48 hours in Ghent

There’s so much to see in Ghent… The city boasts more than 1,000 years of history, the atmosphere of a student city and an extravaganza of artistic masterpieces. Keep an eye out for the Van Eyck brothers’ magnus opus, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the unique architecture of De Krook and of course, the artisanal beer, Kwak, that you have to drink with your shoes off. 

The only question is: where do you begin? Let us be your guide. With just 48 hours in Ghent, you’ll see the treasures this proud city has to offer.

Day 1

Museum morning

There’s no better place to start exploring the city than STAM. Also known as the Ghent City Museum, it uses a range of different objects and multimedia exhibits to familiarise you with the history of the city. For example? The aerial photo of the city that’s printed on the floor. It’s a fun way to look at—and navigate—the urban world. The museum adds depth and appreciation to your exploration of the city itself. 

While the history of the city dates back centuries, SMAK, the City Museum for Contemporary Art, focuses on Belgian and international works that rocked the artistic world after 1945. You’ll see works by everyone from Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon to Panamarenko and Karel Appel, as well as an abundance of temporary exhibitions. 

After SMAK and STAM, pay a visit to MSK to explore a very different artistic direction. This museum is dedicated to local fine art, particularly those hailing from Flanders and the surrounding regions. Covering everything from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, the highlights include Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross, Peter Paul Rubens’s Flagellation of Christ and Théodore Gericault’s Portrait of a Kleptomaniac.

MSK Ghent (c)Visit Gent

The three towers, shopping and a mystical lamb

After the MSK, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral is a must. A quick tram ride away, it’s home to the Van Eyck brothers’ masterpiece, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This truly unique work, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, was painted in 1432 and is a large, complex tour de force that is considered one of the world’s greatest artistic treasures. It represented a leap ahead in the way nature and people were represented in art. It could be this innovation that has made The Mystic Lamb so popular with thieves. It’s the most stolen artwork in history, with politicians even making promises in their campaigns to recover the still missing section from the latest theft in 1934.  

Of course, The Mystic Lamb isn’t the only reason to visit Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. The Gothic architecture is fascinating: the crypt dates back to the year 942, with centuries of construction throughout the Middle Ages. The enormous tower competes with those of the Belfort and the Saint Nicholas Church to dominate the skyline. Take a look at all three of them as you make your way to the Korenmarkt. It’s a great place to wander, with everything from fashion and shopping to restaurants and bars in the iconic houses around the historic square. 

While you’re in the area, anyone with a sweet tooth will have to keep an eye out for cuberdons. It’s a type of candy inextricably linked to the region available at the small stalls you see dotted about. Yum! 

Belfry

Relax with a few good books ...

We know this already adds up to quite a busy day. Which is why our suggestion for the late afternoon is to relax. Maybe chill out with a good book. You’ll find plenty of bookshops around Ghent that are well worth a look. And there’s nowhere better to settle down and read your purchases than the Boekentoren. Part of the University of Ghent, the architectural monument is home to three million books—enough to satisfy any bookworm—and a wonderfully, friendly atmosphere. 

On the other hand, De Krook, a marvel of modern architecture, looks nothing like what you would expect a traditional public library to look like. But then again, it offers a lot more than a traditional public library: workshops, reading groups, philosophical debates, film festivals, concerts and exhibitions about music and technology. Of course, it’s also a major meeting place and a great place for people watching.

De Krook (c)Michiel De vijver

The City of Music

Evenings are something special in Ghent. After all, Ghent is one of only five cities worldwide to be recognised by UNESCO as a ‘City of Music’. With a massive variety of concerts, you’ll be able to treat your ears to anything from opera to jazz. If your visit coincides with the ten-day-long Ghent Festival held every summer, you’ll have your pick of diverse musical concerts, food stalls and street entertainment to enjoy. 

Of course, there’s nightlife in the centre of the city at any time of the year. Head to the Oude Beestenmarkt, Vlasmarkt or the Vrijdagmarkt to soak up the atmosphere in one of the many cafés.

Ghent Festival (c)Stad Gent

Day 2

A dream start to the day

It may be morning, but you’ll be increasingly convinced you’re still dreaming as you explore the exhibits at The House of Alijn. Describing itself as ‘The museum of things that (n)ever pass’, it hosts a charming collection of everyday objects from the 20th century, many of which have now become somewhat obsolete and, as often as not, surreal. The museum may elicit feelings of nostalgia ... or absolute disbelief. Wait until you see the furnishings and wallpaper from the 1970s!

View From Museum Alijn

The Castle of the Counts

Gravensteen is a major tourist attraction and a point of pride for the residents of Ghent. Modelled on the crusaders’ castles that Count Philip of Alsace encountered during his campaign abroad, it served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders for several hundred years, was a courthouse and last, but not least, a prison. Exhibits in the castle reflect this spotted history. You’ll see everything from armour worn by knights, to weapons and of course, a torture chamber. There’s also a nice view of the city from the ramparts.

Gravensteen Ghent

The Patershol is a medieval neighbourhood surrounding Gravensteen. This is a lovely area to aimlessly wander about; there’s a touch of the bohemian in the atmosphere. You’ll see plenty of interesting architecture and some great value cafés and restaurants to rest your weary feet while enjoying a bite to eat. Are you wondering what to have? Our recommendation is the Gentse waterzooi. This stew typically contains a variety of vegetables with either fish or chicken. Every restaurant makes it differently, so feel free to try it more than once.  

We should also mention that Thursday is ‘Vege Day’ in Ghent, when almost the whole city eats meat-free dishes. You might wonder how this is possible. Well, there are some utterly incredible vegetarian dishes on the menu wherever you go. Greenway and Tasty World are among the most highly revered vegetarian restaurants, while Vrijmoed and OAK also include meat on their menus.  

Wherever you go, our recommendation is that you don’t have a drink while you’re eating. Instead, head to De Dulle Griet after your meal. It’s a must for any beer-lover and an exceptional experience for everyone! As well as their own Dulle Griet beers, you’re able to order the Max van het Huis. This Kwak beer is served in a traditional coach glass that doesn’t stand up on its own. You’ll need to hand in your shoe as insurance for the glass; your footwear is put in a basket and winched up to the ceiling! Quite an exceptional experience! 

Patershol (c) Stad Gent

Design museum

The Design Museum is a delight. With a collection of more than 20,000 objects, you’ll see everything from tables made from books to bikes and toys, as well as train compartments from times gone by. 

Afterwards, it’s time to head back to the Korenmarkt. Follow the waterways to make your way there. But pay attention:  your next adventure is a boat tour on the Leie. This is not just an excellent way to see and learn more about the city, it will help you understand how the waterways impacted everything from architecture to culture and identity in Ghent. If you would prefer to stay on dry land, stroll along the canals to enjoy the beautiful architecture and centuries of history.

Design Museum Ghent Maarten Van Severen en Co (c) Anthony De Meyere

Atmosphere in the evening

With evening approaching, it’s time to head to the Vooruit. This iconic complex is renowned for hosting an incredible variety of artistic exhibitions and shows; it’s certainly worth having a look to see what’s on. If nothing grabs your fancy, you’ll still enjoy the wonderful, friendly and relaxed atmosphere at the Vooruit Café. A favourite with students from the neighbouring university, it makes the perfect conclusion to your quick tour of this artistic, vibrant city.

And now that your 48 hours in Ghent are over? A city like Ghent is constantly moving and evolving, so there’s no reason not to start thinking about what you might discover on your next visit.

Vooruit Ghent (c)Karin Borghouts
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