The inside guide to Ghent, Belgium's quietly cool city

The canal-threaded Belgian city offers everything from design museums and food markets to quirky bars brewing a range of brilliant beers.

A boat trip passing Graslei, bustling with people. 

Photograph by Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo
By Amanda Canning
Published 4 Nov 2021, 06:00 GMT, Updated 4 Nov 2021, 15:56 GMT

The most surprising thing about Ghent is that it isn’t already hugely popular with visitors. Easily accessed by train from the UK, it has it all: a medieval heart crammed with buildings repurposed into restaurants, bars and boutiques; winding, canal-side paths, and a decidedly relaxed pace of life. Above all, Ghent is very much a city for its residents — its food and drink scene is aimed squarely at local tastes, and a large student population keeps its cultural life fizzing.

But before getting stuck in, fuel up on waffles and coffee at old-school coffee shop Mokabon. It’s on a tiny lane off the sprawling Korenmarkt, once the centre of Ghent’s wheat trade. Around the corner — towering over the city’s handsome townhouses — is the medieval Belfry of Ghent. At 300ft high, it’s a good place to get your bearings, while admiring the city’s red-tiled rooftops spreading out below. 

Up here, you’ll see the network of rivers and canals that played a key part in making Ghent one of the most important cities in Europe during the Middle Ages. The views haven’t changed that much in 800 years — gabled houses, cobbled quays and church spires still dominate the view. Graslei is the perfect starting point for canal-side wanderings; on sunny days, the wharf is abuzz with students and families hanging out, legs dangling over the water. The stone St Michael’s Bridge, at Graslei’s southern end, is a good spot to take it all in.

Strolling north, you’ll come to the Great Butcher’s Hall. It’s an atmospheric place to pick up some Flemish produce, including beer cheese, cone-shaped cuberdon sweets and jenever (a spirit made with juniper). Don’t miss Tierenteyn-Verlent, a purveyor of mustards since 1790. If that whets your appetite, Frites Atelier is just across the square. Part of a chain owned by Dutch chef Sergio Herman, the atelier serves chips heaped with beef-and-beer stew, and specials like cream cheese and kimchi.

Chips, a croquette and a cocktail at Frites Atelier.

Chips, a croquette and a cocktail at Frites Atelier.

Photograph by Chantal Arnts

It’s just a short walk across the Leie river to the Huis van Alijn, a museum set inside a former almshouse that explores day-to-day life in the past. Among the displays of old toys, packaging and household goods, the Nintendo Donkey Kongs and Wilbur and Friends dolls are sure to evoke wistful sighs from those old enough to remember them. In deference to the city’s historic role in the textile trade, the Design Museum Gent has permanent collections of international fabrics and furniture in the rooms of a former 18th-century townhouse with a striking modern wing.

An exhibit at the Design Museum Gent. 

An exhibit at the Design Museum Gent. 

Photograph by Design Museum Gent

Take your time wandering through Ghent’s narrow, picturesque streets. Worthy diversions include Werregarenstraat, an alleyway so popular with street artists it’s now better known as Graffiti Street, and the Antiek-Depot, a vast, cluttered space that’s home to multiple antique dealers, with a lovely bar at its centre. But save room for a tipple at Gentse Gruut Brouwerij, a brewery that uses herbs and spices rather than hops in the brewing process. You can sample the house beers in its brewery hall filled with quirky objets d’art (check out the zebra-striped stuffed cows on display). If you’re keen to learn more, tours are available.

Heading north takes you out of Ghent’s medieval heart and propels you into the industrial age. The Industriemuseum is set in a hulking former cotton mill and has plenty of interactive displays on textiles, printing and graphic design that map the story of the city’s industrialisation. Dok Noord is the natural end point for your journey; the old port area is where much of Ghent’s modern development is centred. One example of the direction the city is heading in is Hal 16, a food hall owned by Dok Brewing Company. Order beers, smoked meats, veggie burgers or pizza and enjoy it inside in the cavernous former warehouse or outside on the terrace.

The colourful Werregarenstraat, also known as Graffiti Street.

The colourful Werregarenstraat, also known as Graffiti Street.

Photograph by Pep Masip / Alamy Stock Photo

Like a local: Liselot Caura’s favourite bars

Liselot Caura is the founder of Beer Secret, a company offering guided beer tastings and brewery tours in and around Ghent, Bruges and Brussels. 

1. Trollekelder
This place used to be a library, but the basement pub now sells over 300 different beers. Trollekelder means ‘troll’s cave’, but the friendly staff are anything but troll-like and will help you navigate the menu. I sell my own beer, Crabbelaer, here! 

2. The Glengarry
A hidden gem, this cellar bar — decorated with old stone jugs and whisky bottles — is a great place to chill out. Owner Mario serves the best beers, and the bar has a lot of single malts. People on my tours always tell me what a special place it is. 

3. Café De Walrus
This relaxed bar has mismatched furniture and three areas, each with its own vibe: a dining space, a chill-out zone and a terrace. As well as beer, it serves great-value lunches and dinners. 

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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