Ghent is a place of secrets going back to the seventh century. For five hundred years over the Middle Ages, it was one of Europe’s most important trading hubs. Cleverly aligned with various states over its turbulent history, its inhabitants have a headstrong reputation for swimming against the tide. Having survived the 20th century’s wars, Ghent is now one of Belgium’s best-preserved cities. Why not swim against the tide too, to discover the place at your own pace and find the gems others miss?
1. Beyond the obvious
Seven Spots Worth a Detour is a selection of seven overlooked gems on the outskirts of the city, made by city connoisseurs Visit Gent. Campo Santo cemetery is one of them, a peaceful oasis where the bourgeois compete even in death – sometimes described as the Pere Lachaise of Ghent.
Ghent’s beguinages are also a must-see. Like a layperson’s nunnery, the beguinages are quaint homes lining cobbled roads in walled communities where women lived and prayed together from the 13th century onwards. The Great Elizabeth beguinage is in the same district as Campo Santo cemetery, so you can easily pair these visits.
2. Green spots
There’s no shortage of ways to escape the hustle and bustle in Ghent, but which is the most atmospheric? You can’t go far wrong with an abbey. For a studenty vibe, check out St Peter’s Abbey, founded right back at the city’s birth, with free-to-visit cloisters and lovely gardens.
Meanwhile, not far from the newly restored St Bavo’s Cathedral (where Van Eyck’s famous altar piece draws thousands of visitors) you’ll find St Bavo’s Abbey, whose seventh century ruins and lush walled gardens with five-metre hornbeam columns are a privileged space only open to visitors for a few hours a week.
3. Hiding in plain sight
It might seem odd to suggest a hidden gem on one of Ghent’s most popular shopping streets, but two of them face each other on Veldstraat and could easily be walked past by visitors blinded by shops. These extraordinary aristocratic homes are open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you’re struggling to choose between the 200-hundred-year-old home and courtyard garden of the d’Hane Steenhuyse family, or the Arnold Vander Haeghen House and its study belonging to Ghent’s Nobel Literature laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, don’t worry! Guided tours at 11am on Sundays include both houses.
4. Museum of Psychiatry
Talking of hidden places, we can’t ignore the Dr Ghislain Museum of Psychiatry. Built just outside the city gates in the middle of the nineteenth century, it became renowned for a revolutionary and more humane approach to mental health. With an attractive mix of architectural elements in red and cream brickwork, arches and cloisters and a green courtyard, it also has a fascinating collection of objects from the history of psychiatry, as well as temporary exhibits and talks. Entrance €10 for adults. Book ahead online.
5. Reach the shops that other tourists don’t
Fans of independent stores will find there’s plenty to explore beyond the high street. Ghent is full of book and vinyl record stores and other eclectic places.
Tucked behind the Vrijdagmarkt square for example, you’ll find the Counsouling Store, a hybrid cafe, record store and record label with a beautiful blue-fronted art nouveau shop front among other vintage stores and eclectic early 20th century buildings.
6. Where to refresh?
The ‘t Galgenhuisje is Ghent’s smallest cafe, a former tripe seller, with a terrace and downstairs events rooms that are bigger than the café itself. This typical ‘brown café’ establishment must be doing something right, as it’s been going since 1776.
7. Tours and Trails
A local guide is a great way to discover parts of the city you might never find. The Visit Gent website hosts a number of recommended guides who offer individual and group tours. See Ghent differently, through the eyes of a photographer, a shopaholic, or on a barge, bike or canoe.
Visit Gent has selected a range of trails you can download and do independently too, such as this industrial heritage tour, taking you to the heart of former textiles districts and working-class courtyards and focusing on Ghent’s past as a cloth-making heavyweight, (after a local stole the secrets of the Spinning Jenny from the British!).
To get the most value out of your visit to Ghent, make sure you get your hands on a Visit Gent card for reduced price entry to many of Ghent’s attractions and museums, including boat trips and bike hire.