Ever since I returned, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about “my trip to Brussels.” The problem is, I didn’t just go to Brussels. In fact, I made it a point not to go just to Brussels. So, to set the record straight and to do other parts of Belgium some justice, let’s talk about Ghent.
Ghent (or “Gent” in Dutch and “Gand” in French) is the largest city of Belgium’s East Flanders province. Spoiler alert: it’s not actually very large. But neither is Belgium. Ghent was one of the richest European commercial centers during the Middle Ages, specializing in wool production. Though lesser known than its touristier counterpart, Bruges, Ghent can boast just as many beautiful, quaint buildings found alongside the city’s canals.
Now that you’re aware of Ghent’s existence, your next question to me is, naturally, “What’s there even to do in Ghent?”
Well, for starters, there’s a castle, which any self-respecting Game of Thrones fan must visit. The Gravensteen (“Castle of the Count” in Dutch, so quite self-explanatory) was built around 1180 by the Count of Alsace and has since served as the seat of the Count of Flanders, a courthouse, a prison, a factory, and now a museum of torture devices. If you are willing to brave a few of flights of very narrow and very steep stairs, you will find yourself on the castle’s ancient ramparts with a breathtaking view of the city and its infamous three-tower skyline (the towers are: St. Nicholas’ Church, the Belfry, and St. Bavo’s Cathedral). Perhaps the coolest part of the interior exhibit (which, admittedly, contains primarily torture instruments) is a small guillotine that was used by the Count of Flanders for executions.
Ghent is so compact that you can hit all major tourist attractions at a leisurely walking pace within an afternoon. From Gravensteen, you can follow the canals and snap a few waterfront photos of Belgian architecture for the Insta. St. Michael’s Bridge is a must photo spot as it offers a splendid view of the three towers. Because Ghent’s key historic attractions are towers, prepare for some major legwork. A visit to the Belfry will take you up six levels of the tower’s interior and walk you through the history of the belfry’s creation – from its significance as a symbol of independence and its role as a watchtower to the creation of its famous bell and the gilded dragon, which crowns the tower. A warning: the stairs are steep and the ceilings are way too low for those of us above 5’5, and the elevator, though it exists, has clear walls and elicits major fear of heights.
If you only visit one attraction while in Ghent, let it be the St. Bavo’s Cathedral. The interior of the cathedral is so awe-inspiring that you’re not even allowed to take photos (I mean, what’s up with that, Ghent?). But, more importantly, this cathedral houses the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb aka the Ghent altarpiece. If you’ve ever taken an art history course or AP Euro, you probably know too much about it already, but, trust me, it’s worth seeing in person. If you know absolutely nothing about art, let me just say that this artwork is considered to be one of the world’s artistic treasures, so…For a small entrance fee, you receive a detailed audio guide that walks you through every panel, explaining its religious, artistic, and historic significance. Yes, there’s lots of Jesus, but alas, Christianity was a hot topic in the 15th century.
For an unexpected twist on Ghent and a break from towers and stairs, you can pay a visit to Ghent’s graffiti street, which provides ample selfie opportunities for the hipster in you.
Although I spent two nights there, I can tell you in all fairness that a day trip to Ghent is sufficient to take in all its key sights. It’s especially convenient because a train trip from Brussels’ Central Station to Ghent’s only station takes less than hour, with trains departing both cities nearly every hour. Ghent also finds itself conveniently located at a midpoint between Brussels and Bruges, a favorite tourist destination, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit (this time).
I hope that your takeaway from all of this is that there is more to Belgium than just Brussels, the EU, and waffles. Although, the waffles are admittedly a highlight.