48 hours in Ghent, Europe's best-kept secret

2 days
Ghent
Graslei, Ghent

Ghent is a special place. It has three towers and the Ghent Altarpiece, a vibrant energy due to its many students, magnificent museums, medieval streets and countless cultural hotspots. This former industrial city at the rivers of the Scheldt and Leie is livelier than ever. Plenty of reason to spend 48 hours exploring this gem.

Day 1

Three towers and a Mystic Lamb

Belfry, Ghent

If all good things come in threes, Ghent has it made. The Saint Nicholas Church, Belfry and Saint Bavo's Cathedral are known as the three towers of Ghent. This trio defines the skyline of this lively but cosy art city. They make for more than just a pretty picture, though. The Belfry has symbolised the city’s prosperity and independence since the Middle Ages. Brave the climb up its spiral staircases and you will be rewarded by a splendid view.

Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, in its turn, has some fascinating stories to tell. It is the home of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. This iconic painting is considered one of the world's greatest artistic treasures. Jan van Eyck’s unparalleled realism and refined oil painting technique revolutionised the art of painting. This is his magnum opus, the ultimate expression of his genius. On its completion in 1432, the Ghent Altarpiece received a place in the cathedral. It is still there nearly six centuries later. Or to put it more accurately, it is there again. The Ghent Altarpiece is the most frequently stolen artwork in history. Today, it is home where it belongs. A meticulous restoration has brought back its sumptuous colours and fine detailing. You can learn all about this piece’s turbulent history at the cathedral’s visitor centre. Astounding beauty, with a story as well.

After such splendour you may need a moment to recover. Time for a stroll through the city. Retrace your steps past the Belfry and you will encounter the City Pavilion, another interesting building. This imposing open structure is a more recent architectural addition. It is a modern-day response to the dizzying spires all around it. Now make your way to St. Michael’s Bridge. Mount this bridge for an enchanting view of the river Leie and its bustling quays. Post a picture on Instagram and watch the hearts flood in.

Continue on to the Korenmarkt, a historic square with beautiful old buildings and lots of restaurants and cafés. Next you will see the distinctive carts of the cuberdon sellers. These conical purple sweets are a local Ghent delicacy. A typical treat from Ghent. A little further on is Werregarenstraatje, also known as ‘the graffiti alley’. Here, young street artists are free to display their talents. Their efforts are sure to gain you more hearts on social media.

Patershol and Castle of the Counts

Gravensteen Ghent

The Castle of the Counts is our next stop and will take you back in time. Count Philip of Alsace modelled his castle on the fortresses he had seen during the crusades. For centuries it served as a residence for various Counts of Flanders, after which it saw use as a judicial court and then a prison. Learn all about this colourful history inside the castle itself, where you will also see knights’ armour, weapons of all kinds and even a torture chamber. The fortress walls offer a lovely view of the city from between the battlements.

The Castle of the Counts is located in Patershol, an old working-class neighbourhood full of winding alleys and cobbled streets. Its slightly bohemian atmosphere makes this a wonderful place to wander, and there are plenty of interesting restaurants and cafés. The House of Alijn can be found here as well. This museum focuses on daily life in the past. It is a great nostalgic experience and an ideal destination for young visitors.

This neighbourhood is also the perfect departure point for a very different exploration of Ghent: on the water. As the city lies on the confluence of the rivers Scheldt and Leie, the water will take you nearly anywhere. Take one of the various boat tours to see the historic façades and hidden corners from a whole new angle.

Ghent by night

Ghent at night - (c) Stad Gent - Dienst Toerisme

It’s nearly evening, so let’s find a nice spot to sit in peace for a bit. There are two great options nearby. Baudelohof is a pleasant urban park with old trees, a playground and plenty of pleasant nooks. Or walk a bit further, to Portus Ganda. This marina is the perfect place to relax, look at all the boats and enjoy the sunset.

Once the sun has disappeared below the horizon, we will head back to the city centre. Here you will find an ample selection of fine places to explore Belgium’s culinary culture. Our famous Belgian beer also gets its share of attention. Renowned craft beer bars such as De Trollekelder, De Dulle Griet and former brothel Waterhuis aan de Bierkant serve an impressively extensive variety of tasty brews. After that, it’s time for a spot of music, always easy to find in Ghent. UNESCO did not name this city Creative City in Music for nothing. Enjoy what’s on offer at any of the concert venues such as Handelsbeurs, listen to bands at the clubs around Vlasmarkt or let out your inner jazz cat at Hot Club de Gand. It’s either a lovely way to end your day or the start of a lively night out. Entirely up to you.

Day 2

Old books, new books, good books

De Krook, Ghent - (c) Michiel Devijver

Start your day with a good breakfast, or brunch if you prefer. New, fun places to eat pop up every week in trendy Ghent. A perfect beginning to the second day of your exploration of the city. Now we’ll focus on books for a bit. These have an important role to play here. Ghent is a student city through and through. This is apparent from the lively atmosphere and the numbers of students cycling everywhere, but also from the buildings. Two magnificent libraries lie only a stone’s throw away from each other. The newest is called De Krook, a wonder of modern architecture that is a very untraditional take on a library, with workshops, reading groups, philosophical debates, film festivals, concerts, music and technology exhibits and more. It’s all here. This is also a great place for people-watching.

Close by you’ll find the second library, which is known as the Book Tower. As the name says, it is literally a tower full of books. Art Nouveau luminary Henry Van de Velde designed this architectural monument, which houses over three million books. This university library is also sometimes referred to as Ghent’s fourth tower. You were introduced to the other three yesterday. This one is another treasure.

Between these two monuments to reading, you passed the VIERNULVIER arts centre. This striking venue is one of Ghent’s arts and culture mainstays. It is known for its enormous variety of exhibitions, shows, plays, concerts, festivals and much more. Be sure to check out the VIERNULVIER calendar in advance. If nothing appeals, simply visit the spacious arts café here and enjoy the fun, casual atmosphere.

Three marvellous museums

STAM, Ghent - (c) Phile Deprez

But that’s all by the by. Our walk now takes us to the Museum Quarter. Ghent has a history that spans the centuries, but the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (SMAK) focuses on what happened in the arts after WWII. From Andy Warhol to Francis Bacon and Panamarenko to Karel Appel. SMAK boasts an impressive permanent collection, complemented by thought-provoking temporary exhibitions.

After our venture into avant-garde, we will go back a bit further in time. The Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) is located right across from SMAK and is dedicated to the somewhat older visual arts, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Among its highlights are Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymus Bosch and the Flagellation of Christ by Peter Paul Rubens.

Three is the magic number, so we’re adding one last museum. The Ghent City Museum, or STAM, tells the history of the city. A gigantic aerial photograph covers the museum’s floor, presenting Ghent from a different perspective.

Relaxing culmination

Ghent © Stad Gent – Dienst Toerisme

After this trio of museums, we will meander back towards the city centre. Your route along the river Leie passes by the Blue Birds light installation, which was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s fairy tale of the same name. This Ghent resident won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. It is a lovely sight at twilight.
This is a fine opportunity to have a drink at one of the terraces by the water or in a winding alley. After that, you may wish to sample the culinary offerings at any of the city’s many excellent restaurants. There are too many to list.
After your final meal in Ghent, one last attraction awaits. It is as simple as it is breathtaking: a walk through the city by night. Beautiful historic façades and monuments shine out at you from the dark. It is a truly enchanting sight.

We’ve now come to the end of your 48 hours in Ghent. While the above makes for a satisfyingly full programme, there is always a chance that you may wish to abandon it altogether. If you come here in the third week of July, you will encounter an entirely different city. This is when the Gentse Feesten take place, a ten-day city festival of culture and celebrations like nothing else. This event turns the city upside down until everything is transformed and everyone is partying. It is more than worth a visit. See you then?

Info Point Ghent

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