Belgium is a country that has seemingly always had an identity crisis. For nearly 200 years, Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia have had an uneasy relationship with each other, fighting in-laws battling to be the patriarch of the family. Since the middle of the 20th Century, Brussels has been the de facto capital of the European Union, and Belgium has been at the center of the ongoing war between nationalists and globalists to unify Europe. Sometimes it seems as though the only thing holding the country together is a passion for excellent quality beer and a hunger for the national dish of moules-frites (mosselen met frietfor our Flemish friends)!
There is also the unmistakable dichotomy in Belgium between the international urban centers of Antwerp and Brussels and the quaint, smaller towns where the country’s famed chocolates, laces, and beers are produced. Somewhere in the middle lies Ghent.
With a student population of around 60,000, Ghent is the largest university town in the country. This adds a decidedly cosmopolitan flavor to this charming medieval city of around a quarter-million inhabitants. Most international travelers to the country have charming Bruges at the top of their sightseeing list, but this article serves to urge you to take a closer look at it’s larger cousin.
As you’ll soon discover, Ghent is a living, breathing fantasy. Slip on your boots, wrap your scarf once more around your neck, and come lose yourself in the autumnal bliss that is Ghent, Belgium.
Three days should be devoted to Ghent (Flemish: Gent, French: Gand) to see the city at a leisurely pace. If you plan to visit the city as part of a larger Benelux-area tour, it is easily accessible from Brussels, Antwerp, and Bruges by train in little more than a half-hour. Allow slightly longer by auto, as Belgian highways are widely known for traffic jams. A little further afield lie Lille, Maastricht, and Amsterdam, all within about two hours by train or car. It’s an area so dense with wonderful sights, it’s understandable people gloss over Ghent. We are certainly glad you aren’t, though!
The closest international airport is Brussels Airport with frequent direct trains to Ghent. Also an easy trip are Amsterdam-Schiphol and Paris-Charles de Gaulle if you happen to find significantly cheaper airfare to those cities.
The center of Ghent, like many European cities of its size and age, is a car-free zone, which makes walking a delight. The city’s car-free zone is the largest by area in Belgium. And although walking is an excellent option, we suggest renting a bicycle. Not only will it allow you to easily visit several neighborhoods just outside the center, but what could be more authentic than bicycling through the lowlands! We recommend contacting De Fiets Ambassade, located at Voskenslaan 27. A day’s rental will set you back a paltry 9 Euros, with discounts for multiple day rentals.
Where To Stay
As all of your sightseeing will take place in the historic city center of Ghent, that is where you’ll ideally want to find accommodation.
Meaning ‘Grassy Quay,’ the Graslei is a grandiose medieval port in the heart of the city. In the 5th century, this port was a huge center of wheat trade, making in one of the oldest sites in all of Belgium.
In Flemish architecture, the number of notches in a roof represent wealth and social status. By these standards, you can tell how prosperous this site has been for the past 16 centuries!
We adore the grandeur of the Graslei; crisp autumn air wafts up from the winding canals and fills the vastness of the open space. This spot is a café-patio hub. Order a coffee from one of a cozy street-side cafés and let the hot steam of your cappuccino warm your face and hands as you bask in the pomp of this unique site.
Belfry of Ghent
From here you get a 360° panoramic view of Ghent. Your legs might not be too happy with you after so many steps, but this is a view you won’t forget.
Open daily 10am - 6pm. €8 entry per person.
Turning from the Flemish architecture, your eyes flitter across the canal and, amongst the quaint boats and floating fall foliage, notice the flickering reflection of battered stone. You peel your eyes up and meet the imposing Graventseen. The Castle of the Count.
There’s always been something so ancient about autumn to me. The deep color of the falling leaves and the damp smell of the earth become a sort of connection to the past in and of itself. A connection to all the past autumns and those who’ve experienced it. Walking over the moat into the Castle of the Count puts you in touch with this same synergistic connection to time gone by.
This place really transports you to an entirely different world. It’s staggering to see a 12th century fortified castle in the middle of a bustling city. Gravensteen is what Ghent is all about: the delight of the unexpected and the enchantment of monumental architecture.
The castle was constructed in 1180 on the order of Philip of Alsace and modeled after castles he encountered during the Second Crusade. While the defensive prowess never had to be put to the test, Gravensteen served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders before being used as a courthouse and then prison.
As you walk through the now-museum, don’t be afraid to pretend your draped scarf is a cape as you imagine being 15th century noble.
Open daily 10am - 6pm. €10 entry per person.
Fall is kicked off in a massive way here in Ghent. The cozy intimacy of fall meets the larger-than life exuberance during OdeGand. Somewhere in between a festival of lights, a classical music concert, and an art exhibition, OdeGand not only takes place alongside the canal in front of the Graslei, but in it.
During the day, the sound of crunching of leaves as you walk along cobblestone streets melds with titillating jazz music pouring out from different corners and parks of the city. At night, every surface of the Ghent bursts to life in a larger-than life lights display! The main square of the Graslei becomes a cocoon of sound as intricate classical music bounces off walls and echoes through the cool depth of the canals.
This Venice of the North hosts over 60 concerts during OdeGand, showcasing hundreds of nationally and internationally respected classical and jazz musicians, amongst other genres.
We highly recommend attending The OdeGand Overture, an event that takes place Fright, the night before the official start of the festival. This event is particularly magical because the canal itself becomes the venue.
Although you can watch the concert from the cobble-stoned Graslei, we think the only way to truly experience OdeGand is on the water. So sip your free glass of champagne as the water’s soft ondulations mimic the rhythm of world-class instrumentals.
Begins Saturday 9/16
See the program and purchase tickets: http://www.gentfestival.be/en/program/
One ticket grants you boat access + entry to over 60 concerts.
Food & Drink
If you turned French cuisine into comfort food, you’d come pretty close to what Belgium offers! Think steamy baguette, filling charcuterie boards, hearty stews, and of course local beer with moules-frites.
And since there’s no better time for comfort food than fall, you’re in the right place at the absolute right time.
Julie’s House - a cozy pastry house next to Castle of the Counts that serves delicious breakfast items with artisanal baked goods.
Bar Win - located in the historic city center, this quaint, boutique breakfast nook serves petite breakfasts with homemade French pastries.
Brood-huys - A go-to for hearty weekend brunches, you can grab ciabattas, focaccias, quiches, and salads here.
Huize Colette - pick a book off the wall to enjoy with homemade lemonade and a scone in this literature and chocolate inspired spot!
Alice - Considered ‘boudoir chic’ in design, this ethereal lunch location serves authentic Belgian recipes in an elegant environment.
Belle Histoire - For a quick lunch stop, make sure to pop in for toasted sandwich or quiche!
Le Pain Perdu - Slightly off the beaten path, if you find yourself wandering you definitely need to stop in Pain Perdu’s covered garden for an unforgettable sandwich experience.
Maison Elza - Jump back into the 1920’s, Elza is your intimate lunch getaway.
Le Botaniste - For our vegetarian friends, here you’ll find organic veggies, gluten-free dishes and natural wines!
Faim Fatale - A great play on words with an even better menu. Cozy up by the fireplace and create your own 3 or 4-course meal (no set menus!).
Oude Vismijn - Located in the old fish market, this is the place to enjoy a classic meal next to the canal.
Allegro Moderato - A traditional French restaurant in an 18th century building boasting ornate fireplaces and gilded frescoes.
Chocolato - A melt-in-your-mouth heaven on earth serving chocolate and coffee.
Le Bal Infernal - Used book café where you can swap a book you brought for a new one on the wall.
Koffies De Draak - Traditional roasted coffees and gentle teas.
Bar Bidon - Pedal over to this coffee and bike coffee bar. The bike-themed latte art doesn’t hurt, either!
Mokabon - The very first coffee bar in town! Come see where Ghent’s coffee scene began.
Café Den Turk - If OdeGand leaves you wanting more, pay a visit to this jazz bar (Ghent’s oldest) - a local favorite.
Baravins - Meaning ‘wine bar,’ this is a quirky, modern place to sip wines from small, family wineries.
The Cobbler - Cocktail lounge located in a chic boutique hotel, 1898 The Post.
De Dulle Griet - Medieval decor with over 350 local and international beers, the largest beer selection in all of Ghent.
Belgians are a bit like the Canadians of Europe. No, they don’t say ‘sorry’ too much or consume maple syrup like it’s going out of style. They’re Europe’s kind, peaceful, environmentally conscious, culturally-diverse northern cousins.
In the same way that the Flemish language close ties to English, Flemish culture shares a lot in common with the western Anglo world.
As a tourist, many Gentenaar speak impeccable English, which means you’ll be able to navigate the city and communicate with usual ease.
🍁 Following Fall 🍁
Thanks to Ghent’s northern latitude, even the summer months offer a much needed respite from blistering heat - this year saw an average of 70° for the month of July!
So while you can follow fall and find autumnal weather here quite early on, it’s really mid-September that promises our favorite refreshing 50 and 60 degree temperatures, golden leaves, and exquisite cultural festivals.
When I spoke to Ghent’s tourism office (Visit Ghent, who so kindly offered information and images to make this post possible), I was told that OdeGand is considered the Jack Frost of autumn, marking the beginning of a rich, cultural fall season.
In the spirit of ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,’ what people might enjoy doing during summer is inevitably more cozy and charming during the chilly months of autumn. Not many places embody this like Ghent - vast cobblestone squares housing heated restaurant terraces, slow boat rides down the canals under a burnt-orange canopy of twisted trees, and a fantastical festival of lights to pierce through the navy night.