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- Ghent is the capital of East Flanders

- Ghent was at some stage during medieval times the second biggest city in the world. Today about 240.000 people live here.

- The historic old town is remarkably well preserved.

- The beautiful city center is car free but unlike Bruges it isn't a museum but a lively town.

- Most famous landmark are the three towers of Belfry, Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas' Church.

- Because of its location Ghent is an ideal base to explore the Flemish part of Belgium.

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Ghent (Gent) is the capital of the province East Flanders. It is situated in the northern half of Belgium. That’s the Flemish part of the country meaning people speak Dutch (and excellent English for that matter). .

Ghent is unique for a number of reasons. It is as beautiful as the much more famous Bruges but not nearly as touristy. It is much more chilled out than Antwerp and Brussels but offers all the conveniences of a city including a decent night life. It is reasonably cheap to travel and due its location a perfect base to explore the Flemish part of Belgium. If you only got time to visit one place in Belgium: Ghent is the place you want to go to.

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Ghent is a big city. Almost 250.000 people live here. The thing is; you can’t tell. Ghent is a big city but in a different way than you’d expect. Being there as a backpacker you’d probably spend most of your time in the medieval city centre. The old town of Ghent however is massive. And there is a reason to it. Back in the 11th century Ghent was the second biggest city in Europe.

Gravensteen Ghent - author Maros M r a z Castle Gravensteen (author Maros M r a z)

Second only to Paris in that time Ghent was a economical super power. It was the European centre for the wool industry. The demand for wool was so massive that it had to be imported from England and Scotland. The merchants accumulated such a wealth and power that they pretty much took over the governing of the city from the aristocracy.

They formed powerful guilds and when necessary even allied with foreign powers to protect their interests against the local sovereigns. At least for a while the merchants actually the upper hand but this period ended soon enough when Ghent fell under the rule of Burgundy.

The guilds opposed newly introduced taxes by the new ruler and raised an army. The rebellion culminated in the Battle of Gavere 1453. The city suffered a devastating defeat against the army of Philip the Good and had to accept higher taxes as imposed by the new ruler. The defeat had another effect; the city lost influence and a shift of power became apparent in the years to come. Ghent remained a powerful and important centre of trade but it started to lose its status as THE centre of the Low Countries to Antwerp.

Things to do in Ghent

Ghent was rich and you can tell by its looks. The guilds and wealthy individuals had money to spend and so they did. Looking down from the bridge Sint-Michielsbrug over The Graslei square you get an impression of what Ghent is all about.

Source Donarreiskoffer (Wikipedia)The Belfry in Ghent (Author Donarreiskoffer)

The city centre is surprisingly well kept. It looks as if it has almost completely escaped the destructions of the wars. With Belgium being popular as a battlefield with the big nations surrounding it that is remarkable. Even better; you can enjoy the walk around town because it is car free. Allegedly it is the biggest car free area in Belgium.

One of the most prominent landmarks is the Belfry. It is one of three massive churches that dominate the medieval city centre. The Belfry is 91 meters high and dates back to 14th century. It served as bell tower and fortified watchtower but also held at times the treasury.

I just mentioned three churches. The other two are Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas' Church. The very beautiful Saint Bavo Cathedral dates back to the 10th century. It is based upon the Chapel of St. John the Baptist. It was remodelled a number of times (first in Romanesque style from the 14th onwards in Gothic style) and only considered completed in the 16th century (1569). There are some interesting bits of history to it but the main reason to visit the cathedral is the altar piece. It is called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It is indeed very impressive and generally regarded their masterpiece. Saint Bavo is also the seat of the diocese of Ghent.

Historic centrum of Ghent, Belgium Historické centrum města Ghent, Belgie Date= July 200 Author= Karelj Category:Ghent
Ghent historic Centre (Author Karelj)

Less elegant but quite impressive is the third of the three churches. Saint Nicholas' Church next to the Korenmarkt was the church of choice for the wealthy guilds. They actually had their own chapels that were added to the side of the church.

Another church worth seeing is Saint Michael’s. Highlight there is a painting by Anthony van Dyck.

An imposing landmark in the city centre is the castle Gravensteen. It dates back to the 12th century and was built with the crusader castles in mind that the principal count Philip of Alsace had encountered when participating in the second crusade.

The castle wasn't the first to be built in this spot. It "rests" on a predecessor that was probably built in the 9th century. In 1180 the original castle had been extended and the wooden structure replaced by stone. Finally a moat was added and a curtain wall.

The Counts of Flanders abandoned it in the 14th century and moved to a new residence. The castle was then used as a court house and later as a prison. By the end of the 19th century it was about to be destroyed but the city of Ghent opposed these plans, bought and renovated it. Today it hosts a torture museum. Gravensteen is one of the biggest examples of a castle with moat in Europe.

Graslei in Ghent (Author Paul Hermans)Graslei in Ghent (Author Paul Hermans)

There are also three Béguinages in Ghent. They are pretty typical examples with a bunch of small dwellings surrounding a courtyard. If you are interested in the sisterhood and their history give it a go.

If you are interested in contemporary art try the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Citadelpark.

I would recommend simply wandering around town, being impressed and enjoying the hospitality of the locals. Try some of the local specialties let it be chocolate, the various sweets, a variety of beers or why not try the sea snails. They do taste better than they look. Unlike Bruges (Brugge) Ghent is not a museum. It is a lively city that happens to be just as beautiful as Bruges. It is a lot cheaper and certainly a lot less touristy than the tourist trap in the northeast. And if you want to see it anyways, do what I did: Go there on a day trip. It’s just a over 60 kilometres drive.

Places to stay:

One of the best choices (value for money) seems to be HI De Draecke Gent, Sint-Widostraat 11 although not everybody was happy there.

If you like it a bit quieter and you can afford to spend around 30-50 Euro I would recommend:

Casa Borsalino in Vlaanderenstraat 46 a short walk from city centre

Slightly cheaper and with very good revierws:

La Ducale
in Vlaanderenstraat 54

Logies Onderland
in Rabotstraat 62

I would strongly advise you to book in advance!


Written by: Kristian Busch

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