Ghent is a beautiful Belgian town with an amazing old medieval architecture that looks like it hasn’t changed for centuries. However, it’s not a city-museum, but a very lively town, filled with many small cafes, restaurants and some great shops. Because of that fantastic mix, Ghent is definitely one of my favourite Belgian towns. I visited it a few times already and thought it’s finally time to create this weekend guide to Ghent with some fun things to do during your 48 hours in Ghent.
Weekend in Ghent
How to get to Ghent
Ghent is located in the Belgian region of Flanders in the northwestern part of the country. It’s quite easy to reach it from Antwerp or Brussels. Regional trains are connecting Ghent with those cities departing every 30 minutes. And it will take you around an hour to get from Antwerp to Ghent.
If you’re visiting from the UK or France, you can get Eurostar or Thalys to Brussels or Lille and take a regional train to Ghent from there. NS International often has promotions for visiting Belgium from anywhere in the Netherlands. We got our return tickets from Amsterdam to Ghent for 29 euros only the last time we visited it.
*TIP: Keep an eye on NS International website to not miss any of their promotions.
Where to stay in Ghent
Ghent historic centre is stunning, and if you’d like to experience the city’s charm during your weekend in Ghent, it’s best to stay somewhere centrally. The whole city centre is a no-car zone, so it’s lovely to just stroll around and explore it on your own pace.
During some of my previous trips to Ghent, I stayed at Novotel Gent Centrum and Best Western Hotel Chamade, and both were really nice and cosy hotels. Novotel Gent Centrum has a perfect location, just next to the City Hall and Belfry. However, Best Western Hotel Chamade is closer to the Gent-Sint-Pieters train station, with a tram stop to the city centre just in front of it.
However, there are many more lovely hotels you can stay in while in Ghent. You can look for available accommodation on a link here.
Why there are so many historic buildings in Ghent
Once you arrive in Ghent, you’ll be amazed by all the medieval architecture you’ll find yourself surrounded by. Each time I’m there, I feel like I’ve stepped back into history. So, I hear you asking why there are so many historic buildings in Ghent?
Ghent has a long and quite an interesting history. The area was inhabited already in Prehistory. However, the city starts to be built during the 7th century when the two abbeys at the banks of the River Scheldt, Saint Bavo and Saint Peter’s were founded. Later on, they were destroyed by Vikings, but the monks came back and rebuilt them. In the following years, the town started to grow around them.
Although today it’s a small town, Ghent was one of the most important cities in Europe during the Middle Ages. In the 13th century, it was the second biggest town north of Alps. Just after Paris. During that time, Belfry, Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas Church were built. So, you can get an idea of how magnificent the city must have to look like to its visitors.
Fields around Ghent were filled with sheep in the 15th century. So, the wool and clothes production flourished during that time. And, they made Ghent one of the wealthiest cities of its time.
The city is also well known because of the Treaty of Ghent. It formally ended the war between Great Britain and the USA in 1814.
During the First World War and the Second World War Ghent was occupied but not destroyed. So, luckily for us today, all of its amazing medieval architecture survived.
What to do during a weekend in Ghent
Although you can visit Ghent on a day trip from Antwerp or Bruges, to really experience the city, you should spend at least a weekend in Ghent. During my last visit, we got ourselves 48 hours Ghent City Cards. We had free entrance to many sights in Ghent and could use public transport as much as we wanted with them. Getting the city cards is definitely something I’d recommend to you for your weekend in Ghent.
*TIP: You can read more about the Ghent City Card on a link here.
My favourite way of exploring the new cities is just by strolling around and taking it slowly. And Ghent’s historic centre, being a pedestrian zone, is perfect for doing that. However, there are some sights you shouldn’t miss during your weekend in Ghent.
Saint Bavo Cathedral
Although it was built for centuries, Saint Bavo Cathedral is a lovely example of Gothic architecture. However, you’ll find mostly Baroque altars and paintings in its interior. The reason for that is the iconoclasm. During the 16th century, when the Protestantism become more widely spread, groups of Calvinists would visit Catholic churches and destroy paintings, statues and stained-glass windows. They showed the disagreement with all the wealth Catholic Church gained throughout the centuries that way.
The only medieval altarpiece that survived in Saint Bavo Cathedral is one of the most famous medieval art pieces in the world today – the Ghent Altarpiece. Created by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432, it’s a must-see during your weekend in Ghent. It was under the restoration between 2012 and 2019, so you can see it now in all of its glory.
*TIP: A special exhibition is organised in a moment about the Ghent Altarpiece and Jan van Eyck at MSK in Ghent. It’s for the first, and last time in history some panels of the altarpiece are displayed out of the cathedral. And, it’s also the biggest exhibition about Jan van Eyck ever organised. It’s open until April 30th 2020, and after that time you can see the complete altarpiece back in Saint Bavo Cathedral. Get your ticket for the exhibition on a link here.
Just opposite to the cathedral, another beautiful building you shouldn’t miss during your weekend in Ghent is located. Lakenhalle or the Cloth Hall built in the 15th century is showcasing the power of Ghent during the Middle Ages.
This is where the weavers had their clothes tested and where they offered it for sale. However, only seven bays on the south side were built during the Middle Ages. The building was extended by four bays in 1900. That was done so well that it’s hard to see the difference between the old and new parts today.
Attached to the building is a high tower called the Belfry. It was built in the 14th century and its 91 metres high. You can find belfries in many Flemish cities. They were built in this area as symbols of civic power.
You can visit the Belfry and climb to its gallery, from where you’ll have a fantastic view of Ghent. This is where up until 1840, the city watchmen were guarding and sounding the alarm when they spotted the fire. Ghent’s Belfry is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage monument.
*TIP: Ghent’s Belfry is the only one I’ve ever seen with an elevator built in it. So, even if it looks a bit scary to climb all the way to the top level, you can get there quite quickly with an elevator.
Address: Hoogpoort 60
Just a few steps away another beautiful building is located, Ghent’s Town Hall. Its construction started in the 14th century and lasted for six hundred years. To me, all those different architectural styles make it so interesting, and definitely one of the most beautiful buildings in Ghent. You can see Brabanter Gothic, Italian Renaissance, Flemish Renaissance etc.
All those buildings are located very close to each other, so you can just stroll and explore the neighbourhood. There are many more interesting smaller houses there, as well. So just wander around and explore this part of the city on your own pace.
Graffiti Street in Ghent
If you’d continue walking towards the Ghent’s Old Harbour, you’ll walk through a few small streets with many cute little shops. However, let me come back to shopping during your weekend in Ghent later.
From one of those small streets, you should turn right and enter a really cool graffiti street. You’ll recognise it because of a large portrait of Jan van Eyck at its entrance. Keep on walking through it and enjoy some graffiti and street art there.
One of my favourite things when it comes to visiting Belgium is how great its art is. And not only art you can find in the museums. But, also its comic books and street art you can find in almost any Belgian town. So, while exploring Ghent, keep your eyes open and look for some fatastic street art.
Address: Sint-Veerleplein 11
A bit unusual for the Middle Ages, Gravensteen Castle is located right in the centre of today’s city. Literally meaning the Castle of the Counts, it was built in the 12th century. The Counts of Flanders lived in this well-protected fort until 1400 when they moved to a more liveable Prinsenhof.
The old fort was restored at the end of the 19th century. You can visit it today to see how life in the medieval castle looked like. It also houses the Court and Weaponry Museum.
*TIP: Just across the street from the Gravensteen Castle, a charming Boon Restaurant is located. Serving fresh soups and salads, it’s a great place to take a break from sightseeing during your weekend in Ghent.
The Old Harbour
One of the reasons for Ghent’s prosperity during the past was its port and a trade that was happening there. Still today, it’s one of the most interesting parts of the city. You’ll find many beautiful old houses with different gables and decoration on them. If the weather is nice, you can just sit at the river bank and enjoy the view. Or have a meal at some of the restaurants there.
*TIP: During my last visit we had lunch at the restaurant called Manhattn’s. They are serving some delicious burgers, the service was great, and the view on the old port was fantastic from there.
One of the best ways to explore the Old Harbour and Ghent is on one of the boat tours. You can read more about the 50-Minute long boat trip through Ghent’s Medieval centre on a link here.
This beautiful Belgian town is also home to some quite interesting museums, you should visit during your trip to Ghent. I love how all of them have those funny acronyms, you can easily remember them by. There are, of course, many more museums in Ghent, but these are among the most interesting.
- MSK – (Address: Fernand Scribedreef 1), Museum of Fine Arts is the oldest museums in Belgium. You’ll find art from the Middle Ages until the 21st century in its collection. In a moment they are hosting the most significant exhibition about Jan van Eyck ever organised. It’s going to be on display until April 30th 2020.
- SMAK – (Address: Jan Hoetplein 1), If you’d like to see some modern art during your weekend in Ghent then put the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (SMAK) to your Ghent bucket list. Besides having a collection of modern and contemporary art created after 1945, they are regularly organising some interesting temporary exhibitions, as well.
- MIAT – (Address: Minnemeers 10), The Museum for Industrial Archaeology and Textiles is documenting all the phases of the industrial revolution since 1750 to the present day. The highlight of its collection is the ‘Mule Jenny’, that was smuggled from England to Belgium in 1800.
What to eat during your weekend in Ghent
Well, food in Belgium and especially Belgian chocolates are probably a part of this country’s culture I love the most. There are numerous charming restaurants in Ghent serving some delicious local food. From a different kind of meat to pastries and sweets, you’ll find all of them there.
However, Ghent is also quite unique because of its vegetarian Thursdays (‘Donderdag Veggiedag’) organised each week there. All the public institutions and many restaurants are having a meat-free day each Thursday. How cool is that? Ghent also has the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
Belgium is very famous for its beers. And sometimes it looks to me as every single town and village in Belgium has its own beer production. You’ll find many specialised beer shops and bars in Ghent. Since, it could be tough to choose a beer you’d like to try, ask a person working there to help you. They are usually so passionate about the beers you’ll get a little lecture on Belgian beers and a chance to taste some very delicious beverages.
*TIP: If you’d like to learn more about Belgian beer during your time in Ghent, check out this Beer Walk.
Belgian sweets and chocolates
Well, I don’t think I ever came back from Belgium without a few boxes of some fine Belgian chocolates. And trust me you can’t compare them with anything you can buy at the supermarkets. There are many specialised chocolate producers in Belgium who’s shops you can find in Ghent, too. My favourite are Chocolaterie Luc van Hoorebeke and Neuhaus. Same as with beers, you can just get there and ask for some recommendations.
During my last visit to Ghent, I went to the Neuhaus shop. While I was tasting some of their delicious chocolates, a lovely lady working there told me a lot about the beginnings of chocolate production in Belgium. And even about the fact that at the very spot where their shop is, Jan van Eyck used to live. So, yes, visiting some chocolate shops is definitely a cultural experience in Ghent.
Where to shop during your weekend in Ghent
Besides being a beautiful historic town filled with some fantastic medieval architecture, Ghent is also a great place for shopping.
Although Antwerp is known as Belgium’s fashion capital, you’ll find many great shops in Ghent, too. You can take a walk through its historic centre, from the Saint Bavo Cathedral in a direction of the train station. And you’ll find numerous small shops selling clothes, home decor and cosmetics. I really liked finding so many independent stores at the same place. And did some great shopping, too.
Ghent is a wonderful city that has something to offer to everyone. From an intact medieval city centre, some fantastic art pieces to delicious food and many cute shops, you’ll definitely find something for yourself during your weekend in Ghent.
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