Ghent; Belgium’s undiscovered gem

Ghent is far from the first destination that tourists think of when planning a trip to Belgium, yet this beautiful city, home to medieval treasures and some of the best restaurants in the country, is well worth including on your itinerary.

Easy to explore on foot, thanks to the network of picturesque cobbled streets, or via a boat trip on the city’s network of canals, the pace of life is slower in Ghent than in many of Belgium’s larger cities; and tourists will find their sightseeing starts to match that slower pace, with long lunches in world-class eateries and gentle afternoon strolls to admire the impressive medieval architecture.

Ghent’s heyday was way back in the 14th century, and many of the city’s most opulent buildings are also the oldest; timbered houses rub shoulders with Gothic churches and all of the city’s monuments are illuminated in the evening for an entirely new perspective on the popular tourist attractions.

The highlight is undoubtedly Ghent’s very own UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 14th century Belfort. This was the name given to the original walled city, which now contains over 900 medieval buildings. Explore the area on foot or take a canal boat ride on the Rivers Scheldt and Lys to view the buildings from another angle.

Graslei is one of the most picturesque and most photographed streets in Ghent. This is where you will find some of the oldest buildings, the original guild houses, which were grand in their day and are still impressive in the 21st century. The historic centre of Ghent is very compact, meaning that all these sights are within walking distance of each other, and just a stone’s throw from Graslei is the imposing fortress known as the Castle of the Counts.

Some parts of the building date from the 11th century, though even that is eclipsed by the foundations of Ghent’s cathedral which were built in 942. St Bavo’s Cathedral is a must-see attraction at any time of the year, but during the annual Ghent Festival the 82-metre high bell tower is opened to the public, offering a spectacular view of the city for those who have the energy to make the climb.

A more modern attraction is the Stedelijk Museum voor Aktuele Kunst, often shortened to SMAK, an art gallery featuring an impressive collection including works by Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol. After all that sightseeing, most visitors will have built up quite an appetite; luckily Ghent is home to over 300 restaurants, with options to suit every budget and every taste. You can try Belgian specialities in traditional establishments, or try modern versions of the classics in stylish new eateries.

The climate in Ghent is not dissimilar from the UK, so it is best to visit in the late-spring, summer or early-autumn to avoid the coldest and wettest weather. Whatever time of year you travel, make sure you pack for all eventualities.

Although the city can get very busy in the summer, this is also when Ghent looks its best – though tourism bosses are making an effort to encourage visitors at other times of the year by launching a range of cultural events in spring and summer, such as the Flanders Film Festival which is due to be held in October.

Getting around historic Ghent is easy, as you can reach everything you need to see on foot or by hiring a bicycle. If you do want to travel further afield, the local public transport network is both reliable and regular.