Sometimes I wonder if every time of year is my favourite time to go to Ghent, but winter could well be the perfect season to visit, as Belgium’s third largest city and its waterways dazzle with festive lights against a medieval skyline.
With a beautiful Christmas market and winter bars to tempt you, family fun and entertainment for the young and the young at heart, Europe’s largest temporary roller rink and enough culture to build up quite a thirst for a mulled wine, Ghent’s stunning and UNESCO-recognised historic centre of cobbled streets, squares and picturesque bridges is transformed in winter into something magical. And for many of us, it’s on the doorstep.
A medieval giant
In 13th-century Europe, Ghent was a giant among northern Europe’s greatest cities. After Paris, it was the biggest city north of the Alps, bigger than Cologne or Moscow. Its wealth was driven partly by the wool and cloth trades thanks at first to lush sheep grazing meadows and later, when demand outstripped supply, to savvy trade with British wool producers.
While you’re wandering among the Christmas lights and 150 traders in the bracingly green and twinkling Christmas market that will stretch from from Sint-Baafsplein, along the Botermarkt and Klein Turkije to the end of the Korenmarkt, don’t neglect to look up and see the Belfry and towers of St. Bavo’s Cathedral and St. Nicholas’s Church, that stand as witnesses of the city’s former big-time. Or why not climb up there and really earn those Christmas treats?
The Castle of the Counts tells another story, or several, of Ghent’s turbulent past. There’s been some kind of settlement in place since Roman times, and more recently the site has been a mill and factory, but really it’s the medieval castle, moat, best preserved defence system in Flanders, and, erm, torture room, that are the draw here.
Architecture, roller rinks, and family fun
Whether it’s architecture, romantic experiences or just some falling over with friends you’re looking for, Ghent’s Roller Rink provides all the glitz of an ice rink, with none of the wet bum time. The rink is hosted by the City Pavilion, a multifunctional and barn-like structure whose use of glass, wood and concrete are sure to get a reaction.
Don’t miss the grand café run by Mauro Menichetti either or “Chez Babette”, an atmospherically cozy fireside bar by day that channels Europe’s best apres-ski energy by night.
Other fun to be had includes Ferris wheels, visits from Santa, a traditional carousel and even experiencing some floating Christmas balls – as long as you’re on Santa’s good list of course.
If it’s culture you’re after, Ghent in winter has it in spades. Exciting exhibitions from contemporary artists such as Belgium’s Jan Van Imschoot and Karlo Kacharava at S.M.A.K. sit alongside hulking works of industry in “Ferro Non Ferro: the magic of metal” at the Industriemuseum, where you can strike while the iron’s hot and have a go at forging something of your own.
And if you want to witness art history in action, Ghent’s world famous Van Eyck brothers Altarpiece has been undergoing restoration since 2012. Now in its third and final phase at MSK, the renovation of its three central panels and side panels can been followed live on weekdays.
Do it all
They say these days you can’t have it all, but you can treat yourself to more than one day in Ghent. Whether it’s a pre-Christmas shopping weekend or seeing the New Year in with an animal-friendly firework display in the centre, there’s always a good reason to make a night of it – and plenty of elegant and cosy places to stay.