How is it possible to spend just a day in Gent when it needs a week to do it justice?
With apologies to Paul Simon, here are my eight steps to enjoy a day in Ghent.
1. Drop off the key, Lee
Yes, leave your car keys at home and let the train take the strain. OK, if you have young children it makes sense to take the car (if you have one) and drive into one of the many car parks in the city. But if you are travelling by yourself or as a couple, why not take the train?
I enjoy travelling by train as it is so relaxing. I arrive at my destination feeling refreshed and ready for some sightseeing. On the contrary, after a long drive in the car, I often arrive at my destination feeling tired. If I’ve been driving at 120 km/h along a busy Belgian motorway, it always takes me an hour or so before my mind has slowed down. But in the train I can read, drink a coffee, plan my trip … and it’s more environmentally friendly than the car too.
2. Hop on the bus, Gus (actually the tram)
Just before you arrive at Gent St.Pieters’ railway station, send a text message with the two letters ‘DL’ in it to 4884. You’ll immediately get a return text from the De Lijn bus company. This is your ticket for the next hour. Upon leaving the station, directly opposite are various tram stops. You need to catch the no. 1 tram to Evergem. If you can’t find it, ask someone who looks like they use trams every day. Gent people (Gentenaars) are very friendly! Once you’re on the right tram, enjoy the sights and get off at Gravensteen. How do you know you’re there? Just look out for the Castle of the Counts. I don’t think you’ll miss it:
3. I hope my meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued …
… but the first place you need to go is the tourist information office. It’s very close to the Gravensteen tram stop. It’s the building in the far corner of this square when you get off the tram:
The building is the Oude Vismijn:
It’s the old fish market, which dates back to 1689. Check out its beautiful gateway, with King Neptune and his golden trident. Below him are the two rivers upon which Gent was founded: Mrs Leie and Mr Scheldt.
At the tourist office I asked for, and received, a folder called “Gent City Walk”. I also got a free city map, a magazine called “Gent, Tips from Locals”, and a nice pocket-sized city guide. I asked for the city walk because I always think this is a great way to discover a city. A city walk gives you direction and a goal, so you’re not left wondering “now where shall I go now?” It ensures you see all the top sights. And it will help you realize what you want to see in more detail in the afternoon, or the next time you visit Gent.
4. Slow down, you move too fast; got to make the morning last
As I’ve said, there is a lot to see in Gent. But there’s always another day to see anything you’ve missed! So slow down, take it easy; there’s no rush. You have all your information about Ghent; so before you set off, why don’t you familiarize yourself with it first? And of course you need to make sure you have sufficient energy for your city walk. So you need to …
5. Brunch at Julie’s
Leave the tourist office, and to the right of the castle is a small street called Kraanlei. At no. 13 is Julie’s House, where you can get an excellent cup of coffee, and something tasty from a huge range of cinnamon rolls, scones, pancakes, muffins, cupcakes …
You are now ready to start exploring Gent! The city walk is excellent. It takes you to 24 sights. You can go at your own pace and take the whole day on the walk, stopping off at the major sights and spending time looking around them in more detail. Or you can use it as an overview, and bookmark those sights that you want to return to in the afternoon.
Here are some of the highlights.
The big three towers in the centre of Gent:
First stop-off was St. Nicholas’ church:
I spent some time inside it:
Next up was the Belfry:
St Bavo’s Cathedral (above) has the added attraction of being home to the most important work in Flemish art history: the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Van Eyck brothers, which you can see (no photos allowed). I did go and see it, and will tell you about it in a future post.
Not everything in Gent is centuries old. The City Pavilion was built in 2012:
I spent all morning on the walk. I had arrived in Gent pretty early (9 a.m.), and by the time I’d been to the tourist office and Julie’s it was 10 a.m. I then spent three hours getting up to no. 21 on the city walk, and then it was time for …
6. Lunch with Simon (but not Paul Simon)
Just after sight no. 21 – Mad Meg, the cannon – the leaflet ask you to cross the bridge over the Leie and turn left into Kraanlei. Don’t! Turn right into Oudburg and walk up to the next square which is called Sluizeken. Here you will find Simon Says, which describes itself as a coffee bar offering a “small yet refined menu that reflects our commitment to locally sourced quality products. We are low on food miles and high on taste.” I like the sound of that, and indeed my light lunch of a club sandwich and carrot cake was very tasty. The ambience was relaxed, and the service exceptionally friendly.
7. Make a new plan, Stan
After lunch I completed the city tour. I was then faced with the question of what to do next, considering that there were so many places I could revisit in more detail. The plan I decided on was to visit the Castle of the Counts. Again, I will make a separate blog post on this, but here are some appetizers.
Something from the city guide then caught my eye: Graffiti Street, or Werregarenstraat. This was a place where graffiti artists were allowed free reign over the walls. The guide book hyped it up as a “dynamic sketchbook” and “a blank canvas for new masterpieces.” So I went there with high expectations of wonderful street art. Instead it was a rather dingy alleyway with lots of graffiti but little in the way of art. It was the only disappointment in the whole day.
8. When you’re weary …
By this time my legs were feeling a bit tired and I was in need of a sit down, but I was still enthused to see more of Gent. I spied a sign that would meet both needs:
The next 40 minutes were most enjoyable. Sitting in the sunshine watching the beautiful buildings sail on by. This is worth a separate blog post too, but again, here is a short appetizer:
You can catch the tram back to the station (e.g. no 1, heading for Gent St. Pieter’s). But you might also like to walk back to the station along the river, which is what I did. The route passes by another highlight of Gent that looks fascinating: STAM, the Gent City Museum. But that will have to wait for another visit.
So that’s my day in Gent in eight steps. It was a fascinating day, and I will definitely be returning another time as there is so much that I haven’t seen yet, and it’s just such a pleasant city to walk around.