One of Belgium's medieval jewels, Ghent is compact and full of interesting museums and stunning architecture. On top of that, it's also a wonderful place to dine, listen to music, and just relax. What's more surprising is how it remains relatively undiscovered.
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers is one of the greatest religious paintings of the late medieval era and not to be missed, but Ghent's churches conceal plenty of other treasures as well.
From textile production and psychiatry to furniture design and Ghent itself, the city has plenty of engaging museums.
With brasseries like Pakhuis, buzzing coffee bars like Belle Histoire, and gourmet seafood specialists like Georges, Ghent has every gastronomic base covered.
If you love Belgian beer, Ghent is the place to go. Try local brews from the Gruut Brewery or wade through massive beer lists at riverside bars.
Ghent's fairytale castle is beautifully preserved and also a superb place to take the kids, hosting plenty of events throughout the year.
Ghent's castle was first erected in the 1180s by a crusader returning from the Holy Land, meaning that it bears an unusual resemblance to similar fortresses in Syria. Never seriously called into action, it occupies a breathtakingly scenic spot on a bend in the River Lieve, and also houses a variety of exhibits that are well worth exploring. The coats of armor, maces, and crossbows will appeal to weapons fans, but there are cuddlier attractions too, such as seasonal costume events which recreate medieval life.
Dedicated to St Bavo, Sint-Baafskathedraal is a soaring masterwork of Gothic architecture which dominates the city center. But it's more than just a beautiful religious building. The interior almost qualifies as an art gallery, with works by Peter Paul Reubens and Lucas de Heere, as well as a dazzling altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck. If you are into Flemish art, it's an unmissable display, but anyone can marvel at the serenity and grace of this sacred spot.
The city's Old Market has been in business as a fish, meat, and vegetable mart since the 1400s. Start with a look at the Groot Vleeshuis, which has been the main meat market for 600 years, then peek into the Penshuizeken, where poorer residents once begged for offal that was going spare. After that, it's time to shop around for local product (the mustard is a particular delicacy), as well as platters of cheese and Flemish charcuterie, which you can munch with a baguette or two beside the canal.
Also known as STAM, the Museum of Ghent is around a mile south of the old city center, and is the best place to get an idea of how the beautiful city around you came into being. Telling the story of Ghent from its earliest days, the site includes the ruins of the 14th century Bijloke Abbey, as well as an ultra-modern new museum building which covers every era of the city's existence. Highlights include lavish maps from the 16th century, gorgeous tapestries, lovingly recreated scale models, and some outlandish carnival masks that will make you jump.
Graslei is probably Ghent's most picturesque historic neighborhood, so get ready to take a few snaps as you wander or cycle around its streets and paths. Located alongside the canal of the same name, it is centered around a series of extraordinary "guild houses" that were funded by the town's merchants in the Middle Ages, and feature ornate, stepped gables that are typically Flemish. For years, Graslei was the city's main port, but now it's become a social center, with cafes and bars lining the old quay, and buzzing crowds of locals enjoying the scenery. There's no better place for a Belgian beer and some moules frites.
Most tourists visit Ghent around July and August, but there's no reason to discount September or May to June, when the crowds will be thinner and the weather should be fine.
Visitors from North America can fly into Brussels Airport, then take a train, taxi, or car rental to Ghent, reaching the city in around 30 minutes.
Most trains stop at Gent-Sint-Pieters in the south of the city. From there, take a 21 or 22 tram to the city center.
From Brussels, take the E40. From Antwerp, take the E17, which also runs from Lille to the southwest.
Ghent is well connected to other European cities via Eurolines and Megabus services.
Some popular and comfortable city center options include the Ghent Marriott Hotel and the Ghent River Hotel, while the Hotel NH Gent Sint Pieters is handy for the station.
Patershol - Ghent's medieval center, Patershol is enchanting, boasting the Gravensteen Castle and many excellent restaurants.
Graslei - stretched along the river, Graslei was Ghent's ancient port, and it features some stunning facades as well as numerous riverside bars and cafes.
Korenlei - located across the river from Graslei, Korenlei is just as atmospheric and is home to the excellent Design Museum.
Single bus tickets cost EUR3 when you purchase on-board, or EUR1.40 if you buy from shops or kiosks. A 10-trip pass costs EUR14 and may be the best option.
Taxis aren't cheap, starting with a meter drop of around EUR8, then EUR4 per mile.
Car rental companies in Ghent include Sixt, Luxauto, and Avis, and rates start at about EUR15 per day.
For street food, crafts, and clothing, don't miss the ancient Vrijdagmarkt in Patershol. Otherwise, check out streets like Sint-Niklaasstraat or the Dok Noord shopping mall.
Expect to pay around EUR3 for a gallon of milk or EUR2.30 for 12 eggs at Ghent supermarkets like Carrefour and Spar.
Ghent has a wealth of restaurants. Some local favorites include burger specialists Paul's Boutique, gourmet brasseries like De Rave, and Flemish eateries like Publiek. Expect a meal to cost between EUR15 and EUR40.