Last year I had the opportunity to give a second chance to a city I didn’t like very much the first time I visited, Ghent. That trip taught me a lot of lessons, most notably that first impressions can sometimes be wrong and how important it can sometimes be to revisit cities. Spending multiple days in Ghent was important and by the end of my stay I’d come to truly love this Flemish city located near Brussels. It has a lot to offer and I think some of its most impressive features will surprise you. I know they surprised me.
1. Water City – For centuries water has helped define Ghent, first as an important port and then later through canals used to transport goods around Europe. Today the canals of Ghent as well as the River Lys help define the travel experience in this beautiful town. The main artery through old Ghent is the River Lys, where you’ll find hotels, restaurants and bars lining both sides of this historic waterway. To see Ghent from a different point of view, take one of the many river cruises offered around town or walk along the sometimes winding path following the river. Not only will you see a different side to Ghent’s famous buildings, but you’ll discover new shops and cafes along the way.
2. Famous Lamb – I’m not a huge art lover, but I do make time for the classics and always enjoy viewing them. I was surprised though when I found one of these great works hidden away in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in the heart of Ghent. In 1432 the Van Eyck brothers painted the now famous altarpiece known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the finest examples of this type of art in the world and what many call the first oil painting. It’s a miracle that it still survives, having lived through wars, religious rebellions and several thefts. Most recently the artwork was seized by the Germans during WWII and stored in a salt mine along with Hitler’s other stolen treasures. The salt damaged the altarpiece, but after the war the great masterpiece was returned to its home church in Ghent. You can see the world’s most coveted artwork for yourself everyday at St. Bavos for a small fee of just a few Euros.
3. Great food culture – This may be the aspect of Ghent that surprised me the most. I’d spent time in Belgium before and I naturally assumed that the food would be good, but I never knew how seriously people in Ghent take their food and how many delicious tastes are particular to this city. Most famous is the distinctive and spicy mustard found only at the Tierenteyn-Verlent mustard shop, which has been producing the condiment for more than two centuries. To go with this mustard is an ample supply of ham. Head to the Het Groot Vleeshuis where you can sample the dry cured and aged Ganda ham, particular to the city. To wash it all down try a brew from the city’s only brewery, Gruut Brewery. The brewster, Annick De Splenter, spent years researching medieval methods of creating gruut beer that is made without hops and has developed a delicious line of beers that are true to the history of the region and of course taste amazing.
4. Fantastic museums – I like museums, but I’m fairly picky about which ones I visit. They take time, usually a rare commodity when I travel so I always make sure that the museums will be interesting to me. Ghent surprised me with just how many museums I loved almost right away. The first time visitor should head to the Ghent City Museum (STAM), a wonderful example of telling a story in a way that is engaging and interesting. The museum tells the history of Ghent through the ages and thanks to plenty of interactive exhibits and maps, it’s easy to leave with a whole new respect for the great town. Another great museum is the Design Museum of Ghent. Housed in an 18th century mansion, the Design Museum focuses on showcasing the best of 20th century decorative arts. For a lover of design and decorative arts from the first few decades of the last century, the museum was a visual treat. These are just a couple examples of the fantastic and entertaining museums found in and around Ghent.
5. Quirky and unexpected – I expected a lot from Ghent, beautiful architecture, delicious eats and friendly people. I got all of that in spades, but I didn’t expect its quirky side; its sometimes sarcastic and unusual sense of humor. Not all cities can do this, many take themselves far too seriously for their own good. Not Ghent. One of the first examples of this unusual way of doing business I found while walking down what is now known as graffiti alley. A few years ago the city fathers decided to designate one alley for graffiti, asking everyone to avoid tagging others buildings around town. Amazingly this urban renewal project worked. Graffiti vandalism around town is way down and now graffiti alley is one of the most colorful in town, a tourist destination in its own right. Ghent can also poke fun at itself, as seen at the aforementioned Design Museum of Ghent. One of the most unusual features of the museum is the bathroom wing. Built after a lost battle with city government to approve an expansion, the museum constructed an outside set of bathrooms in an enclosure made to look like a giant roll of toilet paper. If that’s not the perfect example of Flemish passive aggressiveness and sarcasm, I don’t know what is.
Have you been to Ghent? What were some things that surprised you?