Planning a trip to Belgium typically includes stops in Brussels and Brugge; but one of the highlights from our week long vacation in Belgium was actually Ghent. I was convinced to go there by a friend (who is dating a Belgian) because she said it was even more beautiful than Brugge. After visiting, I can confirm that Ghent is gorgeous!
I am convinced Ghent is the most underrated city in Belgium. This Flemish-speaking city is often neglected in favor of more touristy places, but Ghent is a perfect combination of storybook streets, romantic canals, bohemian flair and cosmopolitan amenities, making it an optimal place to go if you are short on time while traveling in Belgium. This hidden gem is only half an hour away from Brussels by train (main train station is Gent-Sint-Pieters), so you could even visit as a day trip. However, I would recommend at least 24 hours to really soak in all the history, culture, and relaxed vibe of this charming city.
How to Spend 1 Perfect Day in Ghent, Belgium
Morning: Old Town Sightseeing
Start your day in Ghent with a simple walk around the old town area. I think Ghent is the perfect place to wander on cobblestone streets along flower lined canals, because its footprint is small. You can cover most of the highlights in just a few hours. Addicted to caffeine like me? Power up your wander at Take 5 Espresso Bar, which has the best espresso and croissants we had in all of Belgium.
There are plenty of museums, cathedrals and cultural sights to explore in Ghent, but you could just as easily admire the city from the street. It is incredibly picturesque! A few of the highlights in the old town are the three medieval towers of Ghent. Clustered together in the center of town, you’ll want to have a look at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Saint Nicholas’ Church and the Belfry Tower. Inside Saint Bavo’s you will find the masterfully painted Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. This masterpiece was actually Hitler’s top choice for the centerpiece of his Fuhrer Art museum. He wanted it because of its fame and importance, but also because it had been forcibly repatriated to Belgium from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. To get a picture-perfect view of all three towers, stand on Saint Michael’s Bridge which connects the two sides of Ghent.
Another historical spot to check out on your 24 hour visit to Ghent is the imposing Gravensteen Castle. Dating back to the 12th century, the large fortress sits on the corner of a canal with a medieval grandeur that is unmissable. We opted to take in the castle from the perimeter for free, but there is also an option to do a guided tour through the inside for a small fee.
For a quirkier side of modern Ghent, don’t miss a walk down Graffiti Alley. Tucked in a hidden alleyway near the Ghent City Hall, every inch of this small street is covered in an ever changing patchwork of creative graffiti and street art murals. We even saw one being painted during our visit!
Early Afternoon: Shopping + Canals
For lunch in Ghent, there are plenty of great options from fast casual to vegan to haute cuisine. Grab a slice of artisanal wood-fired pizza at Otomat or a plant-based small plate lunch at BEO Bio Market. You could also pop into one of the eateries along Vlaanderenstraat, part of Ghent’s fanciest neighborhood named Het Zuid where you’ll be headed after lunch.
Walk off your food baby with some shopping. I was shocked by the number of modern, stylish boutiques in Ghent, especially in the Het Zuid area! The main shopping street is Groot Vleeshuis, but you’ll find plenty of independent shops all around this neighborhood, especially leading up to the Ghent University campus. If you happen to be in Ghent on the weekend, check out the Vrijdagmarkt flea market on Friday mornings and Saturday afternoons for street food and vintage items.
While we didn’t actually take a canal cruise in Belgium, it is a very popular activity to do on a 24 hour visit to Ghent. I think you can admire the canals just as nicely by foot (plus you can enjoy a beer along the banks at one of the MANY waterside bars); but if you are interested in seeing the city from the water, the boat tours last for 1 hour and give you a nice backdrop to the centuries-long history that Ghent has. The main pick up point is near Gravensteen Castle and you can check the times and options at the nearby tourist center. There are also kayak rentals for exploring the canals, if you want a more active way to appreciate Ghent’s waterways.
Late Afternoon: Hal 16 Beer Garden
After lunch and shopping, you’ve probably earned a good Belgian beer. Ghent has plenty of local watering holes to explore, but I recommend making the slightly out of the way journey to Hal 16, an innovative redevelopment project in Ghent’s harbor area. Built into an old warehouse, Dok Brewing Company is a creative microbrewery that blends contemporary and classic styles of brewing to craft unique Belgian beers on their 30 different taps. We had a lovely afternoon sitting on the sun filled patio sampling a variety of different brews!
If you get peckish while drinking, Hal 16 also offers pop up restaurants and food trucks rotating throughout the year. RØK dishes smoked and grilled delicacies, even for vegetarians, while BØEF serves plant-based burgers and finger food from all over the world. If Italian food is more your style, Officina Raffaelli offers surprisingly modern Tuscan gastronomy.
Early Evening: Dinner + Sunset Along the Canal
I would strongly recommend keeping an eye on what time sunset in Ghent is, because there is something truly stunning about this city at golden hour. The medieval brick facades and sunlight reflections off the canals illuminate the city’s skyline in this magical way. Perfect for your Instagram feed, make sure to keep your camera handy around this time because I can pretty much guarantee you will find something beautiful to take a picture of.
For dinner, check out the historic Patershol neighborhood. Full of beautiful old houses and tiny, winding streets, this area is dense with restaurants and a buzzing energy at night. Oudburg street has a kilometer long stretch that is lined almost exclusively with restaurants, so there are more than enough to choose from. We opted for dinner at Mémé Gusta, a cozy quirky eatery that serves up classic Belgian dishes prepared with a modern flair and excellent craftsmanship.
Late Evening: Bottom’s Up
It should come as no surprise that Belgium is a wonderful destination for those who like to imbibe. Belgian beer is famous worldwide, and even if you don’t know your lambics from your trippels, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant will welcome you to sample a variety of beers at their homey tavern with riverside views. Bierkant and the Dulle Griet on the Vrijdagsmarkt are also good options, they’re just a little farther away from the city center.
If you’re in the mood for cocktails instead, I can’t recommend The Cobbler enough as the perfect watering hole to end your 24 hours in Ghent. Housed inside the 1898 Post Hotel (mentioned below), this upscale cocktail bar feels like walking into a rich person’s private palace bar. The decor is impeccable, the sunset views over the canal are unparalleled, and their drinks are top notch. Many of their cocktails feature an ingredient I wasn’t familiar with — jenever, a juniper brandy traditional from Belgium — which pairs nicely with a number of traditional cocktails like Old Fashioneds or Gin and Tonics. The price tag for cocktails at the Cobber is steep, but worth it.
Where to Stay in Ghent
With an unparalleled location on Ghent’s main square and newly renovated interior, 1898 The Post is an obvious choice for boutique accommodations in Ghent. This 19th-century, neo-Gothic post office building has been converted to a 38-room hotel with plush accommodations and unique design. We loved our comfortable stay in a lofted room with a private balcony overlooking Saint Nicholas’ Church!
Where to Eat in Ghent
Any trip to Belgium should be filled with food — Belgian food is a true delight! There are many, many other blogs out there about where to find the best waffles and chocolate in Ghent, so I will not be talking about those in this guide. The list below is just a short summary of my favorite restaurants and eateries to enjoy during your 24 hours in Ghent.
Take 5 Espresso Bar: Best espresso and croissants we had in all of Belgium (Address: Voldersstraat 10)
Groot Vleeshuis: Sample a variety of local cheeses and charcuterie at this deli with a bustling atmosphere on one of Ghent’s liveliest market squares. (Address: Groentenmarkt 7)
Otomat: Fast-casual artisanal wood-fired pizza near major attractions (Address: Kleine Vismarkt 3)
BEO Bio Market: Part food market, part minimalist vegan restaurant, BEO serves up a creative plant-based small plate menu (Address: Heilige-Geeststraat 30)
Volta: High end Belgian cuisine in a rehabbed power station with friendly staff (Address: Nieuwewandeling 2B)
Oak: Michelin guide restaurant with tasting menu in a romantic, minimalist setting (Address: Hoogstraat 167/001)
Mémé Gusta: Traditional Belgian classics prepared with a modern, masterful touch (Address: Burgstraat 19)
Roots: Seasonal farm-to-table cuisine with large focus on seafood and vegetarian dishes. Casual atmosphere with a nice interior patio. (Address: Vrouwebroersstraat 5)