Ghent: An Underrated City in an Underrated Country

Not many Americans have Belgium on their European bucket-list, let alone view it as a honeymoon destination. But when we got creative back in 2019 and realized the most cost effective way to get to Amsterdam was to fly into nearby Brussels we jumped at the opportunity.

On our first visit to Belgium we went to the capital city of Brussels where we had some of the most delicious waffles, mouth watering frites, and single handedly some of the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted in my life (and I have a major sweet tooth).

We took a quick and easy train, I’m talking an hour easy, to the nearby and adorably charming town of Bruges. Now that’s a romantic honeymoon spot if I’ve ever seen one. We spent the day strolling the small town, taking a boat ride, and snapping countless photos of the picturesque town at prime sunset lighting. I was so glad that we decided to take a quick trip to Belgium before embarking on one of the highlights of our honeymoon, Amsterdam which was a short distance away by train.

On our second visit to Belgium, we decided to visit Ghent. Known as the third largest city in Belgium and a trendy college town, Ghent was the perfect mixture of young people in an old city. Throughout our few days here we barely saw anyone over the age of 40. In fact we noted that most everyone seemed to be in college. Much to our surprise the main demographic of Ghent seemed to be so young, we barely saw any kids around as the adults were still too young to have children!

The youth is reflected in the food options. Plenty of vegan and health conscious options exist, making this a unique break from the traditional meat-heavy dishes served across the continent. We even had a hard time finding frites and waffles!

I love Gothic architecture, it’s one of my favorites. Something about it really takes you back in time and makes you feel like you’re in another era. I love the spires, the different shades of gray, and the attention to detail both big and small. Ghent is an incredibly walk-able city, no need to rent a car here since every major site is easily within walking distance.

Top Things To Do

Ghent Belfry

  • Climb the top of this medieval tower. There are multiple levels with something to see on each floor, like a mini museum. Luckily you can take the elevator to see the most gorgeous views of the city from the top. It is a narrow & high climb up but definitely beautiful and well worth a visit.

St. Bavo’s Cathedral

  • Stunning, simply one of the best Cathedrals of the trip. By this time Austin was over seeing “another church” but for some reason I never got tired of them. Maybe it’s my love of architecture, maybe it’s the awe inspiring heights and attention to detail, but each time we found ourselves debating about entering a Church, I was happy we went in.

Main Square

  • Stroll through the town’s main square and take countless photos of the picturesque buildings with their distinct Belgian flare. There is something so unique about the gabled rooftops found almost solely in Belgium; similar to their Amsterdam neighbor, yet definitively their own.

Check In & Curry

After an unexpectedly long journey from Strasbourg to Ghent (book your Eurail seat reservations early) three trains, two transfers, and a layover in Paris later we finally made it to Ghent. Due to the difficult journey there I was questioning and doubting myself if this out of reach destination (from Strasbourg) was worth it.

By the time we arrived it was dark and pouring rain which dampened the mood. After walking who knows how far from the train station to our AirBnB, trying to figure out how to get in through a keypad to a lock-box to a door, we were warmly greeted by our AirBnB hosts who were closing up shop. And boy did I need that. Something to immediately shift my mood for the better and turn my night around.

This ended up being one of our favorite, most unique, and memorable stays all in one. When people ask us what our top 5 places we stayed over our 3 month long trip to Europe, this AirBnB in Ghent consistently makes our list.

Get this, we stayed above a coffee shop. We woke up each morning to the wafting smells of coffee and freshly bakes croissants, a joy to behold. Another perk of the stay was the complimentary coffee and pastry we were served each morning. The superhost who runs the AirBnB is also the owner of the coffee shop Cafe Labath which I just love the idea of. You know how you walk through a street and see an apartment above a shop and think I wonder who lives there. That was us, except we had our own private entrance through the coffee shop up a spiral staircase. It was so cool. Austin had some of his favorite espresso here, we could tell they pour passion into their coffee. Even I liked it and I’m not a coffee drinker!

The room itself was spacious and well decorated like an urban jungle, think modern yet warm with an open concept and hanging plants. Much to our surprise, it ended up having one of the nicest and largest showers of the trip too (another running list we had due to the shockingly small showers found throughout our stays in Europe). The attention to detail was on par with some of the fanciest stays we’ve had (I’m looking at you cave in Loire valley, France) and you could tell parts of the BnB were run by women. They offered a plethora of spa like lotions, cotton swabs, and something I’d never seen before but much appreciated was the feminine products found in the bathroom. Never in my life have I seen a place supply that and it did not go unnoticed.

Gazing out from the views of the Belfry tower

As soon as we arrived not only did we experience a shift in mood, but a shift in weather too. The rain had stopped and we made our way out to a late night European dinner at Je M’en Fish. And holy shit did this unassuming small tapas spot in Ghent end up being one some the best seafood we’ve ever tasted. We had mussels in a Thai curry sauce which was insane, second only to the mussels we had at the infamous Black Pearl in Newport, Rhode Island, back in the US.

Here at Je M’en we tried octopus and a salmon with a seaweed salad that set the bar high, and oh my god every bite was insanely delicious. Boy did this solidify that our night had turned around. We were even able to laugh about how difficult and long our journey was to get here and we soon realized it would all be worth it. We briefly strolled through the city at night, beautifully lit up through old timey street lamps and holiday decor, and took in the moment that we had made it to our 10th and final new country on the trip, something we had set out to do. We walked back to our cozy room located in the heart of town and felt fast asleep.

Cathedral, Church & Chocolate

Our first full day we walked out of the coffee shop and headed a few minutes down cobblestone streets and across a bridge to the main square. We climbed the Belfry tower to get a great view of the town, mirroring our climb up the belfry tower in Bruges from our honeymoon!

Continuing on the tour of the main sites we headed to St. Bavo’s Cathedral, just steps away across the square. The painting “Adoration of the Lamb” is hosted here. We did not get tickets to see it but any religious art lovers would appreciate it.

We simply could not stop taking pictures of the unique Belgian architecture! Since we were here for the holidays, the town was set up for Christmas. There was an outdoor bar built in the middle of the main square, easily found nearby the church, selling cider, gluhwein and the famous Belgian liquor genever. This was the version of gin that supposedly came first, British sailors would try it in Belgium and re-create the flavors and styles at home in London. We got to sit outdoors by an ice skating rink and sip our warming cups of liqueor.

The next thing we had to do was head out chocolate tasting. For us, and many others around the globe, Belgium hands down has the best chocolate in the world. Sorry France, but my sweet tooth is in Belgium! We loved the finely crafted flavors with pralines, hazelnut and espresso topping our list. We chocolate hopped to three shops and found our favorites at Chocolatier Van Hoorebeke. We even went back a second time before leaving Ghent to stock up on out of this world chocolates! The flavor, the silky textures and the perfect bite size pieces were ideal.

Chocolate here is on another level. Gourmet layers inside with flavors of sea salts, chocolate and nuts. Belgians only use the finest ingredients, richest milks and best quality cocoa for their sweets.

Afterwards we walked around Graslei and Korenlei which are known as the prettiest streets in all of Ghent. The canal separates the two streets that face each other, each side trying to outdo the other in beauty and old grace. These were the wealthiest streets when Ghent was flourishing and it shows as this is where the most beautiful architecture is found in Ghent.

St Nicholas church is another major name on the must see list. However we found there was not much to see on the interior and came to the conclusion that the church was better marveled at solely from the exterior. Austin was validated in his lack of church interest. Take in the sites of the Belfry, St Bavo’s and St Nicholas Church from St. Michael’s Bridge, one of the best spots to see all three towers that make up the Ghent medieval skyline. It reminds us what we imagine Scotland would feel like.

Of course we needed classic frites by now, so we headed to Ketchup ands at upstairs to people watch and take in the sites. We had actually been searching all day for fries but couldn’t find them due to how healthy the students eat here. But when we did, they were fantastic and the best we had in Ghent with the classic curry ketchup and mayo.

After resting at the apartment we had dinner at Pakhuis. A seafood feast of oysters, salmon and lobster bisque. It was a beautiful interior with colors of green, gold, and pink in a building reminiscent of a converted train station, visually appetizing as well.

T’Drupelkot was up next for after dinner drinks. He has a vast array of flavors that the owner, creator and bartender will serve you as he is the only employee. He crafts the most unique flavors, we each had three shots. Hazelnut, Lychee, Elderflower, Iced Coffee, Vanilla and Original were our choices and each was delicious in it’s own way. This is an intimate setting showcased in an old world wooden bar with only a few tables inside.

We did a mini bar hop in the college nightlife area. Small bars all next to each other make for an easy hop. During live musical performances the bar was entirely quiet and we had our full attention on the singer. It was etiquette to pause conversation while songs were sung and you would be asked to leave if you talked over the performances. I’ve never seen such a respectful environment towards the musicians.

Another hot spot with a unique setting and a young crowd was Ray. It was basically a greenhouse you can drink in! We didn’t love the drinks but it was still a trendy spot to hang out, and who knows maybe we just ordered wrong.

Castles & Canals

We again woke the next morning to the delicious smell of coffee and pastries. We headed straight towards our boat tour after breakfast. Boat tours are one of my favorite things to do in any European city! It’s serene to get another view of the charming towns from the water, you see the city from a new perspective.

I finally had a waffle and it was so good! The Nutella was worth the wait, this was a crucial thing to complete my Belgium experience and must in any true chocolate lovers bucketist.

We found lunch at Horn Ok Please, a delicious Indian food place that specializes in regional cuisine. It was funky and artsy with delicious food. Who would think we would have found such good Indian food throughout Europe! Austin had a perfectly spiced chicken biryani while my butter chicken was succulent and flavorful.

Gravensteen Castle was the highlight of the day. We were missing our medieval fantasy feel from Germany being closed down. Castles and fairy-tales is what we were craving. We finally got the chance to explore a true medieval castle in Ghent Belgium for the first time on the trip. What was unique was that we got to visit every room of the castle, almost nothing was closed off.

Ironic that in our last new city was the first place we truly got to explore a medieval castle. Sure we had seen Prague Castle, and Buda Castle had exhibitions that took you back: but overall these were Baroque Palaces, not fortifications from the Middle Ages.

The Baroque Period was a time of immense wealth and fortune, much of it looted from colonized peoples. The vast sums of gold and silver pouring in from across the seas in the transatlantic trade transformed the face of Europe. Opulent decor, intricate details, porcelain and gold define the style. Many ancient castles were rebuilt entirely and remodeled internally to reflect the new wealth. Although these palatial rooms are stunning, by this point Austin was pining for something simpler.

Ghent offered the look of the high medieval ages we were looking for. The focal point of an intricate trade network, Ghent was a major production center for wool, essentially a medieval clothing manufacturing hotspot. Fostering close ties to the sheep filled lands of England and Scotland, yet with a physical presence on mainland Europe, Ghent Antwerp and nearby Bruges were perfectly positioned to benefit from the burgeoning trade boom.

The tour of Gravensteen Castle was perhaps the best audio guide we have had. It was hilarious and light-hearted while also telling a medieval story woven with facts and set in it’s proper time. Do not skip this audio guide! We normally don’t even like them but I have to say this was entertaining and informative.

The castle itself is huge with impressive banquet halls, private rooms with fireplaces and even a torture chamber. We were fortunate enough to tour the castle before a private event began. Each room was lavishly decorated with fruits, furnishings, colored lights and tapestries that would not normally be present.

We had a difficult time finding dinner that night, we should mention that this was the one place that many restaurants did not recognize our American Covid Card. It was up to the individual waiter if they had seen the American card or not to determine if they would let us in. Simply put, some people recognized it and let us in, some would only accept a bar code to scan. We also just had bad luck. Places that knew our card was valid were full, or had food we were not interested in. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out!

Patersol was the neighborhood we ended up in. After finding dinner we found a cute little wine bar to grab an evening drink. Would have been great to explore this area more if we had time.

The final morning we walked around the main square one last time, reflected on the charm of the city, refilled our chocolates and caught the train to Paris.

Ghent is the perfect halfway point from Brussels to Bruges if you decide to visit. All of these major sites are incredibly close, it is so easy to get around Belgium! Antwerp is nearby as well, easily connected with constantly running trains. You can even make Ghent a day trip from Paris, being roughly only two hours away.

By now it was early mid December and our trip was nearing an end. Ghent was our last new city to visit before we headed back full circle to Paris, the place where we started our trip back in September 2021. This is the last place we would visit before embarking on our journey back home to Southern California.

With love,

Jamie & Austin

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