Best Places to Visit in Ghent, Belgium

Best Places to Visit in Ghent, Belgium

The word Ghent derives from the Celtic word “Ganda”, indicating a confluence. At Ghent, the Lys River joins the Schelde on a journey to the North Sea. As with many cities in Belgium, Ghent’s canals are an important part of the city and influenced its layout and development.

  • Ghent is a minor destination when compared Bruges or Brussels, but it has its own charms and should be visited if you are in the area. Ghent is Brugge-like but lacks both its charm and range of attractions. Conversely, the town has its own ambiance and good food is easy to find. Although  limited in terms of  attractions, tourist Ghent is small, compact, easy to walk, and full of good natured townspeople.
  • At night, the Ghent comes alive due to an unusually large number of good restaurants that can be found in the city’s historic core.
  • In summer, there is a ten-day Ghent Festival  that is an outstanding party.  In June in July there are a number of street fairs that can be great fun.
  • Ghent is approximately 30 miles from Brussels, so you can easily visit during a day trip.

Best Places to Visit in Ghent

If you arrive by train, pick up the free Stadt Gent Tourist Guide at the ticket office in the train station. The illustrated Stadt Gent Guide provides a good overview of the city and includes a map indicating the locations of the city’s main attractions.

Ghent, Belgium

Three towers dominate the skyline of Ghent’s Old Town.

  • The towers are: St. Bavo’s Cathedral (1), the Belfry (2), and St. Nicholas’ Church (3).
  • The Belfry and St. Bavo’s are located on St. Baaf’s Plein with St. Nicholas on the next block.
  • The best viewing point for these impressive buildings is from St. Michael’s Bridge.
  • In addition, the City Hall (4), located near the Belfry, has an attractive architecture.

St. Bavo’s (St. Baaf’s)  is one of Ghent’s most notable attractions.

  • St. Bavos
    St. Bavo Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal), Ghent – Photo credit: Dimitris Graffin

    The first church on this site was built around 942. It was followed by the construction of a Romanesque church in 1150, but due to structural weaknesses in the building and a significant increase in the size of the congregation it was torn down and replaced by a Gothic basilica in the first half of the 14th century.

  • The interior of St. Bavo’s was destroyed by iconoclasts in 1566 and an accidental fire finished the job in 1578.
    • During the time of the iconoclasts, many of St. Bavo’s major art treasures were hidden and, then, resurrected in later times.
    • In addition, some of the art displayed in St. Bavo’s is related to Napoleon’s sojourn in Ghent.
      • The Cathedral’s magnificent pulpit is a combination of white Carrera marble and Danish oak that dates from the eighteenth century.
      • St. Bavos layout includes an enormous number of chapels, tombs, and artwork, including the acclaimed  “The Mystic Lamb” by Jan and Hubrecht van Eyck and a Rubens titled “Conversion of St. Bavo”.
      •   The church is of medium size but has endless surprises.St. Bavos is an impressive building but is very cold and dark – be sure to wear a sweater if you are visiting in the fall or spring.
    • Saint Baafs Cathedral
      Saint Baafs Cathedral

      Van Eyck’s work “The Mystic Lamb” is in a separate part of the Church and a three € admission is charged.

      • The famous altarpiece is dated 1432 and considered by many to be the pinnacle of the Flemish School’s accomplishments.
      • The painting is comprised of twenty-four separate panels (front and back).
      • During the Protestant revolt, the painting was hidden in the tower for protection.
      • In later centuries, the panels were stolen by French soldiers and, then, German forces. In 1946, the painting was finally returned to Ghent.
  • St. Bavos’ Crypt (free – as is the church) is worth exploring. Buy the English language pamphlet “Old Masters” (around a Euro in cost) and have at it. There are a number of interesting sights including the foundations of the main building. The artwork is, of course, religious focused on Flemish artists, and there are excellent examples for your inspection. Two masterpieces (“St. Jerome in Prayer” and “Christ Carrying the Cross”) by Hieronymus Bosch are the treasures of the collection.

While St.Bavo’s Cathedral is the highlight of Ghent, the Château des Comtes (5) – also known as the Chateau of the Counts of the Gravensteen –  is a nice way to spend an hour.

  • The entrance fee is discounted for children and seniors.
  • The old castle was built in 1180 by Phillip of Alsace, Count of Flanders.
  • In addition to its original military role, the castle has been used as a mint, court, jail and cotton mill. The castle includes a crypt, dungeon, and a museum featuring armor and weapons, as well as another display area featuring implements of torture.
  • Touring the castle requires lots of stair climbing, as the building’s turrets are the main access to the interior of the museum. The views from the top of the castle reveal Ghent’s medieval skyline.
The Gravensteen, medieval castle
The Gravensteen, medieval castle

If you have walked to St. Michael’s bridge to see the city’s towers, take some time to inspect St. Michael’s Church (6) (15th century). (The Church is open only during the summer tourist season). Cross the street and head back to St. Nicholas’s Church, if the mood strikes you.  The church was constructed  between the 13th and 15 centuries and is known for it Scheldt Gothic architecture.

Otherwise, follow the stairs down to the Korenlei along the canal and walk towards the old port at the Graslie (7). Continue to the northeast towards the Groentenmarkt and the Great Butchers Hall. Along the way, there are many scenic buildings to observe.

  • Along this path, you will find great architecture and, in summer, tour boats cruise Ghent’s canals.

Additional Resources

The official tourism website of the city of Ghent is Stad Gent. The website provides additional details on the best places to visit we recommend, as well as information on attractions that did not make our list.

For country facts on Belgium, as well as travel information related to visas, driving rules, safety, medical conditions, visas and other travel-related information, see this page on Belgium Travel from the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. State Department.  Regardless of your home country, we think you will find the information provided to be useful when planning a trip to Belgium.

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