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?

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.

45 thoughts on “Comparing Bruges and Ghent – Flemish Travel Showdown”

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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” )

  5. 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.

    1. James Priester

      You said Ghent is wonderful to see but fail to answer the question, “Which city is better to see”. Yes, everyone now knows you have lived in Ghent, wonderful; however, you failed to answer the question.
      It is like asking about a cathedral to tour and the response from the person is, “you must see the city hall”. No answer. Most frustrating.

  6. 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.

    1. James Priester

      This is most helpful, thank you. I’ve made my decision based on your reflection about Bruge.

  7. 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.

  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.

  9. You spent a few hours in Brugge and instead of the market square, bellower that dates to the 13th century, the church of notre dame that has a sculpture carved by michelangelo, a basilica that purportedly contains a vile of christ’s blood and instead went to french fry museum? I hope you took the time to stop by the mini europe theme park in brussels.

    1. While the attitude isn’t appreciated, who said I didn’t do those other things? This is a friendly place, try to be civil. Not hard.

      1. I’d like to second what Matt said and add this as well. It’s fine that you want to see 800 year old relics and a vile of blood. I respect that. But me… I’d rather see a french fry museum,especially when I’m heading into Belgium tomorrow with three young kids. I was lucky enough to Google “Brugge or Ghent” and find this article. Thanks so much for the tips, Matt. My family is all about the “Disney” experience (and, of course, a french fry museum), so it’s gonna be Brugge for us. And if there’s time at the end of the day, we might check out the old stuff too.

  10. I’m biased. I live closer to Gent and I know it better than Brugge. Everyone I have brought to Gent is impressed. It’s not what they imagined they often say.

  11. Hi. My husband and I are planning a three-week road trip starting in Honfleur, Normandy. Our itinerary (working on it now) is to then drive up to Bruges, a stop in Ghent, Brussels, Luxembourg City, a side trip of a few days over to Prague as we don’t know we’ll have another chance, down to Strasbourg, a day trip down to Basel, Switzerland, then back up through the Alsace and Lorraine and on to DeGaulle airport. I appreciated reading your article. Anything more to be suggested will also be appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to share your info!

  12. Thank you for your article. My husband and I are making our first European trip this summer and after a week and a half road trip in France, we are taking the train to Amsterdam with a stop over in Belgium. We originally planned only one night in Ghent, but we are now rethinking to stay for two nights with a day trip to Brugges before we head to the Netherlands. Your article gave us the extra info to try both out for ourselves.

  13. Morrie Johnston

    Matt, Thanks for this. I’m in Popering, and Ieper in May, and was going to give myself 2 nights (by train) from Ieper to either Bruges or Gent. Might try both. Looks like your website will be another feed for my RSS Roll. Again, thanks.

  14. Rafael Gironda

    I went to Ghent today. It was beautiful, but cold and rainy . I loved it. Tomorrow I’m going to Brugges. I don’t believe that a city is better than other. Last year I went to Prague and other cities in Germany, each city is unique. Thanks for the article,reading it while my wife is sleeping and I am getting as much info as I can get. lol.
    P.S. Check Wolters world on youtube.he has many videos about Belgium, Brugges and Ghent.

  15. My family decided to skip Ghent because we have only one driver and she’s tired. Thanks though for this blog and for sharing your opinions!

  16. Hey, I would like to have some advice if it’s possible to cover three cities (Brussels, Brugge & Gent) together in, let say 8-10 days. I would love to visit Brussels but overwhelming on Brugge and Gent.

    1. You can easily do all three (Brugge, Gent, Bruxelles) in 10 days. Stay in one and travel to the others by train.

  17. I keep thinking that you should mention the wonderful Brel song,” Marike”….”entre les tours de Bruge et Gent.” I sang it once and for about a minute there were no applauds. I was devastated and then, the audience rose to its feet and screamed over and over, “Bravo.” It wasn’t my performance, but the song, one of Brel’s most beautiful.

  18. How do you feel about travel to Brussels after all of the ISIS activity of late? We are planning a trip in May and are now contemplating changing it to avoid Brussels.

    1. I’m here at the moment and it seems fine. There is NATO headquarters in Brussels, so if you’re worried then avoid it. (personally, don’t live in fear for these sorts of things otherwise don’t go anywhere). There are a lot of other places you could go instead should you wish :-)

      1. Brussels is beautiful and not something I would avoid. I have not yet visited Ghent, but absolutely loved Bruges. I was only there for 2 days, but would’ve stayed longer if I could. It is a shopper’s town for sure. The walking/cycling paths and architecture are so charming; the people warm & friendly.

  19. I will be visiting Belgium in March for just a few days. I’m figuring out where to base myself in terms of a hotel or airBNB: Ghent, Brussels, or Bruges. It is so much fun reading posts like this one, and all the comments.I’m leaning towards Ghent because it is in the middle of the three.

  20. Really great to read this. Heading to Ghent in 6 weeks, so nice to hear someone’s opinion on it. If I remember, I’ll let you know my thoughts once I’ve been.

  21. We are spending a day in Ghent on the way to visit friends in Holland. I chose Ghent because my family loves castles (kids are grown) and the castle in Ghent is in town, has a moat and a dungeon museum. There seem to be many more castles in Belgium than in Germany; in Berlin they are all palaces.

  22. Heading to B and G in a few short weeks. I can’t decided what to do, so I will do both. This is my 27th trip to Europe, and I can’t believe I’ve never been up to Belgium–well now, I’m remedying that. I’m leaning towards Brugge for quaint villagesque pictures, and Ghent for some city life. Hoping to find some castles or interesting historical places in the area. I’ll let you know who gets my vote! Thank you for the article!

  23. Matt,

    Really enjoy the tone of your site ….very helpful and insightful. Was in Bruges last year at this time ….. we, shamefully, had to see Bruges because of the movie. Our whole trip, however, was sort of a canal thing. Bruges, Colmar, Strasbourg, Annecy ….. just suggestion for your readers as it was one of my favorite trips to Europe. Keep up with the great insight and civility!

  24. Hi everyone!

    Will be staying in Brussels for 4 nights and am doing a day trip to Brugge and Ghent, morning in Brugge and afternoon in Ghent. What r some highlights and places to visit in theses two cities? Thanks!

  25. In early October I was visiting friends in Ghent and we took a day trip to Brugge, so I was able to sample both very different cities. Whether it is Brugge or Ghent there is something to delight everyone, depending your likes.
    I was impressed with the thriving, vibrant feel of Ghent, blending the old with the new with really friendly locals, excellent restaurants, and a feel of a very active city. A large segment of locals use bicycles to get around the city, reminiscent of Amsterdam.
    We took a long day trip to Brugge on a bright sunny day. We took advantage of the canal boat tours to see some beautiful views of the city. I was quite impressed with the medieval look and feel, but the disney-like atmosphere with so many tourist… I felt that I didn’t get to know the city, much less the local populace. Beautiful yes, impressive architecture yes, but rather sterile. The shops that lined the streets in the old city center were chocolate shop, souvenir shop, chocolate shop, souvenir shop, repeat… with an occasional restaurant thrown in. That was my take on it, no offense intended.
    Both are cities to see. Decide for yourself.

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