Off Beat Belgium: How To Spend A Weekend in Ghent

Adjective – Fairy tale: “having a special and attractive or beautiful quality, like something in a fairy tale“.

You’ll rarely find a blog post or piece of travel writing on Brugges that doesn’t shoehorn this term into every paragraph. ‘You’re going to Belgium?’ ‘Oh’ they say, ‘go to Bruges it’s beautiful! Street’s like a fairy tale’ Yup, Well hey, how about Ghent?
True, if we were to base our travel plans on the way the place sounds, Ghent doesn’t fare up well against ‘Brooogee’, it sort of rolls from the tongue, and then there’s ‘Guh-ent’ – it really just has the most unfortunate sound to it…
Anyhow, it’s a rather good thing I’m not going about judging places by names, because after traveling to Ghent in May with the boy and the puppy (road-testing his shiny new pet passport!), I found it was just about one of the most scenic European city’s around (as well being ultra dog-friendly!) and it didn’t take me long to start questioning Bruges’s wild popularity.
Ghent is a mere half an hour down the road from both Bruges and the very different but equally as wonderful Brussels, so if I told you could visit a city with all the charm (and more) of former, along with the great Belgian pubs and lively beer scene of the latter, well just to welcome to Belgium’s little gem; Ghent!

Soak Up The Best View In Belgium

I think it was the turrets, towers and quaint little house fronts which made me think I’d tumbled into the third chapter of a Harry Potter novel; there was something about these pretty areas of Ghent that gave a little nod to Hogsmeade, if Hogsmeade had a canal running through it and served Kwak instead of Butter Beer (…I’d happily take either if you’re buying!). But here I was on St Michael’s Bridge with a view to Saint Nicholas’ Church in the East, Saint Michael’s in the West, Belgium’s prettiest canal running through the middle and barely another tourist in sight.

Spend Far Too Long By The Canal

The Leie cuts through the middle of Ghent, with the historical city centred around the waterside. But although area this isn’t filled with coach loads of tourists, sleepy river walk this is not. With Ghent being a major University town you’ll probably join small groups of students down by the river, reading, drinking and chatting. Pick a summer month and you can find a sunny terrace, pour yourself a glass of local Gulden Draak, people watch and spot the sightseeing boats on the water.

Celebrate Belgian Babies At The Fish Market

Yeah really, but let me explain.
Just in front of the castle is the old fish market; Ghent is a former market town, similar to Brussels, so each area has retained snippets of it’s former self! However, One of the more quirky attractions of this area was pointed out my our Viva’s Free Walking Tour guide; the inconspicuous street lamp, which is actually hooked up to the local hospitals… We were told that whenever Ghent’s maternity wards welcome a new-born, a button is pressed and the light flickers. Apparently it’s rarely noticeable during day light hours, but walk through here of an evening a you might catch the lamp flickering on and off; a quiet celebration in honour of a baby’s birth! How sweet is that?

Get Happy On Paint Fumes Down Graffiti Street

Our Viva Ghent Free Walking Tour took us down Werregarenstraat; Graffiti Street. This alleyway is in a constant state of change as local artists and creatives are gifted free reign of the street to spray their own murals on the walls. A happy mix of madness and creativity! This area often gets contrasting reviews because, as you can imagine, it’s a different experience from one day to the next. You can visit at the beginning of your trip and feel less than impressed with 200 ft of scrawly tags, and then return a few days later and be bowled over by meter after metre of sheer graffiti art talent, so in that sense it’s a bit hit and miss; but I think the whole idea is just awesome, no?

Be Your Own King Of The Castle

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Tell your seven year old cousin to draw you a picture of a castle and it’ll probably end up looking like a spit of Gravensteen; turrets, flags and a full on moat, this place is pretty much the castle from your Disney inspired childhood dreams… and it’s right in the middle of Ghent! I’d seen photos of this castle before I visited, and what many (including this photo) don’t show is that it’s within touching distance of residential houses, little cafes and pubs, and not, as you might expect, on the top of a hill in the Belgian countryside. It’s just so oddly unexpected!

Eye-spy The Golden Dragon

Just to the east of the river is where you’ll find Ghent’s hub. The shopping district, the Belfry and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (home of Van Eyck’s, Ghent Altarpiece) spattered by bars and restaurants are all centred in this area. If you’re a hawk with better eye sight than me, you might be able to see the Gilded Dragon at the top of the Belfry… and ask puppy what his favourite thing about the holiday was and he’ll probably bark on about the giant bubbles, the entertainment in the square… you take him all the way to Belgium eh?

Have A Quiet Night Out

A chance to experience Ghent by night is the only reason you’ll need to make sure your visit to Ghent isn’t just a fleeting trip. This city has actually won awards for how lush this place looks after the sun sets, so it’s worth booking that Airbnb and staying out for a late beer to watch how the town lights up after dark. I think up took up half of my SD card just trying to capture the reflections!

Buy A Round In A Junkyard

Straight up; this pub is expensive but just seek this place out and stay for one, because there’s not many places you can say you had a beer in a junk yard. Reminiscent of Budapest’s Ruin bars with it’s random juxtaposition of old bike parts hanging from the walls, or maybe it was like stumbling into an old English antique shop… that just happened to have a fridge of beer. Either way, it’s a place you can have a rather different experience; with the gruff owner and the locals who’ll talk your ear off with stories of their pet tabby cat (it happened)… have a strong beer and doodle something weird in the guest book.

Try a new beer at Waterhuis aan de Bierkant

Ah Waterhuis aan de Bierkant! My home from home in Ghent; where, with no regrets, I spent most of my time. I just love how the Belgian’s do pubs, there’s literally no other way they should be done. Table service, a whole menu listing all the beer you could ever need, and sophisticated, slow drinking; total enjoyment and appreciation for your chosen tipple. Beer Huis is right by the canal side, you can pinch a table outside on a good day and watch the tourist boats come and go. And if after a few you’re not ready to throw in the towel, crank the tone up a notch and stagger in next door to the Liquor bar serving typical Belgian “jenever” shots.

Drink Cherry Beer in a Middle Age torture house
(now the smallest café in Ghent)

Café t’Galgenhuis is super tiny, which is half the appeal, but thankfully it’s sun trap terrace that looks over the square is about three times the size of it’s interior. With a smaller menu, but excellent cheese snacks it’s still one of my favourite places I found in Ghent. Although it’s a cosy drinking hole nowadays with a superb Cherry Beer (yessss!), it’s history is varied; apparently it was a fish stall once, and then a tripe cottage, and right behind it you can see seek out what’s left of the stocks from the middle ages.

Woff down Waffles at WasBar,
Whilst Washing Your Whites

Well that’s a lot of ‘Wuh’s’. Anyhow, I welcome this seemingly new trend of being able to cross your chores with softening hunger pains; here at Wasbar you can wash your delicates whilst brunching on waffles, taking multitasking to a delicious new level. Of course, being on a short holiday we weren’t laden with laundry bags but the waffles, strawberries and cream still gave us enough excuse to dine here for breakfast on our first morning.

Keep It Belgian and Fall in Love with Fries

If you haven’t had it Belgian, you can’t even say you’ve had it at all. The not-so-secret, secret to Belgian’s best asset is they are twice cooked for that fluffy crispiness that you just don’t get anywhere else other than this tiny corner of Europe. Our Viva Free Walking Tour guide pointed out the unassuming wooden hut; Frituur Bij Filip, and guaranteed us that this is where we’d chow on the best Belgian fries in Ghent. Go all-out Belgian and have them with Mayonnaise; match made in foodie-heaven. YES!

Gorge Yourself Silly On All-You-Can-Eat Ribs

We actually asked our Walking Tour host where we could find the best Mussels in Ghent, she promptly shook her head and told us ‘no’, if we were in Ghent we should have ribs. So, who’s going to argue with that order? I’ll confess, this is actually our second time at an ‘Amadeus’ as we’d been to a branch in Brussels last year and it was flipping uh-mazing. I actually thought the ribs here were better, and that curry-butter jacket potato? I had three, so knowing that fact I hope it serves as my seal of approval. The best thing about it though? They were more than happy to have our pup Pablo sit with us under the table and be fed titbits of sticky ribs; Pablo must have thought he’d reached nirvana that evening…

Know your Ghent Noses

If you’re going to go away from this city with something traditionally ‘Ghent’ then you should seek out a bag of Ghent Noses or ‘Cuberdon’s’; cone-shaped Belgian candy. The sweet coloured gummies were actually a lot tastier than I thought they might be; similar to a large jelly baby with an ultra gooey middle. Buy a bag of every colour and flavour from either of the two stalls opposite Café t’Galgenhuis.

 

Why Visit Ghent?

Considering I visited Ghent on the basis that 1. I hadn’t been there, 2. We could drive there with the puppy and 3. Worst case scenario there will be Belgian beer, so anywhere there’s Belgian beer is still good, even if it’s bad, I was surprised to find I wound up gushing over the city within the first morning and by the end of the trip it was getting embarrassing. If it wasn’t already clear, Ghent knocked me for six and I can’t even quite pin down why, but you know when you visit somewhere and it just ticks every box?

Go for the beer, go for the fries, go for the ribs and leave after discovering one of Europe’s best city’s.

Find out more about how you can plan your Ghent trip with Visit.Gent.
Thanks to Gent tourist board for the tips and friendly advice, and to Airbnb and our hosts for the lovely dog friendly listing we stayed in; making dog friendly travel possible (get your discount code here!).

 

7 thoughts on “Off Beat Belgium: How To Spend A Weekend in Ghent

    1. Yes, I have to admit, I now much prefer Ghent to Bruges! I visited Bruges ages ago, and went back just on a day trip after visiting Ghent… and we both wished we’d stayed in Ghent for a few more hours. I totally know what you mean about it being like a theme park! It’s beautiful but the atmosphere is so different.

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