Situated in the northwest of Belgium lies the stunning medieval city of Ghent. I didn’t think any Belgian town could surpass the chocolate box beauty of Bruges, which I had visited twelve months earlier until seeing Ghent. It is breathtakingly beautiful, with magnificent architecture and is truly immaculate in every way. This is one European city you definitely won’t want to miss out on.
Ghent is situated in the Flanders region of Belgium and is in fact the largest city in East Flanders as well as being the capital, with a population of 250,000 people. This city is steeped in history and archaeological research has found evidence of human habitation dating back from prehistoric times. During the late Middle Ages Ghent established itself as one of the richest cities in Europe. Furthermore, it was one of the biggest cities in Europe at that time with an estimated 65,000 people living within the city walls. It built its wealth on a flourishing textile industry and was indeed the largest and most important European city in terms of both the manufacturing and the trading of textiles.
Take A Tour Of The Three Towers
One of the most immediately obvious things on first seeing Ghent is the grandeur of the architecture, which has been extremely well preserved. There are many fabulous historical buildings to see but the skyline is dominated by the three medieval towers, these being the belfry which stands at 91 metres tall, Saint Bavo Cathedral (also known as Sint-Baafs) and Saint Nicholas’ church.
The Belfry is a 12th century bell tower located in the city centre. It is well worth paying the small admission fee (currently 8 euros) as this buys you entry into the tower. There is a large rectangular hall (originally the cloth hall) on the first floor, but to be honest it is the tower itself which has the best exhibits, including the sculptures of the watchmen in the basement and the replica of the dragon whose place is at the top of the tower. Best of all is the working mechanism of the bells at the top. When the bells start ringing you can actually see the mechanism in operation. You reach the top in a glass elevator. If you’re so inclined there is a quite steep narrow staircase, but I’d recommend taking the lift. The view from the top gives you 360 degree panoramic views of the city and it is definitely worth doing. I’d recommend going quite early in the morning. It was quiet when I took the tour and to be honest the passageway at the very top is incredibly narrow, so you would be well advised to avoid the crowds.
Saint Bavo Cathedral is a grand Gothic building, which stands at 89 metres tall. It is a vast building with beautiful stained glass windows and some incredible works of art, the most famous of which is the altarpiece, the ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck and Rubens ‘Entry of St Bavo into the Monastery‘. The interior of the Cathedral is elaborate with an incredible Baroque high altar, not to mention a beautiful rococo pulpit. You could easily spend an hour or more just exploring the cathedral but most of the visitors go for one attraction which is of course the world famous altarpiece. This is exhibited in a separate chapel near to the west entrance. Although admission to the cathedral is free, there is a relatively small charge for this exhibit. The queues can be quite lengthy and are best avoided if you get there early.
Saint Nicholas’ Church is one of Ghent’s oldest landmarks and is a truly majestic building. This Gothic style building has an impressive interior and was constructed between the 13-15 th century by the town’s wealthy merchants. It has been undergoing renovation for some time and houses one of the most important organs in Belgium. As with the other towers admission is free.
Visit Gravensteen Castle
Gravensteen (The Castle of the Counts) is one of Ghent’s most famous landmarks. It stands on the opposite side of the river from the Grand Butcher’s Hall. A truly impressive castle dating from the Middle Ages, it is surrounded by a moat on three sides and has a dungeon and formidable towers. It was constructed to replace the original and considerably smaller wooden castle which had been built on the site in the 10th century. Its beauty belies its very grim history. At one point it was used as a prison and a courthouse. Prisoners were kept in the dungeons in appalling conditions and were often tortured. The remaining torture chamber stands as testament to its grisly past. Gravensteen was on the verge of being demolished in the 1800’s due to the fact that it was structurally unsafe, but in 1885 was bought by the city and renovated. It now serves as a museum as well as being a venue for cultural activities and a fantastic wedding venue.
Take a Canal Cruise
No trip to Ghent would be complete without experiencing the delights of a trip on the canal. There are various boat companies offering guided historical tours and I would say they are very informative as well as being a fabulous way to spend an hour, taking in the beauty of the city from the waterways. Our guide was very interesting and seemed to have an excellent working knowledge of the history of Ghent and all the major buildings we passed en route.
The Design Museum
Ghent has many fantastic museums to visit and you’ll certainly be spoilt for choice. If time is an issue and you can only visit one or two then the Design Museum, which is situated right in the historic centre of the city is definitely worthy of a visit. This museum is dedicated to twentieth century designs and also boasts one of the best collections of art-nouveau in Belgium. There is a substantial permanent collection as well as temporary exhibitions to discover. Besides the very traditional facade lies a modern, bright and airy exhibition space which is the perfect setting for the ultra modern furniture, ceramics and other artifacts which are on display. From gloriously colourful furniture to quirky home decor by designers like Alessi, there is plenty to see here.
The Museum of Fine Art
The Museum of Fine Art is Belgium’s oldest art museum and it houses an incredible collection of internationally famous works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and an enviable Flemish art collection with works from the likes of Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, James Ensor to name but a few. This is, quite simply, an art-lovers paradise. Here you will discover a good cross-section of modern art works from Romanticism to Surrealism. It is worth visiting just to see the building itself. There are over forty rooms to explore and the architecture is magnificent. The rooms are filled with light and it is a stunning building which has undergone quite extensive restoration in recent years. The Mub’art Brasserie within the museum is rather lovely and a perfect place to stop and enjoy a bite to eat.
No matter how you choose to spend your time in Ghent, you will find many fabulous places to explore, beautiful streets to wander along and a profound sense of being lucky enough to be visiting what has to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.