Ghent is a small city with a relatively large city center that has a lively atmosphere thanks to the large student population. The medieval center is largely pedestrianized and to us it felt like a mini Amsterdam—canals, cobblestone streets, colorful buildings and something happening on every corner.
We think a day is enough to see all Ghent has to offer, so it makes a great day trip out of Brussels.
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The town itself can be found in the far northwestern corner of Belgium. It is the spot where two rivers, the Leie and the Scheldt, come together at one point.
Ghent is home to approximately 200,000 inhabitants, making it the third largest city of Belgium. That said, the touristic center is easy to walk through.
Make sure to book your hotel in or around the city center to be close to everything and not have to take public transportation. We have two tips on accommodation for you: Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof is located on the northern end while Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel is more towards the south. Details about these two fab hotels at the end of this article.
It's worth noting that 80,000 of Ghent’s citizens are students, giving the city lively vibes. It's also the reason why Ghent is considered the intellectual and cultural epicenter of the country.
Additionally, Ghent used to be an important city in the wool industry, which evolved into the textile industry later on. Ghent was known for its opulence and leisurely lifestyle during the Middle Ages.
The town itself brings to mind Amsterdam, but Ghent is much more attractive and condensed. So, if you like Amster as much as Karin and I do, you should definitely visit its mini version. Speaking of mini versions of cities, have you heard of Mini-Europe in Brussels? We loved it there, too. Check out our top things to do in Brussels, and even our top things to do in Belgium. It’s way up there on both lists!
Although we personally felt that Ghent was suitable for just a 1-day trip, it still has many interesting places. Heck, we even loved Ghent a tad more than Bruges, which is usually a visitors’ favorite!
Click on the map for a list of the top things to do in Ghent on Google Maps
Here are our tips on things to do in Ghent as well as some small tips for you to not step on the same rake we did. Here are the top 12 places to visit in Ghent:
Lovely and full of great eateries? That’s Patershol for you
Patershol is the culinary heart of Ghent. This particularly beautiful corner of downtown is home to a wide variety of cafes and restaurants. The area is located next to the amazing Castle of the Counts of Flanders (aka Gravensteen), which we tell you about below.
In general, this is a paradise for foodies. Our favorite restaurant in Patershol, 't Koningshuis, is all about burgers and meat. See our favorites in our list of top restaurants in Belgium for more great places to eat.
As true Czechs, we can’t not talk about the beer. There are many pubs in the area and almost everyone offers a traditional kriek. So, if you’re also a beer lover, don’t miss the chance to try true Belgian beer here. You can read up on just a few of the many types of Belgian beer that are making the world a better place in our food and drinks in Belgium guide.
Tip for beer lovers: Look into taking the amazing Beer Experience in Bruges. If you can add this charming city to your itinerary, you can visit the best museum in Belgium and learn about the golden drink. You learn so much more than when you only drink beer...Who would’ve thought.
Our top tips for visiting Ghent:
Saint Nicholas Church
One of the most well-known landmarks in Ghent is Saint Nicholas Church. It’s built out of Tournai bluestone, so if you squint really hard, you’ll notice the slight blue tint of the exterior.
It is one of the three towers that the city is renowned for (the Belfry and Saint Bavo's finishing off the list). You get the most spectacular view of St. Nicholas’ from atop the nearby Belfry. Otherwise, you can also get a beautiful glimpse of this old structure if you start crossing St. Michael's Bridge near to the Korenmarkt and then turn back.
The interior is beautiful and churchy. Not much to keep you there for more than 15 minutes. Part of the inside is now taken over by a subpar Dali exhibit, so you can proceed to skip that.
To the market!
The Dutch word "Vrijdagmarkt" means "Friday Market", a shopping opportunity that has been taking place in the plaza since the 12th century. Market booths are still set up here every Friday—now that’s tradition!
With many charming Belgian bars and eateries lining all sides of the square and offering many options for al fresco dining, Vrijdagmarkt is bustling, particularly in the late afternoon, though not as much as Korenmarkt or Graslei. It’s just right. Goldilocks would love it.
A statue of the prominent 14th-century businessperson Jakob van Artevelde overlooks it all.
Some parts are better than others
Some people claim that street art might help you identify a vibrant city. Everyone is welcome here and allowed to do their thing in the young, free-spirited city of Ghent.
Street painters in Ghent use the Werregarenstraatje as a public canvas, which means the street never looks the same. With several pieces by artists like Roa and Bué the Warrior, Ghent is now known as a graffiti-friendly city.
Seeking additional places for graffiti? Why not take a tour of the vibrant graffiti in the city with the "Sorry, not sorry" street art plan of Ghent? We didn’t so any further graffiti hunting—I guess we aren’t that young—but if this is something you enjoy, go for it.
One of the exhibitions at STAM. Image source: STAM Ghent
The STAM, housed in a blatantly modern structure and some historical ones on the site of a former hospital along with several other cultural and educational organizations, combining old and new the way Belgium seems to be a master at.
With creative exhibits and interactive maps in each room, it chronicles the history of Ghent from the Middle Ages to the present. Even just seeing the old architecture of the buildings you are in is interesting.
Once you are done learning about Ghent you can chill out at the café terrace.
Not a museum fan or just don’t have time to “waste” on history? STAM offers a 15-minute “quicktour” that takes you through the story of Ghent in 15 objects. Now that’s effectiveness at its finest! Bravo!
Believe it or not, both of these photos are of the same building
The Ghent Town Hall is a building on Botermarkt that can’t make up its mind—it’s Gothic on one side and Renaissance on the other! It’s actually two different wings built in different decades of the 16th century, but it sounds more schizophrenic if we pretend it’s just one building that can’t decide who it is.
More still, the Belgians felt that the different architectural styles were not original enough. So these guys decided to add a white and blue rain pipe. You can wonder what these colors mean, but there is no explanation to it, so you’ll need to just use your imagination! Unless you are a fan of the local football (soccer) team, in which case, those colors are for you (as the fans like to believe).
You can visit the Town Hall as part of a guided tour only. We’d say just stare at it from the outside and be content with that.
I obviously take better photos, because there is almost no bridge visible behind me
St. Michael’s Bridge wasn’t always the arched stone structure it is nowadays. It used to be a flat turntable bridge until the beginning of the 20th century.
The bridge itself is nice and, um, very bridgy, with a statue of St. Michael in the middle.
But the best thing about St. Michael’s Bridge is the views you get all around—from it and towards it. The latter makes for better photos. Everywhere you turn, you are treated to some fantastic views of Ghent.
You can see Graslei, the old fish market and St. Michael’s Church are all visible from the bridge. In the distance, you’ll even catch a glimpse of Gravensteen. And it’s apparently the only spot from which you can take a photo with all three of Ghent’s towers in it.
The plans for St. Michael’s Church, which stands right by St. Michael’s Bridge, were grand in the 11th century—it was to become the tallest structure of the city at 124 m (400 ft). But, after 700 years of the tower standing there waiting, unfinished and roof-less, the inevitable happened and the “tower” was capped off at a measly 24 m (78 ft).
If you go inside, you’ll be able to look at a bunch of art. For free.
One of the best hotels in Ghent, Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof, is close to St. Michael’s Bridge and Church. See the end of this article for hotel details.
The view of St. Nicholas Church from the Belfry and the dragon statue inside
One of Ghent’s famous towers—the Belfry—used to be the city’s watchtower. Guards would look out for danger from bad guys, but also fire in particular. Now you can see what they saw, sans fires (hopefully!).
The UNESCO Heritage List tower houses the mascot of Ghent, a dragon, and used to also hold the city’s alarm bell, nicknamed “Roland”. Since the bell cracked in 1914 it was taken down and is now on display next to St Nicholas’ Church.
Now there are just the carillon bells that you can hear every Sunday before noon, and, during the summer, every Saturday night.
You can see the dragon and some museum-type information inside the Belfry. There are stairs up to the first floor and then you can take an elevator up to the tower.
To visit the Belfry, it’s recommended to buy your tickets online in advance.
St. Bavo’s Cathedral in the morning light
Did you know that one of the most influential paintings in the history of paintings is of a sheep? And you can see the famous altarpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by the Van Eyck brothers, at Ghent’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Lucky you!
Actually, the cathedral is chock full of art and it’s where art lovers will have an absolute blast. If you like the type of art that gets displayed in churches, that is. But even for us regular folk, we’ll be impressed at least by the baroque high altar made out of black, white and red flamed marble.
You know a church is big when it has its own gift shop, and St. Bavo’s does. It also has a visitor’s center that isn’t just a desk with pamphlets—you can get a tablet or use AR glasses to bring the altarpiece and the church to life and teach you about its history. Pretty cool for a church!
There’s even a model of St. Bavo’s inside St. Bavo’s!
There are several ways to visit St. Bavo’s: either just the cathedral but not the altarpiece, including the altarpiece but with your own eyes only, or everything with the AR experience.
You can’t normally visit the tower. That honor can only be had if you’re visiting the city during the Ghent Festivities which take place every year in July.
If you’d like to stay on this end of Ghent, we recommend Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel. More details about this hotel at the end of this article in the hotel section.
There’s nothing to do in Graslei but chill out by the river, and that’s fine by me
Graslei (Grass Market) is an area on both sides of the river that is lined by preserved port houses that have now been converted into eateries and cafes. There are always dozens of people either sitting right on the pavement by the water, or at the many outdoor seating areas of the numerous Graslei restaurants.
Locals say that this is the most beautiful place in all of Belgium. And while that may be a stretch, I concur that it’s a wonderful area to just sit and take in the atmosphere. We spent an hour there just wandering around and seeing all the buildings and life around.
This part of Ghent reminded us of Copenhagen with its river and beautiful bridges. Time just floats past with a beer in hand and nothing else to do but plan what to see next.
Why not see the city from a boat?
When you’re done people-watching in Graslei, hop on one of the many little boats offering river tours.
A 40-minute sightseeing cruise around Ghent is a great way to see the city from a different perspective. The tour goes up and then back down the river, so you see the same sights twice, but when those places are as nice as Ghent's sights, it’s really a bonus.
There are a lot of boats on the pier so you won’t have any trouble finding one to take you on a tour at any time of the day. The guides tell you information and stories about the sites that you are seeing on the tour, usually in French, Flemish and English, which is a special skill in itself.
It is sometimes hard to follow along due to the language switches, but if you keep your ears peeled, you’ll be ok. Just don’t get too mad if you pass whatever he or she is talking about before your language comes up.
Our advice is to check the weather before you go. Most of the ships do not have a roof, so the experience can be spoiled by rain. Or made more adventurous! Depending on your personal outlook.
The average price of these boat tours is €9.
Look at that handsome castle
Finally, our favorite place is Gravensteen or so-called ‘Castle of the Counts’. Gravensteen is the only surviving medieval castle in Flanders with a moat and an almost intact defense system. For me as a history geek that was cool to see.
Not only was the castle meant to protect the city, but it was also supposed to intimidate the town’s own citizens in case they wanted to challenge the count’s authority. Tell me you have a big ego without telling me you have a big ego.
After it no longer served its primary purpose, the Castle of the Counts was turned into a prison, a court, a mint and even a cotton mill. The families of the cotton workers even lived there during that time. Nice digs! Once the cotton workers left, Gravensteen was scheduled for demolition, but luckily, that stupid idea never came to fruition.
I mean I can’t blame the people for wanting to get rid of it, as it was a symbol of abuse of power and some very creative torture tactics, some of which you can now see in the restored torture chamber.
Luckily, when World Expo 1913 rolled into town, the castle was restored and turned into Ghent’s centerpiece. It was given new meaning as an important tourist sight and the rest is history. Thank you World Expo! – History Geek
If you buy a ticket in advance and actually get to go inside (unlike us—no tickets in advance meant we couldn’t go in!) you’ll even get to take the supposedly entertaining audio tour which takes 1.5 hours.
Don't forget to peek at a hidden mural which is only visible from one of the castle’s towers.
The canals of Ghent just never get old
Speaking of transportation, in Ghent, as in Brussels and other Belgian cities, we took a different approach to our tradition of renting a car everywhere we travel. The fantastic and fast Belgian trains are all you need to get between cities.
If you click on over to our Day Trips From Brussels article, you can find all the details about train stations, prices, travel times and how to get from the station to the city (for Ghent and many other places). We loved the trains in Belgium.
Plus, who has the time to look for parking in a touristic center?! The challenging situation with parking in Ghent isn’t something we have experience with but it’s not something I need to try in order to believe.
So, once in the city, just order a Bolt or rent a bike/scooter. We mostly walked. The city center is small enough and we aren’t lazy!
We had mostly marvelous blue skies during our visit in April
The summers in Ghent are comfortable and are also the busiest. Most people visit Ghent between June and September when the temperatures hover around 20–25°C (68–77°F). Still, you need to be ready for rain.
Ghent’s winters are long, windy and cold. And rainy. No snow. Temperatures like to stay between 1–7°C (34–44°F) during December through February.
We visited Ghent in April and had marvelous weather. Of course, it was chilly at times, but it didn't stop us from having a nice time. Just pack accordingly!
Comfy, cool and chic @ Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof
Most of the accommodation in central Ghent are b&b’s and apartments. We always prefer a hotel in order to get all the amenities.
Just so you know, if you make a booking through any of our affiliate links on our website, we make a small commission. You pay nothing extra, so just book as you usually would. But hey, thanks! We appreciate the love!
Looking at Ghent’s hotel offerings, the cozy but fab 5-star Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel Reylof seems like your best bet in the city. It gets you contemporary design, high ceilings and rain showers in the rooms and apparently also very comfortable pillows!
Besides that, the breakfast is supposed to be amazing and there’s a historic courtyard garden where the onsite restaurant has a terrace. You can wind down in the spa pool or in a sauna or gym.
Pillows is on the northern end of Old Town, not far from Michael’s Bridge.
Prices start around €250 per night for 2 people including breakfast.
The uber cool Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel
Boasting one star less in rating but oozing so much style that you won’t even notice is the Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel, located in the southern part of Old Town, not far from St. Bavo’s Cathedral.
Inspired by the 70s, you’ll be staying in a room where attention to design detail is apparent. From the cool, white record players and funky clocks to the colorful art, you’ll have a lot to look at. Some rooms have terraces and fantastic views.
The staff is particularly friendly, and the great breakfast seems to be mentioned over and over again in the reviews. If starting the day with a happy stomach is important to you, Yalo might be the place for you.
Prices start around €200 per night for 2 people including breakfast.
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If you are about to plan a trip to Belgium, you are lucky my friend! You have just found the best Belgium itinerary there is! I’ve obviously had my humble pie this morning, so let’s get on with it.
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