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Combining the quaint old with the hip new has become Ghent‘s strong suit, making for a historical city that’s rich in art, food and music. Here are 13 of the things Culture Trip adores about this Belgian canal city.
Culinary-forward Ghent has famously become a haven to conscious foodies, whether they be vegetarians, vegans, or simply like their organic greens. Biological markets like BE O Market have thrived as they go out of their way to offer sustainably sourced veggies, cheeses, oils and other crucial supplies. In 2009, Ghent became the first European city to declare an official vegetarian day in a full-on effort to combat climate change. With plenty of vegan buffets, veggie restaurants, salad bars and take-away soup opportunities to choose from, it’s no wonder lots of locals have made it a weekly habit. One of the most beloved friteries in town, De Frietketel, even atypically prepares its fries in vegetable oil rather than animal fat and whips up homemade vegetarian snacks to go on the side. Read our full guide to an ethical diet in Ghent here.
For 10 days in July, Ghent becomes a cultural jungle. Every corner is taken over by concerts, plays, exhibits, circus classes, children’s workshops or markets, and over a million people pay a visit to these lively streets during one of Europe’s biggest urban festivals. And to think it all started with white-bearded Walter de Buck and his crew of hippie friends who sung forgotten folk songs on the little square next to St. Jacob’s Church. The plaza is now named for Walter in honour of the joyous spirit he brought to town, and remains a nerve centre of the festivities every year.
Every three years Ghent plays host to an exceptional festival of lights. International artists have made the city one of the most imaginative places in Europe by way of giant luminescent bunnies, mystical whales and light stories projected on protected monuments three times already, and the next edition is slated for February 2018. Dazzling festival aside, Ghent enjoys a careful lighting plan designed by renowned lighting great Roland Jéol the rest of the year, and it recently gave a permanent canalside spot to a work of radiant blue birds based on a fairytale by Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck.
Gentenaars’ most famous candy is purple, hard on the outside and soft on the inside, and goes by the nickname of neuzeken (‘little nose’) after its cone-like shape. Old school confectionery Temmerman still makes them the artisanal way, along with lutsepoepkes or ‘wobbly bottoms’ and smoeletrekkers (untranslateable, basically a treat so sour it makes your face scrunch up like a raisin). One forgotten specialty pops up in bakeries in floods at the start of hunting season or during the annual festivities at the medieval Patershol quarter: the gestreken mastel or ‘ironed mastel’, a cinnamon pastry in the form of a bagel, smeared with brown sugar and butter on the inside and then literally ironed by grandma’s clothing iron.
While café Charlatan has been a great marker of Ghent’s musical prowess, there’s loads of underground venues with innovative programming that have yet to receive movies made about them (Felix van Groeningen‘s Belgica was filmed in and inspired by the legendary music café). Bubbling underneath the surface are places like Café Video, Kinky Star and record store-cum-cult label Consouling Sounds. For all-night underground techno, the three-roomed club Decadence near the Citadel Park is always a great bet.
While not Amsterdam just yet, Ghent has increasingly been taking steps to get its inhabitants cycling more than they already were. A new circulation plan has recently been implemented to keep more car traffic out of the city core at the same time as doubling the pedestrian zone in size. In a very thoughtful move, tram tracks that aren’t in use get filled with rubber to save cyclists from scrapes and bruises. Getting around town on your rented ‘steel stag’ should be a breeze.
ROA’s oversized snoring bunnies and buffalos, Bué the Warrior’s cheerful cartoon bears and large masked figures by A Squid Called Sebastian all adorn the walls of Ghent. These Belgians are just a few of the street artists that have made the city their playground, helped by legal graffiti spots such as ‘graffiti alley’ in the historic town core and the ‘Grindbakken’ (white gravel pits at the former docks). Pick up a Concrete Canvas Tour map at De Vooruit or print it out here.
Ghent has a typical warmth about it that can be hard to do justice with words. Part of it is the signature hospitality of the East-Flemish people, part of it the traditional cuisine. A Ghent ‘waterzooi’, a tasty stew of tender chicken, potatoes and leaks, at a rustic tavern, paired with a local beer, should leave the tired traveler with a renewed sense of comfort.
Vinyl record stores, hip barista places, speakeasies serving cocktails made by bartenders in suspenders – Ghent has that thing that makes a hipster’s heart race. Throw in old-fashioned barber shops that do the beard justice, bohemian artist cafés and vintage-rich markets, and you’ve got yourself a fine city for a nostalgic free spirit to take part in.
For centuries now, Ghent has had this thing with flowers. Since the surrounding region is an age-old horticulture hub, the recreational cyclist can spend many hours riding through fields of azaleas. But the love goes further than a scenic bike ride. Every day florists can be seen peddling their fragrant wares on the Kouter square, which truly transforms into a flower haven on Sundays that locals delight in strolling about on. The most beautiful arrangements can be seen during the quadrennial Ghent Floralies, a 10-day long urban floral display that first took root in 1809 and now boasts multiple lush gardens in the middle of the city.
As precious as Ghent is about its historic roots, the city also likes to go with the times. A recent trend in which its proclivity for reconciling the old with the new really shines through, is in the hosting of repurposed old churches. The sparkliest new example of this is the Holy Food Market, for which the 16th-century Baudelo Chapel has been renovated to house about 16 food stalls in a divine interior, including a booth serving dishes inspired by altar bread. At social restaurant Parnassus, healthy lunch is served between the white pillars and pulpits of an old Franciscan Church. As churchgoing numbers have taken a dive in Flanders, Ghent has its eye on more than 10 other out-of-use churches it plans to repurpose for the public space.
For all its hipster-y appeal, Ghent remains a town that’s known for quaint canals and a persisting medieval luster. The characterful houses of the Patershol quarter and the more peaceful Prinsenhof area are just samples of its ancient smorgasbord, which ranges from 16th-century Mason’s Guild Halls to enchanting overgrown ruins (St. Bavo’s Abbey). If there was ever any doubt as to Ghent’s stature in the Middle Ages, there’s the St. Bavo’s Cathedral housing treasures of the time such as the Van Eyck brothers’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a work of art considered the Renaissance’s first masterpiece.
Both Ghent’s Design Museum and especially the S.M.A.K. (museum for contemporary art) are noteworthy players in Belgium and Europe but, more intriguingly, the city combines these elegant options with a more unusual strand of museum. Two of them jump out: the Dr. Guislain Museum, where an eerie history of the way medicine used to treat the mentally ill is put on display in a 19th-century psychiatric hospital, and the House of Alijn, where the everyday life of 20th-century Gentenaars is put on display.