Things to Do in Ghent
Ghent sits at the meeting point of two rivers: the Leie and the Scheidt, so it's always been an important port - which helped make it wealthy. With roots right back to the Stone Age, Roman times, and abbeys founded in 650AD, by the 13th century Ghent was the largest European city after Paris. During the 14th century it was building its wealth through trading with England, turning English wool into cloth and selling it back. Inevitably war and taxes brought all this undone, culminating in the defeat of the city by one of its own sons, Charles V who had become Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain and did not appreciate the feisty opposition of the merchants of Ghent not wanting to pay hefty taxes to fund his military campaigns.
Alongside the impressive history which permeates Ghent - Gravensteen castle, St Bavo Cathedral (the patron saint), the Belfry (great views) and the old port of Graslei – the city has excellent museums of art, from Hieronymous Bosch to Joseph Beuys. It also hosts annual techno music festivals, film festivals, and the renowned Gentse Feesten, ten days when the city is taken over with music and theatre.
One of Belgium’s best-preserved medieval fortresses, Gravensteen Castle (also known as the Castle of the Counts) boasts thick stone walls, crenellated towers, and a history laced with intrigue and torture. Today, the landmark is a historical gem in the heart of Ghent; stop by to learn its often dark history firsthand.
The medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei face each other across the canalized River Leie and originally formed part of Tusschen Brugghen, the city’s thriving harbour. Their banks are lined with a rare architectural treat – the loveliest gabled guild houses and warehouses in Belgium, built between the 1200s and 1600s by rich merchants and guilds whose wealth came from trade. The streets are united by St Michael’s Bridge, from where their gabled delights can be seen at best advantage, and although considerable restoration work has taken place, these distinctive townhouses have maintained their allure.
Graslei is lined by canal-side restaurants blessed with a graceful backdrop of gabled gild houses; the oldest is the Het Spijker (Stockpile House) at no. 10; other ornate façades once contained the guild houses of the stonemasons, the free boatmen and the grain measurers as well as the former customs house. Across the river from Graslei, Korenlei offers many surprises of its own, including imposing step-gabled, red-brick 16th-century houses. No. 9 is of particular interest for the gilded swans adorning the facade; in its time De Swaene has been both a brewery and a bordello. The pink-and-white Gildehuis van de Onvrije Schippers (Guild House of the Tied Boatmen) dates from 1739 and is a masterpiece of Flemish Baroque architecture.
By day, tour boats leave from the quays of Graslei and Korenlei; after dark the district morphs into party central and restaurants, cafés and bars sprout along the quaysides.
Owner of the oldest of the three great spires that dominate the pedestrianized heart of Ghent, the St. Nicholas’ Church (Sint-Niklaaskerk) was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries in an eye-catching mixture of Romanesque and Flemish Gothic architectural styles. Built of Tournai limestone, its lovely exterior is adorned with flying buttresses and spiky spires as well as an imposing central tower; all this grandeur was paid for by Ghent’s wealthy medieval merchants to signal their wealth to the rival Flanders trading cities of Bruges and Antwerp. It’s probably more beautiful inside than out, but nevertheless all eyes lead to the Baroque high altar with its twisted side columns, floodlit through stained-glass windows high above. The church is currently under restoration but faint traces of fresco can still be seen on the supporting pillars of the nave. For the best view of St Nicholas’s flying buttresses, head for the viewing platform of the Belfry a few steps away.
Fronted by a Romanesque, baroque and Gothic facade, Ghent’s cavernous cathedral serves as a repository for a valuable collection of art treasures, including works by Rubens and Laurent Delvaux. Its showpiece attraction is the Van Eyck brothers’ world-renowned 24-panel altarpiece,The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
Book-ending the square of Botermarkt with St Bavo’s Cathedral, the ornate UNESCO-listed Belfry and the Cloth Hall at its feet stand testament to the great wealth of Ghent in the 14th century; built with money from members of the wool and textiles guilds, they are in striking Brabant Gothic style. The Belfry is topped with a gilded copper dragon and holds a carillon of 54 bells that have rung for more than six centuries; take the elevator to the viewing gallery at 66 m (217 ft) above Sint-Baafsplein to see the bells and take in panoramic views of gabled facades, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Gothic ornamentation of St Nicholas’ Church. A small museum displays models of the church, a few pieces of armor and the original dragon from atop the tower.
The Cloth Hall dates from 1425 and was built as the storehouse for textile produced in Ghent; every piece had to be inspected here for quality before it could be exported. The hall still has its original carved wooden ceiling and a Baroque extension added in 1741 served as the city’s prison until 1902. Like Graslei and Korenlei, the Belfry looks spectacular when floodlit at night.
Ghent is Belgium’s best-kept secret, a cosmopolitan university city of imposing churches, top-quality museums and some of the most beautiful medieval architecture in Europe. Add to this a vigorous cultural scene, packed late-night bars, restaurants and clubs, plus stylish hotels and this is a city not to be missed.
The city’s pedestrianized heart surrounds triangular Korenmarkt, which was the medieval market place, with most of the major sights – the ornate Stadhuis, St Bavo’s Cathedral, St Nicholas’ Church and the Belfry – within easy walking distance. Just northwest of Korenmarkt, the River Leie is canalized and bordered with the medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei; it curls through Ghent on its way to join the River Schelde and a network of canals leading to the port. Close by, the austere Gravensteen Castle lies on a split in the Leie, and beyond that is Patershol, an enclave of narrow streets crammed with 17th-century artisanal cottages. Now delightfully revamped, the district is currently scene of Ghent’s hottest nightlife. Ghent’s other focal square is Vrijdagmarkt, which is huge, tree lined and surrounded by ancient guild houses – now mostly shops and restaurants – where markets spring up most weekends. In the south of the city, Citadelpark is the location of two excellent art galleries.
‘Ganda’ was the ancient name for Ghent and the present-day marina at Portus Ganda marks the spot where the city first began to grow. Located east of Ghent’s triumvirate of landmark spires, the marina is one of four in Ghent and sits on the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. Once covered over to ease traffic, the Lower Scheldt was reopened to restore the city’s original waterways and at the same time several new pedestrianized piazzas and promenades were created; Portus Ganda opened in 2005 and is now a buzzing little spot with yachts bobbing alongside riverside boardwalks packed with restaurants and bars. A bridge scattered with benches unites the two sides of the river and the newly reopened and much-modernized Van Eyck swimming pool is close by on Veermanplein.