Once upon a time, Ghent was the largest city in Europe after Paris. This was during the 13th century.

Due to its favourable location – at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers – Ghent was a prosperous city and prominent trade centre during the Middle Ages. For instance, during the 15th century, it was the biggest cloth producer on the continent, importing wool from England.

Ghent on the water

I visited Ghent for the first time after having lived in Brussels for almost three years. I had been to Charleroi, Antwerp and Hasselt previously but didn’t get round to Ghent until recently.

What brought me there was a “popcorn” pop-up restaurant in a cornfield in Zomergem, a village near Ghent. To get there, we took a long bus ride to the countryside and walked for about 30 minutes, passing chickens, cows and cornfields. The meal was excellent and this is one of the more memorable dining experiences that I’ve had in Belgium so far.

Volta popcorn popup

After returning from Zomergem, we spent a few hours in Ghent. We strolled around the medieval centre, had some Belgian beer and listened to a pair of buskers perform Metallica on a cello and violin.

First impression of Ghent: Positive. Must return for another day trip.

Metallica on strings

One month later, I was, unexpectedly, back in Ghent. This time, it was for a team-building session. During which, I had my first stab at spray painting – my favourite part was making sparkles/stars!

Spray painting in Ghent

We were also driven around in horse carriages on one morning which was nice as we got to see some parts of the city that we might not normally have visited – for instance, a béguinage/begijnhof and the red-light district.

(Side note: Horse-drawn trams were introduced in Ghent in 1874. These were replaced by battery-powered trams in the late 19th century.) 

Horse Carriage

During this trip, I took note of some places that I’d like to bring my family as my folks were visiting me in Belgium a week later. How convenient that the team-building was in Ghent – it was as though I was doing a preliminary trip survey!

Second impression of Ghent: Nice little city. Good food, relaxed atmosphere. Would recommend staying for at least one night.

Gent - Sint Pieters

The third time I was in Ghent, I spent a few days there with my family and saw more of the city. I was pleasantly surprised to see how vibrant and cool it is. This is probably due to it being a university city, with students accounting for about a quarter of its inhabitants.

Werregaren Straat

There’s a breezy, relaxed atmosphere in the city, with many pedestrians alongside the cyclists. It was nice wandering around the city on foot, crossing bridges and walking along the meandering cobblestone streets.

Ghent - canal

Third impression of Ghent: Love it! This is, by far, my favourite city in Belgium. Would recommend staying a few days in Ghent, combined with day trips to other nearby cities such as Bruges. It’s also an ideal city for family travel with something for everyone. 

In 1972, François Mitterand wrote in his chronicle La Paille et le Grain: Quand on me demande les villes que je préfère, je mets New York au rang de Venise, Gand, Florence, Jérusalem.” (When someone asks me what my favourite cities are, I put New York up there with Venice, Ghent, Florence, Jerusalem)

I can see why Ghent is such a highly regarded city. It’s a beautiful city with well-preserved historic architecture and canals. You can easily find good restaurants, cosy or trendy bars as well as interesting and fashionable shops.

Ghent - flea market

Unlike its more famous medieval neighbour, Bruge, Ghent is a lively city that continues to thrive instead of being primarily a tourist showpiece. Ghent’s historic centre is abuzz with life, with cyclists zipping by, locals hanging out with a beer by the canals as tourists stroll around admiring the ancient buildings.

Why is it that the city – the largest in Belgium’s East Flanders province – is not amongst the top destinations in Europe? In fact, Ghent ranks behind Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges in terms of overnight stays by visitors in Belgium in 2012 (source: Toerisme Vlaanderen 2012 tourism report).

Meanwhile, I’ll be writing two more posts on some of the city’s iconic landmarks as well as where to eat and drink in Ghent. More to come!

16 replies on “Ghent: Belgium’s secret gem

  1. Would love to read more about Ghent, I will be visiting Belgium in May and Ghent is on my itinerary for a day trip.

    1. There will be more posts coming up soon. I’d suggest staying at least a day or two in Ghent as there’s much to be discovered. It is also a convenient city to use as a base to visit other nearby cities.

  2. It’s true, we haven’t seen much of Ghent either and we’re leaving in Brussels for so long! Must organize a couple of days stay – but not before you come up with your tips 😉 x

  3. Love your photos! I think I visited Ghent when I was 14 (?). My aunt was working in Brussels at the time and my Mum, sister and I did one of those bus tours of Europe (which didn’t consider Belgium worth visiting apparently), and when that tour ended, we hopped on a train from Paris to Brussels. I don’t remember very much of it to be honest, other than my aunt’s lovely place. But I do remember seeing the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb!

    But oh, cobblestones and carriage rides and Metallica on cello! Sounds lovely.

    1. On the bright side – it means that there are less tourists visiting and the centre continues to be where the locals would hang out (alongside the non-locals) 🙂

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