Been to Brussels? Browsed round Bruges? Try Ghent.
Sitting at a café table beside the river Lys, it’s easy to imagine what life must have been like in Medieval Ghent. The twin quays of Korenlei and Graslei would have buzzed with river traffic, the boats unloading beneath gabled buildings richly decorated on the proceeds of international trade.
In the Middle Ages, Ghent was a thriving commercial centre, larger than London and second only to Paris in size. Today, it’s a delightful spot for a short break, quieter than Brussels and less well-known than Bruges.
With its Flemish facades and picturesque canals, imposing castle and towering churches, 21st-century Ghent has the wow-factor without the ouch-factor – a compact historic centre which is easily explored on foot. And if that wasn't tempting enough, the city is only half an hour by rail from Brussels. Have breakfast in London and you can be in Ghent for lunch, using a combination of Eurostar and local train.
Many visitors take a day trip to Ghent from Brussels or Bruges but the city’s worth longer than that. Stay over and you can enjoy dinner in one of the many restaurants as well as a nocturnal stroll around its illuminated buildings. So I decided to test out the tourist board’s marketing slogan, ‘More than a one night stay’.
I booked in for two nights with a friend at the stylish Hotel Harmony, a delightful family-run hotel overlooking a canal in the medieval district of Patershol. With the historic quaysides and must-see sites within easy walking distance, it was the perfect base for a relaxed girls’ weekend.
My tip – with any hotel in Ghent – would be to forego the waterway view in favour of a room at the back. Most of the streets in the old quarter are cobbled and even the occasional passing car could be enough to wake light sleepers. Pack flat shoes too for comfortable sightseeing.
In the heart of the old town is the district fondly known as Europe’s ‘Medieval Manhattan’, an elongated ‘square’ packed with towering buildings – St Nicholas’s Church, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Belfry. Stand on St Michael’s Bridge for a unique view of all three towers; take the combination of lift and stairs to the top of the Belfry for great views over the city; and don’t miss ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ in St Bavo’s Cathedral, a majestic altarpiece by the Van Eyck Brothers.
We enjoyed the Folklore Museum next to our hotel with its old room sets, local artefacts, and quaint cafe. Ghent’s Design Museum is another popular attraction, but our favourite visit was the Castle of the Counts of Flanders, a medieval fortress of impressive proportions offering commanding views from the battlements.
Water is ever present in Ghent, not just the river but a network of picturesque canals. Take a short cruise with commentary for the background to all those fabulous Flemish facades, but best of all is the view after dark when the illuminated buildings are reflected in the still waters, every night throughout the year until midnight. Pick up the free leaflet to the circular trail to make sure you don’t miss a single magical building.
Ghent’s pedestrianised shopping area is Belgium’s largest, though the old streets still have an intimate feel. Take a spare shopping bag to stock up on fabulous Belgian chocolates, beautifully packaged and affordably priced – great for gifts to take home. Lace lovers will also find local handiwork sold in a number of city centre boutiques.
But to me, a big part of any short break is relaxing at a café with my travel companion and sampling local specialities in authentic restaurants. Here, Ghent delivers in abundance. We enjoyed both food and atmosphere at Brasserie Pakhuis, a warehouse-style eaterie on several floors, and at the stylish Café Theatre. Ghent is also rich in vegetarian restaurants with Thursday being Veggieday in all school and public service canteens.
Ghent doesn’t have the cultural attractions to compete with Brussels and the town centre is smaller than Bruges, but as we boarded an afternoon train to trundle back to the Belgian capital and Eurostar, we both agreed that Ghent is definitely worth more than a one-night stay. In fact two was absolutely perfect!
Packages of rail and accommodation are available from Railbookers.