A trip to any city in Flanders can be used as an excuse to drink your fair share of Belgian beer and devour up loads of Frites. I can’t deny I was off the Eurostar and in line for my first fried potato & Leffe beer in a heartbeat. I would be a fool to try and steer you away from this ritual, but I don’t think I need to tell you that there are a few other things to do in Ghent.
If you judged this city by its outward, ye olde appearance, you would be forgiven if unaware of its history as one of the great industrial hubs of Europe, twice. In 940, Ghent was the busiest place on earth, the central market for barley, wheat and rye. In the 19th C, this tiny city was the second, most powerful commercial hub after Manchester with cotton sales over the roof.
The Gentians have suffered sackings, war, and devastation from its foreign enemies. Now, doing slightly less damage, 40,000 students descend every year to attend one of the best universities in Europe. This yearly influx makes the city always vital and dynamic.
In my opinion, Ghent should not to be missed on the grand tour of European cities, with its iconic architecture both old and new, river walks, of the moment cocktail scene, and of course frites and beer.
Here are a few of my best bits:
NO HOPS INCLUDED
I had to begin with the beverage that is synonymous with Flanders – Beer. Did you know you could make it without hops? Without hops, that’s impossible – I hear you say! Annik De Splenter spent almost two years figuring out a way and she did it. Soon to be on my podcast Best Sips Worldwide, you’ll be able to hear how she reinvented a drink that the monks had mastered in the Middle Ages. You can visit the distillery where you can try all of the five beers she makes – I fell for the Blonde.
SEE WORLDS COLLIDE
Our tour guide knew her audience when she called the Ghent style of architecture a “cocktail!” Pre-Renaissance, Renaissance, Baroque, Napoleonic, and Contemporary all sit side-by-side harmoniously. Primarily filled with those iconic gabled, Renaissance “skyscrapers” along the river, Ghent also hints at modernity with its Stadt House, its new library De Krook, and even step into the spacious, airy, Marriott Hotel.
EAT LIKE LOCALS
What is Belgian cuisine? Banish the idea of mussels and frites at every seating. Ghent is changing its perception and moving into the modern world. We managed to catch the tail end of asparagus season at Pakhuis, one of the city’s most popular restaurants. A former warehouse converted into a cool, hip place with a great bar.
We also ate at De Superette, the bakery/restaurant of one of the great chefs of Ghent, Kobe Desramaults. A wood-burning oven is at its heart and the pizzas were amazing. As we were leaving, the restaurant was closing for the night and they gave us two loaves of their incredible bread, which we sliced up and threw in the freezer and are still eating!
We had to try Balls & Glory for its name alone! We knew it was a chain, with one in Brussels & Antwerp, but it has to be done. They’ve taken a national dish, bollekes, and updated it. We chose to try the truffle, mushroom and chicken, served with mashed potatoes and gravy. Not the lightest summer meal, but delicious nonetheless!
FUEL THE FEUD
Cuberdons are as famous as frites in Ghent. What interested me more than the nose shaped, fruit jelly-like candies themselves was the rumor that two of the sellers in Korenmarkt were vicious rivals. The Cypriot and I bought one bag for 2 euros from one seller and one bag for 5 from the other. When I complained about the price difference, the one seller quickly pointed out there were many more in the bag he gave me, which was true. It allowed me to try more flavors – not just the popular raspberry. Similar to fruit jellies, which I adore, with runny insides, I was hooked. My advice is to ignore their feud, decide if you want to spend 2 or 5 and then leave them both to go at it!
Don’t miss the Tierenteyn-Verlent Mustard Shop behind them. It’s been there since 1867 selling only one type of mustard. Pick the size of the container you want and go!
GO TO CHURCH
The one unmisssable painting in town is Jan Van Eyke’s triptych, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Like eating frites, it’s one of those “things to do in Ghent.” For good reason. Nestled into a silent room in the impressive Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral, the Ghent Altarpiece is finally home after a life of pure drama: stolen, attacked, and treated badly by its own restorers. I would suggest heading straight to the back of the picture where fewer people are standing listening to their headsets, then coming around to the front to revel in its Northern Renaissance glory! Make sure to check out the bottom right hand corner to see a man all smiles. He’s the devil – knowing that no matter how much you might confess, sinning is going to be all the rage until kingdom come.
DRINK SOME MORE
Ghent is a drinking person’s pleasure park, so many choices. Go into any bar in town and order a RoomeR. You’ll be presented with a short glass of golden liquid, flowers dancing around a single piece of ice. You’ll have to wait to hear the Jeroen and Tine Michels-Devaere’s story of how and why RoomeR came into existence on Best Sips Podcast.
Proof is a one-stop shop for sipping. They have over 350 spirits on sale and you can try all of them before buying. Settle into the back of the store, along the canal. Every Gin you try is served with tonic, so no need to ask!
It used to be a shot of Genever a day kept the doctor away. At ‘t Dreupelkot, feel free to enjoy more than your one a day, and never have the same flavor. A tiny bar, you could easily miss, snuggled in between two bigger bars, ‘t Dreupelkot seems as if it rose from the banks of the river in the 940’s. Don’t expect the older gentleman behind the counter to speak English, but the menu is in English, so you can point.
After our shots, we had to try Jigger, the bar that makes mixologist-enthusiasts like me happy. Award winning cocktails are the draw. Creep downstairs and you’ll be met by Olivier who will make you one of his own creations or anything you order to perfection. End your night here as nothing gets better than this!
SIT BACK & RELAX
After a night of drinking, you might not feel like playing tourist. A boat tour beckons and you are ready to be seduced! After frites and beer again, the Cypriot and I sat back and let someone else do all the work. Rivers surround the city and you get to see the impressive, foreboding Gravensteen castle, the last remaining wooden house, the angel with the gas mask and other sites that you would never experience on foot. Steps away from the dock, we discovered a hidden garden (Jan Breydelstraat 21 | 9000) waiting to be found. After a cup of tea and, yes I admit it, a gin cocktail – I could have sworn I was in a Moroccan oasis.
There is so much more to do in Ghent, so more posts will be coming including: a Sunday walking tour, other buildings not to miss and more photos on FB, Instagram and Twitter!
Have you been to Ghent?? I would love to hear what were your Best Bits!
PIN IT LATER
Thank you so much for Visit Gent and Visit Flanders for all their assistance and support, making this dream trip a reality. The Visit Gent City Card made the trip a whole lot easier and I highly suggest getting one if you are there for more than a day. We had a great time and, of course, everything on Best Bits is my own opinion!