Despite being one of Belgium's oldest cities, Ghent remains small enough to feel cosy but big enough to be a vibrant, relevant centre for trade and culture. There's a wealth of medieval and classical architecture here, contrasted by large post-industrial areas undergoing urban renewal that give Ghent a gritty-but-good industrial feel.
In the centre, tourists remain surprisingly thin on the ground, but Ghent's large student and youth population means there's always people about, enjoying the city's fabulous canal-side architecture, abundance of quirky bars and good-value restaurants, and some of Belgium’s best museums.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Ghent.
Art enthusiasts swarm the Sint-Baafskathedraal to glimpse The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (De Aanbidding van het Lams God), a lavish representation of medieval religious thinking that is one of the earliest-known oil paintings. Completed in 1432, it was painted as an altarpiece by Flemish Primitive artists the Van Eyck brothers, and has 20 panels.
Flanders’ quintessential 12th-century stone castle comes complete with moat, turrets and arrow slits. It’s all the more remarkable considering that during the 19th century the site was converted into a cotton mill. Meticulously restored since, the interior sports the odd suit of armour, a guillotine and torture devices. The relative lack of furnishings is compensated for with a handheld 45-minute movie guide, which sets a tongue-in-cheek historical costumed drama in the rooms, prison pit and battlements.
Once the country’s biggest abbey, St-Pieters was the original centre around which Ghent grew. Its fabulous wealth evaporated after French revolutionary armies confiscated all its properties, stripped its interiors and demolished the abbot’s house. At the heart of the complex, its vast baroque-fronted church survived; the shell of the main monastery was later used as a military garrison. You can stroll among ruins, vines and apple trees in the abbey gardens.
Ghent’s Unesco-listed 14th-century belfry (91m) is topped by a large dragon weathervane: he's become something of a city mascot. You’ll meet two previous dragon incarnations on the 350-stair climb to the top; there are elevators to help some of the way. Enter through the Lakenhalle, Ghent's cloth hall that was left half-built in 1445 and only completed in 1903. Hear the carillon at 11.30am Fridays and 11am on summer Sundays.
Styled like a Greek temple, this superb 1903 fine-art gallery introduces a veritable A–Z of great Belgian and other Low Countries' painters from the 14th to mid-20th centuries. Highlights include a happy family of coffins by Magritte, luminist canvases by Emile Claus, and Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s 1621 Dorpsadvocaat – a brilliant portrait of a village lawyer oozing with arrogance. English-language explanation cards are available in each room.
Thought to have been originally constructed around the 13th and 14th centuries, and reconstructed in 1595 after much savagery and repeated pillaging, Ooidonk Castle (replete with moat) is considered one of the most beautiful in Belgium. Former residence of the Lords of Nevele and once owned by the Dukes of Montmorency, it's the present-day family home of the sixth Count and Countess t’Kint de Roodenbeke and their three children. It's stunningly furnished and immaculately maintained.
Ghent’s magnificent and flamboyant city hall was started in 1519 but not finished until 1600, by which time it had transformed into a Renaissance-style palazzo. It's a prime spot for weddings, but visitor access is limited to one-hour guided visits that can be booked online or through the tourist office. Don’t confuse the stadhuis with the controversial Stadshal, the modern barn-like construction located nearby.
Ghent's best-loved waterfront square, the 'Wheat Market' is where you'll find some of the city's best architecture, including the former post office (now shops and the 1898 The Post boutique hotel) and the imposing Sint-Niklaaskerk, a Tournai bluestone church started in 1200.
Ships have been docking on either side of the River Leie since the 11th century. The area on the east bank is known as Graslei; Korenlei is on the west. There are always people here milling about, wining, dining, or sitting on the stepped riverbank admiring the stunning architecture.