Ghent, the capital of the East Flanders is a medieval gem half an hour train journey from the Belgian capital Brussels. Tourists usually give Ghent a miss lured by the enticing aura of the city of Bruges. The first glimpse of Ghent as soon as we walked out of the station didn’t impress us either especially after a remarkable Bruges visit. We collected the route map and headed towards the historical center of Ghent.
The historical center of Ghent is a couple of km away from the train station and is well connected by public transport. We decided to walk all the way to the historic center inquisitive of the hidden gems we may explore on the way. The city has a well-preserved medieval architecture and numerous historic churches and buildings.
Walking through the streets of Ghent towards the historical center is like walking back in time. As we get closer to the historical center the concrete buildings, wide lanes, and the trendy cafe, bars recede into a car-free zone surrounded by splendid architecture.
The first building we came across was the 13th-century Castle of Gerald the Devil. The magnificent gothic building has served as knights’ residence, an arsenal, a monastery, a school and even as a prison and mental asylum. Today the building serves as an administrative building of Ghent for storage of the archives.
The historical center dominates the city skyline with three medieval towers of St Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry, and the St Bavo’s Cathedral in the Saint Bavo Square.
St Nicholas’ Church
The church was built in the early 13th-century in the location of a previous Romanesque church. The magnificent church an exemplary Scheldt Gothic style building is constructed of the blue-gray stone from the Tournai area. The church features a single large tower situated at the crossing of the church flanked by turrets at the corners.
The central tower was used as an observation post until the construction of the belfry of Ghent. The interior of the church features an ornate organ and two remarkable 19th-century stained-glass windows.
St Bavo’s Cathedral
Saint Bavo Cathedral also known as Sint-Baafs Cathedral is an imposing Gothic cathedral completed in 16th-century. The cathedral building stands on the site of the 10th-century Chapel of St. John the Baptist the remains of which can be found in the cathedral crypt. The crypt of the church houses numerous tombs of bishops and several historical artifacts and religious items in the treasury.
The rich Baroque interior of the cathedral houses several important and fine artworks, paintings and sculptures. The most famous artwork being the ‘Altar of Ghent’ also known as ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’. The multi-paneled painting is one of the greatest masterpieces of Flemish art and was painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.
More on details of visiting hours and open times here.
For several centuries, the belfry served as a watchtower guarding the city of Ghent and a place where the important municipal documents were kept. An elevator can be taken to the Belfry’s upper gallery to see the bells and splendid panoramic views of the city.
The present Belfry tower replaced an original wooden bell tower dating back to the early 14th-century. The tower is crowned by a sculpture of a gilded copper dragon flanked by four armed figures. Next to the Belfry is a grand 15th-century Cloth Hall which was a meeting place for traders during the middle ages and also as a prison during the 18th century. Today the building houses a popular restaurant.
Ghent Town Hall
The Town Hall or the Stadhuis is one of the stunning buildings in Ghent built in 1600. The exterior of the Town Hall decorated with statues and sculptures showcases a wonderful mix of gothic and renaissance architecture styles.
The cobblestone square around the town hall had a lively ambiance with people lazing and kids running around. Chhavi too had her share of fun with other toddlers frolicking around the square.
The different architectural styles of the town hall can easily be noticed in the picture below. The most striking feature of the town hall is the gothic style marriage chapel adorned with beautiful stained glass windows.
Our next stop was the Sint-Jacobskerk Church with its two magnificent Romanesque towers which is one of the oldest church in Ghent. We were by now exhausted and hungry. We stood at the junction and started scouring the map to reckon the shortest route to the castle.
The square at the entrance of the church was jam-packed with tourists. We followed a throng of tourists walking into a narrow alley around the corner of the square. The alley was chock-a-block with tourists, souvenir shops, quaint colorful houses, and the cafes.
The narrow lane opened up into a huge square Vrijdagmarkt dominated by a statue of the Flemish political leader Jacob van Artevelde in the center. It is one of the oldest square surrounded by many outdoor cafes which makes it a favorite meeting point. The square gets its name from the weekly Friday markets that take place here. The square was also once the spot for public executions and important meetings.
The Dulle Griet is a massive wrought-iron cannon from medieval times founded in Mons (Bergen). Dulle Griet is said to be one of the three cannons of which one resides in the majestic castle of Edinburgh called ‘Mons Meg‘ which we remember visiting during our Edinburgh trip. The last one found in France is said to be missing since ages.
We walked onto a street parallel to the square and were awestruck by the by the invigorating aura. A faint peppy song wafted through the air of the bustling square. The glistening emerald waters of the River Leie drifted through the canals winding through the square. There are numerous outdoor restaurants, shops, cafes and the exuberant crowds enjoyed their meals and coffee relishing the amazing vistas.
We decided to soothe our hunger pangs in one of the restaurants at the end of the bridge on the other side of the canal. ‘Soup Lounge’ serves a choice of hot soups, bread, salads and fresh fruits. The menu was just right for us, filling and healthy and we wanted to try something other than the potato fries. The healthy and delicious soup turned out to be little Chhavi’s favorite too.
The square also has chocolate shops where you can shop for the famous Belgian chocolates. Also, make sure you eat some Belgian fries served with delicious mayonnaise and yummy waffles which are usually sugar coated, chocolate spread or whipped cream and topped with a wide variety of fresh fruits.
Graslei and Korenlei
Graslei and Korenlei are two quays in the historic center of Ghent. Both are popular landmarks of Ghent for the spectacular vista of a row of grandeur guild houses set along the bank of the Leie River. The quays were part of the city port during the middle ages. Today there are several restaurants and cafes housed in these guild houses which makes Graslei and Korenlei popular tourist spots and a bustling meeting place. The vibrant historical buildings and their splendid facades set along the canal make for a postcard-perfect picture of the city of Ghent.
Gravensteen Castle or the Castle of the Counts
After scrumptious lunch, we followed the map to the last attraction on our list – Gravensteen castle or the Castle of the Counts. The Gravensteen castle once the strongest fortresses in Europe is an iconic landmark of the historical center of Ghent. The stone castle dates back to the 12th century. The castle houses an armory collection and a recreated torture chamber. The climb up to the top ramparts rewards with superb views of Ghent city.
The Castle an exemplary art of fortification of medieval times has served as an administrative building for counts and also as a cotton mill.
The Sint-Veerleplein next to the castle is one of the oldest squares in Ghent and is surrounded by remarkable 17th-century buildings.
On the way back we decided to take a different route to reach the station hoping to discover some hidden gems. We wandered through some of the tranquil neighborhood with hardly any crowd and old stone houses. We came across this imposing two towered fortified gateway called Rabot Gate also known as the ‘Watergate of Ghent’.
The gate is said to be built as a part of the old city walls of Ghent during the late 15th-century. The gate sits straddling the Lieve canal and is surrounded by several medieval and modern buildings.
Some 15 minutes train ride away from the historic center of Ghent is one of the magnificent abbeys of Belgium, the St Pietersabdij. Sint-Pietersabdij or the St Peter’s Abbey is a former Benedictine abbey dating from late 7th century. The abbey today houses a museum exhibiting historical artifacts and few interesting 16th-century tapestries. The gardens and orchards around the abbey are a great spot for a picnic or to relax away from the city hustle bustle.
Canal Boat Tour
One can also explore the city of Ghent on a canal boat tour. There are several options for boat tours like traditional boat tours, themed boat tours, historical boat tour and much more. A boat tour is definitely a great way to explore some unique Ghent points of interest and hidden gems.
The hop on hop off water tram is one of the best options with six stops: Castle of the Counts, Graslei-Korenlei, Museum Site, St Peter’s Abbey, St Bavo’s Cathedral and Veldstraat. You can ride the boat as many times with the day pass which is free with the Ghent City Card. The tour is accompanied by informative commentary. The hop on hop off water-tramway runs only on the weekends and is closed during the winter.
Ghent at Night
Ghent wears its best at night when the city is illuminated in golden light. The medieval architectural buildings awash in bright yellow colors and the spectacular reflection in the calm waters of the canal is a sight to behold.
If you are staying for a night in the city of Ghent you should definitely consider a night walk through the illuminated Ghent.
The city of Ghent is popularly known as a hipster city which leaves us in a deep wonderment at the city where the modern and the medieval times co-exist in a sheer harmony. Do you agree?
Have you been to Ghent? Do you think we have missed out something? Please share your views in comments.
Would you like to pin this post?