to try a local beer of Ghent. Gruut Brewery is a bit unique – it is known for its medieval brewing process, which made it an interesting place to visit. Instead of using hops, brewers in the Middle Ages used a mixture of herbs, called gruut, to make their beer. Gruut Brewery does something similar by not using hops in its beer. The brewery has daily tours about its beer-making process, but if you just feel like trying it, tastings are available throughout the day. I recommend Ghent Gruut Blond.
This is Katrijn and me on the St. Michael’s bridge, which as you can see, is a great place to take a photo of downtown Ghent. Just consider that a bonus to my list. And there you have it – the five things in Ghent you shouldn’t miss. Enjoy!