Located in Northwestern Belgium, the beautiful medieval port city of Ghent is a wonderful place to visit and a great destination if you’re looking for somewhere quiet and picturesque to spend a few days.
The nearby town of Bruges is a lot more popular with tourists so Ghent is also a little bit more off the beaten path and still one of the more beautiful cities in Belgium that are definitely worth visiting.
During the summer, when all of the students have gone home for the season, the small-town can actually be quite quiet and you can easily find yourself wondering along medieval alleyways across cobblestone streets without bumping into anybody at all.
Although it’s quite a small town, there are still a decent amount of things to do in Ghent and whether you’re just there for the day or you’re spending a few days exploring there are a multitude of ways that you can occupy your time.
The town is both a historical gem as well as a cultural center so whether you’re hoping to learn more about local history or admire the surrounding architecture, you’re definitely in luck.
Apart from a sprawling medieval old town visitors are also able to meander along the many canals that cut across the town and if the weather is warm enough you can even relax on a boat ride down these canals for an even more up close view of the town.
For those of you visiting Western Europe I would definitely recommend setting aside a day or two to explore Ghent and in this post I want to share with you some of the best things to do when you’re visiting.
What to Do in Ghent
Cathedral of St. Bavo (Sint-Baafskathedraal)
Right in the heart of the city, dominating one end of the Sint-Baafsplein square, you’re bound to notice the large and imposing Cathedral of St. Bavo.
This massive cathedral, made from brick and granite, is one of the most notable landmarks of Ghent.
Dating from the 13th century is the High Gothic cathedral and remaining from the 15th and 16th centuries are the main nave and late Gothic tower.
On the inside you’ll find a collection of historic paintings dating all the way back to 1571 including Christ Among the Doctors and the Conversion of St. Baaf from 1624.
However, the most famous piece of artwork here is definitely the Altar of Ghent, more commonly known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
This Altar is one of the greatest pieces still remaining of historic Flemish painting and people from all over the world come to gaze at it to try to decipher its hidden religious meaning.
The cathedral you can also explore an extensive crypt Where you can check out a variety of different tombs from old Bishops as well as explore the different contents of the historic treasury collection.
Inside one of the Chapels you can also admire the impressive Calvary triptych of 1464, which is another one of the impressive pieces here at the Cathedral.
For those of you not interested in checking out the inside, the exterior is also quite picturesque and it really dominates the main square that it’s located in.
A few steps away from the city center is where you’ll find Gravensteen, a defensive moated fortress that was once one of the strongest in all of Western Europe.
The moat is made up of the River Lieve and a structure was built at the end of the 1100s right on top of a previous defensive structure from the 9th century.
It was the former count of Flanders, Philip of Alsace, that ordered the construction of this Fortress and it was originally built to protect trade routes as well as the historic ports nearby.
If you’ve explored anywhere in the Middle East Gravensteen might actually look quite familiar to you because the style of it is very similar to the original Syrian Crusader castles that were used during the same time frame.
Unfortunately, since the 14th century it hasn’t been used for a defensive or military purpose and since then it has basically been used for administrative purposes such as offices or storage.
This is definitely one of the best-preserved examples of medieval fortifications in Western Europe and at one point the structures like these were quite popular throughout the entire region.
Today you can go inside and check out the museum for a better look of the history of the Fortress as well as the many uses that it had during the years.
Right outside of Gravensteen is another small square, the historic Sint-Veerleplein, and many people believe that this is one of the oldest squares in the entire town.
It’s here where executions and witch burnings were held during the Inquisition and it was also used as a Marketplace over the years where vendors could sell their merchandise to the boats cruising up and down the canals nearby.
The Fortress is quite nice both during the day and at night and although I didn’t get a chance to explore the interior it’s definitely very impressive from the outside so make sure to check it out and spend some time the architecture and design.
The Old Market (Groentenmarkt)
Near to Gravensteen is where you’ll find the Old Market.
This is originally where the town’s fish market began, thanks to its prime location right along the canal, and since the 18th century it was mostly used to sell vegetables.
Right across from the main market area is where you’ll find the Groot Vleeshuis, and this was a covered medieval meat market that also housed a chapel, guild-house, and has quite a picturesque gabled roof.
The building was originally built at the beginning of the 15th century and has gone over quite a few different restorations and renovations since the 1900s so today it’s actually in quite a good condition.
At the end of the main Market building you can see the Penshuizeken, and this is where people originally slaughtered animals and kept the entrails to give them to the poor people for something to eat.
It’s a restaurant these days, and if you’re looking for somewhere to enjoy a quick meal or a cold beer then I would recommend checking out the patio right on the canal, and if not you can still walk through the inside and check out all of the historic details.
The Graslei Canal, in my opinion, is one of the most picturesque areas in Ghent and it’s here where you’ll be able to admire some of the best preserved guild houses in the town.
Both sides of the canal are pedestrian only walking areas and apart from offering great photo opportunities there are plenty of small patios that you can sit and enjoy a nice drink while admiring the view, especially during the warmer summer months.
This is definitely an area you’re going to want to check out if you’re interested in architecture or you’re looking for some great photos to take for your Instagram account.
In the area are a few specific points of interest you might want to explore further, and these include:
- Gildehuis der Vrije Schippers (House of the Free Boatmen)
- Gildehuis der Graanmeters (House of the Grain Weighers)
- Tolhuisje (Customs House)
- Gildehuis der Metselaars (House of the Masons)
Each one of these houses was built between 1527 and 1698 with the exception of the Koornstapelhuis, which was built around the year 1200.
These buildings played an important role in the development of commerce in both Gent and in Belgium as a whole and they’re one of the more unique aspects of the town.
Regardless of the time of year that you’re visiting you’re definitely going to want to head to this area and admire the beautiful architecture while stepping back into history.
Located at Sint-Baafsplein, on the west side of the area, is the Ghent Belfry that stands more than 90 meters tall and overlooks the city center area.
This structure is actually an important symbol of the independence of the town and it’s originally where the privileges and charters relevant to Gent were stored.
Construction of the tower started at the beginning of the 14th century and it took nearly 40 years for it to be completed.
It was actually recently restored so that what you see today is quite close to how it looked more than 600 years ago with one of the most interesting restoration aspects being the wooden bell tower from 1380 that was also replaced not too long ago.
The bell tower remaining today is a replica and on the ground floor you can actually see one of the originals of the four armed figures that were installed at the corners of the tower platform, dating back to 1377.
Attached to the Belfry is the Cloth Hall and this wool and cloth trader marketplace dates back to 1441 when construction of it was completed.
During the 18th century this building was converted into a prison and these days it’s just a cafe and restaurant that’s typically full of tourists during the busier summer season.
The Town Hall
The Town Hall is another one of the more popular and well-known landmarks in Ghent.
The architectural styles that make up the exterior of the building are quite impressive with the oldest part of it having been finished in 1482.
Depending on which side you approach the town hall from you’ll either first see the Gothic style facade facing the Hoogpoort or you’ll see you the less artistic Renaissance style side facing the Botermarkt.
If you get a chance, you’re definitely going to want to head inside to check out the many different architectural styles on the interior.
These different styles include the Arsenal Hall where you can admire some medieval wooden vaulting, the Pacification Hall with its beautiful labrinth of paved black and white stone, and the Wedding Chapel with the picturesque stained glass windows of the counts of Flanders.
Even if you’re not interested in checking out the interior, the outside offers plenty of ornate detailing and a prime example of Gothic architecture in Flanders.
It can be easy to walk by the town hall without even noticing so make sure to make a point of it on your map or write down the location on your smartphone so that you don’t miss it.
Ruins of Sint-Baafsabdij
Just outside of the city center, right across the Leie Canal, are the Ruins of Sint-Baafsabdij.
These are the ruins that still remain from an abbey that was founded in 630 that was eventually rebuilt in the 10th century after having been destroyed by the invading Norman forces.
It’s actually not open to the public every day and you can only explore the interior whenever it’s open but even from the outside it looks very impressive.
Charles V actually had the abbey destroyed to make room for other buildings that were once erected in the area but these days everything from that era has been gotten rid of and now there’s only a beautiful park surrounding the abbey and some informational signs that you can read to learn more about it.
Interesting the enough, there is a greenery area just outside the main walls of the abbey and this area is actually in the same placement as the original church that once stood in the same location.
Unfortunately, entrance to the interior isn’t open very often but during the year there are many artists events held inside and if you get a chance I would definitely recommend checking out one of these events.
Korenlei is the quay right across from the beautiful guild houses on the Graslei Canal.
The buildings here are much more modern and made up of a few different hotels, restaurants, and even a hostel.
Walking along this side of the river is going to provide you with the best views of the historic buildings on the other side although even on this side are some pretty historic houses as well.
At number 15 you have the previous House of Duke Egmont, dating back to 1352, though the building now has a neoclassical facade and hasn’t really maintained its original medieval appearance.
This same building is home to the Hotel de Ghellinck, one of the nicer hotels in Ghent and I would definitely recommend staying here if you’re looking for luxury accommodation that offers a prime location for exploring the city center.
The house at number 7 is known as the House of the Tied Boatmen and this building dates back to 1739 and takes on more of a Baroque architectural style.
As you’re walking along the canal you’re definitely going to want to spend some time to admire the beautiful facade of house number 24.
This was originally a Romanesque chateau that was built during the 12th century and it was rebuilt and renovated at the beginning of the 20th century for a more modern appearance.
Lining the canal are a bunch of different areas of outdoor seating and it’s here that you can enjoy a nice cold drink during the summer while taking in the beautiful views around you.
The Kraanlei Canal and Vismarkt
Another one of the more picturesque canals in the town is the Kraanlei.
This canal is just a short walk away from the city square and on one side is a nice walkway that’s lined with small shops and boutiques and across the canal is the back side of the buildings on the other side of the water.
The walkway is lined with a range of different elegant homes with the oldest dating back to around the 1500s and the majority having been built during the 17th century.
This is a very small area but I would definitely recommend heading here to admire the architecture and check out some of the small restaurants and quirky shops in the area.
A little bit further down and you can find the Vismarket, or the old fish market.
The market gateway features an incredible monument of Neptune as well as some representations of the mascots of the town.
The building itself, house number 5, is designed in a Baroque architectural style and it was built in 1689, making it one of the oldest still-standing markets in Ghent.
Museums in Ghent
Personally, I’m not really into museums that much because I’d rather spend the time exploring outdoors and admiring all of the different architectural styles but there are a few interesting museums in the town that you might want to check out if you’re interested in history or learning more about local culture.
Ghent City Museum
The City Museum is arguably the best museum in the city and it’s here that you can learn more about the story of Ghent from an interesting collection of different exhibits as well as interactive media content.
The museum is made up of three different buildings, a 14th century abbey, 17th century monastery, as well as a mix of the both with 21st century contemporary development.
There is plenty of information about the history of the area, what’s going on currently, as well as some future predictions that go into detail about Ghents medieval history and its path to what it became today.
Depending on the time of year that you visit you might also be able to explore some temporary exhibitions that are typically held in the museum randomly throughout the year.
The House of Alijn Museum
The House of Alijn is the last remaining almshouse in the city and it features an assortment of different museum rooms that show you how the local population lived during the 20th century.
You can check out a few different exhibits of how rooms were designed and decorated during the past century and you can even watch a small collection of private videos that were recorded by locals for a more intimate look into their lives.
This is a pretty interesting museum, especially if you love contemporary history, and it offers great insight into how life was during the 1900s.
Museum of Fine Arts
Those of you that are art lovers are definitely going to want to check out the Museum of Fine Arts where you can admire a range of different pieces of artwork as well as an extensive collection of local Flemish art.
This Museum features a collection of both contemporary as well as historic pieces and it’s currently home to the Ghent Altarpiece, arguably one of the best remaining examples of old Flemish painting.
The different exhibits here range from the 15th century all the way up to the 20th century and it’s possible to spend hours wandering through the different halls admiring the beautiful artwork and other fixtures in the museum.
Where to Stay in Ghent for Sightseeing
There’s no shortage of hotels in Ghent, especially if you’re looking for something with a central location that will allow you to quickly and easily explore the city center.
The main train station is located about two kilometers away from the center of town so if you don’t feel like walking you’re going to have to take public transportation or a taxi to reach your hotel if you’re staying in the central area.
The city itself is very walkable, especially the old town area, and most of the main attractions are all within about 15 or 20 minutes apart on foot.
Regardless of your budget, there are plenty of places to stay and possible to choose from something luxurious and comfortable, mid-range, and even budget accommodations such as more reasonably priced hotels and hostels.
Here are some of my different recommendations if you’re looking for somewhere to stay:
- Marriott Ghent Hotel (Spacious, comfortable rooms with a contemporary interior and prime location for exploring the city)
- Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof (A unique blend of contemporary design with historic elegance and other interesting features such as a wellness center, pool, fitness room, and spa)
- Hotel Harmony (Boasting a great location right along one of the canals in the old town with great views and friendly staff)
- NH Gent Belfort (Amazing location, pet friendly, and a very comfortable European Hotel chain)
- Novotel Gent Centrum (Features an outdoor pool, sauna, and great for families or individuals looking for a longer stay in the city)
- Aparthotel Castelnou (A little bit outside of the city center but a great choice if you’re looking for a fully-equipped apartment and included breakfast)
- Ibis Centrum (Great location, amazing value, and comfortable rooms for a reasonable nightly rate)
- Erasmus (Situated in a gorgeous stone building from the 16th century and just a few minutes away from the historic center)
- Backstay Hostel (Great location, buffet breakfast, modern design, and plenty of beds)