Ghent, Belgium is a port city in the East Flanders region. It’s one of the top Belgian university towns, which means you’ll find a creative, young crowd here amongst all of the looming medieval towers. During the Middle Ages, Ghent was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe. While it’s a little more lowkey these days, it remains a fascinating and evolving place with a lot of history and architecture to appreciate.
Read through this travel guide to find out what to do in Ghent, as well as what to eat, where to stay, and how to make your way around the city. You may even learn a few useful travel tips!
This ultimate travel guide to Ghent will show you all the most beautiful places in Ghent, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Ghent and things to do in Ghent which will help you in planning a trip to Ghent.
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How to get to Ghent
The closest airport to Ghent is Brussels Airport in Zaventem. From the airport, you can take a train straight to Ghent. Ghent has six railway stations, though Ghent Sint-Pieters is where you’ll arrive if you’re coming from Brussels. Depending on the time of day, the trip can take 55 minutes to an hour and a half.
If you’re already within the city of Brussels, you can depart from Brussels Central Station. Arriving from a different Belgian city? The train from Bruges takes about 25 minutes, while a trip from Antwerp is just under an hour.
What to expect in Ghent
There are many official languages in Belgium, including French, Dutch and German. Since Ghent is located in the province of Flanders, residents speak Flemish Dutch. As a tourist, you’ll be able to get along fine only speaking English, as most locals are fluent in English as well.
Belgium is a member of the European Union and uses the euro as its currency. A 10 to 15 per cent service charge is usually added to the bill at restaurants, so it’s not necessary to leave an extra tip.
How to get around Ghent
You’ll be amazed at how well organised the public transport system in Ghent is. The network of buses and trams throughout the city are reliable and extensive. If you purchase a Ghent CityCard, you can catch any tram and bus for free. To look up route maps in advance and plan your journey, head to the De Lijn website, which luckily has an English version.
With the CityCard, you can also rent a bicycle for free for an entire day. All you have to pay is a €40 deposit, which will be refunded once you safely return your bike to the hire point. Biking is a fun way to explore the winding streets of Ghent, particularly when you don’t have a destination in mind.
Walk as much as you can around the old town so that you can soak up the laid-back atmosphere and appreciate every bit of architecture.
The best time to visit Ghent
Tourism is at its busiest around mid-summer to early autumn, so there will be bigger crowds and increased prices during this time. June is an ideal time to visit Ghent if you want warm weather without the hordes of people.
Mid to late December is also a busy time of year but can be a wonderful experience nonetheless. If you’re hoping to spend Christmas or New Year’s Eve in Ghent, you’ll be delighted at the abundance of festive activities and the winter wonderland vibes. Of course, you should book in advance to avoid missing out on the best hotels or tours.
Spring is an affordable and lively time of year in Ghent too. Getting out and exploring a new city while the flowers are in bloom and the weather is beginning to warm up is always enjoyable.
Things to do in Ghent
The first thing you should do in Ghent is pick up a Ghent CityCard. As you already know, the card includes free public transport, but what else does it offer? Pay a small upfront price to get into all of the top attractions and skip the long lines. A card valid for 48 hours costs €30, or for €5 extra you can buy the 72-hour card. It’s easy to pick one up, as they are sold at the Ghent Tourist Office, most museums, participating hotels, and all public transport sales points. You’ll also receive a handy attractions map, which will become one of your essential travel resources on the go.
Once you’ve purchased your CityCard, what are the best things to do in Ghent? Here are some of the top suggestions for sights to see and fun Ghent activities:
Admire Saint Bavo’s Cathedral
Saint Bavo’s Cathedral is a magnificent Gothic architectural gem in the old town. Constructed in the late 13th-century, it is the oldest parish church in Ghent and is easily identified by its 89-metre-tall tower. It is also home to an 18th-century 6,000-pipe organ, which is the largest in the Benelux.
While the exteriors are stunning, the cathedral is even more impressive inside. You’ll find yourself marvelling at the black and red flamed marble naves and the star-shaped rib-vaulted ceiling.
Visit the Mystic Lamb
The Ghent Altarpiece, commonly referred to as the Mystic Lamb, is the most stolen artwork of all time. It’s fascinating to learn about the history of this beloved piece, which was once taken by Napoleon and sought after by the Nazis.
This giant polyptych from the 15th century is made up of 12 panels, each depicting a different Catholic figure or scene. Brothers Hubrecht and Jan van Eyck spent almost a decade completing these panels, which include Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, and St John the Evangelist. The panel of the Just Judges has been missing since 1934.
The Mystic Lamb is currently on display at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and is without a doubt one of the top things to see in Ghent.
Learn about the Gravensteen Castle
One of the best things to do in Ghent is to check out the imposing Gravensteen Castle. This fortified structure was built in 1180 to house the Counts of Flanders. Since 1353, however, it has been used as a court, a prison, a cotton factory, and a mint. As a result of its torturous and barbaric history, the castle was almost torn down. Ultimately, a preservation group realised its architectural significance, and it has since become a museum.
Today, you can tour the medieval castle, which is surrounded by a moat on three sides. The Arms Museum and the Museum of Judicial Objects display various weaponry from the castle’s dark past, including crossbows, spearheads, shackles, and a guillotine. The audio guide is captivating and informative, and is available in multiple different languages.
Explore the Belfry of Ghent
Another significant medieval structure in the city is the Ghent Belfry. The 14th-century bell tower is 91 metres tall and is a recognizable part of Ghent’s skyline. It was originally used as a watchtower, and the bells would warn residents of incoming threats in addition to announcing the time.
The 18th-century rotating drum in the tower plays a tune every hour. There are four different songs currently programmed, which are changed by the city carillonneur every two years.
For €8, you can climb the spiral stone staircase of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are various bells and chimes to look at on the way up, though the real reason to get to the top is for the amazing views over the old town.
Get to know Ghent at STAM
If you’re eager to learn about Ghent and its long history, the Ghent City Museum (or STAM) is one attraction you shouldn’t miss. As one of the most thorough and modern museums in the city, STAM is best known for the Story of Ghent. This permanent exhibit chronologically showcases Ghent’s history since the Middle Ages. This digital trip through time utilises 300 different collection pieces, and there’s an English audio guide available to enhance your experience.
See Saint Nicholas’ Church
Stop by one of Ghent’s most prominent structures, Saint Nicholas’ Church. Built during the 13th century, the blue Tournai stone structure is a great example of Scheldt Gothic architecture. Step inside and see the colourful stained glass windows, a beautiful 19th-century addition to the church.
Hop aboard the water tram
Ghent’s hop-on, hop-off water tram is a fun and different way to see the city. The water tram stops at six main locations: Veldstraat, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Saint Peter’s Abbey, the Museum Site, Graslei-Korenlei, and the Gravensteen Castle. It can be a relaxing and pleasant way to rest your legs while still appreciating the beauty of the city. If you have the Ghent CityCard, it’s completely free as well.
Relax at Citadelpark
After you’ve wandered the cobblestone streets for a while, you might be looking for a little bit of nature. During the day, this beautiful green park is a pleasant oasis shaded by ancient tall trees. Why not put together a picnic from the local market and enjoy a peaceful outdoor lunch here?
What to eat in Ghent
The people of Flanders love to get together and share a delicious meal. Fortunately, the superb restaurants and street-side eateries in Ghent make this easy. Here are some of the most well-known local dishes, as well as recommendations for where you can try them:
- Belgian waffles: The iconic dessert that Belgium is known for, made with a lighter batter and larger squares than typical American waffles. For the best in the city, stop by Brasserie Agrea, Mokabon or Max Cafe. Be sure to enjoy with strawberries, chocolate sauce, powdered sugar, whipped cream or caramelised bananas.
- Pommes frites: Potato fries, another Belgian classic! The locals love to eat their hot chips with unique sauces like andalouse, which is made with mayonnaise, tomato paste and peppers. De Frietketel and Frituur Jozef serve up some of the best pommes frites in Ghent. If you’re at a restaurant, you can also order moules frites to have your fries arrive with a side of mussels.
- Waterzooi: A stew originating from Flanders with a thick, creamy vegetable-based broth. Traditionally it is made with fish, though chicken is more commonly used these days. Vegetables and herbs such as carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes, parsley and sage can also be included in the dish. Vier Tafels and ‘t Vosken both serve a delicious and authentic version.
- Flemish hotchpotch: A meat stew with boiled vegetables, and quite different from the mashed hotchpotch you’ll find in the Netherlands. Order this warming dish at Du Progres or ‘t Klokhuys.
Where to stay in Ghent
You won’t find super cheap backpacker prices in Ghent, yet there are still some affordable places to stay that won’t break the bank. Ibis Budget Gent Centrum Dampoort is a superb option that provides incredible value for money. The rooms are modern and clean, and there’s an open communal area to eat breakfast and socialise with fellow travellers. The location is about a 15-minute walk away from the historic centre. However, it’s only a few hundred metres from the Gent Dampoort train station, making it a perfect spot to stay for day trips.
If you want to spend a little more but not go crazy, Hotel Carlton is ideal. The friendly staff who will instantly remember your name will have you feeling at home in no time. The comfortable and cosy rooms feature a relaxing bath for you to soak in after a long day of sightseeing. The hotel is only 200 metres from Ghent Saint Peter’s railway station, and the peaceful Citadelpark is right around the corner.
For the most luxurious and memorable stay, 1898 The Post is the obvious choice. An old post office is the setting of one of Ghent’s most enchanting boutique hotels. The deep emerald green walls, dark wood floors and antique furniture create a unique atmosphere you won’t find anywhere else in the city. If you’re visiting Belgium during the colder months, you’ll definitely appreciate the open fireplace and inviting bar. The location is perfect too, situated by the Leie River near St Michael’s Bridge.
Tours to do in Ghent
There’s no better way to see a new city than with a walking tour. Head out on a free Ghent city walk and find out what the residents truly think about their home. As well as visiting the must-see attractions, you’ll be shown the best local spots to eat, drink and have a great night out. Hear about the urban myths and legends behind the churches and squares, and get to know what makes Ghent unique.
Aside from chocolate and waffles, Belgium is known for its beer. Have a fun night out and join a two-and-a-half-hour beer tasting tour. You’ll visit some of the city’s best bars and sample their finest selection of local beers, all while learning about Belgian brewing history. Tasty cheeses and other snacks are also included.
Day trips from Ghent
As pointed out earlier, Ghent is close to many other great Belgian cities. You can embark on a short, impromptu day trip to Bruges even if you sleep in late! There are a ton of fun tours to join in this picture-perfect city. A two-hour walking tour with a local guide can show you around the colourful neighbourhoods and winding canals, pointing out the best historic sites in the city.
Afterwards, stop by the local market and taste some Belgian chocolate. A private medieval tour is a must for lovers of history. Learn about the myths of the Minnewater Park lakes and visit Burg Square while hearing about more dark folklore tales.
Want to visit Antwerp for the day instead? Don’t miss a two-hour Legends of Antwerp tour. Explore the historic centre and learn about the city’s Golden Age. Visit the Grote Markt, the Vleeshuis, the Rubens House, the Cathedral of Our Lady, Plantin-Moretus Museum and even more. Be sure to check out our Ultimate Travel Guide to Antwerp or 22 Things to do in Antwerp articles for even more tips and recommendations.
Recommended tours in Ghent
- 2,5h Authentic Beer Tasting Journey Ghent
- Guided Boat Trip in Ghent
- Belfort of Ghent Entrance Ticket
- Public Chocolate Tour, with a local guide!
- Experience Authentic Belgian Cuisine: Cooking Lesson and Meal with a Ghent Local