Belgium: Ten Great Things to do in Ghent

St Michael's Church in Ghent Belgium with the unfinished tower. Johan Bakker photo.
St Michael's Church in Ghent Belgium with the unfinished tower. Johan Bakker photo.

Free Things to Do and Cheap Things to Do in Ghent Belgium

By Vanessa Rombaut
Ghent resident

Rated the world’s third most authentic city by National Geographic, Ghent is one of Europe’s hidden treasures.

The city is often missed on the well-beaten tourist path between Brussels, Bruges, and Antwerp. Read more to find out what to do in Ghent, Belgium!

What to do in Ghent Belgium? Visit Counts Castle. Visitgent photos.
What to do in Ghent Belgium? Visit Counts Castle. Visitghent photos.

Founded by Celts 2,000 years ago on the banks of the rivers Lys and Schelde, Ghent was once a bustling medieval port city, at one point it was bigger than Paris or London.

It is now a small, but vibrant city, with picturesque medieval buildings and cobblestone streets. Flemish is the language in this city, but you can get by easily with English, the multi-lingual Belgians are more than happy to change languages. There are about 250,000 residents in Ghent.

The Count’s Castle in Ghent

Graslei and Korenlei.
Graslei and Korenlei.

Smack bang in the heart of the city stands an imposing and meticulously resorted medieval castle. You’ll feel like you’re in an episode of the “Game of Thrones” traversing spiraling, and steep staircases, perusing the weaponry and then into the torture chamber, not for the faint of heart.

A life-size replica of a man undergoing the infamous water torture awaits to horrify visitors.

The Castle often has medieval theme days which include duels between knights, medieval food, and puppet shows. Admission is €10, people under 26 pay €6, +65 pay €7,50 and children under the age of 19 are free.

The Castle often has medieval theme days which include duels between knights, medieval food, and puppet shows. Admission is €10, people under 26 pay €6, +65 pay €7,50 and children under the age of 19 are free.

 

Graslei and Korenlei

Restoration Ghent Altarpiece.
Restoration Ghent Altarpiece.

If the weather is nice, the Graslei and Korenlei are picture perfect to have a drink or something to eat at one of the many outdoor patios.

The Graslei and Korenlei were the sites of the original medieval port where ships came to weigh up and trade their goods and pay taxes. The buildings are old guild or storage houses and are impressive with their elegant step gable facades.

Number 10 on the Graslei is the oldest step gable building in the world, dating back to the 12th century. There is a view of the St Michel’s

cathedral with its tower forever unfinished.

You can also take a boat ride and let the informative multi-lingual guides impress you with their encyclopedic knowledge of the area, don’t forget to tip them at the end!

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A walk down the Graslei and Korenlei is free.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

Painted in 1432 by the van Eyck brothers, this painting has been stolen by Napoleon, requisitioned by Nazis, hidden in a salt silo, it has survived fires, only to have two panels mysteriously disappear in 1932 and never to appear again.

This wonderful painting recently featured in Hollywood film “The Monuments Men” starring George Clooney, but it deserves to be the star all on its own. This Polyptych intricately crafted wonder is a cornerstone for the Flemish Primitive movement.

You can find it in the St Bavo’s Cathedral, although you can watch expert restoration artists work on restoring the painting, panel by panel, behind bulletproof glass, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.

Graffiti Street

Graffiti street.
Graffiti street.

Werregarrenstraat, or Graffiti Street, was set up by Ghent city council to combat the problem of graffiti in the city.

Anyone can come here with a spray can and paint whatever they like upon the walls. The result is an organic work of art that changes in tome and color day to day.

You can buy a can of spray paint and try it out for yourself for free. If you’re interested in more professional murals, you can take the “Concrete Canvas Tour” which will take you past each mural that talented street artists have painted on the walls of Ghent.

The Small Beguinage

Small Beguinage.
Small Beguinage.

This is a place where nuns lived (the female equivalent of a monastery) and is one of the two in Ghent that is listed in UNESCO world heritage list and is the only one that has survived intact from before the French Revolution.

The last beguine (nun) passed away in 2005 and the buildings are now leased out, nonetheless, it is an attractive place to stroll through.

STAM

If you want to delve deeper into the heart of Ghent, be sure to visit STAM museum, located in the restored fourteenth century, Bijloke Abbey. The permanent exhibition provides the perfect introduction to the fascinating history of Ghent and urbanization in general.

The collection relies on a mixture of high-tech multimedia and traditional museum displays such as archaeological artifacts from Gallo Roman and Medieval periods.

Antique market next to St Jacobs Cathedral

STAM map
STAM map

Hunt for treasure at this eccentric and eclectic antique market, which is open next to St Jacob’s every Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning. You can find toys, antique curios, furniture, books, buttons, and religious iconography.

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Gruut Brewery

It wouldn’t be Belgium without one brewery in the city. Gruut brewery is the place where new technology crosses with ancient brewing recipes. Instead of brewing the beer with hops, the founders of Gruutuse a recipe that hails from the medieval days and involves an infusion of spices to ferment it, which apparently makes the beer a healthy drink, so bottoms up!

Read more about beer in Belgium on GoNOMAD.

GRUUT brewery.
GRUUT brewery.

You can book a tour and partake in a three-course dinner with beer tasting.

SMAK

This modern art museum has a cutting edge permanent collection from top international and national artists alongside the revolving temporary exhibitions which often push the limits of taste and decency. Afterward, you can come to your senses by taking a stroll in the surrounding Citadel Park, an oasis of rest in the city.

Belfort
Belfort

Belfry

If there is a symbol of Ghent tenacity this is surely it. The Belfry stands in the middle of the city and is topped by a copper Dragon (stolen from rival city Bruges) and at its base, in a small city park, is its bell, which the Nazis, while invading Ghent, came and threw from the top of the Belfry to the ground.

The Belfry boasts the most amazing views of Ghent, but for those who keep their feet on the ground, you can find an old jail at the base where a man named the “‘Mammelokker” was to face out his sentence of being starved to death.

The punishment was foiled when the prisoner didn’t starve to death thanks to his daughter, who recently had a baby and came every day to breastfed her father!

Vanessa Rombaut
Vanessa Rombaut is a freelance journalist based in Ghent Belgium