I had arranged a 10-day Benelux trip but I was not really planning to visit Ghent, I had hardly heard about it before… till a friend from Germany made me change my plans at the last minute, in order to overlap with her in Bruges. And since I could get a direct bus from Charleroi airport for 9 Euros and I found a good value Ibis Hotel, I decided to make a stopover for a day in this cute city that -as it turned out- I liked way more than Brussels or Luxembourg city and almost as much as Amsterdam and Bruges.
I arrived on a Sunday, very early in the morning, walked from Gent-Sint-Pieters to the center and I had already checked into my room and reached the historic center before sunrise. It was very cold, quiet and slightly scary but the nice blue of the sky tempted me to stroll around a bit.
I took breakfast in a cafe behind St Nicholas Church and when I left the cafe at around 10:30, snow and ice had dressed the town in white, to make it even more charming and keep it quiet for some more time. So I did not get to see the vibrant, lively Ghent but its medieval, romantic face, starting from the old harbor with its super preserved or renovated buildings, which date back to the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, there were no boats showing you around the waterways, but I strolled along Graslei, Korenlei and Saint Michael’s bridge and enjoyed the stillness and serenity of the area. With no tourists around, to remind you with their style you were in 2015, it was not hard to go back in time and remember all those stories you’ve watched in movies or read in books.
While in the area, take the chance to wander about Patershol as well, in a labyrinth of narrow, neat, cobblestone streets, shops, cafes and restaurants. I was there in the morning to avoid the crowds and catch the medieval vibe of its colorful neighborhoods.
A very short distance away, just next to houses and shops, stands Gravensteen, where prisoners were tortured to confession or death. It was built in 1180 on the place of a wooden castle. It offers fantastic views over the city’s rooftops, its cathedrals and towers, as well as the river and you can visit it for 10 Euros.
By 12:00 I had left the castle and then explored a bit the area west of Leie and the historic centre. My next stop was at the impressive St Michael’s church, before heading east along St Michael’s bridge and Korenmarkt, towards other Gothic landmarks of Ghent, the St Nicholas church and St Bavo’s Cathedral with their imposing towers. I climbed up the third medieval tower of Ghent, the Belfry, which is 91m tall (the tallest one in Belgium) and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was nice to see once again Ghent from above before going back to the hotel.
In the late afternoon, I strolled along the quiet Kraanlei riverside, with beautiful Gothic buildings. Later, I spent some time at the harbor, to see the stunning night views of Graslei/Korenlei and grab some dinner. On the way to the hotel, I walked the Veldstraat, a beautiful pedestrian street with modern shops and medieval buildings and facades.
That was an amazing day in a lovely Ghent, an open-air, live museum to Flemish architecture, a journey back in time, a city as beautiful as Bruges but by far less touristic. And with its students on a semester break (that was pure luck!), it was also extremely quiet. Do not miss it, if you ever visit Belgium. It is on your way from the airport or Brussels to Bruges and it is definitely worth a short stay. A photo album of this trip is available here.