Comparing Bruges and Ghent – Flemish Travel Showdown

Bruges Brugge

When I was planning our trip to Belgium, I solicited the advice of friends and experts who had visited the low country before. Almost immediately, I sensed a strange division amongst the respondents and it all revolved around two seemingly innocent towns near Brussels, Bruges (Brugge) and Ghent (Gent). Bruges has long been heralded as the quintessential European village. Untouched by the bombs of two World Wars, its Euro-cuteness has been well preserved for posterity. Ghent on the other hand is a large city, deemed by some as more authentic than Bruges and criticized by others for being less interesting. Armed with the knowledge that travel divisions existed, I set out to discover the truth behind these two Belgian towns.

Bruges is less than an hour from Brussels by train, which allowed us to be there in time for breakfast. As we sat eating a waffle in a bustling cafe on the market square, I leafed through the guidebook looking for suggestions. I really hadn’t done much planning for the day and didn’t know what, if anything, there was to do in the town. It was pretty, don’t get me wrong, but I’m active and need to almost always be in the process of doing something, anything. The one thing I knew I wanted to do was to try some chocolate. Belgium is a chocolate lover’s paradise and Bruges is one of best places in the country to find quality confections. At the advice of friends, we first walked to the Bruges institution, Dumon’s.

Dumon Chocolate Bruges

True to the advice we received, the chocolate at Dumon’s was some of the best I’ve ever had and even more importantly, the staff at the family run shop were as much fun to talk to as their chocolate was to eat. We left and strolled along the meandering streets, spent some time exploring the French Fry Museum, and within a couple of hours found ourselves back at the square where we started. We didn’t know what else to do. Like most European towns in December, there was a winter festival where we picked up a snack of hot fries, motivated by our recent museum experience.  We walked slowly back to the train station, certain we were missing something, but unable to figure out what. By chance we found ourselves in the Beguinage, a delightful pastoral enclave within Bruges that demands quiet introspection.

Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium UNESCO

As the train pulled out of Bruges for the short hop to Ghent, I thought about Bruges and the criticisms I had heard about the Belgian hamlet. Most people complained that it is too contrived, too Disney of an experience. They feel that the medieval look is maintained just for the tourist trade, which is probably true. I don’t think that’s a bad thing though, the buildings themselves are indeed real and as one of the few places to remain completely intact after World War II, they’re proud of their heritage. Is it a little too cute at times? Probably, but who cares? It’s a fun place to explore. Ghent too was an interesting place to explore, but for completely different reasons.

The first thought that raced into my mind as I exited the busy train station in Ghent was that everything seemed grey. No doubt a condition of wintery weather in Belgium, the battleship hue was enhanced by the grey stone buildings and leafless trees encircling a nearby park. For the first time while in Belgium, I also felt at a loss. Ghent is in the heart of Flanders and while I can get by in French, Flemmish is impossible for me to comprehend. So it was with some fits and starts that we actually managed to divine our way to the heart of the city.

City is the best term, unlike its cousin Bruges, Ghent is quite large and very active, boasting a population of 240,000. You get the feeling that this is a city first and tourist destination second, in sharp contrast to Bruges. Once again, my total failure to research the city in advance left us a little dazed and confused as we meandered around the main square, peering up at the ancient and imposing Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

As we enjoyed a post lunch waffle drizzled with Nutella at the nearby winter festival, I decided that it was ok if I couldn’t find any museums or famous sites. I was enjoying myself, enjoying exploring a new city and getting to understand it a little better. Our activities that afternoon didn’t vary all that much, mostly walking and admiring; soaking in the pre-Christmas rush of consumers desperate to find the perfect gift.

So which city is better? Which captures the real Belgian experience? Both of them and neither of them. Both Bruges and Ghent offer completely different experiences and you will walk away from both with different feelings and thoughts. Bruges is great for delivering that classic European feel, the gingerbread trimmed buildings and horse drawn carriages traversing canals. Ghent can be easily overlooked, since it doesn’t have the same appeal of Bruges, but it’s not to be missed. In Ghent you will understand daily life a little better while still enjoying historic sites and classic buildings. They’re both very different, but thoroughly enjoyable in their own ways.

I can understand the feeling of not enjoying a travel destination, there are many places I really didn’t like. But what I can’t understand is not wanting to explore a new destination at all. Prejudging a place so intensely that you don’t even want to visit is totally incomprehensible to me. So, if you find yourself in Belgium be sure to visit both Bruges and Ghent and see what you think. Who knows, you may discover a new favorite place.

 Have you been to either Bruges or Ghent? What did you think?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

13 Responses

  1. Brittany

    I’ve been to both Bruges and Ghent and I must say that I enjoyed Ghent much more! While Bruges was beautiful, it is definitely more touristy. I may be biased though because I really wanted to see the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb that is in Ghent!

    Reply
  2. John

    Matt, I’ve been to both cities on several occasions. I tend to agree on your analysis for a visitor choosing between the two cities. My two cents worth is that if you are a visitor with very little time then perhaps Bruges (Brugge) offers a more concentrated picture postcard visitor experience. If you have more time and and don’t mind a mix of old and new, interesting and mundane then Ghent (Gent) is a better choice.
    But both cities are Belgian both cities are Belgian. In another of your posts you speak about Belgium being a mix of Flanders and Wallonia plus of course Brussels. I’ve spent three years of my life in Belgium and still don’t grasp the full complexities. No visitor picks up more than 10% of a country’s culture. We only see the part of the iceberg above the waterline. It leads to all sorts of misunderstandings and xenophobic stereotypes.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Absolutely true John, thanks for the comments!

      Reply
  3. esme

    I had one day for a daytrip. Chose Ghent over Bruges and have been wondering what I missed. Still, am happy with my decision as the cathedral was showing a modern art exhibit: crazy dichotomy of gothic & contemporary, traditional & avant garde.

    Thanks for the comparison.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I actually just returned from a 2nd visit to Ghent and you definitely made the right choice. Lots more to share soon!

      Reply
  4. Margot

    Being a student in Gent, I still love the city just as much as I loved it two years ago. It’s a lovely mix between a city where people really live, study, party and just visit. I guess that’s what’s makes it so interessting!

    Next time in Gent, try “STAM”, the city museum on a wonderfull location! (tramline 1 or 4; but I prefer 4, it stops at a really beautiful side of the “Bijloke” )

    Reply
  5. Jane Capon

    I live in Gent and whilst I am learning Dutch (Flemish), my lack of the local tongue has not been a problem at all. The vast majority of people here speak some English and, although they may not readily admit it, some French too. Even the people working in the train station and the De Lijn (transport) information place speak English. And the taxi drivers, just about.

    Gent is beautiful. Wonderful. I encourage you all to visit.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Since writing this I have returned and loved the experience. Take a look on the site for the newer posts.

      Reply
  6. Lev Raphael

    This is my fifth night in Bruges and I could have happily stayed a few nights more. I’m sorry you went without planning. I read a number of guides well in advance including the official city guide which lists walking tours and places locals love. There’s lots to see here and enjoy but not American-style, that is, rushing around. It deserves deliberation. It’s a place to stroll through, a place filled with lovely squares and cafes. There are also windmills, canals, fascinating architecture that’s medieval, Renaissance and Baroque. There’s the gorgeous main square with the Belfort and its carillon. The churches are spectacular, and I would highly recommend people visit for Ascension Day when there’s a wild parade full of history, song, music, and also faith. You can order tickets for the Markt grandstands on line in the spring. Calling this city cute is a misnomer. It is museum-like in some aspects, but it’s very easy to get more than that vision of the city if you plan ahead, and put destinations on your map that aren’t filled with tourists.

    Reply
  7. Lev Raphael

    P.S. I spent a week studying Dutch, while taking note of some differences with Flemish and was glad I did rhe Pimsleur course. It blows people’s minds when I converse even minimally, and IMHO, if you ask for things in the local language whoever you are, whether directions, or food, or just to be taken somewhere in a cab, you have a bit more entrance into the culture. Granted, you’re still a tourist, but you’re showing respect . BTW, anyone speaking French wellwould do great here since I heard French everywhere, despite the longstanding animosity between Flemings and Walloons. So Flemish has been my first choice, French my fallback language, and sometime I unconsciously mix them and nobody’s had trouble undestanding me.

    Reply
  8. Bertie of Ferrara

    Been there for a short trip in Fanders for Armistice celebrations last November.
    Ghent seemed me a middle eastern town in some respect, will go back next week but I am not finding anything that tackles the aspect of what is what NOW, it seems a politically correct dream, and can easily become a nightmare.

    Reply

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