For some unfathomable reason, mass tourism has not arrived in Ghent…yet. Find out why Europe's biggest city in the 14th century is its most underrated in the 21st.
A bit of history
Ghent (Gent in Flemish) was founded at the confluence of the Schelde and Leie rivers, and it is these waterways which were exploited to make the city a Middle Ages metropolis where cloth was made and traded.
Although its fortunes declined soon after, Ghent prospered again following an industrial revolution in the 19th century – it is now Belgium’s third largest city after Brussels and Antwerp.
A bit of culture
Ghent has world-class art museums and is home to one of the artistic wonders of the world (Jan van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb). As we were on a stag-do, we kept sight-seeing to a minimum and beer consumption to a maximum. However, we saw enough of the place to fall in love with it, thought it was far too pretty for a stag-do and vowed to return one day with our future wives.
The city is ideal for a short break – here’s how to spend 24 hours in glorious Ghent.
For €6, De bootjes van Gent (Korenlei 4A; www.debootjesvangent.be) will take you on a 45-minute cruise of Ghent's waterways. This is a great way to get your bearings, go on a whistle-stop tour of the city's highlights and be entertained by the stand-up comedian-cum-guide.
First up are the traditional Flemish guild houses along Graslei, before you reach the scary looking city-centre castle, Het Gravensteen (St. Veerleplein). You can visit for €8, although our guide told us a fair bit about it – built in the 12th century by the Counts of Flanders, over the years it has been a court, a prison and even a factory. Your guide will also point out sights away from the water, such as the three towers of Ghent, which we planned to visit later that day.
Those who think Belgium is only famous for chocolates and beer have never tried Belgian fast food. It’s a common misconception that French fries originated from France – legend has it that American soldiers heard Belgians cooking them in World War I and assumed they were French. To try the best fries in Ghent, go to Frituur ’T Puntzakje (Kleine Vismarkt 9) and have your chips with a tasty sauce made of mustard, beer and beef stew (ask for Stoverije).
Away from the waterside, Ghent’s most popular attractions are centred around St. Baafsplein – home to the three towers of Ghent. For €5, you can work off your chips by climbing the 256 steps to the top of the Belfort for stupendous views. From here, you can look down on the city’s other two towers - St.Niklaaskerk, and St. Baafskathedraal, where The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is kept (€5 for a glimpse).
Ghent’s restaurant quarter is in Patershol – the cobbled alleyways just to the north of the waterways. One of the most popular restaurants here is the huge Amadeus (Plotersgracht 8; 09 225 1385; www.amadeusspareribrestaurant.be) which specialises in eat-as-much-as-you-can spare ribs. For €13.95, you get a rack of ribs with Amadeus’ lovely herb butter sauce – when you’ve finished, just raise your hand and another rack will be brought to your plate.
With its myriad of celebrated beers, Belgium was made for pub crawls and Ghent has tons of decent places to sample them. A five minute walk south from Patershol will take you to one of several squares in central Ghent, Vrijdagmarkt. At number 50 is a bar called Dulle Griet (www.dullegriet.be), and here you will find the most bonkers bar-room custom you will ever come across.
Dulle Griet sells over 150 different beers, but there is one you have to try – the house beer, Max. It’s served in a 1.2 litre test tube which is held in a wooden rack and bubbles away like a chemistry experiment before you. The test tube/rack combo is so expensive, the waiter will ask you for a shoe as deposit which he puts in a basket and winches to the ceiling. Max comes in blond or dark versions, both costing €9.30, and, at 7.5%, it’s probably a good idea to start rather than end the night here unless you fancy walking home with one shoe.
Vrijdagmarkt is lined with bars and restaurants, some with outdoor terraces. We tried a Mort Subite Kriek (4.5% cherry beer) at De Cassis (5 Vrijdagmarkt), and a Haacht (5.1% white beer) at ‘T Vrijdags Gevoel (29 Vrijdagmarkt) – two bars at opposite corners of the square – before moving on to the waterside.
Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (Groentenmarkt 9; www.waterhuisaandebierkant.be) is a Ghent institution for beer-lovers with a fine location along the banks of the River Leie and a menu approaching 200 beers. We sat outside watching the night boat-trips with a glass of De Koninck – an amber beer served in glasses called Bollekes because of their round shape.
The area around the Belfort is pretty enough in the daytime, but at night it’s illuminated to create a perfect romantic ambience. We stopped off at Het Lamgods (St. Baafsplein 1; www.hetlamgods.be) for a glass of Leffe and to gape in awe at the medieval buildings all around us. Some bar owners may be a little wary about nine English lads on tour, one dressed as a cow, entering their establishments, but Het Lamgod’s friendly owner was delighted to talk to us and even bought our stag a glass of champagne.
Ghent has a large student population of 60,000, and the streets around St. Pietersplein about 25-minutes walk to the south of the centre are chock full of lively (and cheap) bars. We stumbled into a called The Backdoor (St. Amandstraat 26; www.backdoorgent.be), where the owner tempted us with an 8% honey beer called Barbar which brought our session to an abrupt end.
Where to stay
We stayed at the perfectly adequate, central and cheap youth hostel, De Draecke (St Widostraat 11) where guests of all ages are welcome. En-suite twin rooms with breakfast cost €48, while there are 4, 5 and 6-bed dorms ideal for larger groups. A bed in an en-suite 4-bed dorm costs just €19 with breakfast. The hostel is in a great location in a quiet residential street just two minutes' walk from the city centre.
Envious eyes were cast when our cruise took us past the impressive 4* Ghent River Hotel (Waaistraat 5). Built in a converted mill-house, a relic of Ghent’s 19th century industrial heyday, it has the honour of being the only hotel in town that can be reached by boat. Luxurious doubles with breakfast cost around €100.
Eurostar takes you from London St. Pancras to Brussels Midi in just under two hours from £69 return – keep your ticket and you can travel to any other Belgian station for free. It’s easy to browse timetables and prices at www.eurostar.com before booking – connections to Ghent St. Pieters take 31 minutes and there are three trains every hour (search for times at www.bahn.de).
Eurostar’s excellent Domestic Rail Section (01233 617913; no website) can sort you out with cheap connections to London from elsewhere in the UK, and will guarantee to put you on the next available Eurostar should your connection be delayed.