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Despite coming to Belgium so many times, I’ve definitely fallen in love with Ghent. This charming Belgian city has so much to do and after some day trips and finally a long weekend in Ghent, I’ve created an itinerary for visiting Ghent for first-timers highlighting the best things to do in Ghent. Needless to say, I’ll be back soon and I’m disappointed for not discovering Ghent sooner!
Ghent has a fairly compact city center, so if you find reasonable accommodations in the city center, you’ll be able to walk almost everywhere that you need to go! I strongly recommend staying overnight as otherwise, you won’t be able to stay out late to experience Ghent’s nightlife with a side of Flemish fries. It’s worth the overnight stay, trust me!
On my recent trip with friends, we stayed at the recently renovated Huize Maeterlinck right near Graffitistraat. It was clean, convenient, and basic. You can also find less expensive options, including a hostel (Hostel Uppelink) that sits in one of the most beautiful buildings in Ghent with a view that many would kill for! On the other end, if you’re looking for something more luxurious, consider splurging on 1898 The Post for the five-star experience.
Getting to Ghent is easy from many places in Belgium and the Netherlands. Gent-Sint-Pieters is the main train station linking Ghent to Brussels, Antwerpen, and also Amsterdam. If you’re on a budget, you can take Flixbus to Ghent from the Netherlands (Amsterdam) for less than lunch each way! (I paid 9 euros on this trip!) It’s a short tram or taxi ride to the center or about a 30-minute walk.
One day in Ghent: Classic Ghent
“Lunch” and a waffle
Ghent is constantly changing and every trip has included stopping off at the various pop-up restaurants along Hoogpoort. This trendy street is full of many international and Belgian influenced food. We ended up stopping off at a Mexican pop-up, which did not disappoint. Mosquito Coast is a favorite among locals with its fun travel-inspired decorations and international menu.
You’ll want to save room for a Belgian waffle. Personally, I prefer the Liege-style waffle over the Brussels-style one. You have plenty of choice for waffles, but a good waffle place will be making them fresh for you. I ended up picking one up from Bakery Himschoot, one of the oldest bakeries in Gent. Next to Bakery Himschoot, you’ll find a stand selling Gentse Neuzen (Gent Noses). These sweet candies are soft with a jelly-like interior and fruit flavors. It’s five euros for a bag and they won’t last long…
Step into Groot Vleeshuis
Foodies should definitely step into the Great Butcher’s Hall (Groot Vleeshuis). (Vegetarians, don’t be too afraid!) This beautiful 15th-century former guild house and covered market is a delight to browse. If you’re looking for a snack or a local meal that you can’t find anywhere else, you can sample more than 175 regional products from Flanders here. Entry is free if you want to peek inside (and if you’re full!), however, you can pay for any of the food with a credit/debit card within the restaurant.
This was my second time at Gravensteen. This epic medieval castle is one of my favorite castle museums in Europe and when my friends visited, I knew that they had to experience this attraction in Ghent. As you go through the castle, you get a good glimpse into the brutality of medieval life in this part of the world.
Recently, they’ve renovated the audio tour to be led by a local Gent comedian. The result is a silly tour through the castle that will make you giggle a lot. The audio tour is worth doing although it’s sometimes a bit at odds with the dark history within the castle. It’s easy to spend at least 2-3 hours within the castle and its grounds. Be sure to enjoy the stunning view of Ghent from the rooftop.
You need to be able to walk well as it’s a lot of stairs as you walk through the main route. If you’re claustrophobic, some parts of the castle will be a bit difficult as the stairways can be very narrow. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes as the cobblestones can be slippery at times… Tickets with an audio guide cost 10 euros for adults. You can buy them in advance for specific time slots, which is best during weekends.
Watch the sunset along the river
Ghent is so beautiful at night. We stayed two nights in Ghent and each night, we ended up wandering down to the Leie to admire the stunning former guild houses along the riverside. Ghent was a major player in the textile trade, which brought much wealth within the medieval period. Many of these guild houses are cafes, restaurants, and hotels today. The best views are from Kraanlei. In the summer, you’ll want to grab a snack and a drink to enjoy at a picturesque spot along the river.
Dinner at Holy Food Market
For dinner, head to Gent’s coolest food hall. Holy Food Market is within a former church and it’s absolutely stunning. Be sure to browse the full range of choices before making your decision. I ended up getting delicious Sicilian-style pizza with a beer and my friends ended up going to a few other stands, so we could try different things. It’s great with a group! Cards are accepted. The toilet is rather strange….
Beers (or music!)
The beauty of Ghent’s nightlife scene is that there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re a fan of slightly divey neighborhood bars (De Croone), drinking giant beers shamelessly as a tourist (Dulle Griet), old-school Flemish bars filled with wood (Trollekelder) , a quiet night discussing books over wine (Le Bal), or just want to dance the night away (Charlatan), Ghent has something for everyone. Just be prepared that many bars are cash only. The local craft beer is Gruut, which can be found at most bars. I also am a fan of the Gentse Tripel!
As veteran beer lovers, we loved the rule of taking one shoe off to order the giant beers at Dulle Griet although you can certainly find slightly better prices at other establishments such as the Trollekelder if you’re a serious drinker. (Still, the beer selection was sublime at both!) Our favorite experience as a group was at one of the beautiful neighborhood bars that we stepped into–and didn’t leave until closing.
Frites after dark at Ghent’s best frites bar*
At the recommendation of our host, we ended up going to Frituur Sint-Jacobs for the best fries in Ghent, if not Belgium. We had fries a few other times and I was a fan of them. (Disclosure: We already had a few beers before coming here.) I liked the fries with samurai sauce, which was definitely a generous portion. They do not accept credit cards, so bring cash with you.
Second day in Ghent
Wake up early (or late) for a lazy breakfast at one of the more interesting brunch restaurants that we went to in Ghent, WASBAR. This combination of a laundromat with a brunch restaurant is a bit bizarre, but it works. The food is good and they accept credit cards.
Enjoy the Ghent altarpiece without the crowds
The Ghent Altarpiece is housed within the Saint Bavo Cathedral, a bit outside of the city center. It’s a short walk from the city center. Although the church itself is free to visit, you need to pay 4 euros in order to see the altarpiece itself. Check the hours carefully as you cannot visit while Sunday services are occurring. Photos aren’t allowed within the church (not my photo above!), however, be sure to climb the tower for beautiful views over Ghent!
The Ghent Altarpiece showcases the story of the Mystic Lamb of the Resurrection on an altarpiece. The real story of this piece of art, which is one of the most stolen art pieces in art history, is a must-read online beforehand. While you’re within the cathedral, be sure to explore this beautiful Gothic church with a Romanesque crypt.
Climb the Belfry of Ghent
Belgium’s many belfries are included within UNESCO’s World Heritage List for their important role in preserving architecture in the Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. These towers are a testament to the history and pride of each city that they’re in within Belgium, including Ghent. In Ghent, the Belfry sits in the middle of the city allowing for stunning views of the historic city center. Within this 91-meter tower, you can see Ghent’s original city mascot, the dragon, displayed.
We were not lucky enough to hear one of the carillon concerts (check the schedule, but Sunday mornings are a sure bet!), however, we were still able to enjoy the inner workings of the carillon. Entry costs 8 euros for adults (2019/2020) and the site is mostly accessible to those with handicaps. Otherwise, you’ll need to climb all 350 stairs. It’s steep, but worth the trek. We spent about an hour inside of the belfry and learned quite a bit about the history of the city.
Sample Gent’s world-famous noses, mustard, and artisanal chocolate
Although people automatically associate Brussels with chocolate, Ghent has much to offer. After all, you are in Belgium. Ghent has a number of artisanal chocolate shops producing high-quality chocolate in-house. My favorites were Chocolaterie Cédric Van Hoorebeke (pictured above), Chocolaterie Luc Van Hoorebeke, and Van Hecke F Chocolatiere. You don’t need a chocolate tour to experience these. Simply, drop by and pick out a few chocolates that look good. (The staff speaks good English if you’re unsure what to pick.) This was easily my favorite activity in Ghent!
Enjoy Graffiti Street
On Werregarenstraat, you’ll find tons of the latest graffiti from local artists and more famous artists such as Roa (also seen in Doel). It’s worth a stroll if you love street art and perfectly embodies the creative spirit of Ghent!
Browse for books and fun souvenirs
Ghent is full of cool shops and it’s clear that this Belgian city is at the forefront of design. Be sure to browse some of the cool shops around for interesting souvenirs. I especially loved the Books & Booze bookstore and liquor store. For vintage-inspired fashions with a modern take, head to SeventyOne Ghent. You’ll also find many independent bookstores with a decent selection in Dutch and English.
In this part of Belgium and also in the Netherlands, there’s a separate meal-time for drinks and snacks in the late afternoon/early evening. Stop off at a cozy bar for a cozy drink possibly accompanied by some bar snacks (such as bitterballen). We stopped off at one of the oldest bars in Ghent, Café Den Turk for a beer. The bar itself has seen so much history in Ghent and it’s incredible that you can still just drop in for a beer. It’s cash-only.