Last January I travelled to Belgium for three days to celebrate my birthday in Ghent. While most tourists flock to Bruges, this enchanting city remains Belgium’s best-kept secret. Ghent remains small enough to feel cosy, yet large enough to be a vibrant and lively. It possesses a blend of medieval and classical architecture with modern, industrial buildings, creating a uniquely gritty and charming quality.
Ghent, a city in the Flemish region of Belgium
I have been to Belgium more times than I can remember and I’m sure I will return to the small European country many times more. I often travel to Brussels where many of my best friends live, but I also like to visit other cities in Belgium. Ghent in particular is one of my favourites! The city is so picturesque and beautiful you can’t even believe it is real. And yet, Ghent has not become a caricature of itself for the pleasure of tourists. It feels authentic: a real place with real people living there.
Compared to over ten years ago when I first visited it, Ghent has also recently developed a great restaurant and bar scene, one of the best in Belgium. Ghent is a university town, so it’s full of young people and, perhaps for the same reason, it offers a good amount of eating out choices for vegetarians and vegans.
Where to Stay: 1898 The Post
For the duration of our trip we stayed at the magnificent 1898 The Post. Part of Zannier Hotels group, and dating back to its name, this is an impressive boutique hotel housed in the two upper floors of a former Post Office in the heart of Ghent.
Following a remarkable two-year long restoration of the historic building, 1898 The Post was unveiled to the public in 2017 and it has since was many accolades and awards for its beautiful and sophisticated interior design.
1898 The Post feels grand from the outside, but actually it isn’t very big (there are only 38 rooms and suites) and it retains a boutique feel. The main lounge and dining area is known as The Kitchen. It is located on the main hotel floor alongside the reception desk.
The Kitchen is open for breakfast and lunch; in the evening, it turns into a cocktail and wine bar: The Cobbler.
Then, there’s the Honesty Bar in the building’s octagonal clock tower. It’s a bar that runs on the idea of “honesty boxes”: drinks trolley laden with bottles of liqueurs and spirits is left for guests. You can help yourself to it and prepare your own drink, then simply fill out a paper form with you order and leave it in a special collection box. It’s a quaint and cosy space to spend a few hours before or after dinner.
The hotel rooms possess the same beautiful Neo-gothic accents as the hotel. There are multiple categories, such as: The Tower Suite,(which I had the chance to see during a hotel tour and I can confirm is incredible!), The Envelope and The Carriage. My husband and I stayed in one of the gorgeous The Letter, a beautiful duplex room with dark green walls and antique furniture.
The double bed, desk, wardrobe, mini-bar and toilet are located at the bottom, while the shower room and marble sink are on a mezzanine floor at the top. Long floor-to-ceiling windows offer a beautiful view of Ghent’s historic market square, Korenmarkt, and St Nicholas Church.
I loved the Le Labo bathroom amenities and the cocktail-making kit (alcohol is not complimentary). The shelves showcase quirky accessories and unique pieces of art which are all for sale. This stunning hotel really is a destination in itself!
What to See and Do in Ghent
For sightseeing, I highly recommend purchasing a Ghent city card from the tourism office at 35€ (valid for 72 hours). The card provides free access to all the sights, monuments and museums in the city. This is a great deal, as it includes all the temporary exhibitions at Ghent’s museums free-of-charge, all trams and buses, free bicycle rental for one day; one guided tour by boat, you can even get on and off the Ghent hop-on/hop-off water tram for one day.
We enjoyed the hour-long river boat tour, which departs from the quay right by 1898 The Post. Our guide presented the sights as we sailed along, repeating everything in Flemish, French and English. At times it was a bit distracting to follow, but I enjoyed just relaxing in my seat and looking out at the the lovely views.
Ghent’s historic centre offers an abundance of churches and sights that you must not miss. An absolute must is a visit to St Michael’s Bridge.
Only there you will enjoy the picture-postcard views of all three of Ghent’s famous towers in a row (St Bavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry, St Nicholas’ Church). This is the only bridge where you can capture all three of them in one single picture.
The Castle of the Counts is a fascinating medieval castle with a very turbulent past. Visit the various rooms and walk up to the fortified walls, a spot that provides a great view of Ghent.
Amazing 360-degree views of the city can be found also at the top of Ghent Belfry.
We enjoyed a visit to St Bavo’s Cathedral, the oldest parish church in the heart of Ghent. Inside the cathedral, you can purchase another ticket to the room where you can see the incredible ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,’ by the Van Eyck Brothers. Completed in 1432, this 18-panel piece is recognised as one of the most influential paintings ever made.
To learn and feel the history of this area, definitely take a daytime stroll on the Graslei and Korenlei, the river Lys and on St Michael’s Bridge (ships have been docking here since the 11th century!). Plus, with the sun shining there’s a lovely atmosphere, with everyone enjoying lunch and a drink by the waterside.
There are many great museums in Ghent and access is totally free with your Ghent city card. These include the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK): one of the oldest museums in Belgium, with a collection ranging from Hieronymus Bosch to Rubens and Magritte. Other museums include: Ghent City Museum (STAM) and Contemporary Art Museum (SMAK).
The historical centre of Ghent is very lively, full of shops (a mixture of independent and chains), chocolate shops, cafés and restaurants. Shops usually close around 18:30 during the week and on Saturday and remain closed on Sundays (and Mondays too). This means that if you are visiting Ghent over a long weekend, with the exception of Saturday, you won’t find many shopping opportunities.
Where to Eat
Ghent is considered one the best destination for foodies in Belgium. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of coffee shops, bakeries, fine dining restaurants, craft beer breweries and bars, international restaurants in this relatively small city.
We enjoyed our breakfasts in The Kitchen at 1898 The Post. This was a small but tasty buffet, with cooked egg options and fresh juices to choose from. It’s a beautiful space with a fireplace, as well as windows overlooking the river and St. Michaels’ Bridge.
I highly recommend Koffeine for great speciality coffee. We also enjoyed coffee at the cosy Peaberry. If you’re after good coffee and a side of great vegan cakes, definitely check out Full Circle. I was recommended OR Coffee Roastery a coffee roastery with two shops in Ghent and two in Brussels, but unfortunately I didn’t have to time visit.
Bakeries and the Best Belgian Chocolate
Belgian chocolatiers are rated among the best in the world, so of course you won’t be disappointed by range of chocolate shops in Ghent. I recommend Chocolaterie Van Hoorebeke, Daskalidès and Chocolou.
While in Ghent it’s only appropriate to try the cuberdon, a local type of candy. The street cart stalled outside Bakery Himschoot is the best place to buy them.
Also, don’t leave Ghent without getting a taste (and buy a vintage-style ceramic jar!) of the mustard at Tierenteyn-Verlent.
For a casual lunch, we liked the café brasserie at Cuit by CRU, located at the street level above a whole foods supermarket called CRU. In the brasserie there is an open kitchen where the chefs cook everything fresh. The food was really good quality and delicious, though pricey and the service was slow.
For a traditional lunch in an elegant setting we headed to Café Theatre. It was a little expensive, we spent 100€ for a relatively simple lunch for two. The crowd was also generally much older, though perhaps it gets livelier in the evenings pre-theatre.
For a casual and cheap (not traditional) dinner, I recommend the pizza at Otomat. For a special occasion, I recommend booking at table for dinner at Restaurant Volta and ordering the tasting menu by chef Anthony Snoeck (starting at 72€ per person). Volta is housed in a tastefully renovated former electric company factory and in the summer they have outdoor seating overlooking Groenevalleipark.
Some must try dishes in Ghent are the traditional Flemish stew Stoofvlees, Vol au vent (chicken in a creamy sauce with puff pastry) and Stoverij (beef slowly stewed in beer).
A must-see in Ghent is this tiny drinking spot tucked right by the river quay and the Old fishing market. They have a list of 200 kinds of Belgian Genever (the national spirit of Belgium, similar to gin) to taste!
And of course, The Cobbler: the bar of 1898 The Post hotel serves inventive cocktails, so it’s is certainly worth doing some taste testing there!
Ghent truly is a fantastic weekend getaway, and so easy to reach especially if you are based in UK or central Europe. Between all the churches, historical sights and food options, you will have no trouble in having a great time!
Ghent is incredibly easy to reach from London, making it the perfect long weekend trip. Our Eurostar trip departed from London St Pancras International at 9am and arrived at Brussels Midi/Zuid Station at 12pm. The Eurostar ticket allows you to travel on any other train in Belgium on the same day, so we travelled onwards to Ghent Sint Pieters station. Trains from Brussels to Ghent usually depart every 10 minutes and the journey takes 30 minutes.
Getting around in Ghent is easy on foot, tram, buses and bicycles.
Disclaimer: my trip was organised by 1898 The Post Hotel in collaboration with Visit Ghent Tourism office.