When it comes to European travel, Ghent is not often the first city that comes to mind. For a multitude of reasons this Flemish city in Belgium has been so badly maligned that many don’t even consider visiting. That’s a shame, a travesty really, because as I found it’s one of the best smaller destinations in Europe. Why? Glad you asked, here are some reasons why I think everyone should give Ghent a chance. (Ghent Tourism sponsored my trip after I wrote how disappointing the city was. I’m glad they did, I spent a lot more time there, explored on my own and grew to love the city.)
It has THE look – Not too far from Ghent is Bruges, the golden child of Belgian tourism. People flock there in droves for the cute buildings, chocolates and a classic European look and feel. What many people don’t realize is that Ghent enjoys all of these high-value features as well. The problem with Ghent is arriving into town. As soon as you walk out of the train station you expect to be met with Flemish style, gabled row houses and people shoving chocolates down your throat. In reality you walk out into what can only be called a rather grey and grim part of town. I really hope Ghent Tourism reads this and makes efforts to at least put a tourism stand in the train station because I am positive many would-be visitors walk outside, look around and then promptly leave. I know from experience as this is essentially what I did the first time I visited. What I missed, and what so many others miss is the heart of the city, the lanes and canals that truly make it visually stunning. As you delve deeper into town, you start to discover all the various squares, arcades and shops that do make Ghent a beautiful place to visit, even more so than Bruges. There’s a certain reality to Ghent that Bruges lacks, making it much more interesting for the casual traveler.
Food – Food is an exceptionally important part of the travel experience for most people and with good reason. We all have to eat, yes, but the smell, taste and look of food forms strong memories for us and even years later has the ability to transport us to remote locales around the world, otherwise long forgotten. Belgium and Ghent in particular has a strong culinary history and it’s all on display for visitors to enjoy. A first stop on a foodie tour of Ghent should be at the Het Groot Vleeshuis, the old meat house. Today it has been transformed into an innovative cafe and shop featuring only locally made foods, from ham to mustard and everything in between. A visit to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a chocolate maker’s shop and Ghent has many to offer. One of my favorites is Van Hecke’s, operating for more than 70 years through three generations of chocolatiers. Pralines are their specialty, but they have a wide range of chocolate to suit most tastes. Every city has its own unique culinary oddities and in Ghent it’s mustard, spicy mustard to be more precise. Located near the heart of the city, the Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard shop has been producing its distinctive condiment for more than two hundred years without change. The small shop is almost always crowded with a mix of tourists and locals, all admiring the apothecary bottles lining the old fashioned store. In the corner is a huge barrel of freshly made product and a gigantic ladle used to dole out the spicy mustard. The mustard is made on site, in the basement to be exact, and is the only place in the world where you can buy it. These are just a few of the many food reasons to add Ghent to your travel bucket list.
Easy to reach and navigate – Ghent enjoys a prime location in Belgium, just a short train ride from Brussels making it the ideal side trip for anyone visiting the Belgian capital. Once you arrive, what I think is a pretty good tram system makes it equally easy to reach the heart of the city. Once firmly entrenched in your hotel, it’s easy to visit just about all of the major sites on foot. In fact, walking around Ghent is one of the best things to do in town. I loved walking across the canals, marveling at the centuries old row houses and smelling the sweet smells as I walked by the chocolate shops. It’s an old city though, so it took me a while to understand the layout of the streets and alleyways, but once I did I felt as if I had unlocked a secret. Suddenly new experiences were open to me and after only a short time I felt like I got to know and understand the city. It’s a wonderful feeling once this happens and in Ghent it happened faster than most places I visit.
Great culture – Many people don’t realize that Ghent is also a university town and that always means great cultural opportunities. One thing I was astounded by was the number of museums in town; they seem to be everywhere covering a variety of topics from fine art to design to history. One of my favorites was the STAM Ghent City Museum. This modern and exceptionally well-curated museum provides the perfect first introduction to the history and people of the city. The museum is engaging in a way that few other museums around the world are and it’s easy to spend a day there without realizing how much time has passed. Another surprising favorite activity was a visit to Ghent’s castle, the Gravensteen. Castles have stood on the site since the 9th century and while the current structure may be a heavily remodeled version, it’s a lot of fun to walk through and enjoy. At the top guests can enjoy panoramic views of Ghent; a great way to better understand the layout of surrounding neighborhoods.
These are just a few reasons why I think everyone should give Ghent a chance. Sure there are a lot of great places to visit in Europe, but for me personally Ghent has a certain feel and spirit about it that I don’t see very often. It was a joy to spend several days there, exploring the nooks and crannies of the city and meeting the people who call it home. It has a personality that cities like Bruges don’t enjoy, a certain level of realism that sets it apart and that, more than anything makes it a fantastic place to visit.