With its eye-catching Medieval architecture, charming pedestrianised centre, and bustling port area, Ghent is one of Belgium’s most popular cities. Nestled at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers, it pulls off the trick of being both tranquil and full of life. Turn a corner and you’ll be just as likely to find a busy bar or café as a picturesque cobbled lane or a world class museum housing works by Flemish masters.
Adding to the city’s distinct flavour is its university population, whose youthful inclinations have given rise to a buzzing nightlife. Yet as well as Ghent’s more typical attractions, there’s also a side to the city that isn’t necessarily so well known. We’ve dug deep and picked out 10 of the most unique things to see and do in what may just be Belgium’s jewel in the crown.
Marvel at creative street art
Graffiti is still considered by many to be a blot on the urban landscape, but there’s no denying that high quality street art can be an arresting sight. In Ghent, one small street called Werregarenstraat in the downtown district is constantly undergoing a visual renaissance thanks to an assortment of (usually anonymous) street artists who use it as their own personal canvass Every now and then the alley is painted over so the artists can start all over again. As a happy result of having a consensual, self-contained creative space, the rest of Ghent remains relatively graffiti free.
Worship at the foodie alter
They say that food is the new rock ‘n’roll, but it could also be said that it’s more akin to a religion. And nowhere is this comparison more apt than at the Holy Food Market, which is located inside a converted Ghent church and has retained many of its original hallowed features. Opened in 2017, the church has become a magnet for dedicated foodies in Ghent, with an array of stalls offering up various international cuisines including tapas, sushi and local specialities too.
LOCATION Beverhoutplein 15 HOURS Mon-Fri 11am-10pm; Sat-Sun 11am-11pm
Pick up some unique Belgian Beers
Established in 1980, De Hopduvel rapidly grew to become one of Ghent’s most popular outlets for picking up some of the very best Belgian and international beers on the market. Housed within a former steam engine factory, the building serves as an ideal cool storage space that ensures its products are at the perfect temperature for instant consumption. As well as offering renowned beer brands from Belgium and beyond, De Hopduvel also provides a platform for new and emerging breweries to showcase their mouth-watering wares. There are also several excellent house beers to be found.
LOCATION Coupure Links 625 HOURS Tues-Sat 10am-6pm Closed Sun-Mon
Take a leisurely boat charter
The ‘slow travel’ movement, which encourages travellers to immerse themselves in local life at a leisurely pace, has been growing across the world in recent years. VlotGent offers visitors the chance to do just that by exploring the city’s waterways aboard a self-manned solar-powered boat. A wide number of vessels are available from under Ter Planten bridge, about a 25-minute scenic walk from the city centre along a pretty canal. If you’re in a rush you could catch a tram instead, but remember the idea is to slow down! For more information and reservations, go to www.vlotgent.be.
Sink a pint or three surrounded by trolls
Ghent is blessed with a huge choice of pubs and beer cafes, but few are as idiosyncratic as Trollekelder. Translated to mean “Troll Pub”, this kitsch, three-storey watering hole on the city’s Vlasmarkt has been liberally sprinkled with quirky little trolls, ensuring if nothing else that patrons on a first date have a great conversational ice breaker. Be sure to check out the cosy, cavernous 15th century basement while you’re here. As for the drinks, there’s more than 200 beers to choose from, including several speciality Belgian brews.
LOCATION Bij Sint-Jacobs 17 HOURS Mon-Thurs 5pm-2am; Fri-Sat 4pm-3am; Sun 4pm-2am
Learn about the history of psychiatry
Psychiatric care has evolved dramatically over the years since its rather rudimentary – and in hindsight cruel – origins. The fascinating Dr Guislain Museum, which opened in 1986, takes visitors on a potted journey through the history of psychiatry with an array of displays and exhibits. You can learn about ancient treatments from both Greek and Eastern histories, through to the present day use of psychotropic drugs The museum also hosts on-going rotating exhibitions that explore different aspects of psychiatry.
LOCATION Jozef Guislainstraat 43 HOURS Tues-Fri 9am-5pm; Sat-Sun 1pm-5pm Closed Sun
Buckle up and get your beer on
For 10 years the Ghent Beer Festival has been drawing lovers of the amber nectar to the city to taste some of the nation’s top beers. A relaxed and welcoming setting, including a picturesque garden and refectory area, help revellers get into the swing of things. There’s a wide range of food stalls, including a BBQ, all of which will be manned by professional chefs to mark the festival’s 10th anniversary. Look out for Røst (BBQ, Texan style), Fermenthings (fermented foodie stuff from Brussels) and Paté to the People (all kinds of paté, made in Ghent), who will be offering guests the chance to line the stomach with mouth-watering grub before getting stuck into the festival’s myriad of liquid-based indulgences.
LOCATION VIP School, Martelaarslaan 13 DATES August each year
Give your ears a musical treat
Each year Ghent Flanders Festival kicks off the cultural season with OdeGand, a music festival that shakes Ghent to its foundations—all day long and into the night—with 60 indoor and open-air concerts over 15 great locations. OdeGand takes over the whole of the city centre for an extraordinary festival on and alongside the water. During this unique event you can travel from one concert to the other on foot, by taxi bike or by the handy canal boats. Let yourself go and enjoy any of the numerous truly surprising music genres from world music to pure classical music. In the evening, the Graslei and Korenlei are illuminated with a concert on the water and an exceptional light and firework show.
See the next generation honoured in lights
Passing through Sint-Veerleplein square in Ghent, your eyes may be diverted by the sight of the square’s streetlights occasionally flickering. Happily, the reason behind this is far more profound than a mere electrical fault. Part of a collaboration between Ghent City Council and artist Alberto Garutti, the lights are set up to shine and dim every time a baby is born in one of Ghent’s maternity wards as a way of symbolising hope for the future generation.
Roll with it at Ghent Design Museum
As far as civil protests go, the placement of a giant mock-up toilet roll in a public space is relatively low-key. The supersized roll in question can be found outside Ghent Design Museum, where it was placed to express disquiet at the local government’s decision to deny the museum the right to build an extension. Summing up the sentiment behind the installation, the antagonistic phrase “De Pot Op” (meaning “Go to Hell”) is mounted above it. However, the story does have a happy ending, as the expansion has since been approved.
LOCATION Jan Breydelstraat 5