Ghent, a medieval city in Flanders, is often overlooked in favor of the better-known Bruges, its smaller and more touristed neighbor. Endowed with gabled guild houses, scenic canals, and intriguing museums, the town flourished in the Middle Ages from a prosperous wool trade. River cruise ships dock in Antwerp or Zeebrugge to access Ghent, a 50-minute drive further inland.
What We Love
Views From the Belfry: You can climb to the top of the 14th-century belfry for terrific views, which include two other bell towers attached to the Gothic Sint-Niklaaskerk (St. Nicholas Church) and Romanesque St. Bavo's Cathedral.
It's a Walking City: It's easy to navigate Ghent by foot. The town consists of three main squares and two canalized waterways (Leie and Scheldt) graced by Flemish-style stone buildings. Head to the Groentenmarkt, once Ghent’s principal market square, then cross the river to Patershol, the town's medieval core, tightly packed with narrow lanes and places to eat and drink.
Best Known For
Gravensteen Castle: This moat-encircled, 12th-century fortress, nicknamed the “castle of the counts,” displays the wealth and power of the historic capital of Flanders. Inside you can see a collection of historic weapons, from mother-of-pearl inlaid pistols to maces and crossbows.
Canal-side Architecture: Don't leave Ghent without a promenade along Graslei, a row of resplendent guild houses along the Leie river harbor.
St. Bavo's Cathedral: The multi-paneled Ghent Altarpiece by 15th-century Flemish master Jan van Eyck is the treasured masterpiece of this imposing edifice. Other significant works include a depiction of the namesake saint by Peter Paul Rubens and the frescoes in the crypt.
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Who It's Best For
Architecture Buffs: Ghent developed into a hugely important city in the late Middle Ages, and boasts many notable buildings that date from that era and later. One example: the flamboyant Stadhuis (town hall) combines the Gothic and Renaissance styles into an elaborate feast for the eyes.
Foodies: Sample Belgian chocolates (pralines, truffles, galettes), as well as the many varieties of local cheeses — hard and soft, goat's and cow's milk — then wash it down with gulps of frosty Belgian beers.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Some Sites Require Climbing: If you decide to go to the top of the belfry, do take the elevator unless you're up for ascending a set of narrow winding stairs. Fair warning: Even the lift requires some stair-climbing to reach the top level.
Theodore W. Scull is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has written several books on crossings.