Ghent, Belgium is one of my favorite cities I have visited. Most people who visit only stay for the day, seeing just the very surface of what this beautiful medieval town has to offer. There is just so much to see and experience here, you’ll want to plan for at least 48 hours in Ghent, if not more. Here are some of the top things you must do during your 48 hours in Ghent, while keeping your travels within a friendly budget!
Get your Ghent CityCard
Like many cities in Europe, Ghent offers a City Card which allows you access to many of the city’s top sights and attractions for free. The card’s fee of €30 is quickly repaid by the savings you’ll experience within your 48 hours in Ghent. The card also includes free access to public transportation, free access to the hop-on-hop-off water tramway, as well as a free boat tour. If you are staying longer than 48 hours, you can consider buying the City Card that’s valid for 72 hours. You can purchase your card at the Ghent tourism office, at participating attractions, and at hotels within Ghent.
Check out the Churches
You can’t go to Europe without seeing dozens of stunning churches. Ghent certainly adds some lovely ones to the list. There are several historic churches within the city, but there are three main ones you’ll want to see. First, you’ll want to see St. Bavo’s Cathedral. This is located next to Ghent’s Belfry and is most known as being the home of the famous piece of art: The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. (If you’ve seen the movie The Monuments Men, this painting was a big part of that story.) Other notable churches to visit while in Ghent include St. Nicholas’ Church and St. Michael’s Cathedral.
St. Nicholas’ Church
St. Bavo’s Cathedral
See the Quick Sights
Free Walking Tour
Walking tours are always a great way to learn more about a new city. This is also a good way to see many of the main highlights within Ghent. Most walking tours will take you through the main areas of central Ghent, while explaining interesting tidbits and historical facts. I enjoyed my Ghent tour on my second day of exploring the city. But I’d recommend signing up and taking a tour as one of the first things you do here. It will help you understand a lot more about Ghent!
St. Michaels Bridge
Also lovingly called the “Selfie Bridge,” simply because it offers such a picturesque view that people are always stopping here for selfies! This lovely old bridge can be admired from many different places within Ghent, so keep your eyes open!
Korenlai & Graslei
This is an area within Ghent that is famous for its beautiful views and architecture. Using the image below, you will find Korenlai on the left side of the canal, and Graslei on the right. In the 11th century, this area was the port of Ghent, leading to it being a very popular place for merchants to set up shop. In these days, the buildings you see used to contain a post office, a grainery, a tax collector and even a brothel! Most of the other buildings here were used as guildhouses or storehouses for goods brought in via ships.
While pretty much all the buildings in Ghent are incredibly beautiful, there are those that stand out among the others. One is the old Fish Market. As the name suggests, here is where locals would come to buy fish during the Middle Ages. If you’re having trouble finding this place, the giant statue of Neptune on the top of the building serves as a good indicator that you’ve found it. The Ghent tourism office is also located here.
The City Hall of Ghent is another place that stands out from the rest of the buildings. It’s easy to see that the building has a bit of a personality disorder, with the right side having very gothic architecture and the left side being more modern. The City Hall began as two different buildings, hosting the two different assemblies of Ghent’s local government. As the assemblies got bigger through time, so did their corresponding buildings. As they eventually came to become one building, they could not settle on one type of architecture, so they just kept the two sides.
The City Pavilion
One of Ghent’s newer buildings, the City Pavilion came to life after the city held an architectural competition. Because it does not quite follow the Medieval architecture that sweeps through the rest of the city, the pavilion is a bit of a controversial building. It holds outdoor concerts and functions, and provides great coverage for people to get out of that inevitable Belgian rain.
Visit the Attractions
You can’t visit Ghent without seeing the city’s Belfry. An at 91 meters tall (the tallest Belfry in Belgium), it’s hard to miss. Ghent’s belfry served many purposes during the Middle Ages: to keep public records, to watch for enemies, and to use the inner bells to alert the town through the day. Today, it provides some outrageously beautiful views of Ghent. It takes 256 winding and narrow steps to make it to the top of the Belfry. Or you can take an elevator up a few flights.
Arguably one of the coolest (and definitely the most colorful) parts of Ghent has to be Graffiti Street. Basically, the government of Ghent opened this alleyway for people to legally do graffiti art as a way of keeping the rest of the city spray-paint free. New works of art are constantly being added, making the walls contain layers and layers of paint. You’re welcome to add your own art too, just don’t expect it to be there for very long!
Another hard to miss building in Ghent is Gravensteen Castle (also called the Castle of the Counts). After the city of Ghent was attacked by vikings two times during the 9th century, they decided to build a castle. Throughout history, this castle has served as a dungeon, a torture chamber, a courthouse and administrative offices. In the 18th century, the building was used as a textile factory, where the workers lived inside in poor conditions. In 1907, the castle was restored and opened to the public. Today, you can visit inside the castle and learn more about the justice system of the Middle Ages.
Dr. Guislain Museum
For something a little more off the beaten path, consider checking out the Dr. Guislain Museum. Fun fact about me: I am fascinated by psychological disorders. I almost studied Psychology in college, but Tourism won that battle. But even still, I enjoy learning about how psychological issues were dealt with in the past. Similar to the Traverse City State Hospital I once wrote about here, the Dr. Guislain Museum is built within Belgium’s oldest psychiatric hospital. Here, you’ll learn more about psychiatric practices of the mid-1800s and the buildings’ role as an asylum. You’ll also find lots of interesting artwork inspired by the mysteries of the mind.
House of Alijn
This building, used as a hospital in the 1300’s, is now one of Ghent’s most interesting museums. Each room of the museum is set up and decorated how they would have been in the 20th century. You can see many photos, listen to sound recordings, and even watch film excerpts that will transport you back in time. There is also a cafe inside you can visit free of charge.
Take a Boat Tour
One of the best ways to see Ghent is by boat. As mentioned earlier, your Ghent CityCard includes a free 40-minute boat tour with Gent Watertoerist, to learn more about the history of Ghent, and see the city from a different perspective. Not to mention, it’s a nice way to get off your feet for a bit!
Located just down the road from Gravensteen Castle, this traditional bakery is hard to miss. With its stacks of bread and goodies lined in the front windows, Himschoot Bakery is a great place to stop and get a snack. Here, you can get a local pastry called a mastel. It has a donut-like shape with a light cinnamon and sugar flavor.
For a more filling meal on a budget, check out Soup Lounge. Tucked away down a small street in the city center, this little cafe is often overlooked by the tourist crowds. For just €7 you can get yourself a huge bowl of hot soup, accompanied by 2 bread rolls, an apple, and a soft drink. There are also sandwiches and salads you can try, but the soup is really what you’ll want.
Still not convinced you need to visit Ghent? Check out these 8 reasons why you should go!
*Note: Thanks to Visit Ghent for providing me with a complimentary CityCard. As always, all opinions expressed are 100% my own.