Ghent is Belgium's third largest city (1st is Brussels, 2nd is Antwerp). It's part of Flanders, or more correctly the Flemish Region, which is a broad densely-populated strip to the north of of the country. In the Middle Ages it was one of Europe's wealthiest cities, thanks to the cloth trade, but has suffered several economic and political knockbacks over the centuries. A lot of old buildings survive in the centre of town, their setting enhanced by broad canals and an extensive car-free zone. And the locals never call it Ghent, they call it Gent, because that's the Flemish way. [Visit Gent]
Stuff to see in G(h)ent
» You're never too far from the looping chain of rivers/canals through the city centre, a network not quite at Amsterdam standards, but several rungs better than Birmingham. Hence tourists in Ghent always gravitate towards the waterside and the historic buildings which line them, each tall and narrow in true Flemish style. Some are now bars and restaurants, others banks and chiropractors, and others fractionally further out are homes, you lucky people. The most celebrated stretch borders Graslei and Korenlei, or would be celebrated were two buildings not scaffolded with a crane looming overhead, but you can't go wrong with a camera along most of theadjacentquays.
» A thriving market in canaltours exists, in what look like oversized rowing boats, with 40 minutes floating out and back for €7 looking like a decent bargain. Perhaps not quite so recommended in wet weather, however, as snowflake passengers shelter under large rainbow brollies shielding the beautiful architecture they've come to see. I made sure to walk a little further out of the central zone where the rivers grow wider andmore residential, then metamorphose into post-industrial dockland with wharves, cranes and a giant power station. Only the city centre is properly chocolate box, and Ghent remains a living city.
» At Ghent's heart is Castle Gravensteen, or, if you prefer, 'The Castle of the Counts'. This proper Euro-fortress (with circular turrets) dates back to 1180, and comprises a lofty keep protected by an outer ring of sheer stone. For €10 you can tour the interior, wandering in through the main gate from the square where the lampposts flash, then up a spiral staircase or two. One of the upper rooms acts as a Torture Museum, replete with thumbscrews, bridles and anguish pears, plus a guillotine blade once used to decapitate local citizenry. There's a great view from the roof, assuming it's not drizzling, and also from the top of the gatehouse, assuming you spot the right stairs partway round the wall-walk. I enjoyed the non-Norman influences in a variety of uncluttered rooms around this self-guided tour.
» Ghent's well-known for its towers, and from one particular spot on St Michael's Bridge three of them line up. The closest is that of Sint-Niklaaskerk, a tall Gothic church, and the furthest rests atop St Bavo Cathedral. Pop inside to see The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a 12-part van Eyck altarpiece deemed one of the finest surviving Renaissance artworks, yours for €4. But the most iconic tower is the free-standing Belfry, proud civic symbol of the city's medieval wealth, from which a tuneful carillon of bells erupts every quarter hour. Take the stairs, or the lift, to the toppermost chamber to enjoy the view... or if it's grey and raining maybe save your €8 for another day.
» If you enjoy a good museum, Ghent has several. The Museum of Industry, Work and Textiles (MIAT) is located in a former three storey cotton mill and looked fascinating, but was closed on Wednesdays. The Design Museum has been in place since 1922, and I very much fancied a visit, but it was also closed on Wednesdays. I hoped to be able to look round the recently updated Ghent City Museum (STAM), but that turned out to be closed on Wednesdays too. This did leave the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (SMAK) in Citadelpark, which close on Mondays instead, but I didn't feel the urge to go inside. If you enjoy a good museum, think twice before coming on a Wednesday.
» Yes, Ghent has trams - four lines in total. Line 1 connects the station to the city centre, which is otherwise a 30 minute walk. I walked it in both directions and didn't get on a tram all day, just to niggle those of you who like trams.
» Yes, Ghent has bikes. Cyclists are everywhere, weaving through the central pedestrianised zone and out onto separate paved segregated lanes, like somebody's planned all this from the bottom up. I didn't get on a bike because I like walking, and it was hard enough doing that while remembering to look the right way.
» Yes, Ghent has beer. Belgians love their beer and are damned good at making it, so several local brews are sample-able in a variety of relaxed hostelries. I didn't stop for a beer either, sorry. Or chocolates. Or frites. You might well have different priorities if you visit.
» Yes, Ghent has shops. For a conurbation the size of Leeds you'd expect nothing less, with a lot of designery fashiony boutiques for those who like them, and not especially targeted at tourists. Indeed tourism has yet to smother the city to any considerable extent, thanks to Bruges being quite close, hence Ghent remains a bit of an undiscovered treasure. I'm delighted to have made its acquaintance.
» For a free town map and tourist guide, locate the Fishmarket opposite the castle and the Tourist Information Centre within, where paperwork in a multiplicity of languages is available. Don't disregard the 'seasonal magazine', because this has a historical city walk pullout with a particularly useful map. Digital natives can find all the relevant documentation here.