Ghent, Belgium: a journey to medieval architecture and food wonderland
Vivien Veil gives an enriching cultural guide to the capital of the East Flanders province – where chocolates and beer rule.
By: Vivien Veil
After touring the beautiful historical city of Bruges, a local woman advised me to please visit Ghent. She declared that “Ghent is not to be missed” and that “you will absolutely love the city.” With those words replaying in my ears, I immediately booked a train ticket to Ghent.
Just as I walk into Gent-Dampoort Railway Station, I observe the many locked up bikes ready to rent. Belgians embrace cycling – their love affair with everything bicycles means cycle racing is a very popular sport in Belgium. It’s no wonder Belgian Eddy Merckx is still regarded as the “greatest pro-cyclist” of all time. Cycling is in their blood!
Not long after strolling the charming streets of Ghent – brimming with impeccable medieval buildings, picturesque canals, and excellent public transport service – I soon realise why locals choose walking and cycling over driving.
Thank God I brought a comfortable pair of walking shoes! I can’t imagine touring this fantastic city with heels. Armed with a Ghent travel guide, I’m ready to discover the culinary and cultural delights of Belgium’s best kept secret – GHENT.
Belgium’s first industrial city boasts some of the most gorgeous buildings in the world – with Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavos Cathedral), the Stadhuis (Town Hall), and the Gothic Sint-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas’ Church) surrounding the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal.
Ghent is the new Bruges
Yet for all its historic grandeur, elegant theatres, world-class museums, chic boutiques and metropolitan buzz, Ghent is also a cozy city full of village atmosphere. This is the perfect city for wandering. Oh, and of course shopping – thanks to Europe’s largest pedestrianised zone (Mageleinstraat and Koestraat). Just make sure to bring plenty of money!
I kickoff my trek in Korenmarkt, a huge outdoor terrace filled with great places to grab a quick lunch or coffee. This place is a local favourite, especially when the sun makes its appearance. If you’re looking for some American eateries, look no further. Here you’ll find a Starbucks and a McDonald’s. I have yet to find a city that doesn’t contain a McDonald’s.
I stop at the elegant brasserie Establissement Max at the end of the alley. Locals tell me this is the place to dine on Belgian waffles. The super crowded restaurant with impeccably dressed waiters serving waffles and ice cream is definitely a place to visit – even if it’s just for the atmosphere. The food presentation alone makes it a worthwhile destination.
Approaching Emile Braunplein, I see three of the top 10 sights of Ghent: Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral), the Belfort, and Sint-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas Church). The 91-metre-high Belfort is the city’s most eye-catching landmark and an important symbol of Ghent’s independence from the Netherlands. These three medieval landmarks take part on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
After exploring ancient Ghent, I head over to the shopping area deemed the biggest pedestrian-friendly area of Europe. Mageleinstraat and Koestraat sparks my interest as it’s quieter and full of charming delicatessens, stylish fashion, and traditional chocolate shops. I then stroll along the Graslei, one of the most striking places in Ghent’s old city centre. There I see a historic 13th-century building, which houses the high-end restaurant Belga Queen. If you fancy dining on high quality Belgian dishes, Belgian beers, and Belgian wines – reserve a table at Belga Queen. Everything here is locally sourced and the atmosphere is top-notch.
Ghent is absolutely Belgium’s best kept secret. The blend of Gothic architecture, food, friendly locals, and scenery make it one of my most favourite holiday destinations. If you’re not into chips, waffles and other unhealthy treats – don’t write off Belgium just yet. Ghent is one of the most vegetarian and vegan friendly places in Europe. In fact, they even advertise meat-free Thursdays called Donderdag Veggiedag.
One thing is for certain – Belgium isn’t a cheap country. So, if you’re planning a holiday to Ghent, prepare to pay up.
Top Places to Eat and Drink
- Belga Queen – The historic 13th-century building, elegant decor and the caliber of the locally sourced food, create a classy feel at this ultramodern eatery. €€€€ (Graslei 10; #09 280 01 00; www.belgaqueen.be)
- Brasserie Pakhuis – A walk to the suburbs is quickly paid back by eating at this gorgeous colonial-style home overlooking the River Leie. Exquisite French-Italian cuisine. Their seafood dishes are fantastic. €€€ (Schuurkenstraat 4; #09 223 55 55; www.pakhuis.be)
- Exki – The name means “fresh food”. This is a nice place to eat healthy vegetarian and non-vegetarian soups, salads, quiche, sandwiches, and fresh juices. They even serve vegan options. The great location makes it a perfect spot to scope out the gorgeous view of the city centre. €€ (Sint-Michielshelling 2; #329 269 0500; www.exki.be)
- t’Vosken – A typical brasserie specialising in Belgian cuisine, such as stews, spare ribs, and rabbit in a dramatic black and white setting. €€ (St-Baafsplein 19; #32 9225 7361; www.tvosken.be)
- Brooderie – The smell of freshly baked bread and coffee drifts around this rustic-inspired restaurant serving sandwiches, homemade cakes, and light vegetarian fare. Best of all, they serve mainly organic products. € (Jan Breydelstraat 8; #329 225 0623; www.brooderie.be)
- Groot Vleeshuis – This affordable eatery is part restaurant/part delicatessen. It’s housed in a medieval butchers’ hall. The relaxed atmosphere makes it a great place to chill out in casual attire. Try their waterzzoi, a delicious fish or chicken Flemish stew. € (Groentenmarkt 7; #09 223 2324; www.grootvleeshuis.be)
- Frituur Jozef – A traditional chip stand serving chips (fries) and sauces. Established in 1898, his family continues serving up delicious unhealthy fries to the city’s university students, locals, and tourists. € (Vrijdagmarkt)