Ghent is one of Belgium’s biggest cities, and probably one of the most beautiful ones. Even though it is far less famous than Brussels and Bruges, it is absolutely worth the visit as this small city is filled with cute streets and pretty buildings, its history is long and interesting, and its art scene rich.
Art and history
Ghent is located in the Flemish Region of Belgium, and, historically, it is one of the country’s oldest cities. It grew rapidly in the 12th century and rapidly became one of the largest towns of Northern Europe in the 13th century, thanks mainly to its cloth industry: it was part of Europe’s first industrialised zone and the luxury cloths and woollen items manufactured there were famous throughout Europe.
Today, it is not nearly as famous as it used to be, but the remnants of its wealth and history can still be seen in its buildings: from the 12th-century feudal castle of the counts of Flanders, to the 14th-century Belfry and Gothic cathedral of St Bavo, and the magnificent town hall with its Gothic and Renaissance facades, walking around Ghent almost feels like walking back in history.
All of these gorgeous buildings and rich history obviously go hand-in-hand with art, and Ghent has many great museums, from the Museum of Fine Arts, which showcases paintings of great Flemish masters, to the museum of Contemporary art and the Museum of Design.
Its main piece of art is, however, the Ghent Altarpiece, also called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, displayed in St Bavo’s Cathedral. This 15th-century polyptych was painted by the van Eyck brothers and, on top of being the first great oil painting, also used to be the most famous painting in Europe, to the point that it was a point of pilgrimage for many artists and art lovers.
When I went to Ghent, the weather was so nice that, after weeks of lockdown and dreary weather, we decided to just walk around, enjoy the warm-ish Belgian sun and a nice stroll in the streets, discovering the city by foot, through its beautiful buildings and along the main canal.
The centre of Ghent is one big pedestrian zone, so walking around was particularly nice and pleasant. We stopped in front of beautiful Flemish-style houses and gorgeous buildings and went through narrow cobbled streets and a graffiti-filled back alley.
We didn’t really feel like going inside a museum as this would have meant spending less time outside in the sun, but we did make an exception to see the famous “mystic lamb”. The altarpiece was indeed magnificent, and the cathedral had set up a short yet very informative video to explain its history a bit more.
Finally, when the sun came down, we grabbed a warm drink and waffle, then walked around the centre one last time to admire the city at night, with all its festive and Christmassy lights, before heading back to Brussels. I find that cities at night, especially around this time of year are particularly beautiful, and the medieval background of Ghent definitely made it more special!
Less than an hour away from Brussels, and on the way to Bruges, Ghent is a surprisingly beautiful city, with a cosy yet vibrant atmosphere and very interesting history. Many people I know prefer either Ghent or Bruges – most of them actually like Ghent a bit more. Personally, I have yet to make up my mind, as the day I spent in Bruges was extremely cold and the weather terrible, so it definitely affected my experience there.
Have you ever heard of Ghent or been there? Do you prefer Bruges or Ghent?