With a growing reputation as a fun and memorable tourist destination, the city of Ghent in Belgium is really starting to make a name for itself. A major city in the western half of Flanders, Ghent combines a youthful student atmosphere with some staggeringly beautiful sights. A gothic, medieval delight, Ghent may not be the most vivid or vibrant city but it sure does set a scene.
Centring on a spectacular old town and idyllic waterways, the city is immensely tourist friendly. This means you’re able to move from one landmark to the next with ease, often just by turning your head. There’s a reason I keep returning to this city and I keep finding more and more sights to admire throughout Ghent. I owe a huge debt of thanks to my friends in Ghent for showing me around their city as well. So with that said, allow me to share with you the essential sights to see in Ghent.
1. Gravensteen Castle
Let’s start with a castle and a pretty cool one at that. Curbed by the Leie River on two sides, the small but mighty Gravensteen castle rests in the north of the city centre. With it’s strategic location by the river, fortifications have existed on the site of Gravensteen since the 10th century. After a fire destroyed the previous castle, the castle’s current look came about in 1180 under Count Philip of Alsace. A visit to the castle takes you through the castle grounds and interior, all the way up to the keep roof for views across the city.
2. St. Bavo’s Cathedral
Once a small chapel, this immense gothic church underwent grand expansions in the late Middle Ages. The current gothic architecture was unfinished however when it was made the diocese cathedral in 1559. It was in St Bavo’s Cathedral that famed local son Emperor Charles V was baptised in 1500, although renovations prevented his funeral being held there as well. Finished in 1569, modern renovations on the cathedral tower have recently just finished, proving work is never done on buildings like this. Inside, you’ll see artwork from famed artist Peter Paul Rubens and a renowned altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.
3. St. Nicholas’ Church
Only a short walk across the city centre from the Cathedral is one of the city’s most noticeable landmarks, St Nicholas’ Church. A gigantic gothic church dating from the 13th century, it’s distinctive form can be spotted from around the city. Highlighting the importance of carillon aka bell-ringing in Belgium, you can see Ghent’s most recognised bell, the Roeland Bell, sitting by the church. After all, this was the sight of the town bells prior to the construction of the Ghent Belfry.
4. Ghent Belfry
Belgium is renowned and recognised for its belfries and belltowers, and the Ghent Belfry is no exception. Standing proudly in the very heart of the city, this belfry is one of the many Belgian belfries entered on the UNESCO world heritage list. At 91 metres and dating from the 14th century, it’s fair to say that the Ghent skyline would look incomplete without it. Topped with a golden dragon, visitors can climb the stairs of the belfry for some great city views, although I’ve actually yet to do so.
5. City Pavilion
A fascinating modern addition to the the city centre, the City Pavilion or Stadshal has transformed the Poeljemarkt square. Constructed in 2012 as part of a city revitalisation project, this barn-shaped cover sits between many of the city’s main landmarks. At night, light flits through small slots in the ceiling to phenomenal effect.
6. Ghent Town Hall
Yet another curious architectural landmark is the Ghent Town Hall. While the main renaissance facades of the building are simple but grand, the rear gothic facade is an elaborate works of art. It’s not uncommon to see wedding parties emerging from the hall, which was in fact the reason for my first visit. If you get the chance, try to head inside as the decor and artwork are utterly beautiful.
7. Old Post Office
A brilliant building wedged between Korenmarkt square and the riverfront, the Old Post Office building has an interesting past. The building went through a redesign as part of the preparations for the 1913 World Exhibition held in Ghent. It’s elaborate architecture and cute clock tower now houses a shopping centre.
8. Sint-Michielsbrug Bridge
Of the many bridges that cross the various waterways of Ghent, none is more impressive than Sint-Michielsbrug or St Michael’s Bridge. Named after St Michael’s church next door, this bridge is beautiful from every angle. From the bridge you can look along the Leie River, which you can also admire flowing under it from below. But it is perhaps looking along the bridge to the city centre that you’ll find the most recognised view of St Michael’s Bridge.
9. Leie Riverfront
Flowing throughout Ghent, the Leie River is and has been the lifeblood of the city. The most popular stretch of the riverfront though is at Graslei and Korenlei, two quays in the centre with some truly picturesque waterfront. Lining both sides of the water are plenty of gorgeous historic buildings, not to mention bountiful outdoor seating areas that really come into their own in summer. Whether you see it by land or by boat, this is one part of the city not to miss.
10. Groot Vleeshuis
Dating from the 15th century, the Groot Vleeshuis or Great Butcher’s Hall was a sizeable indoor meat market. What remains of the hall now is some eye-pleasing architecture and you’ll only find a few hams hanging from the rafters as a reminder of its past. The hall now serves as a centre for East Flemish regional products, including a restaurant serving regional cuisine.
11. Lieve Waterfront
While the Leie is the main waterway of Ghent, it’s not the only one in the city. Just as scenic as the Leie is the Lieve canal, which was used to unload goods and produce arriving by water. A nice and quiet area, walking along the Lieve takes you past ornate buildings and dreamy willow trees.
12. Streets of Patershol
North of the city centre lies the neighbourhood of Patershol. For those looking for charming cobblestone streets to stroll down, this is the area to do it. Littered with traditional old houses, this neighbourhood has barely changed for centuries unlike areas closer to the centre. I’m led to believe the area was in quite a bad way in the 90s, but has since gentrified and now hosts a vital portion of Ghent’s restaurant scene.
While the city of Ghent has many squares to visit, the Vrijdagmarkt is not one to miss. This market square is lined with gorgeous architecture, from traditional Flemish houses to the more distinctive look of the Bond Moyson building. Lining the square are plenty of beer cafes, restaurants and pubs, making this a great place to come on a rainy day, which happens a bit in Belgium.
Similar in style to the Gravensteen castle on the far side of Ghent, Duivelsteen castle has a far more sinister twist to it. For starters Duivelsteen translates to the “Devil Castle”, as it was named after Geeraard Vilain who was nicknamed “Geeraard the Devil”. Since it was built in the 13th century, Duivelsteen has had many functions, including as a prison and an insane asylum. Just try walking past the castle at night when it’s bathed in an eerie orange glow. Spooky!
15. Rabot Tower
A reminder of Ghent’s old fortifications, the Rabot Tower sits at the northern end of the Lieve Canal. Built after the failed siege by Maximilian of Austria in 1488, the tower may be out from the centre but its an important historical reminder.
16. St Peter’s Church and Abbey
In the city’s south among much of the University Campus lies Our Lady of St Peter’s Church and St Peter’s Abbey. Yet another immense church in Ghent, Our Lady of St Peter’s Church differs from others due to its Romanesque architecture. Next door, you’ll find St Peter’s Abbey, home to serene cloistered gardens. Well worth the walk to find something a little different than the city’s gothic centre.
17. Het Pand University Gardens
While only a stone’s throw from St Michael’s Bridge, the gardens of Het Pand are a secluded, little seen part of the Ghent University Campus. Hidden within a courtyard, the elegant gardens are surrounded by quaint window shutters and traditional architecture. It’s a rare green space in Ghent’s centre and quite a lovely one at that.
If you’ve visited Ghent before, where were your favourite spots? For those that haven’t been yet, which of these sights would you visit first? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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