Ghent: Europe’s hidden gem
Travellers visiting Europe often spend a weekend in Belgium, limiting themselves to the cities of Brussels and Bruges. While those cities are definitely worth a visit, they are missing out on the true gem of Belgium: Ghent. Growing up there myself, I would like to say I know every little thing there is to know, but this city is so lively you just can’t keep up. So even when you have already marked Ghent as ‘done’ on your bucket list, you should pack your bags and go discover all what’s new. Lonely Planet honoured Ghent in 2011 by adding it to their ‘Top 10 cities in the world’ and I am about to tell you what all that fuss is about.
Medieval historical centre
It is hard not to see that Gent was once the second largest city in medieval Europe. Pretty little houses are surrounded by monuments of all kind. My favourite place to watch the medieval architecture would be on top of the St Michael’s Brigde: in one glance you see the Castle of Counts, the Graslei and Korenlei and the three-tower row consisting of the St Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry and the St Bavo’s Cathedral. One of the latest architectural additions to the city is the City Pavilion, loved by many, disliked by others. Form your own opinion by passing by and you might be lucky enough to enjoy a food festival, concert or dance performance.
Local tip: Grab a beer or bottle of sparkling wine and relax with the locals at the Graslei promenade.
Local food to die for
When in Belgium, you just can’t leave without having tried moules frites, some praline chocolates, one – or way more – of the over a thousand Belgian beers and some waffles. I am sure every travel guide would tell you to, but what they probably don’t tell you is how amazing some of the lesser known dishes are. My all-time favourite dish ‘Gentse Stoverij’ is a stew made of pork cheeks and dark beer, enjoyed with French fries – which are obviously Belgian – and some mayonaise. Every time I am about to hit the road, it is the last thing I have before leaving.
Other Ghent specialties not to miss are Cuberdons (raspberry sweets), Roomer (an elderflower-flavoured alcoholic drink) and Tierentyn mustard.
Local tip: Head over to Bakery Himschoot for the best chocolate bread you will ever taste.
Imagine a city partying for 10 straight days and nights, for free. You probably don’t think this is such a unique event, but I promise you, it is. The Ghent Festivities don’t take place in just one park or concert hall, it covers the whole city. During the day visitors are being entertained by street artists, national and international music performances, parades, street theatre, a fair, and so on. At night the city turns into one big dancing floor. Every square has its own type of music and audience. This outdoor festival takes place in July and attracts over a million visitors every year.
Other events that put a smile on my face are Light Festival Ghent, Film Fest Ghent, Ghent Jazz and the foodie event of the year: Gent Smaakt.
Local tip: Head over to Baudelopark to be the first to discover new upcoming talent in ‘De Spiegeltent’.
Museums worth a visit
Museums might not be the on the to-do list of many, but Ghent does have a lot of great museums that even non-museum-goers enjoy. My favourite one is the Ghent City Museum STAM which gives a nice introduction on Ghent that will entertain all ages. Another one not to miss is the Design Museum, here you will find an interesting permanent collection as well as temporary expositions that please all audiences. When you are more into contemporary art, the SMAK museum will not disappoint.
Local tip: Right across the Design Museum you will find a little park called ‘Appelbrugparkje’. Great little oasis in the heart of the city with a nice view on the Great Butchers’ Hall and the Old Fish Market.
Where to eat
Being a traveller I often dream about my favourite food and restaurants back home. This article would take ages to read if I would write down every single of them, so I have picked my top 3 per budget.
Living on a budget:
While fries can be bought on almost every corner on the street, De Frietketel is worth the detour. Huge portions and a great variety of snacks makes this a very popular place amongst locals. Feel like having a ciabatta for lunch? Godot is your place to go. Set in between the Graslei and the main square Korenmarkt, they offer value for money in a stylish design. If you want to experience a totally different side of Ghent, head to El Negocito where you will find cheap Chilean food and the best pisco sours in town.
Located in the lovely Patershol area, La Malcontenta offers tasty tapa’s that will also please the vegetarians amongst us. Small restaurant that can be noisy at times, but worth a visit. Balls & Glory is the place to go if you feel like having gourmet meatballs. This hipsters’ paradise serves stuffed meatballs with a salad or mashed potatoes. Travellers cafe and eatery Mosquito Coast doesn’t have best service but the atmosphere and interesting menu make up for it.
Restaurant Belga Queen houses in a 13th century grain storehouse on the Graslei and serves a gastronomic Belgian cuisine. Try one of the draft beers to complete the local food experience. If you are a foodie and want to make your heart skip a beat, Oak won’t disappoint. Offering fine dining in an informal setting, make sure to book ahead. Last but not least, j.e.f. offers an honest and inventive menu with a focus on quality products.
Local tip: Although I am not a sweet tooth, I would never say no to the Cheesecake with Speculoos crust from the local bakery Les Tartes de Françoise.
Where to sleep
AirBnb is always my way to go, nothing takes you closer to the local people than an AirBnB experience. If you are on a tight budget, Hostel Uppelinck has the best location and a good atmosphere. Looking for a luxury stay, I would highly recommend staying at the Grand Hotel Reylof. This 4-star hotel in the city center has a unique interior design and the best service.
How to get there
Fly to the international airport of Brussels and catch the direct train to Ghent St Pieters which takes you in just one hour to the beautiful city of Ghent.
Public transport is well organised but as in every city, punctuality is a bit of an issue.
For more information visit the official city website
– Ghent, you are so easy to love –
©Catherine Brossé – These 5 pictures belong to my beloved friend Catherine Brossé, check out her Instagram feed by clicking here