Ghent is a city that feels similar to Bruges in some ways, and very different in others. It has a Belfry tower, several churches and cathedrals as well as canals running through the city. But it doesn’t quite have the same fairytale like medieval feel to it, with a student population of 70,000 (while Bruges has a total population of around 115,000) and newer buildings, Ghent feels like a combination of the old and modern worlds.
On a waking tour in Bruges I met Faisal and Ibrahim, two brothers who were traveling through Belgium from the UK. As we partook in an evening of Belgian beer tasting they graciously offered me a ride to Ghent as they were passing close by when they traveled to Antwerp. So I caught a ride to Ghent with them and we spent the day wandering the city, stopping in Cafe Rosario to try one of their specialty hot chocolates (I had the oreo one).
Ghent has some pretty remarkable architecture, and it’s all very central and very close together. From St Michael’s Bridge you can get a perfect view of the three big towers all in a row. The architecture inside the St Bavos Cathedral is incredible, huge arched ceilings and the walls are filled with artwork and sculptures. It also houses the Ghent Alterpiece, also known as ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’. The Belfry of Ghent doesn’t stand out across the city as much as the one in Bruges since it’s surrounded by cathedrals, but it’s still a great site to see. Some days there is a TV set up in the square below the tower, on which you can watch the musician play the carillon at the top.
I went on a boat tour through the old centre of Ghent, with the company Boat In Ghent. It lasted about 45 minutes and the guide gave a brief history of the city as a whole, as we passed alongside buildings we are also told about their specific stories and history. A good tour which gives you a different view of the city, seeing it as countless merchants of the past would have seen it as they entered Ghent.
The biggest building of Ghent is undoubtedly Gravensteen , a medieval castle situated right in the center of the city. The name Gravensteen is Dutch and translates to ‘Castle of the Counts’. When it was built in 1180 it was modeled after the crusader castles that Philip of Alcase had encountered while participating in the second crusade. It looks and feels exactly like I imagine a medieval castle should, even though it was never used as a military fortress it’s still an impressive structure. A few of the rooms inside the castle have been converted into a small museum where your can see torture instruments that were used throughout Belgium in the past. Some very disturbing things in there.
Something that I’d definitely recommend doing is walking through the central area of the city at night. The map I got from the hostel had an ‘Illumination Walk’ mapped out on it, so one night after dinner I set out to see the sites of the city again. Because it was Easter Sunday here that night it seemed most shops were shut and there wasn’t too many people out and about. Looking over the Graslei from St Michael’s Bridge was probably the highlight, although seeing the cathedrals, the Belfry and Gravensteen all illuminated against the night sky was pretty cool.
Again I’ll write another paragraph on some food and drink recommendations, since it’s just so good here. For lunch one cold day I went to Souplounge, where I got a big bowl of broccoli soup, bread and an apple for €5 (a really good deal especially on a rainy day). I had the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had at Chocolato, where I had the Belgian milk chocolate with honey (extremely sweet but delicious). The Brussels waffle I got from Kaffie 3-14 was great, as opposed to the Liege waffle I had in Bruges you should add toppings to this one (chocolate and whipped cream seemed to be a good choice). Then finally to finish off I bought a small bag of cuberdons, a Belgian cone shaped jelly candy sold by competing carts right next to each other.