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16 Fun Things to Do in Ghent

Ghent may not be the first city that comes to mind when you think about traveling to Europe, and that may be one of the top reasons to go. Without the mass of tourists that can overwhelm some gorgeous cities, Ghent, Belgium, is a place where you can see the sights, wander the streets, and hang out with the locals without competing for space or being turned off by tourist touts.

Boat cruising on the river in Ghent Belgium by historic buildings.
Boat on the Lys River

Traveling to Ghent almost feels like discovering a secret. Its stunning Gothic buildings are mixed in with street art, waterfront cafes, and even a castle. There are enough fun things to do in Ghent to occupy a whole weekend, if not longer. This beautiful city is one of our favorites. We’ve had the good fortune to visit multiple times, and we can’t stop singing its praises.

Here’s a look at what to do in this lovely city.

See the view from the Ghent belfry

City skyline view including rooftops and St. Bavo's Cathedral bell tower.
View of St. Bavo’s Cathedral from the belfry

For the best view in the city, head up the belfry (belfort). It’s not often in Europe that you find a 14th-century bell tower where you can take an elevator instead of trudging up 300+ stairs. When that happens, take advantage of it.

The 300-foot-high Belfry of Ghent is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the top things to see in Ghent. Finished in 1380, it was the primary watchtower for the medieval city, and its carillon announced the time and gave warnings.

On the way up, there’s an exhibit about the belfry’s famous dragon weathervane, which has guarded the site since the tower was built. There are two previous incarnations of him in various states of completeness. You’ll also see a the giant bell called “Roland” and a huge rotating drum that looks like the inner workings of a music box, which is responsible for the music of the carillon. But the real attraction is the view.

Metal dragon figure on display.
One of the old dragon weathervanes
View of St. Nicholas Church and downtown Ghent from above.
View of St. Nicholas Church and the city from the belfry

The belfry is the middle of the city’s three towers, so it provides a great view of St. Nicholas Church and the old city center on one side and St. Bavo on the other. If you’re interested in getting a nice photo of St. Nicholas as in our photo above, arrive mid-morning when the sun will be behind you (and hopefully not casting too many shadows).

Tour the Castle of the Counts

Stone exterior of a castle towering above a river.
The imposing Castle of the Counts

One of the top attractions is right in the city center. The 12th-century Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen) is impossible to miss. With a moat and turrets, the imposing structure looms over the Lys River.

From 1180 until 1353, the castle was the residence of the Counts of Flanders and was heavily intertwined in the political happenings. After the Counts left, it was used as a court, a prison, and a cotton mill, gradually falling into disrepair. After an extensive restoration, the castle sports a unique collection of torture equipment and the odd suit of armor, though furnishings are generally sparse.

View of towers and the city center.
Gorgeous view of Ghent from the castle

A 45-minute audio guide provides a little bit more context to the rooms and the castle’s story but is much more entertainment than historical information (it’s voiced by a Belgian comedian). The gatehouse, ramparts, keep, and stables are open to visitors. Like the belfry, the Castle of the Counts provides spectacular views from the top.

Visit St. Bavo’s Cathedral

Black and white interior of a cathedral with sculptures and vaulted ceiling.
Altar of St. Bavo’s Cathedral

There has been a religious building on the site of St. Bavo’s Cathedral for over 1000 years. The current Gothic cathedral—complete with its 290-foot-high bell tower—is one of the most popular places to visit in the city.

The cathedral itself is magnificent. With four grand organs, a Baroque high altar, a painting by Peter Paul Rubens, and a pulpit made with marble and gilded wood, the cathedral offers lots to see. But the real reason people flock to St. Bavo’s is the Ghent Altarpiece (which you’re not allowed to photograph).

Elevated ornate pulpit covered in sculptures.
The ornate pulpit in St. Bavo’s

Officially titled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the Ghent Altarpiece is considered the first Renaissance masterpiece. The 20-paneled work was completed in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers and is one of the earliest-known oil paintings.

The painting has been stolen, traded, and nearly destroyed by the likes of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, Napoleon, and Hitler. Given its age and its troubled history, it’s a miracle that the painting survives at all. Recent restoration work has cleaned the painting and removed earlier “fixes.” The colors now are spectacular—it looks like it was painted last week rather than 600 years ago.

Seeing the altarpiece requires a ticket, which comes with an augmented reality option (St. Bavo’s is otherwise free to enter). Lines can be long for this popular site, so if it’s on your list of places to visit in Ghent, going early or late in the day is usually better for avoiding crowds.

Take a canal cruise

Two rows of buildings along a river filled with boats.
Cruising the canals of the city

Don’t miss out on seeing the city from the water. There are several options, but the boat we took leaves from just in front of the Marriott on Korenlei.

In several different languages, the captain provides a guided tour and a deeper look at the history of Ghent and its beautiful buildings. A canal cruise is the perfect opportunity to rest your feet and learn a little bit at the same time.

Go on a street art walk

Graffiti-covered alley and spray painted sculpture.
Some of the art of Werregarenstraat

Street art is one of our favorite things to discover in a city, and Ghent city center has a vibrant street art culture. Throughout the city, there are large murals by well-known artists as well as smaller works by up-and-comers. There is no shortage of legal canvasses for artists to show their stuff, and Ghent celebrates their contributions to the city’s art scene.

One stop on the must do list for many visitors is Werregarenstraat, now known to most as “graffiti alley.” The pedestrian street is a mixture of work. Started during the Ghent Festivities in 1995, the project is never the same from one week to the next with new tags and designs appearing all the time.

Street art murals with people and animals.
Murals from around the city

Elsewhere in the city are alleys filled with cartoon characters, bright blue bandits on the sides of buildings, and all kinds of otherworldly creatures. Acclaimed artist and Ghent native Roa has contributed works featuring his large-scale animals.

To discover the street art on your own, follow the downloadable guide from ‘Sorry, not sorry’ or pick up a map at the tourism office that marks many of the sites.

Explore STAM, Ghent City Museum

Formed by a 14th-century abbey, a 17th-century convent, and 21st-century building, the physical structure of STAM, Ghent City Museum reflects the content you’ll see inside. With a variety of interactive collections and exhibits, the museum traces the city’s history beginning in the Middle Ages and even projects what its future could be. It’s a great place to visit to understand the city in more depth.

Try the frites

Hand holding a dish of frites.
Some of the best frites around

You can’t go a day in Belgium without enjoying frites, or at least you shouldn’t. (Calories don’t count on vacation, right?)

The best frites stand we found is just outside the Butchers’ Hall. In fact, right up against it in a red alcove. You would almost walk right past it if not for the line of people.

The no-frills counter serves great fries with a variety of sauces. Try them with traditional mayonnaise, our favorite curry sauce, or whatever floats your boat. Escargots and croquettes are popular here, too, for just a few euro.

See Saint Nicholas Church

Exterior of church with arched windows and bell tower.
Saint Nicholas Church

Built beginning in the 13th century, Saint Nicholas Church is one of the most prominent city landmarks. With turrets on either side and a central tower, it is easily one of the prettiest places to see here.

Located near the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s, Saint Nicholas is the third of the three towers that the city is known for. If you begin to cross St. Michael’s Bridge next to the Korenmarkt and then turn around, you’ll be provided with a fabulous view of these historic buildings.

Ferris wheel in front of large church with multiple towers.
The front of Saint Nicholas Church during the Christmas season

The inside of the church is fairly typical of historic Belgian churches, but it can’t hold a candle to St. Bavo’s (few places can). It’s worth a quick visit to the interior because visiting the church is free, but we found the outside to be the highlight.

Explore Vrijdagmarkt Square

People on bicycles in a city square.
The pretty buildings of Vrijdagmarkt Square

One of the oldest and largest squares, Vrijdagmarkt square gets its name from the weekly market held here. Each Friday and Saturday, the square fills with vendors selling local delicacies, clothes, and household items. A statue of the prominent 14th-century businessman Jakob van Artevelde overlooks it all.

Statue of a man in the middle of a city square flanked by historic buildings.
Statue of Jacob van Artevelde in the square
Row of buildings with step gabled roofs.
Buildings on Baudelostraat

Around the square is the Ons Huis (“House of the People”), the headquarters for the region’s socialist movement, and lots of places to eat and drink, some with outdoor patios. Directly behind the Van Artevelde statue is Baudelostraat, home to lots of vintage shops. We liked it most for its string of colorful buildings with ornate gables and balconies.

Have a beer at Dulle Griet

Exterior of bar Dulle Griet with neon signs.
Outside the welcoming Dulle Griet bar

Dulle Griet is one of the top bars for beer lovers. With over 500 beers on the menu, it’s hard to imagine anything this pub doesn’t have.

Named after the massive cannon just around the corner, beer café Dulle Griet has a cozy medieval interior with wagon wheels, beer barrels, and lots of throwback beer advertisements. There are many great beers to try here, but the Max is the reason this place is well-known.

Max beer comes in a giant, specially-made glass, complete with a wooden stand to keep it upright. Visitors have loved the glass so much, they’ve tried to take them home (although they’re so large, that seems difficult). Dulle Griet has come up with an easy solution: get a beer, give your shoe.

When a customer gets their Max beer, the server rings and bell and a basket is lowered from the ceiling. The shoe goes in, and the basket gets hoisted right back up. You get your shoe back when you’re finished. It’s possibly the most unique kind of insurance we’ve seen, but it’s all in good fun. I’m not a beer drinker, but my sister loved it when we went together.

Try a cuberdon

Bicycle cart selling traditional cuberdon candy at the Groentenmarkt
Vendor selling different flavors of cuberdons

If you’ve never heard of a cuberdon, you’re not alone. This deep purple sugar cone is the city’s signature candy. Don’t leave without trying one.

Cuberdons have a thick sugary shell with a filling of the same flavor. The purple ones, which are most traditional, are raspberry flavored. Other kinds include apple, strawberry, lemon, and blueberry. At the time of our visit, we got a mixed bag for €5 euro, which is the easiest way to try all the varieties.

One place to be guaranteed of getting a cuberdon is at the Groentenmarkt adjacent to the Butchers’ Hall. There, you’ll find two carts—historic rivals for your business—piled high with the colorful cone-shaped candies.

Visit Korenmarkt Square

Former post office building with clock tower and turrets.
1898 The Post Hotel

The Korenmarket is as close as Ghent comes to having a main square, more because of its location near several main sights than because of its size.

On the corner is the former post office, which is now shops and a hotel called 1898 The Post. There’s also the beautiful St. Nicholas Church with its bluestone. The square is surrounded with several historic buildings, which are now bars and restaurants that have patio seating. In nice weather, the Korenmarkt is like one giant outdoor café.

Pause a minute to have a coffee and do a bit of shopping. The Korenmarkt is also the ideal place for a little people watching.

Enjoy Korenlei and Graslei

Renaissance buildings along the river.
Views along the quays

The quays of the Lys River are lovely places to spend some time. Korenlei (Wheat Market) on the left bank and Graslei (Grass Market) just across the water on the right bank have historic buildings and a high concentration of outdoor cafes.

The sites date back to the 5th century when Ghent was the center of the wheat trade in the County of Flanders. Most of the current buildings were built in the Middle Ages, although they have been restored and modified over the centuries. We’re suckers for this kind of architecture, so walking along the banks is pretty dreamy.

Riverside scene with boats and traditional buildings.

Some of the buildings have been turned into restaurants and cafes. In decent weather, their outdoor patios fill with people enjoying the sun by the waterside with a Belgian beer (or two) in hand. The quays are a great place to sit and enjoy life.

Go vegan for the day

Traditional Belgian cuisine is not exactly known for being light. Made up of stews, meatballs, frites, and fried croquettes, a lot of meat and potatoes is involved. But options are increasing.

Ghent calls itself the “Veggie Capital of Europe.” There are more vegetarian restaurants per capita than in all other cities in Europe, and Ghent serves more vegetarian meals than anywhere in Belgium. This is thanks, in part, to its large student population.

Thursdays are “veggie days.” Dozens of restaurants and hotels offer vegetarian and vegan specialties, and it’s estimated that 50% of the population opts for vegetarian options. Le Botaniste, Greenway, and Lokaal are three favorites that are always near the top of the list for best vegetarian and vegan spots.

Wander the Patershol neighborhood

Brightly colored buildings with carvings on the facade, Temmerman's candy shop.
Confiserie Temmerman

The twisting, turning streets of the Patershol neighborhood are lined with 16th-century houses, artists’ workshops, and restaurants. For a moment, visiting here almost feels like you’ve stepped back in time.

In a city known for its food, destinations in the Patershol are at the top of the list. From Turkish to Italian and Japanese to Spanish, there are lots of cuisines to choose from. Whether you want quirky, casual, or fancy, you’ll find something delicious and welcoming.

Interior of an old-fashioned candy shop.
So many classic candies to choose from

Another highlight in the Patershol is Confiserie Temmerman, a classic candy shop with an ornate Baroque exterior. The oldest sweet shop in town has been run by the same family for eight generations. Step inside to see their classic candies. If you didn’t stop for cuberdons before, Temmerman is a perfect place to buy a few.

Attend a festival

Christmas market stalls outside a church at night
Christmas market stalls

Ghent has lots of great festivals and fairs to choose from throughout the year. So many, in fact, that its tourism website proclaims it “Festival City.”

Early July brings the Ghent Jazz Festival. Belgian acts and big-name performers such as Sting, Gregory Porter, Herbie Hancock, and Norah Jones offer concerts for 10 days. In mid-September, visitors to the Festival of Flanders come to see nearly 200 classical and world music concerts of throughout the city. Together, these two events have earned the city the title of UNESCO Creative City of Music.

Equally significant is the Ghent Festivities (Gentse Feesten), which happens for 10 days each July. It’s actually four festivals happening over the same period, featuring music, puppetry, street theater, and dance. The whole city turns into a giant artsy sea of musical and theatrical performances, including mimes, street performers, comedians, buskers, and free music of every genre across 10 city squares.

People skating on ice rink.
Ice skating at Christmas

In December and early January, Ghent is all about the Christmas markets. You can eat, drink, and be merry throughout the city with champagne, mulled wine, and melty, bubbling raclette around every corner. There is ice skating, lights, and plenty of opportunities for shopping at more than 150 wooden huts spread out from in front of St. Bavo’s to the Korenmarkt. We visited six different Christmas markets in Belgium–including Brussels and Bruges–and Ghent was among our favorites.

Other special events include culinary festivals like the Vegan Summer Fest and the Gent Smaakt, the Patershol neighborhood street party, and the annual Film Fest Gent. There is almost always something special happening here.

How to Get There

In northwest Belgium in the region of Flanders, Ghent is about 35 minutes by train from Brussels, which is well-connected worldwide via Brussels Airport.

Overhead view of Ghent, Belgium, skyline.
Overhead view of the city

Ghent is roughly half-way between Brussels and Bruges. Some people choose to visit both Ghent and Bruges in one day, but we would suggest that itinerary only as a last resort because both cities (and Ghent, in particular) are worth a minimum of one day. If you have to choose one or the other, these considerations might help you make a choice.

Ghent is approximately one hour by train from Antwerp.

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Joanna Damon

Thursday 20th of October 2022

Ghent has one of the most famous works of art in the world and I don't think you even mention it, The Ghent altarpiece also has an interesting history as it was looted by the Nazis and returned by the Monuments Men - not just a movie. Otherwise very helpful.

Laura Longwell

Friday 21st of October 2022

Huh? There are three entire paragraphs about it.


Wednesday 14th of September 2022

We just got back from Ghent, and I must say its one of the most beautiful European cities I've seen so far. If you like cafe culture and history, it's one of the best. The Mystic Lamb display (and St. Bavo's, in general) is one of the most spectacular religious settings you'll find in Europe. We don't go back to many places as we prefer to discover new ones instead, but we'll be coming back to Ghent.

Laura Longwell

Wednesday 14th of September 2022

Agreed. It's one of our favorites. We've been twice but will definitely return when we have the opportunity.

Caroline Abettan

Monday 22nd of November 2021

I'm glad I found your blog. great pictures

Jacqueline Sargent

Thursday 2nd of July 2020

My daughter has won a scholarship to a uni in Ghent. I cannot wait to share this information with her. Thank you!

Laura Longwell

Thursday 2nd of July 2020

Congratulations to her! Ghent is absolutely lovely. I hope she enjoys it and that you get to tag along for a visit.


Saturday 15th of February 2020

Thank you for all the helpful info. I love how it's packed with succinct info! Can't wait to get to Ghent!

Laura Longwell

Sunday 16th of February 2020

Ghent is fabulous! One of our very favorite places in Europe. Have a great trip :)

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