With its eye-catching Medieval architecture, charming pedestrianised centre, and bustling port area, Ghent is one of Belgium’s most popular tourist 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, giving rise to a buzzing nightlife scene. Here are 12 of the most unique things to see and do in and around Ghent.
Explore an ancient castle
No trip to Ghent is complete without visiting The Gravensteen, a medieval castle with a fascinating and often turbulent past. Closely intertwined with the complex political and social history of Ghent, the castle’s gatehouse, ramparts, keep, count’s residence and stables are open to the public, with a unique collection of torture equipment housed in the former pantry a particular highlight. The castle also hosts all kinds of cultural activities, events and activities throughout the year.
Sint-Veerleplein 11 / Mon-Sun 10am-6pm
Visit a museum
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 ongoing rotating exhibitions that explore different aspects of psychiatry.
Jozef Guislainstraat 43 / Tues-Fri 9am-5pm; Sat-Sun 1pm-5pm Closed Sun
Enjoy a self-manned boat cruise
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.
Discover a 10th-century cathedral
Situated on Sint-Baafsplein in Ghent is Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, a treasure trove of history that stands on the site of a 10th-century church and a 12th-century Romanesque church. From the baroque high altar in white and black and red flamed marble to the Rococo pulpit in oak and gilded wood and marble, it’s filled with eye-catching features as well as ancient works by esteemed painters, including The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers, and a masterpiece by Rubens.
Sint-Baafsplein / Mon-Sun 8.30am-5pm
Climb a historic Belfry
An officially designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ghent Belfry stands as a symbol of the city’s prosperity and independence. The Cloth Hall, built onto the Belfry in 1907, features a flamboyant Brabant Gothic style that serves as an ode to the industry to which Ghent owes much of its success. On the corner of the hall is an old jailer’s house and every Sunday morning you can hear the carillonneur at work. On Saturday nights during the summer months, the landmark plays host to a live carillon performance featuring guest musicians from across the globe. Visitors can climb the tower and enjoy superb views across the city.
Attend a fun-packed festival
The annual Ghent Beer Festival draws 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 manned by professional chefs. 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 liquid-based indulgences.
VIP School, Martelaarslaan 13 / August each year
Each year Ghent Flanders Festival kicks off the cultural season with OdeGand, a music festival that takes place all day long and into the night, with 60 indoor and open-air concerts over 15 locations. The event takes over the whole city centre on and alongside the water. During this unique event, you can travel from one concert to the other on foot, by taxi bike or canal boat. Let yourself go and enjoy any of the numerous truly music genres from world music to classical. In the evening, the Graslei and Korenlei are illuminated with a concert on the water and a light and fireworks show.
Take an evening city walking tour
Every city has a distinctive atmosphere after dark and this evening walking tour of Ghent invites you to discover its secrets, myths and legends. The one-and-three-quarter hour guided tour will take you off the beaten track to some of the city’s hidden gems, helping you gain a deeper understanding of Ghent and its rich heritage. Starting at St Michael’s Bridge, highlights include a stop at the giant Butchers’ Hall, where you’ll learn about the execution of a father and son and the miraculous event that saved them. The tour ends with a leisurely amble around the city’s medieval quarter.
Stroll around a tranquil park
Perched on the brow of a hill between the rivers Scheldt and Ly in Ghent’s eastern parameters, Citadel Park was created back in 1875 on the place where the Dutch citadel of Ghent formerly stood. One of the largest and most modern in Europe at the time, it was later used as an infantry and artillery barracks. Today the park is packed with botanical abundance, including a large number of rare tree specimens, as well as numerous statues of Austrian artistic and musical greats, and a kids’ playground.
Look around a wildlife garden
Located in Ghent’s northern reaches, an easy drive from the city centre, is The World of Kina Garden, which lays claim to being the region’s oldest wildlife garden. Visitors can discover everything there is to know about carnivorous plants and get up close and personal with an incredible collection of spiders, including several preserved Belgian spiders as well as live tarantulas. There are also mushrooms and honey bees on display in interactive exhibitions tailored to children, along with special experience opportunities such as learning how to become a beekeeper.
Berouw 55 / Mon-Fri 9am-5pm Sun 2pm-5.30pm Closed Sat
Join a guided chocolate tour
Belgium is widely known to be one of the world’s finest chocolate-making nations and at the heart of this hard-earned reputation is the city of Ghent. And the good news for sweet-toothed visitors is that they can discover the best chocolate spots in town by joining a small-group chocolate tour. Over two hours, you’ll meet local chocolatiers to learn the secrets behind their craft and sample at least eight different chocolates and sweet treats along the way. You’ll also get to discover Ghent’s historical sites with a local city guide between tastings.
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.