The historic, medieval-style city center of Ghent is layered with history and vibrant life. The city remains much like it did in the Middle Age ten centuries ago. Standing in the middle of the pedestrianized city center, your gaze will focus on the buzz around you; whether it’s the tram whose tracks pass right through the square you’re in or the locals buzzing past you on their bicycles. There are plenty of things to do in Ghent and even more things to do in Belgium that will keep you busy while backpacking Belgium.
Have no idea what to do in Belgium? Look no further than the beautiful city of Ghent. Spend your days exploring the medieval architecture and biking Ghent city. Many things to do in Belgium such as tasting the infamous beer, waffles, and chocolate can keep you busy! That sounds like a delicious combination for such a small country; but don’t be fooled, there are truly unlimited things to do in Ghent! Anything from its lively student nightlife on Overpoort to its stunningly well-preserved Gravensteen Castle, there are things to do in Ghent that will keep everyone busy.
Belgium is a country geographically placed in the north-central part of Europe. It borders its Dutch neighbors to the north, French neighbors in the west, German neighbors to the east, and Luxembourg neighbors in the south. It is, truly, very well-located for any American tourist backpacking through Europe routes. Another fascinating medieval Belgian city, Bruges, is located only a half an hour train ride away. A train from Ghent to Bruges will cost you only $12.
I lived in Ghent for a month and there’s nothing that I have a fonder memory of than experiencing and learning the bike-riding culture of Ghent. It truly makes you feel more in touch with the city once you’ve learned that part of its culture.
I’ve been traveling and living in Europe for almost three years and it has given me the ability to see over half of the continent. Along the way, I’ve picked up some knowledge on how to travel in Europe efficiently and on a budget. I’ve written a series of guides for Flying and Travel to help you get the most out of your trip abroad.
Things to do in Ghent – Ghent Belgium Points of Interest
There are plenty of things to do in Ghent that can keep you busy for as long as you want to stay. I lived in Ghent for a month and never ran bored of its Medieval atmosphere – that’s part of the reason Ghent makes an excellent stop on anyone’s ‘Euro Trip’ while backpacking Belgium.
Here are a few must-see places that should be on everyone’s ‘things to do in Belgium’ itinerary:
Ghent City Center – This Medieval city remains very much like it was centuries ago. You’re instantly transported into the past while biking these streets. You can spend days wandering the cobblestone streets which is why I consider it one of the top things to do in Belgium.
Graslei and Korenlei – A quay in the historic city center of Ghent, located on the right bank of the Leie river. The quay opposite of the Graslei is called Korenlei. Both quays were part of the medieval port and are now a cultural and touristic hotspot of the city, with a high concentration of café patios – making it one of the top things to do in Belgium.
St. Bravo’s Cathedral –The Saint Bravo’s Cathedral an 89-meter-tall Gothic cathedral in Ghent. It is the seat of the diocese of Ghent. You don’t even have to go inside; just having a look at the incredible piece of architecture is one of the top things to do in Belgium.
St. Michael’s Bridge – Here you can admire a breath-taking cityscape from all directions. Nowhere else can you see so many marvelous buildings in one glance as from St Michael’s Bridge. A picnic on the bridge is one of the top things to do in Belgium; just look out for bikers!
Gravensteen Castle – The Gravensteen is a castle in Ghent originating from the Middle Ages. The name means “castle of the counts” in Dutch. The Gravensteen is situated at an altitude of 9 meters. This may top the list of things to do in Belgium, so it’s a must-see!
STAM Ghent City Museum – The Ghent City Museum is a museum that exposes the city history of this Medieval jewel of Belgium. If you’re a history buff, this is certainly one of the top things to do in Belgium.
Belfry and Cloth Hall – The 270-foot-tall belfry of Ghent is one of three medieval towers that overlook the old city center of Ghent; the other two belonging to Saint Bravo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church. Its height makes it the tallest belfry in the country and therefore deserving of being one of the top things to do in Belgium.
Saint Nicholas Church – St. Nicholas’ Church is one of the oldest and most prominent landmarks in Ghent, Belgium. Begun in the early 13th century as a replacement for an earlier Romanesque church, construction continued through the rest of the century.
Fine Arts Museum – The National Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent is situated at the East side of the Citadelpark. The museum holds a large permanent collection of art from the Middle Ages until the mid 20th century. If you’re an art enthusiast, you must make the museum one of your top things to do in Belgium.
Patershol – The narrow streets of this medieval neighborhood are home to countless fine restaurants. It’s safe to say Patershol is the culinary heart of the city, where all traditional Belgian food that Ghent natives eat is served. This neighborhood is certainly one of the best places to see in Belgium and perfect for when you don’t know what to do in Belgium.
Best time to travel to Ghent
Ghent is a great place to travel year-round. The winter season brings with it an ambiance throughout the Medieval city center that is unparalleled anywhere else on earth.
A Ghent summer brings with it budding nature, a typically cool climate, and an excellent opportunity to enjoy the city how it should be; on a bike.
However, my favorite time to visit Ghent is in the early spring. Particularly in late March and early April when there are fewer tourists, lower prices (in the traveling ‘off-season’), and you get a perfect mix of wintertime Ghent and summertime Ghent. Being so close to the capital city, Ghent makes one of the top places to visit in Brussels. Ghent to Brussels is a mere 30-minute train ride.
Where to stay in Ghent?
Ideally, to maximize your time, try to stay near the historic city center. However, as summer months can be very busy around the city (especially if you don’t book your accommodation in advance), I found another great neighborhood to stay in is the Ledeberg area. It is a residential area with lots of interesting places and less touristy than the old city. Plus, it’s just a short fifteen-minute bike ride to city center.
What to do in Belgium – Ghent Eats
If you want a taste of the local cuisine, try these four traditional foods:
Frites are the Mecca of Belgian cuisine. In case you were wondering, frites are simply French fries. Although, good luck calling those potatoes “French” fries in Belgium. In local minds, Belgians created the fries (frites).
Cuberdons – affectionately called “noses,” may be found all over Ghent, and there are some carts that do a brisk business in cone-shaped candies, with a main ingredient of raspberry syrup, and a firm gummy consistency outside, with a slightly soft center. Locals that know what to do in Belgium can always be found with a bag of cuberdons.
“Ghent Waffles” – We know them as Belgian waffles. In Belgium, they’re known as Brussels waffles. But these are both false. The waffle was actually said to have been invented in Ghent at Max’s Waffle. A proper Ghent waffle should be 4×5 waffle squares with the translucent dough after being cooked.
Roasted Chicken – It sounds simple because it is. A simple roasted chicken (maybe with a side order of frites) is a Ghent classic. Head to Chix for the best chicken in Ghent!
The “Little Nose” War of Ghent, Belgium
I was visiting one of my good friends, Ben, who is a Ghent native. He didn’t live far from my host family and I was lent a bike so that I could get around like a local which made the commute even shorter.
One day, he took me to the historic city center and we stopped off for a quick treat in Groentenmarkt. In between snapping as many photos as I could and dodging the trams that run straight through squares of Ghent, I saw Ben make his way to a candy vendor. This was no ordinary candy vendor, though. The small cart was filled with a two-foot layer of purple, gummy-like candies that looked like small noses.
When I joined my friend as he was conversing with the man making the candies, the man switched to English as soon as I started standing with them; as if he was programmed to know who can or cannot speak Dutch. He could seek out the ones that didn’t know what to do in Belgium.
I learned that these candies, cuberdons, have been sold in the same place, in the same cart for decades. You could buy these candies at any store in Ghent, however, every local knows that the only way to properly eat cuberdons is when they are freshly homemade at one of the two carts that sat by each other in Groentenmarkt Square.
The owners of the two carts, side by side each other, have become enemies over the decades – each claiming to have the only authentic recipe. In the summer of 2011, the rivalry got so bad that the police had to get involved and confiscate one of the carts. Then, again, in 2014, right before I arrived in Ghent, the two got into a fistfight over the customers’ attention. It’s a brutal war with unlimited entertainment value that is now closely watched by the entire nation.
Each Ghent native has to choose which candy vendor to be loyal to. I tried both – I liked both candies. No matter which vendor you prefer, you can’t really go wrong with a fresh cuberdon. A taste test is perfect for when you don’t know what to do in Ghent.
The Tale of the Tape on Ghent, Belgium
Ghent is the second-largest city in the country of Belgium with more than 250,000 residents within its city limits. Ghent is known worldwide for multiple things. Its renowned city center is one of the best-preserved city centers in Europe with its medieval architecture. In addition, Ghent is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the entire world. It’s not a trip to Ghent without riding around the city like the locals acting like you know what to do in Belgium.
How to get there/get around:
The city of Ghent has a fine public transportation system. For most visiting Ghent, a Single Ride Ticket or a 24-Hour Ticket will suffice, but there are other options available like a Week Long Pass or CityCard Ghent.
Personally, I saw it fit to purchase a CityCard Ghent at the beginning of my month-long stay in Ghent. With it, you’ll receive unlimited use of public transport and free access to museums, among many other benefits.
However, in all honesty, the city is accessible almost everywhere without public transport. My favorite mode of transportation was by bicycle in Ghent. It’s necessary to adopt the city’s bicycle culture while you’re visiting.
American Survival Guide
Traditional Belgian Meal
A traditional dinner near the city center will cost you quite a bit; you pay for the Medieval ambiance. Usually, $15-25 isn’t out of the ordinary for a delicious traditional entrée.
A Night Out
A beer in the heart of the historic city center isn’t exactly cheap. Expect to pay anywhere from $3.50-$6 for a world-famous Belgian beer. It’s worth the price. However, a cheaper beer in one of the clubs on the busy student district of Overpoort is really what to do in Belgium.
While in Belgium, your options for fast food are pretty wide. However, I think if you didn’t include the infamous Belgian frites on that list it would be criminal. You can get a side of frites for around $3-$4.
Bus or Train
Public transport is fairly expensive in Ghent when compared to other cities more regularly on a backpacking itinerary. It costs about $3.50 for a single ride ticket, but that’s if you purchase your ticket on board.
The secret is to purchase your ticket from a machine right by the tram stop to save money. Then, it only costs about $1.75.
The city of Ghent does offer a 2/3-day tourist pass that enables you to get free access to all top attractions, monuments and museums (and all their facilities and exhibitions), a guided boat tour, unlimited public transport, bike rental (1 day), and use of hop on hop off water-tramway (1 day) for $33-38.
I recommend taking advantage of this deal if for nothing else than experiencing a bike ride through this magical city. Biking is the main mode of transportation in Ghent; it’s a part of its culture and a part of the city. You should try to ride like a local, at least one day while in Ghent. https://visit.gent.be/en/citycard-gent?context=tourist
Being a student city, Ghent has quite a wide AirBnB selection. However, the price range also varies greatly. Generally speaking, you can usually find an entire apartment in near the historic city center for anywhere from $40-80 on a nightly basis. There’s quite a large range of places depending on the luxury you’re after.
For an individual room, one person can normally find a bed for less than $25 per night.
However, if you journey outside of the heart of the city just a bit, prices drop dramatically and you can find a bed for as cheap as $17.
Belgians (in Ghent) are Flemish and therefore Dutch speakers with their own dialect. Check out this basic Dutch language guide before you go! However, overall, everyone can speak pretty clear English in this region of Europe.
If you want cell service, it’s important to check with your provider about international charges. In addition, it’s always a good idea to alert your provider (and your bank) that you’ll be traveling internationally.
Credit Card Transaction Fees
It’s important to check your credit company’s policy on international transactions before using it abroad. There are plenty of credit cards available that advertise “No International Transaction Fees”. If you want to get a new card before leaving, find one like this.
Things to have before you arrive
It’s not imperative; however, I’ve always found travel much more relaxing when you arrive without a dire need of any essentials. Here are a few of them:
- Electrical Adaptors
- Power Bank
- Offline Map (app)
- Directions to your accommodation
Ghent – or Belgium, in general – is a country a part of the European Union – which means Americans are granted 90-days in a 180-day period to travel freely throughout the E.U. This means if you plan to be in Europe for longer than three months, you should take a look at this.
There are a lot of stereotypes that Americans have adopted over time. There are, also, a lot of stereotypes we have made about Europeans that just aren’t true.
With that being said, there are some cultural differences in everywhere you go. Embrace those – they’re the best part about traveling because those differences educate you.
In Belgium, tipping is not common. A 10-15% service charge is usually already applied to bills in Belgium. Check to make sure before you leave an extra tip!
Discover Ghent and Top Things to Do in Ghent
Ghent is a city that left me feeling welcomed to re-visit whenever I’d like. It was a pleasure to call this place home for a month and I can’t wait to walk its medieval streets again.
If you want to find out more about how to travel Europe on a budget, and all that it has to offer, click on over to our Europe travel blog page dedicated to tips for backpacking Europe! You will find these to be informative, giving you excellent insight into planning a trip through this multi-cultural continent.