14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Ghent
The old city of Ghent (in Flemish Gent; in French Gand) is a picturesque muddle of alleyways rimmed by quaint steeple-roofed buildings running along pretty canals. Along with Bruges, Ghent is Belgium's star architectural attraction, but unlike Bruges, it comes without the tour bus hordes.
A walk through town on a summer's evening, when most of the important buildings are illuminated, is an unforgettable experience, as is a canal boat ride down the many branches of the Scheldt and Leie Canals that intersect the city.
For history-lovers and architecture fans, Ghent can't be beaten, plus its lack of tourists makes it a great place to get to grips with modern local Flemish culture. Discover the best things to do in this charming city, with our list of the top attractions in Ghent.
See also: Where to Stay in Ghent
1. Cathedral of St. Bavo (Sint-Baafskathedraal)
On the eastern side of Sint-Baafsplein stands the Cathedral of St. Bavo, a majestic building of brick and granite with a Romanesque crypt of its predecessor, Sint-Jans church. Charles V gave the cathedral its present name after he destroyed the old one to build a fortress. The High Gothic cathedral choir dates from the 13th century, while the late Gothic tower and the main nave were built during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The light interior of the cathedral is richly decorated with some unique paintings. These include The Conversion of St. Baaf by Peter Paul Rubens (1624) and Christ among the Doctors by Frans Pourbus (1571). The most famous artwork here though is The Altar of Ghent, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, renowned as by far the greatest masterpiece of old Flemish painting.
Below the main church, the extensive crypt contains numerous tombs of bishops and a rich treasury. The outstanding Calvary triptych of 1464 by Joos van Wassenhove (Justus van Gent) is also shown in one of the chapels.
Address: Sint-Baafsplein, Central Ghent
Gravensteen is one of the strongest moated fortresses in Western Europe, surrounded by the River Lieve. It was built between 1180 and 1200 on the orders of Philip of Alsace, the former count of Flanders, on the foundation of an earlier 9th-century structure and was created in the style of Syrian crusader castles. Today, it remains a unique example of the European medieval art of fortification.
In the 14th-century, it ceased to have a military function and was used by the counts for administration of the land. In 1800, it came into private ownership and was converted into a cotton mill and flats for the workers. In front of the castle extends the ancient Sint-Veerleplein, possibly the oldest square in Ghent, although the neighboring facades are of 17th-century origin at the earliest. This square was a marketplace but also the site of executions and burnings of the victims of the Inquisition
Address: Sint-Veerleplein 11, Ghent
3. The Belfry (Het Belfort)
On the west side of Sint-Baafsplein stands the 91-meter-high belfry, symbol of the city's independence, where the charters of the privileges of Ghent were kept. The tower was begun about 1300 and by 1338, it was mainly completed. The present-day spire was restored to its original 14th-century form at the beginning of this century and replaced the wooden bell tower of 1380.
It is crowned by a gilded copper dragon, which was first installed in 1377. Today, it is a replica as are the four armed figures at the corners of the platform. Only one of the originals of these survives and can be seen on the ground floor.
The splendid Cloth Hall directly adjoins the belfry. This building (1426-1441) by Simon van Assche was the meeting place of the wool and cloth traders and was converted into a prison in the 18th century. Today, it has a café-restaurant, which is popular with tourists.
Address: Sint-Baafsplein, Central Ghent
Some of Belgium's finest guild houses are along the Graslei Canal. This is an excellent place for a stroll for anyone with more than a passing interest in architecture. Check out the adjoining Gildehuis der Vrije Schippers (House of the Free Boatmen), built in 1531 in the Brabant Gothic style, and Gildehuis der Graanmeters (House of the Grain Weighers), with its stepped gable that dates from 1698.
Further along, you'll see Tolhuisje (Customs House), a Flemish Renaissance building of 1682, which stands next to the Romanesque Spijker or Koornstapelhuis (around 1200). The Gildehuis der Metselaars (House of the Masons) from 1527 in Brabant Gothic style completes this unique row of guild houses.
Tourists looking for a good introduction to the city's landmarks will enjoy a 40-minute guided boat trip in Ghent, which departs from the Graseli port. Passengers will have the chance to see the city from the River Leie, and admire important buildings, including the Vleeshuis Butcher's Hall and the Castle of Counts.
Address: Graslei, Central Ghent
Ghent's Korenmarkt (Wheat Market) is a historic square that is home to many of the old Guild Houses (Gindenhuis) positioned along the Leie River. This was once an important center of trade, and today, it is a lively area known for its lovely architecture and numerous restaurants and cafés. Each year in late July, the Korenmarkt is the center of a 10-day festival, Gense Fieste, which is an exciting gathering of music, theater, and other entertainment, as well as plenty of food.
Bordering the southern side of the Korenmarkt, St. Nicholas's Church is one of Ghent's most iconic landmarks. Its exterior is constructed of Tournai bluestone in the Scheldt Gothic style, dating back to the 13th century. Of note are its imposing central tower and an organ made by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
6. Saint Michael's Church and Sint-Michielsbrug
Saint Michael's Church is located on the western shore of the Leie and is known for its absolute grandeur, a massive Gothic church constructed of Belgian sandstone. The pulpit, altar, and many other parts of the interior are in the Neo-Gothic style, while other styles are represented as well, including an early 17th-century Baroque confessional. Among the church's treasures are several 18th-century statues; paintings by Baroque artists like van Dyck; and the Relic of Doorn, which was a gift from Mary Queen of Scots.
Next to the church is Sint-Michielsbrug (Saint Michael's Bridge), a beautiful stone-arch bridge known for its spectacular views of the skyline. From here, you can see all three of Ghent's iconic towers, making this an excellent spot for photography. Visit in the evening for a particularly nice view of the city's landmarks illuminated.
Address: Sint-Michielsplein 4, 9000 Ghent
7. Korenlei Canal
The Sint-Michielsbrug leads down to the Korenlei Canal, itself lined by splendid facades and offering the best view of the even finer houses on the opposite bank of the Graslei. While wandering here, take note of the following houses: No. 15 is the site of the former Hof van Gruuthuse, (House of Duke Egmont), which dates from 1352 and is now replaced by a building with a Neoclassical facade that also encompasses No. 17-19, the Hotel de Ghellinck.
No. 7 along the Korenlei is the Gildehuis der Onvrije Schippers (House of the Tied Boatmen), which is a Baroque building dating from 1739. Also, pay attention to the beautiful façade of No. 24, Lintworm en Krocht. This was a Romanesque château from the 12th century that was rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th century.
Address: Korenlei, central Ghent
8. Town Hall (Stadhuis)
Built over a long period of time, Ghent's magnificent town hall combines a variety of architectural styles. On the oldest parts of the building on the Hoogpoort, completed in the style of Bruges City Hall in 1482 and containing the council chambers, the architects Rombout Keldermans and Dominic de Waghemakere built a new wing in the finest late Gothic form, richly decorated with statues.
However, building work on this part, which is best seen from the corner of Hoogpoort and Belfortstraat, was suspended because of religious disputes in 1539. Only a quarter of the original plan was realized and only the Peace Hall (Pacificatiezaal; actually the courtroom for the Keure, the protectors of the town constitution) and the Marriage Chapel, both 1535, were built. Work only resumed at the end of the 16th century, so that the wing facing the Botermarkt is in Renaissance style as is the Throne Room on the upper floor.
Address: Botermarkt, Central Ghent
9. Museum of Fine Art (Museum voor Schone Kunsten)
The main emphasis of the collection here is painting covering the 15th to 20th centuries. The central hall adjoining the entrance hall has eight fine Brussels wall tapestries: three with motifs from the story of Darius (17th century) and five with the theme "Triumph of the Gods" (1717). Left of this hall are the Old Masters. Prominent are two works by Hieronymus Bosch in Room B: Bearing of the Cross and St. Hieronymus.
To the right of the Tapestry Room are paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially by Belgian artists. The museum also hosts a wide variety of traveling exhibits on loan from other world-class fine arts museums.
Address: Fernand Scribedreef 1, Liemaeckereplein, Ghent
10. Museum of Ghent (STAM)
Based in the brick buildings of the Cistercian abbey of Bijloke, the Museum of Ghent is one of the richest in Belgium and showcases a remarkable collection that traces the heritage and culture of the city in a unique historical setting. The numerous rooms chronologically tell the story of Ghent with exhibits including jewelry, weapons, textiles, books, paintings, religious icons, and ceramics all enhanced by state-of-the-art multimedia displays.
The museum's outstanding centerpoint is the 14th-century refectory with an exceptional brick gable. The interior walls are painted with frescoes, among which is a 10-meter-long painting of the Last Supper. As well as the permanent collection, the museum hosts a series of temporary exhibits throughout the year that are housed in the neighboring monastery building.
11. Old Market Area
The Old Market (Groentenmarkt) began life as a fish market and then in the 18th-century began functioning mainly as a vegetable market. In the medieval era, Ghent's pillory stood here. On the west side of the market area is the long Groot Vleeshuis, a medieval covered meat market with a guild house, chapel, and numerous gables in the roof. The building originated in 1406-1410 and was restored in 1912.
At the south end of the Vleeshuis is the Penshuizeken (entrails cottage) where the poor were given the entrails of slaughtered animals. Today, the Vleeshuis building is a rather fine restaurant, but even if you're not hungry, you can walk through to view the interior.
Address: Groentenmarkt, Hoogpoort, central Ghent
12. Vismarkt and Kraanlei
The superb Baroque building at Sint-Veerleplein No. 5 is the old fish market, built in 1689 according to plans by Artus Quellin. The gateway depicts Neptune and allegorical representations of the Scheldt (male) and Leie (female). To the northeast, the Kraanlei Canal adjoins Sint-Veerleplein, all lined with elegant houses.
Immediately on the left is No. 1, the Craenenburgh, then the row of houses De Lelye (No. 3-11), built around 1500 in Brabant Gothic style. No. 13, In den Bliekenmarkt is a former fish shop. Further along the Kraanlei is house No. 75, De Klok, dating from the 17th century, with a spiral staircase and decorated with numerous allegorical reliefs. No 77., De Zeven Werken van Barmhartigheid, and No. 79, Het Vliegend Hert, are Baroque 17th-century town houses, decorated with exquisite reliefs
Address: Kraanlei, central Ghent
13. Ruins of Sint-Baafsabdij
In the east part of the city, across the Slachthuisbrug over the Leie Canal, are the ruins of Sint-Baafsabdij, an abbey founded in 630 by St. Amandus and rebuilt after being destroyed by the Normans in the 10th century. A gallery of the late Gothic cloisters, the octagonal lavatorium, and parts of the chapter house and the refectory still remain from the original abbey.
The refectory, with its beautiful 12th-century Romanesque frescoes, is home to the Museum voor Stenen Voorwerpen (Museum for Stone Cutting and Sculpture) and contains an extraordinary collection of medieval tombstones, Ghent sculpture, and architectural artefacts from the 12th to the 18th centuries as well as mosaics.
Address: Godshuizenlaan 2, Ghent
14. Museum voor Volkskunde
Immaculately restored in 1962, this former children's hospital - founded in 1363 - is one of Belgium's last remaining Godshuizen. These houses were founded by well-off families for the needy. In a picturesque courtyard are 18 typical Flemish cottages, all interconnected and now housing the extremely comprehensive Museum voor Volkskunde, which with its notable collection of equipment, documents, and everyday objects provides a vivid picture of Flemish folk life around 1900.
Of particular interest are the restored workshops and living rooms, a dining room, a barber's shop, a cobbler's workshop, an apothecary's shop, a confectioner's bakery, and a candlestick maker's workshop.
Address: Kraanlei 65, Ghent
Where to Stay in Ghent for Sightseeing
To see all the famous sights of Ghent and soak up its picturesque scenery, the best place to stay is in the compact and easily walkable city center—preferably within the historic center. Most of the top attractions, such as the Cathedral of St. Bavo and the grand fortress of Gravensteen, lie within a short stroll of each other. Here are some highly rated hotels in this convenient location:
- Luxury Hotels: In the heart of the city, overlooking the Korenlei and Graslei Canals, the Marriott Ghent Hotel offers large, comfortable rooms with plush beds. Steps from Ghent's historic center, Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof blends bold contemporary accents with Empire-style elegance and has a wellness center with a pool, spa, and fitness room. The hotel also offers long-stay apartments. Around the corner from the Gravensteen Castle, the boutique Hotel Harmony sits on a picturesque canal in the old town and is known for its helpful staff and lovely canal views.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In the historic center, opposite the town hall, the stylish NH Gent Belfort is less than five minutes on foot from the cathedral, castle, and belfry, as is the nearby, pet-friendly Novotel Gent Centrum, with a fitness room and sauna, outdoor pool, and children's play areas. Perfect for families and extended stays, the good-value Aparthotel Castelnou is about a 15-minute walk from the historic center. All the apartments come with kitchenettes, and breakfast is included in the rates.
- Budget Hotels: On a quiet street, a 10-minute stroll from the cathedral, the boutique Hotel Onderbergen offers clean, stylish rooms, and some accommodate families. If you like old-world elegance on a budget, Erasmus is in a beautiful 16th-century stone building with steep stairs, a few minutes on foot from the historic center. The free breakfast is in an evocative room adorned with oil paintings and antiques. Meters from the cathedral, Ibis Gent Centrum St-Baafs Kathedraal offers compact but comfortable rooms for a good-value price.
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Medieval Bruges: Tourists who appreciate Ghent's architecture will fall in love with the medieval town of Bruges, a picture-perfect combination of historic buildings and canals. The romantic ambience is everywhere, with narrow streets and flower-lined waterways perfect for a long stroll. Those visiting the city have plenty of day trip options from Bruges, including the nearby beach towns like the ritzy Knokke-Heist resort area or family-friendly Blankenberge, or the nature-lover's Zwin Nature Park.
Flanders' Cultural Center: The center of Dutch-speaking Belgium is Antwerp, a northern city that is well-known for its port, historic architecture, and arts community. Antwerp is home to several excellent art museums, as well as some beautiful churches, most notably the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady. Those staying in the city will have plenty to do, but tourists who want to explore can enjoy a good range of day trips from Antwerp to nearby destinations like medieval Mechelen, Fort Breendonk in Willebrook, Aalst, and picturesque Dendermonde.