As part of my three-day weekend over Martin Luther King day, I ventured to Beligum. I spent the first half in the Northwest city of Bruges. I then spent the next half in Ghent, which is right in between Bruges and Brussels.
One of the only things I knew about Ghent before coming is that it is home to one of the most important and historic works of art, Jan Van Eyck’s The Ghent Altar Piece or more officially known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, housed in St. Bavos Cathedral, and famously saved by the Monuments Men (thanks George Clooney). But of course I discovered there is definitely more to the city than just that altarpiece, although I will say the altarpiece itself was very much worth the entry fee of around 5 or 6 Euro, with a very necessary and informative audio guide included.
Getting around Ghent is easy, from the train station (there are two, Ghent Sint-Pieters and Ghent – Dampoort, both with service to Brussels and Bruges), take the tram (download the app, its in English, to buy tickets) to the city center. From there everything is within walking distance unless you venture further out to eat.
Personally, I chose to stay overnight in Ghent instead of heading to Brussels because I wanted to stay at a subliminally designed hotel, 1898 The Post. The hotel is great, amazing design and has an excellent bar. Although I think I may have encountered a ghost in my sleep? Not sure, it is a very historic building built on a plot of land that used to be a prison before the post-office was built. However, that being said, I personally dont think its that necessary to stay overnight in Ghent, as you can board a train back to Brussels after dinner, and still see the city after the day crowds have left.
Over all I enjoyed Ghent. I personally liked Bruges a tad more as I think it had a charm that was lacking in Ghent. But Ghent’s architecture, including an original Medieval castle, is excellent.
- I arrived at around 12:40PM, the train from Bruges to Ghent usually takes 25 minutes but with rail work going on it was around 40-50 minutes due to a detour.
- Took the tram from Sint-Pieters train station to Ghent Korenmarkt station, which is at the heart of Old Town Ghent. Steps away from the tram stop is 1898 The Post, which is itself a historic landmark in Ghent. I checked-in but my room was not yet ready, and sadly I was not offered a guest key to use their public spaces or enter from the guest entrance. Nonetheless the front desk staff were very friendly and had already researched what restaurants and sites would be open on a holiday Sunday.
- Since my room wasnt ready yet, I went ahead and started exploring. First stop was Ghent Gravensteen Castle. An very well-preserved castle right in the heart of Ghent. The rooftops offer great panoramic views of the city. Inside there are the usual displays of armory, you can choose to get an audio guide as well. I didnt have that much time in Ghent compared to Bruges so I chose to forego the audio guide and focus more on exploring the architecture. After all castle the world around follow a general design and functions of the people more or less were the same. But this was a medieval castle and so my inner-child was imagining myself in a Dungeons and Dragons, knights in armor or Game Of Thrones setting. How fun. The castle is definitely worth a visit, again not the cheapest of admissions for a museum but it is an excellent look into Medieval noble life. The castle also gives great views of Ghent, and its famed 3 towers, the three bell towers of two Cathedrals and one Belfry that are all in one line of sight.
- I then walked around and along the canal, which apparently until about 10-20 years ago was covered. It wasnt until they saw how Bruges was booming with tourism and heritage preservation that Ghent awoke and decided it needed to get its act together. Thank goodness it did! Across from the Post hotel is St. Nicholas’ Church, which is open to the public, but I chose not to spend time here. A few steps behind St. Nicholas is the Belfry of Ghent, which was closed on this day. Then behind that is St. Bavos Cathedral. Home to the Ghent Altarpiece.
- Photography of any kind is strictly forbidden when you enter the crypt housing the altarpiece. Take the complimentary audioguide that walks you through the history and each panel including the mystery of the panel that was stolen that has never been found. Currently, there are still three panels being restored (replaced with replicas that look exactly the same), and the panel will be fully restored by the end of 2019. For anyone who like history, art, culture, religion or just beautiful things, this is a must, It truly is a remarkable work of art. The full audioguide is around 30 minutes long, and you will get a very good understanding of the masterpiece. Much like Bruges, there is just such a great mix of art and architectural styles in Ghent, from Gothic/Medieval to Rococo/Baroque and Renaissance.
- After nerding out over art and history, I returned to the hotel. Thankfully my room was ready. I booked one of the mid-range rooms that was a duplex. Shower and sink were on the second floor, while bedroom, bar and toilet on the first, bedroom area had the dual story roof and massive windows. I can iterate enough how great the design of this hotel is and pays homage to its history as a post-office and central building to Ghent life.
- Following a break in the hotel, it was time to go out and eat. I first stopped at Chocolaterie Cédric Van Hoorebeke, Ghent’s own local chocolatier, there are two shops with slightly different names (father and son), they are run by the same family and both sell similar things. The one I went to, Cedric an Hoorebeke, is the original and is where the kitchen is housed. The lady at the shop was very friendly and happy to explain the variety of chocolates they have. Across the canal house in a shack in a wall is Frituur Bij Filip, amazing Belgian frites, albeit with a slightly grumpy owner, but just know what you want have your cash ready and boom you’re good to go with amazing fries.
- Following chocolate and fries, I headed to Max, which apparently is the birthplace of the Belgian/Brussels Waffles and apple beignets. Max is absolutely touristy and is packed with them. Service is nothing to rave about because they can get away with it. Was it worth visiting? No. The apple beignets are delicious, the waffle? Not so much, burnt and almost cookie-like, barely any fluff in the center. I blame its fame for the lack of quality, as I am sure it once was quite delicious, especially if it really was the birthplace.
- From there I walked to and through Graffiti Street, which is a neat little alleyway where artists are free to create all sorts of artwork. There are free walks to explain some of the art there.
- The sun began to set and the city was bathed in a golden light, which lit up the three towers and created a magical show.
- Full on carbs and Belgian goodies, I decided to have a couple of drinks at the hotel’s excellent bar, The Cobbler. If you dont stay at 1898 The Post or overnight in Ghent, at the very least visit the bar. Drinks are a tad pricey but reasonable for the setting. But the drinks are top quality craft cocktails. The setting is great and gives you a good taste of the hotel and its design.
- After my drinks, I was beginning to get a little hungry again and for some reason was craving some Chinese food. I looked up some Chinese food in the area and found one of the top rated ones was right across the canal from the hotel. So, after a little night stroll through the near empty streets of Ghent on a Sunday evening, I headed to Restaurant Jinjiang, and it was actually quite tasty. Had some hot & sour soup, and shredded pork in garlic sauce.
- Following the dinner I headed to the “honesty bar” in the hotel, where you can pour yourself a drink (no chasers or mixers of any sorts) and a snack and fill out a form to hand in at check-out. I didnt drink anything here but just enjoyed the Harry Potter-like vibes. I did make myself a tasty gin and tonic in my room with the local Belgian honey-gin.
- The following morning was an early start and check-out (breakfast was not included), before heading to the train station via tram to catch a train to the Brussels Airport (direct).
I stayed in Ghent primarily for the really cool hotel, and it was worth it. Ghent itself is beautiful and offers a lot of history that is I think more hidden than that of Bruges. Nonetheless Ghent is also worth visiting, especially for both the castle and the Altarpiece. Maybe it was a Sunday, but in my opinion food options in Ghent were the least stellar I had in Belgium. Either way, check it out, its only a short train ride from Brussels and on the way to and from Bruges.