Ghent is the cooler and more relaxed counterpart to the romantic yet touristic Bruges. While Bruges and Ghent both offer canals, cathedrals, and chocolate, Ghent feels more like a city, rather than a tourist destination. The lack of tourist pretension in Ghent has put Ghent ahead of Bruges in many ex-pats hearts. Ghent holds a special place in my heart because it is the first city I traveled to outside Brussels when I lived in Belgium. Ghent is also the first city in Belgium that I got to experience the scary thrill of getting hopelessly lost in. So when people ask me what I thought of Ghent I always tell them I got so lost that I had to find a police station and have them point me in the direction of the train station (for that reason I prefer Bruges to Ghent). However, before I spent hours getting lost I found many amazing things to love about Ghent.
Cathedrals, Churches and Belfries Oh My!
Ghent is chock full of amazing gothic style cathedrals, churches and belfries. St Bavos Cathedral is one of the most famous cathedrals in Ghent. St Bavos Cathedral has some of the most impressive gothic architecture I have ever seen with elaborate stone and marble naves as well as some impressive artwork. St Bavos Cathedral is most known for the Ghent Altarpiece, or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The Altarpiece is considered a masterpiece and is truly beautiful to see in person. Saint Nicholas Church in Ghent is another beautiful gothic style church. St Nicholas Church is most renowned for its impressively large and ornate organ.
The Gravensteen (Castle of Counts) is a castle in Ghent originating from the Middle Ages. The Gravensteen is a cool looking Medieval-style castle and it has a lot of history being that it was built in 1180. Today, the Gravensteen houses a museum showcasing torture implements used in the Middle Ages. The Gravensteen is the coolest castle I have ever seen in real life, as it looks like a “real”castle and not some fairy-tale like princess castle.
Festivals and Frites
Ghent is also well known for its many festivals. In July, Ghent hosts a world-renowned international jazz festival. I visited Ghent on the last day of the jazz festival and the energy in the city was amazing with open-air venues and pop-up cafes and bars taking over the city. If you’re in Ghent during July definitely take time to visit the jazz festival. I also definitely recommend that you take time to enjoy some frites with mayonnaise. While I sampled frites with mayonnaise in every city I visited in Belgium, the frites with mayonnaise I had at a small hole-in-the-wall place in Ghent still tops my list every time.
Overall, Ghent is a relaxed city that doesn’t take itself too seriously, even with its impressive cathedrals and castles. While there will always be those who prefer Ghent to Bruges and vice versa, I say visit both and decide for yourself which camp you are in. You can read more about my experience in Bruges here.