At almost the precise center of a cross between Brussels and Bruge and Antwerp and Lille, lies an ancient city that once was the second most powerful in Europe. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the dominance of this city in East Flanders, Belgium reached its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the textile industry employed half the town of 50,000 people. Its power waned after failing in its quest to become a city state and their leader lost his head. Today in Ghent, you can still appreciate the grandeur of this medieval city.
Back to its humble beginnings…while there is evidence that humans resided in this area from the Stone and Bronze Ages, around 650 A.D., two abbeys were founded at the confluence of the rivers Scheldte and Leie. The town was given the name, Ganda, meaning confluence. But it was the Dutch prounounciation that the city carries today: Ghent or, as the locals spell it, “Gent.”
Visitors to Ghent are greeted with well-preserved medieval architecture as well as an impressive array of transportation options for a city of 247,000 residents. You can hit most of the main attractions in a couple of days, which makes buying the Ghent City Card a decent value. For 30 euros for 48 hours, the card gains you free admission into museums as well as a canal tour and a day’s bike renal. It doesn’t cover the city buses unfortunately, but you can ride two of the main tram lines to get around.
Ghent is best known for the Treaty of Ghent, which brought to an end the War of 1812 between the Britain and the United States. Apparently, President Madison was hoping to pick up Canada in the deal, but that dog didn’t hunt. Britain, on the other hand, was planning four invasions during the negotiations of the treaty including the burning of Washington DC. Ultimately our host city gave us the most important thing: peace. (It sure would have been nice to have Canada though….)
Gravensteen Castle, or the “Castle of the Counts”, is by far the coolest place to visit in Ghent. Taking inspiration from the Crusades, the castle was built in 1180 (you read that right) on the site of the prior residence built in the mid 900s. Gravensteen served as the seat of the Count of Flanders for hundreds of years until it was abandoned and then become a courthouse and later a prison. You can still catch a glimpse of the hole in the floor leading to the dungeon.
Iron-clad torture devices are on display reminding visitors to be on their best behavior…or else. And the full suits of armor show that back in the day, the Belgians weren’t messing around. In a war with the Danish prince with the fluffy plume, my money’s on this skinny guy.
Saved from demolition and restored in 1885, the grand halls of Gravensteen Castle are still used today for events befitting a royal court.
Game of Thrones reenactment, anyone? (Just no weddings please.)
Not surprisingly, the film and video industry caught on to opportunities for shooting in the castle. The BBC series “The White Queen” filmed scenes at Gravensteen. The castle was most recently featured in the 2015 film, Emperor, starring Adrian Brody.
No wonder it’s the #1 tourist attraction in Ghent. Views from the top of the tower yields panoramic views of the city below. From up there, you can imagine what the city must have looked like with dirt roads and horse-carts about 1,000 years ago.
Our second favorite tourist stop in Ghent is the STAM Museum. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the city center, but well worth the effort.
The STAM is located in an old abbey and hospital that dates back over 800 years. The museum chronicles the history of Ghent from its founding to present, with some of the best interactive exhibits I’ve seen in any museum around the world.
The old Abbey itself is an impressive historical monument, dating back to 1228. What can you name still standing that’s THAT old?
Each subsequent room is curated in a completely different way. And if you’re still not impressed with Ghent, you can sit down at the giant lego display and redesign the city to your liking. Apparently, the previous visitor (Godzilla) is not fond of the more modern buildings that are now interspersed into the Ghent skyline.
Ghent Design Museum
Another great stop in Ghent is a visit to the Ghent Design Museum, currently featuring an exhibit called “Bike to the Future.” The exhibit is perfect for bike fanatics and policy wonks, displaying innovative bikes from present day and showing how bikes and bike infrastructure can prepare cities for the future.
“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” – Dr. Emmett Brown (1985)
The exhibit also solicits community input from visitors to draw their bike of the future and suggest features to make biking easier in their communities. But if you want to check it out, the exhibit only runs until mid-October, so work a detour into your fall visit to Europe.
For those with an eye for creative detail that sees beyond bicycles, the museum also has permanent exhibits showcasing the history of design and artists from the Flanders region of Belgium.
Ghent by Boat
Like most cities in Europe we’ve visited, Ghent is at its finest when seen from the water. Several companies offer boat rides up and down the two rivers to their confluence. Tours are offered in several languages, and English is always an option.
It’s easy to appreciate the ornate and well-preserved architecture of city center, where many buildings date back several hundred years. Stepped gables seem to be a signature of builders in Ghent.
On the tour, you’ll pass by “Mad Meg” otherwise known as the big red cannon that was reportedly fired only once during a war in the 15th century and exploded. What remains of her today is an enduring symbol of peace for the city. Ironic? Absolutely.
Our guide let us know that if we kept motoring along, we’d be in France in about 8 hours. At the end of one of the channels, is a monument called the “Three Towers.” The name “Two Towers and a Gable” was probably already taken.
Eats and Drinks
One of the most compelling reasons to make a swing through Belgium is to try its famous beer and signature foods. Let’s start with the most obvious…waffles. You know you’re a tourist when the first thing you buy in Ghent is a waffle. This was lunch on our first day. Definitely worth trying, but no need repeating.
The second most consumable Ghent favorite is, of course, beer. Microbreweries are getting more popular in Belgium, so the selections are now quite vast.
A relatively new “Try Before you Buy” liquor shop called “Proof” opened across from the Design museum is a good place to sample local brews and regional wines (and mercifully, the region includes France.) Located in the only remaining medieval 800 year old wood-framed house in the city, the small canal-facing deck is lovely place to enjoy a taste of Ghent.
Inside, they have an impressively curated wall of liquors from all over the world. We sampled two Japanese whiskeys and an old local favorite called Graanjenever. They packaged up a “travel safe size” of the Nikka Coffey Grain, which I highly recommend.
With warmed toes, we continued our journey through the city.
A last gastro stop for any traveller to Ghent is this shop in the main square where you can buy spicy mustard from a vat. It’s like a Belgium-style wasabi. There’s a good chance it will put hair on your chest. We bought two jars. One might make it home.
Today’s Ghent is a bit more somber than the powerful city of 800 years ago. In the last 60 years, Ghent has struggled with disinvestment and disrepair. Once you get outside the immediate central city, the buildings and green spaces are a bit more dirty and derelict. Consider it Belgium’s answer to grunge.
But the architecture still is interesting, even as you get closer to the main train station.
A highlight of taking the train into Ghent is seeing the overflowing bike parking near the main station. Even though they are more car dependent than the neighboring Netherlands, bikes still are a primary way of getting around in this mid-sized city, and the city center is still car free.
Life here seems to be a bit edgier and perhaps even depressing. But once you’re in the central city, it’s an impressive blast from the past. And, we’ve learned during our 100 days that beauty is everywhere. You just need to open your eyes.