Ghent (English) or Gent (Dutch) is the largest city and capital of East Flanders, also it’s the third largest city in Belgium. Ghent was on our list of places to visit and there is a lot to see here, fortunately the historic center is very compact. Unlike Bruges which felt like a tourist destination, Ghent is a university city with a more lived in feel to it.
After extensive research we determined that we would be unable to take our car into the city center with it being classified as a low emissions zone where vehicles are restricted, especially out of country vehicles (we have a French car). We would have had to apply online for a pass, which was just way too complicated!! Alternatively, we found a free Park & Ride lot (P&R Watersportbaan) which included a free 15 minute shuttle to the historic center, well that worked out perfectly!! We arrived in the center of Ghent around 9:30am and the streets were quiet and uncrowded. On our way to the Belfry we passed a French patisserie and I was stopped in my tracks. Through the window we watched decadent sweets being prepared and ogled the massive chandelier in the bakery, WOW!! (PS We came back here later) 😂
Dragging myself away from the patisserie window we headed to the Belfry of Ghent. Completed in the 14th century it is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site, and the middle tower of the Three Towers of Ghent, sitting between St. Nicholas Church and St. Bavos Cathedral. Arriving at the Belfry just before the 10am opening I was soooo excited, it’s the only tower we have come across lately that has an elevator, allowing me to get high up and enjoy the views. We still had about 80 steps to navigate but that’s a far cry less than most towers with well over 300 steps to the top. Our 80 steps led us to the platform where the elevator begins and there on display was one of the old metal dragon weathervanes that used to be on top of the belfry. A dragon has been atop the belfry since 1377 and is a symbolic guardian of the tower. The most recent version weighs 400kg, is made of stainless steel and was placed there in 1980 using a helicopter. I can’t imagine how they used to get the earlier ones up there 🤔
Exiting the elevator, the balcony walkway was barely wide enough for one person so it’s one way traffic only please. The views were stunning in every direction, it was well worth getting up here. Tickets for the top of the Belfry cost 10 Euros ($10.70 USD) each.
On the way back down the tower there are a couple of small museum levels in the lower portion. On one level is a display of carillon bells that we could tap individually to hear the different notes each of them made. On another there is the carillon drum, a mechanism similar to that of a music box. The first Ghent drum was made in 1377 from wood and had a fixed music pattern. This current drum was made in the 17th century and is one of the largest and oldest drums in the world. There are 17,600 holes in the drum and the carilloneur changes the repertoire of the rotating drum every two years!! The carillon plays 4 different songs every 15 minutes from 9am until 10pm. When the drum is in motion, the pins lift a tumbler, which is connected by a wire to the hammers on the bells creating the music we hear. Quite amazing when you think of what is involved to make this all happen.
Opposite the Belfry is St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the oldest parish church in the heart of Ghent. It stands on the site of a small 10th century church evolving by the 12th century into a Romanesque church filled with art treasures. During the 15th and 16th centuries the church evolved again into the imposing Gothic cathedral it is today. Midway along the nave is the stunning Rococo pulpit created in 1741 of oak, gilded wood and black and white marble.
Before we carried on much further, I had a hankering to go back to that amazing looking patisserie we saw on the way in for a chocolate croissant and a cafe au lait 😋😋
Sweet tooth satisfied and it was off to St Michaels Bridge for some fantastic views of Ghent. The old flat bridge was replaced early in the 20th century by stone arches, a central lantern and a bronze statue of St Michael. This is the only vantage point you can see all three of Ghent’s famous towers in a row (the header photo above) From the bridge we also had a beautiful view over the river and Graslei Quay and Korenlei Quay, both part of the medieval port they are now a cultural and tourist hotspot. This area of Ghent is considered to be one of the oldest, dating back to the 5th century when Ghent was the center of the wheat trade. Most of the houses on the Graslei date back to the middle ages but were heavily modified and restored in the 18th and 19th century.
The Great Butchers Hall was originally a covered market dating back to the 15th century and the central place where meat was inspected and traded. Unfortunately, the building was closed for urgent works when we were there.
Near the Butchers Hall is the medieval Gravensteen Castle dating from 1180, and built on an older fortification. Originally the residence of the Count of Flanders, it has been a court, a prison, a mint and even a cotton factory. Restored from 1893-1903 it is now a museum and major landmark in the city.
Vrijdmarkt Square, one of the largest squares in Ghent, is named after the weekly tradition to stage a market every Friday morning. As one of the oldest squares in the city it played an important role in the city’s history. The square is surrounded with guildhalls which currently house bars, restaurants and terraces.
Ghent Town Hall is a group of buildings of different styles. On one corner you have the flamboyant Gothic style (1519-1539) with niches in the facade holding 19 statues of the Counts of Flanders made in the 19th and 20th centuries. Next to that is the Renaissance facade (1595-1618) with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, reminiscent of an Italian palace.
As you can see, we had a very busy day in Ghent and probably should have planned more than one day here. It’s a wonderful city with a plethora of interesting sights to see and yet we barely scratched the surface. And lets not forget, there are loads of Belgian Chocolate shops here as well 😋 If you are planning time in Ghent I think at least 3 days would be nice so you could take your time looking around.