In December 2011 my partner and I rented a condo in Brussels and took several day trips to explore the region. One of our stops was in the Flemish city of Ghent, a quick train ride from Brussels. I showed up without any clue of what to do or see and I paid the price. We only spent a couple of hours there but we couldn’t find much to do and didn’t like what we did manage to see. I left unhappy and with an overall negative impression of the city. But I realized that a lot of that was my own fault and in this post I named Ghent one of the cities that I need to give a second chance. Well in December 2012 we once again found ourselves in Belgium at the kind invitation of Ghent Tourism who read my post and wanted to give me that second chance to see their city the way it should be seen. So was it worth the return visit?
Not surprisingly it was raining when I stepped off the train from Brussels into the Gent-St.Pieters station. Winter in Belgium isn’t necessarily its most photogenic season, but I wasn’t deterred. I was excited to be shown everything I’d missed the first time I was there. I was dubious though. I wasn’t alone in my skepticism about Ghent, I’ve read scores of articles comparing it to Bruges and not always in the most favorable of ways. But I wanted to see the city in a new light, so I cast all of that travel baggage aside and dove into Ghent.
Ghent has a long history thanks to its position at the confluence of two rivers, making it a valuable port city. For the visitor this means that the city is full of canals, bridges and gorgeous architecture that is reminiscent of Amsterdam. One of the most picturesque areas of town is near St. Michael’s Bridge and the curving canal it spans. It’s funny, on my first trip to Ghent I was just a few hundred yards from this amazing spot and yet I never saw it. I just didn’t know it was there. Houses, hotels and restaurants line the sides of the canal and it’s almost always teeming with people at all hours of the day. It’s a colorful and romantic area of town and quickly became my favorite.
Ghent is about a lot more than pretty buildings though, residents also enjoy a robust food culture. The best primer to Ghent and Flemish cuisine is a stop at the old meat market, which now houses a deli/café serving only Ghent and regional foods. Here you can taste the hams, mustards and other delicacies that define the food culture in town. Afterwards walking through the many public squares brings these foods to life. The Tierenteyn Mustard house at the Groentenmarkt, the Van Hecke chocolate shop on Koestraat, even the waffles in town tasted better than anywhere else I had been. But it wouldn’t be Belgium without beer and Ghentians are proud of the city’s only brewery, Gruut.
The Gruut Brewery is relatively new, but it has quickly become a culinary staple. The brewster, Annick De Splenter, spent years researching medieval methods of creating gruut beer which doesn’t involve hops and today has created a delicious line of beers that are true to the history of the region and of course taste amazing.
I saw it all, from the medieval castle to the state of the art Ghent History Museum and everything in between. I got around town on foot and tram and had a great time learning as much about the city as I could.
By the time I left I was convinced that I had royally botched my first tourism attempt there a year ago. How could I have missed all of the great things Ghent has to offer? It seems a shame and I immediately began to wonder about other cities where I had failed as a tourist. I also understood why Ghentians are so proud of their city. Its history, beauty and culture make it a very real city, in contrast to nearby Bruges which at times seems more like a theme park. Ghent has all of the things people love about Bruges with the added benefit of being true to itself. Not many cities can walk that tightrope but Ghent has mastered it.
So yes, I’m now a Ghent convert I’m happy to say. It’s so much more than a stopover city, it’s a robust destination in its own right and if it’s not on your travel bucket list, it should be. I’ll have a lot more to say about one of my new favorite cities, but I just had to share with you all the importance of giving places, just as with people, a second chance.