20 Must-Visit Attractions in Ghent
Despite its name, the Patershol or ‘Monks’ Hole’ is as picturesque a neighbourhood as they come. Its charming lanes criss-cross each other like cobwebs and its historic houses are occupied by cozy restaurants, galleries and an old-fashioned candy store.
Old-fashioned confectionery Temmerman inside the Patershol quarter sports a 17th-century Baroque façade on the outside, and a candy paradise inside. Traditional Ghent sweets with wacky names are their bread and butter.
Castle of Counts
This 12th-century fortress in the middle of the old city was erected as a show of strength by Count Filips of the Elzas to counter the grand houses being built by Ghent’s rich patricians. When it came to restorations in the 19th century, the historical records were approached with the most romantic interpretation possible and the castle now has turrets galore. Inside, a gloomy atmosphere is bolstered further by a visit to the torture chambers in the cellars.
Anyone even slightly interested in art history should be anxious to get a look inside St. Bavo’s, a largely Gothic cathedral that has come to fulfil a second role as an unofficial museum of religious art. Besides precious altar pieces by Rubens and the Van Eyck brothers – the latter painted The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, considered the masterpiece from the Flemish primitives and for that reason the subject of multiple thefts – an opulent Rococo pulpit, stunning stained-glass windows and countless other gems are on display.
Gentenaars keep track of their everyday customs and ordinary lives at an unusual but charismatic museum. The quaint rooms of the House of Alijn – formerly an almshouse – run over with sepia family photos, donated home videos and exhibits focusing on history with a small ‘h’ for once.
There’s not much left of the once all-important St. Bavo’s Abbey at the confluence of the river Leie and the river Scheldt. Broken down in the 16th century at the demand of Emperor Charles V, there only rests a refectory and a couple of half torn down walls, but the ivy and greenery enveloping the site makes this an especially lovely spot. Recently, towering hornbeam bushes were planted to indicate the original abbey’s outline. A jovial group of neighbours opens the domain to the public in summer and even organises the odd karaoke night in this historic place.
St. Peter’s Abbey
It still boasts an authentic monks’ dining hall with impressive ceiling fresco and regularly hosts prestigious exhibits, but the biggest appeal of St. Peter’s is its terraced gardens. Hidden from view by the abbey’s monumental walls, they hold white-blossomed fruit trees, vineyards and a herb garden.
Dulle Griet canon
On a little waterside square not far from the Vrijdagmarkt sits a massive wrought iron canon in fiery red. Her name is Dulle Griet, after an iconic folk figure of the Lower Countries, but she also goes by the name ‘Red Devil’. At 12,500 tons at the moment of creation around the 1430s, this was one of Europe’s most frightening medieval weapons. It was eventually discovered that she had more bravado than substance though; the canon was fired only once, in a clash with the Spaniards, and was immediately found to be faulty when the cannonball fell lifelessly to the ground.
The City Pavilion by Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-José Van Hee is a terrific example of a contemporary structure that’s been successfully integrated in a historical environment. Although almost oversized, the timber market hall on concrete feet doesn’t feel intrusive to the view of Ghent’s Belfry, nor to any of the surrounding old buildings. If anything, its wood and lit-up interior ceiling lend the area extra warmth.
Curator for the S.M.A.K. Museum and Flemish art pope Jan Hoet brought notoriety to Ghent in 1986 when he took an exhibit outside of museum walls to showcase works in tens of private homes in the city. Since then the S.M.A.K. has come to hold the largest collection of contemporary art in Belgium, and while Hoet may be gone, bold choices remain part of its DNA.
Kouter Flower Market
There is nothing better to start a Sunday in Ghent off the right way than a stroll over the flower-filled Kouter market, a city tradition that reaches back centuries. A brass band will often play on the ornate 19th-century gazebo in the middle of the square, and oysters and champagne are sold from another other picture kiosk.
Much treasured by locals in both the past and the present, all-around welcoming hub De Vooruit was originally built to be a socialist palace. Today the renovated monumental building holds film screenings, dance classes, readings, plays, etc. A drink or bite in its grand café or on its recently installed floating terraces is a Ghent must.
As the latest architectural masterpiece to be planted in Ghent, the wood-panelled De Krook has been welcomed with open arms. It replaces a formerly seedier part of town with all the comforts and benefits of a contemporary public library.
Appelbrug and Appelbrugparkje
Sitting snug between a fine dining restaurant and a Mediterranean lunch place across from the Design Museum, the small Appelbrug Park on the waterside is one of Ghent’s most idyllic spots. Standing on the new Appelbrug pedestrian bridge leading to Vismarkt square you’ve got a great view of the historical buildings on the other side of the Leie such as the old fishing mines and meat halls.
Nobody calls the Werregarenstraat by its actual name. The alley is covered top to bottom in legal graffiti drawings, but don’t get too attached when you see one you like. That masterpiece you spotted the other day might well have been covered up by another one the next time you visit.
‘t Dreupelkot is a traditional Flemish jenever (Dutch gin) bar, run by true connoisseur Pol for over 30 years. More than 50 of his brews are homemade, and after a couple of shots of his pepper variant the brown bar doesn’t seem half as shabby anymore.
Ghent’s former execution hub has a much more ethical occupation today; on Fridays the small rectangular square hosts stalls selling exclusively biological fruits and vegetables, and on weekends artisans can peddle their fare here. Ghent’s most famous traditional candy, the cuberdon or ‘neuzeken’, lies in small pyramids on quaint-looking carts, and the beautiful old shop of Tierenteyn-Verlent has been selling spicy herbs and mustards since 1862.
Half Italian palazzo and half ornate Gothic palace, Ghent’s City Hall is one confusing public building. Its popular Wedding Chapel is a singular thing of beauty though, boasting beautiful stained-glass windows.
Besides its geometric courtyard garden and its stately façades, this former Dominican friary is worth a visit thanks to its permanent exhibit: a collection of life-sized photos of the oeuvre of fantastical early Netherlandish painter Hïeronymus Bosch.
Ghent’s Design Museum finds itself in a building worthy of its purpose. In a gorgeous 18th-century patrician house with contemporary expansion, a collection of about 22,000 objects is used to present an extensive overview of the development of international design. Highlights include a rich assortment of Art Nouveau and Art Deco items.