Visitors of Belgium usually tend to do a fast-track program of the country that involves inevitably Bruges, the beautiful, original medieval town in Flanders, and stay a day in Brussels to see Manneken Pis, eat chocolate and waffles, or some beer and fries.
Then they’re off to Paris or Amsterdam, Berlin or Vienna, where they will spend more time.
And totally skip all the smaller Belgian towns like Antwerp, known for its amazing fashion scene, or Ghent.
Me too, I am guilty as charged. In nearly 15 years in Belgium I have only been to Ghent a maximum of five times.
When my sister visited me from Paris in February, it was time for a day trip to the capital of Eastern Flanders.
Ghent is a student town.
No doubts about that, stepping off St. Pieters station, you are greeted by a sea of bikes.
No wonder, with 40.000 students in town.
It was Sunday, in winter, and a lot of shops were closed, as were some restaurants. There were not many tourists around, either, so it was nice to take a stroll.
We first visited the famous Werregarenstraat, a tiny throughway in the middle of the old town.
It is covered in street art and random graffiti. Some of the art was really great, some, unfortunately, already painted over.
I guess it’s good to walk through this every year, as it would surely change all the time.
Over to walk to the cathedral and the town hall, an impressive building with different building styles on all four sides.
And on to the Gravensteen castle, the seat of the counts of Flanders. A dark, not really inviting fortification right in the centre of town.
The walk is amazing, as you can enjoy Belgium’s biggest car free zone… with minimal traffic and only an occasional bus or tram passing.
We walked along Ghent’s numerous canals, lined with restaurants and bars. In the summer, this must be buzzing!
The nice thing about Ghent: it is a living and breathing city. It’s not a city museum, like Bruges.
Noses from Ghent
We strolled over one of the squares, attracted by the street stands, selling some weird, colorful sweet we never had heard about: Gentse neuzen – Noses from Ghent.
It’s the local specialty, basically made of gelatinous sugar in a cone shape, hence the name.
The original is dark purple and raspberry flavored. A hard shell and a sweet soft centre…
It cannot be preserved for long, as the centre would crystalize within two, three weeks, hence it never found its way into export.
Our stand had a variety of flavors and colors, black (licorice), yellow (fruit) red (strawberry) in the Belgian colors… well, in the end, they’re all sweet.
And then there’s the art…
We ended the day with a visit in the City Museum for Contemporary Art (SMAK), renowned both for its permanent collection (Andy Warhol, among others) and for its changing temporary exhibitions.
Nothing of the permanent exhibition was on display though, but we had a fun stroll through their current ones.
At less than half an hour train ride from Brussels (plus a bit of time to take the tram into the city center), Ghent’s the perfect place to visit in Belgium.
Don’t skip it.