With Europe on our doorstep we’re always keen to find new hidden gems to explore, and that’s certainly what we discovered when we nipped over to Ghent in Belgium for a short break. So often in the shadow of the capital city, Brussels, Ghent offers a charm and beauty that isn’t easy to find.
Belgium is a wonderful country. Not only is it just an hour away by plane and easily reached by Eurostar, but it’s home to all manner of fabulous beers, home to Speculoos and waffles, home to the Moules-frites, and offers a perfect city break option. Ghent is situated north of Brussels and lies on the River Lys. The traditional buildings lining the banks of the river through the centre of the city are straight off a postcard, and thanks to the city’s high population of students at the city campus there’s a wonderfully vibrant feel to the place. Visiting in May we were also lucky enough to enjoy some fine weather, meaning plenty of drinks by the water!
Divided by the river you’ll find the historic quarter and then the more urban student feel, but both are equally as charming. You can’t help but marvel at the wonderful architecture, with the town’s famous towers belonging to the 3 churches dominating the view around the river.
Ghent holds all of the Belgian charm, with every bar and restaurant offering outdoor seating, table service overlooking the river, friendly faces, it’s nowhere near as busy and manic as Brussels and it’s every bit as pretty as Bruges. It’s the ideal destination for any couples looking for a short break away, or if traveling with friends you certainly won’t be disappointed at the vast number of bars within a stone’s throw of any hotel.
What to do?: A boat trip is an absolute must. There are so many great sites as you go up and down through the old town and if you’re lucky you’ll have a tour guide who is as informative as the one we had, to teach you all the local secrets. We learnt that the monks began to brew beer in Ghent back in 1200s as a safer alternative to drinking the local water, and carried on through the meandering canals past the Castle of the Counts. If you’re on a romantic break then be sure to listen as the boat passes by the Kissing Tree, as it’s said that whoever kisses under the tree will have everlasting love. The boat trips depart every 30 minutes and last around 40 minutes.
One of the most impressive sights in Ghent is the Castle of the Counts. A rare city centre castle, as you enter the fortress you start to get an idea of how imposing it used to be. Nowadays it’s a torture museum, but don’t let that put you off, you can also get married there with the stunning views from the turrets.
The ramparts are built entirely from stone and 24 towers complete the outer castle wall. As you make your way inside you get an immediate sense of just what this castle meant to the city and its residents back in the 18th century. The torture museum is fascinating, if a little gory. From seeing an original guillotine, to explanations of every type of torture device you can images, it soon builds up a picture of just how unpleasant life was back then.
What to eat?: As big fans of street food there was one place high on our radar to visit – The Holy Food Market. Just a short walk from the main city squares, the 16th century church has been transformed into a gastronomy hub. Imagine Leicester’s Canteen, but every day and inside a church. It’s brilliant!
The traders range from waffles, to steak, to meatballs, to ribs, to make your own ice cream, and the sushi is the finest I have ever tasted in my life. This is street food of the highest level! The long bar fills the centre of the church and you can enjoy beer, wine, cocktails and champagne. It’s open every day and stays open later at weekends.
Another great place to try is the brilliantly named, Balls & Glory, who serve, surprise surprise, meatballs. Putting a twisted on the traditional Belgian meatball, Balls & Glory offer large handcrafted balls with various fillings, which are made fresh on site daily. Pork and chicken options are accompanied by a daily vegetarian options and come with a range of sides. They won’t be the cheapest meatballs you’ll ever have but it’ll be the biggest and probably the best. Balls & Glory Ghent is located close to the university at Jakobijnenstraat 6.
Where to stay?: When considering hotels you’ll want to stay local and the Marriott couldn’t be better located. Situated a stone’s throw from St Michiel’s bridges, you’re in the best Instagram photo spot in Ghent. Boat trips leave from the hotel’s front door and they offer riverside bar service from their on site steak restaurant.
The rooms are modern and spacious, with a great bar area and shop for 24 hour provisions in the lobby. As for breakfast, from a range of cooked buffet options to make your own waffles with Speculoos (of course), you’ll be spoilt for choice. And be sure to try the Mastel – a speciality cake in Ghent that is topped with cinnamon sugar, baked and ironed flat.
Getting there: There are various flight options to travel into Brussels from both East Midlands and Birmingham Airport, as well as the Eurostar. Fly BMI offer a twice daily service from East Midlands Airport, which couldn’t be more convenient. Included free of charge within your Fly BMI tickets is priority access at the airport meaning you can fast track the security queues, and once on board during your short 1 hour flight there is also a complimentary drinks and snack service. On arrival in Brussels, Ghent is just a short train ride away with the train station located directly below the airport. Easy to navigate and immaculate public transport, as we come to expect from mainland Europe, you’ll be there in no time.
Being so easy to reach from the Midlands, Ghent really is an ideal city break destination. It’s beautiful and vibrant, historic but quirky, and with brilliant food & drink. What more could you want?
With thanks to Anita at Visit Flanders who provided us with flights & accommodation for the press trip under no obligation to give a positive review. All opinions are our own.