We caught what we thought was going to be a short 35 minute train ride from Brussels to visit Ghent, but turned out to be 80 minutes thanks to our inability to get on the right train! We weren’t in any hurry, so it didn’t make too much difference to our stay, but next time we might make sure we get on a direct train, and not one that takes a few detours along the way!
After finally arriving at Gent-Sint-Pieters train station, which was surrounded by thousands of pushbikes, we made our way to the tram stop as instructed by our Couchsurfing hosts who had generously offered us a spare bedroom for our three-night stay. Our impression of Ghent was superb right from the start, thanks in no small part to the very helpful locals who made sure we got off at Gravensteen, the Castle of the Counts.
Meeting our Couchsurfing hosts Tine and Fabio
After a short walk we were soon outside the apartment of Tine and Fabio, our Couchsurfing hosts in Ghent. Fabio was away for the night on location (he’s a cameraman for a production company), so Tine looked after us, and as we’ve come to discover at all of our Couchsurfing hosts, she did an amazing job. She cooked us dinner, a traditional Belgian dish of potatoes, sausages and cooked apple (first time I’d had apple as a stand alone portion of my main meal), and made sure we were settled and had everything we needed for our stay.
Tine and Fabio are a young couple who have just bought their first apartment in central Ghent, and as we were to discover over our three night stay, we couldn’t have imagined meeting a more supportive, caring and kinder couple than these guys. They looked after us, joined us as we explored Ghent, took us to their favourite places, and shared their lives with us. But what we were truly blown away by was the way they took care of Jack. For such a young couple to care for Jack the way they did was something we will never forget.
Easter in Belgium
If you were going to pick a country you’d like to be in at Easter time, visiting Belgium would be high on the list. Not for any religious reasons, but because they make the world’s best chocolate of course! It was Jack’s first Easter that he kind of knew something was going on, even if he obviously doesn’t understand the meaning behind the holiday. Fabio and Tine were determined to make it extra special for Jack, so they bought some chocolates and organised a treasure hunt around the apartment on the morning of Easter Sunday. Jack had an absolute blast searching high and low for chocolate Easter eggs, and the look on his face every time he found one was priceless. It was just one of the many ways Fabio and Tine made our stay in Ghent extra special.
You’ve got to try the Amadeus ribs, and Balls and Glory!
To say thank you for looking after us, we bought Fabio and Tine dinner on our last night, which incredibly turned into lunch the following day as well. They told us about this awesome ribs restaurant called Amadeus, so Fabio ordered and I went down and picked up the take away food. You don’t have to think about your order at all, you just tell them how many people you’re buying for and everyone gets the same – two sets of ribs, two potatoes, salad and their delicious herb butter. For €15 a head it’s an absolute bargain, and when you take into account there was more than enough for everyone to have it for dinner and lunch the following day, and it was incredibly delicious, you can’t go wrong! I can’t recommend Amadeus Restaurant highly enough, and if you’re ever in Belgium, look them up because they are in a few different cities!
We also dined at Balls and Glory for lunch on our second day in Ghent, and it was absolutely brilliant from start to finish. Each day they offer two varieties of handcrafted meatball (each with a delicious filling) about the size of a tennis ball to choose from, and a choice of two different sides – salad with seasonal greens or stoemp with gravy (a mashed potato and vegetable mix). It’s such a basic concept, but the food is delicious, served quickly and reasonably priced. You can enjoy free fruit that is already on your table, and you can get it to takeaway if you can’t eat in or want more at the end. It’s such a cool idea that we have no doubt it would be smash hit in Melbourne.
What we loved about Ghent was that not only is it incredibly beautiful, but it feels lived in with a unique personality of it’s own. Where Bruges is probably a step up again in overall beauty (it’s like exploring an open-air museum), it doesn’t have the buzz and character that Ghent does. There are so many really well designed shops, with some very cool products for sale, and the café and restaurant scene is amazing. Being from Melbourne this really impressed us, and it felt like a city that had a touch of home about it.
It’s a city of 250,000 people, but 60,000 of those are university students, which gives Ghent its buzz. Many of Belgium’s young people choose to live here rather than the bigger cities of Brussels and Antwerp. Its clear to see it was a very rich town during the Middle Ages, with stunning architecture all around, and it was once considered the second biggest city in Europe after Paris. The whole city centre has been restored to its medieval glory days, and is now largely pedestrianised, which makes it even more welcoming and attractive.
Here’s what we got up to during our three-day stay in Ghent:
St Bavo’s Cathedral
This beautiful church is one of three famous landmarks (called the Three Towers of Ghent) lining a busy street in the middle of the Old Town, and is well worth a look. It’s most well known for being the home of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a masterpiece painting by Jan Van Eyck. This 20 panel work of art lays claim to being the most stolen masterpiece in history, and is still missing one of the panels which has been AWOL since 1934! Unfortunately the cathedral is under restoration, so it’s not as impressive at the moment as it should be.
Open: April 1 – October 31 (8.30am-6pm Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm Sun); November 1 – March 31 (8.30am-5pm Mon-Sat, 10am-5pm Sun)
Cost: The Mystic Lamb chapel and crypt – €4 adults, €1.50 children 6-12 (free under 6).
Open: April – October (8.30am-5pm Mon-Sat, 1pm-5pm Sun); November – March (10.30am-4pm Mon-Sat, 1pm-5pm Sun)
St Nicholas’ Church
Another of the historic buildings on this strip, St Nicolas’ Church is a beautiful building located next to the Korenmarkt (wheat market). It was the first of the three towers to grace the Ghent skyline, with construction beginning in the 13th century.
Open: Mon 2.30pm-5pm, Tues-Sun 10am-5pm
Nestled in between St Bavo’s Cathedral and St Nicholas’ Church is the Belfry, which towers 91m into the sky. You can take an elevator to the top, or climb the stairs if you’re feeling particularly energetic, to enjoy magnificent views over Ghent. It was originally used for religious purposes, but throughout history it’s taken on other roles such as announcing the time and issuing various warnings.
Open: 10am-6pm every day
Cost: €6 adults, €4.50 concession, €2 youth (19-26), Free under-19, mentors for the disabled and those with a Museum pass
Gravensteen (Castle of the Courts)
We didn’t venture inside this castle, because we’ve been inside enough castles to last us a lifetime, but by all accounts it’s very interesting. You can see what’s left of the torture chamber in a small museum inside, and you can climb the ramparts giving you great views of the rooftops and towers of Ghent. Normally castles are built to protect towns and cities, but this one is strangely built in the middle of the city. Should the invading army ever reach the castle, it’s safe to say the town has already been taken over and the castle has become obsolete!
Cost: €8 adults, €6 concession, FREE under-19
Open: April-September 9am-6pm, October-March 9am-5pm
Korenlei, Graslei and St Michael’s Bridge
These two streets on opposite sides of the river, and the beautiful bridge crossing it is the perfect place to get breathtaking photos of Ghent. Incredible buildings line the river, you can see the Castle of the Counts in the distance, St Michael’s Church is next to the bridge, and it’s the best place to get a photo of The Three Towers in their entirety.
Thirty years ago real estate in this part of the Old Town could be snapped up for next to nothing, but now that the city has undergone significant restoration, it’s one of the most sought after areas of the city to live. It’s so peaceful to wander the narrow streets, and there is a fantastic strip of shops to grab a delicious bite to eat or do some shopping.
Ghent Town Hall
It’s like they constructed halves of two completely different buildings and stuck them together to form one! Half Gothic, half Renaissance, it’s an incredible looking building from the outside, and just as impressive inside. You can visit the Arsenal Hall with its wooden vaulting, the Wedding Chapel with stain glassed windows featuring the Counts of Flanders, the Pacification Hall with black and white paved labyrinth, plus much more. If you’re looking for an impressive place to get married, for a reasonably small fee, you can do that here too!
Cost: €5 (or €8 for entry and guided city walk)
Graffiti Street and Ghent street art
Werregarenstraat is a constantly evolving laneway where local street artists can paint to their heart’s content. No sooner than someone has painted something on the walls in this alleyway, someone else comes along to paint over the top. However, should anyone produced a truly special piece of art, the unwritten rule is it must be left untouched, for a few days at least! If you take a good walk around this awesome city, you’ll find loads of wonderful street art by famous local ROA, Bue The Warrior, and many others.
There is so much more to see and do in this incredible medieval Belgian city. It is gaining in popularity with tourists, but still isn’t quite as busy as Bruges can be. Exploring the Old Town is a fantastic experience, but venturing a little further out will show you a little more of the real Ghent, such as the Kunstenkwartier. Whatever you’re interests, we’re sure you’ll find what you’re looking for when you visit Ghent.
Check out this photogallery of our visit to Ghent…