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Its tangle of canals, bridges and protected monuments gives Ghent an idyllic outlook akin to that of Bruges, though this Flemish city hasn’t been overrun by tourists yet. Ancient news about Ghent’s historic, cultural and hipster charms is finally starting to spread across international borders, and they include these 10 highlights.
A little over five years ago, the Belgian cooking world was suddenly abuzz with talk of the “Flemish Foodies.” A trio of talented young chefs had stood up with a new philosophy about what fine dining was supposed to be. Out with the stuffy white tablecloths and in with the casual interiors and the ethically sourced ingredients, they said. They picked Ghent for their headquarters, and five years onwards, their influence has spread. Stunning converted complexes like Volta’s former turbine hall and De Superette’s old supermarket are still allowed, but please leave the bowtie at home. On the plates (which will often be shared) are biological, local and seasonally bound meats and veggies, with the latter preferably straight from the kitchen garden. J.E.F., Publiek, and OAK can’t be left unnamed.
Patershol is where things can get confusing for non-locals due to the quarter’s medieval street pattern. Things could be worse though; sauntering past lovely 16th-century houses, artist ateliers, and a traditional sweets shop, you might embrace your lack of direction all the same.
Ghent appeals to hipsters, not in the least thanks to its thriving independent record stores. Some of them have been around for decades. Music Mania and Vynilla belong to the golden oldies, while Consouling does the concept store thing by being a record label, vinyl shop and coffee bar all at once. Wool-E-Shop and Dune Records have a certain living room charm, and a lot of them organize live DJ sets.
The best way to sample Ghent’s signature candy, the cuberdon or “neuzeke,” is to head to the two carts set up on the Groentenmarkt. Both charming wagons feature a pile of cone-shaped, purple candies with a hard shell and a raspberry-flavored filling. Just make sure not to ask any of the two vendors about the other one while securing your treats. The two have been in a “neuzekes” vendetta for years now, even once getting into a fist brawl in front of a group of astounded Germans.
A local favorite, De Vooruit has a knack for bringing people together. Even when there is no play, film, concert or other cultural happening going on, the grand downstairs café (or roof terrace in summer) is guaranteed to be pleasantly abuzz with Gentenaars enjoying each other’s company over food or drinks. Once built as a socialist temple for blue-collar folk in 1913, the building’s original spirit is still very much alive.
Founded by Belgian art pope Jan Hoet, the S.M.A.K. in the Citadelpark has grown into a respected presence on the European museum landscape. The venue owns the biggest collection of contemporary art in the country and has built a reputation for the unexpected. Think an exhibit that takes over dozens of private houses in the city, or the tearing out of ceilings to house a giant pirate ship by conceptual provocateur Paul McCarthy.
Ghent has presented its street artists with multiple legal canvasses to exert their creative energies, and the effort has paid off. The “Werregarenstraat” is now “graffiti alley” and boasts an ever-evolving wallpaper. Along with the old grain pits at Dok Noord and the wall underneath the highway at the Keizersviaduct, it’s a great place to spot street art. Acclaimed artist ROA also got his start in his birth town of Ghent, and some of his signature napping rabbits and fierce birds have survived so far.
A grand five-year restoration period for the Ghent Altarpiece is coming to an end, and by 2018, the most stolen artwork in the world should occupy its home in Ghent’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral once more. The giant polyptych, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, from the hands of the Van Eyck brothers is considered the first Renaissance masterpiece, and as a consequence, it has been disassembled and stolen numerous times since its creation in 1432. Napoleon, Hitler and many others have had their eye on it, but so far, the altarpiece has always made its way home. One piece, stolen in 1934, is still missing, however, and theories about its whereabouts continue to fly. In fact, the Ghent police department is trying to sniff out the panel’s location to this day, reacting to tips and refusing to close the case until they solve the mystery.
The sprawling Kouter square gets brightened up by florists and their fragrant wares every day, but Sundays are more special; this is when vendors give it their all and present shrubbery, flowers, and other greenery en masse. Meanwhile, the picturesque Blue Kiosk is brimming with people enjoying the weekend’s last day with oysters and champagne, or an excellent espresso next door at La Dolce Barista.
For 10 days in July every year, Ghent becomes home to one of the biggest festivals in Europe. Children’s activities, theater performances, parades and concerts by national and international artists turn the city core into a celebration of Ghent, the notoriously warm Gentenaars and all who wants to join in on the free fun (usually about a million people).