Tourism to Ghent is booming as people discover that there is more to Belgium than just Brussels and Bruges. Ghent’s popularity will come as no surprise to expats who live here. There is something for everyone in this medieval city, and as friends and family take advantage of free accommodation to visit Ghent, expats will likely become well acquainted with several famous sites: Gravensteen (the Castle of the Counts), the Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedral) and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Expats in Ghent may also become connoisseurs of the many squares in Ghent, including Vrijdagmarkt and Sint-Pietersplein; beautiful buildings like Vooruit and the Duivelsteen; and picturesque parts of the city such as Patershol and Begijnhof. Add to these the many art galleries and museums, restaurants and local delicacies and there is plenty to keep visitors busy. But to add some variety in how expats unveil this beautiful city to their friends and family, we’ve compiled a quick list of quirky things to see an do in Ghent.
Make the most of the canals
During the semester, Ghent is home to 65,000 students from all over Belgium. You can often find a fair number of them enjoying a beverage on the Korenlei and Graslei, one of the most picturesque parts of the canals. Ghent is at the confluence of two rivers: the Leie and the Scheldt, and exploring the city through its canals is a great way to showcase the city to friends.
Besides taking a canal boat tour, expats should consider some quirky things to see and do in Ghent’s rivers. Kayaks for one or two people are available for hire from Hostel Uppelink near St. Michael’s Bridge, giving you the freedom to navigate the canals at your leisure. Another option is to rent a boat from one of several companies, including Minerva and Ghent Water Tourist, or hire a raft from VlotGent. These rafts are often seen on the canals, with people drinking beer, wine and food while enjoying the views of Ghent.
Explore Gent by night
Ghent is gorgeous by day and by night. To help people/visitors appreciate just how stunning this city is, the tourist office developed a two-hour walk through the city centre, highlighting 30 buildings, streets and squares. To reduce light pollution at night and to encourage people to appreciate different elements of the historic centre’s buildings, Ghent developed a light plan in 1998.
In 2004, the city won the International City.People.Light award for the Lighting Plan. The plan is still regularly updated to include new features, such as The birds of Mr. Maeterlinck on Predikherenlei. This light feature was part of the 2012 Gent Light Festival, a light extravaganza that occurs every three years and is an incredible experience for Ghentians and visitors looking for quirky things to see and do in Ghent.
Check out a festival or some music
If your friends are visiting during the Gentse Feesten in July it will be almost impossible to miss it, but there are other less visible festivals in Ghent throughout the year.
Ghent’s autumn festivals include the Festival of Flanders in September which showcases classical and world music concerts in some of the most beautiful buildings in Ghent, including venues not often open to the public. This is a great way to see some famous national and international performances in some very special locations.
Besides the festivals, there are many music venues in Ghent. You can visit the Opera in Gent, or check out De Bijloke for classical, jazz and contemporary concerts, or visit the Handelsbeurs on Kouter for a variety of music styles.
The Royal Conservatory of Gent, located next to Sint-Baafskathedral, also puts on performances for the public. In 2009, UNESCO designated Ghent as a Creative City of Music, and attending a festival or a concert is a great way to show friends why it received this status.
Drink and eat your way through Ghent
If your friends like beer then they have come to the right place! You can find over 250 Belgian beers in the city, with a good number from Ghent and the surrounding towns. Visiting a brewery is a great way of experiencing Ghent with friends.
Gruut’s brewery is in the historic centre and their beer famous for its medieval style of brewing without hops, which is one of the central ingredients in most beers. Groups can also visit the Huyghe brewery in Melle, close to Gent. This brewery makes the famous Delirium Tremens beer, easily recognisable by the pink elephants that adorn the bottles. Booking ahead is recommended for any brewery tour.
Keep a lookout for other Ghent beers, including Gulden Draak (the dragon on top of the belfry is its symbol), Gentse Strop, Crabbelaer and others.
If you’re after something stronger, pay a visit to ‘t Dreupelkot near the Groentenmarkt for some jenever. Jenever is a liquor based on juniper berry and ‘t Dreupelkot is an excellent place to introduce friends to this unique beverage.
Quirky things to see and do in Ghent
If your friends are done with seeing churches, castles and canals, there are many other activities to do together.
There are four companies in Ghent that provide Escape Room experiences for groups: Escape Room Gent, Locked Gent, Puzzle Gent and Exit Games Gent. The aim of these events is to lock people in a room where they have to work together to solve puzzles in order to escape the room by a certain time.
You can also check out some of the artistic graffiti Ghent has to offer with a self-guided tour. Concrete Canvas Tour and Sorry Not Sorry provide maps taking you to the best sites for graffiti in Ghent. In between Hoogpoort and Onderstraat there is even an entire alleyway dedicated to graffiti called the Werregarenstraat. Visiting these often very striking works will show yet another side of Ghent to your friends.
Finally, if you have seen everything Gent has to offer and want to escape for a bit, take your friends on a bike ride. You can hire bicycles from a number of places, including from Max Mobiel under the Stadshal and just behind Gent-Sint-Pieters, and from Biker on Steendam.
The Tourist Office in Vismarkt sells a number of maps for cyclists to follow from Ghent, including one that takes you past several castles such as Kasteel van Laarne. Gent’s historical city centre is nearly car free so riding a bike is a convenient way to get around (just watch out for the tram tracks!) and allows you to discover sites outside the centre.
Do you have some ideas for quirky things to see and do in Ghent when you have friends coming to stay? What activities have you done and which sites have you visited in Ghent that you have loved? Share your experiences in the comments below.
About the author:
Having travelled to Gent many times as a visitor, Duncan Gardiner moved from Australia to Gent with his wife in 2016. He makes the commute to Brussels and back every day for work. This gives him plenty of time to read and learn Dutch! Having lived in France and travelled extensively in Latin America, he enjoys languages, literature, history and travelling.