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.
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 Ghent.
- See the view from the Ghent belfry
- Tour the Castle of the Counts
- Visit St. Bavo’s Cathedral
- Take a canal cruise
- Go on a street art walk
- Explore STAM, Ghent City Museum
- Visit Butchers’ Hall
- Try the frites
- See Saint Nicholas Church
- Explore Vrijdagmarkt Square
- Have a beer at Dulle Griet
- Try a cuberdon
- Visit Korenmarkt Square
- Enjoy Korenlei and Graslei
- Go vegan for the day
- Wander the Patershol neighborhood
- Attend a festival
See the view from the Ghent 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.
The belfry is the middle of the city’s three towers, so it provides a great view of St. Nicholas Church and the old center of Ghent 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
One of the top Ghent 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 of the Counts sports a unique collection of torture equipment and the odd suit of armor, though furnishings are generally sparse.
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
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 Ghent tourist attractions.
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).
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
Don’t miss out on seeing the city from the water. There are several options, but the one we took leaves from just in front of the Marriott.
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
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.
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.
Visit Butchers’ Hall
Originally a covered market, the Butchers’ Hall on Groentenmarkt Square dates back to the 15th century. Its impressive wooden vault was built entirely without nails, and those rafters now support traditional drying Ganda Ham, a local specialty.
With a nod to its roots, the Butchers’ Hall is the best place for finding authentic East Flemish food in Ghent. This is no small feat considering that there are more than 175 traditional regional culinary products, and the Butchers’ Hall has them all. In addition to the ham, you’ll find delicious Tierenteyn mustard, Breydel bacon, numerous local beers, cheeses and cheese croquettes, and so many other tasty things.
The products at the Butchers’ Hall can be bought individually or put together in a gift pack, and many are wrapped to get through Customs if you want to take them home. To try the food in the moment, check out the on-site restaurant.
Try the frites
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
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 in Ghent.
Located near the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s, Saint Nicholas becomes 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.
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
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.
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. If you missed the frites stand by the Butchers’ Hall, there’s another great option here—Frituur Jozef fry wagon.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Laura Longwell is an award-winning travel blogger and photographer. Since founding Travel Addicts in 2008, she has written hundreds of articles that help over 3 million people a year get the most out of their travel. In that time, she has visited nearly 60 countries on 5 continents, often returning to favorite destinations over and over again. She has a deep love of history, uncovering unexpected attractions, and trying all the good food a place has to offer.
In addition to Travel Addicts, Laura runs a site about her hometown of Philadelphia—Guide to Philly—which chronicles unique things to do and places to see around southeastern Pennsylvania. Her travel tips and advice appear across the web.