At first glance, Ghent—also spelled Gent—resembles any number of picturesque Flemish towns, brimming with charming cobblestone streets and squares, winding canals, and gorgeous medieval architecture. But Belgium’s third-largest city is more than just a pretty face. Thanks to a 75,000-strong student population, it boasts an edgy, cosmopolitan vibe, with hundreds of bars, restaurants, and cafes, plus a thriving arts and culture scene. And weaved among its ancient buildings is some seriously innovative avant-garde architecture, creating a wonderfully vibrant contrast between the old and the new.
Contrasting with the Gothic spires of the adjacent 13th-century St. Nicholas’s Church, the sleek, glassy RAY offers a chic alternative to the many fast-food joints surrounding this famous Ghent landmark. Chill with a coffee or cocktail in the greenhouse-style space and let the kids burn off energy on the indoor playground. There’s a small selection of snacks on offer—mainly cheese and charcuterie plates—but Sundays feature a rotating prix-fixe brunch menu, which might be English-themed dishes, like scones with clotted cream, one week, and French favourites the next. It’s extremely popular, so make sure to reserve a table in advance.
Fuel up on hearty, handmade ballekes, or Belgian meatballs—available in pork, chicken, fish, or vegetarian versions—at Balls & Glory, a casual spot just minutes from all the trendy shopping along the Veldstraat. These oversized balls are a meal in themselves, or pair them with a side of classic stoemp (a mash of potatoes, carrots, and seasonal veggies). All the ingredients here are sourced locally, from the meats and vegetables right down to the crisp apple-rhubarb juice.
There’s no better spot to sample genever than Dreupelkot, a cozy, brick-walled waterfront hideaway near the main Groentenmarkt square. Here you can find around 200 varieties of the traditional gin-like Flemish/Dutch liqueur, with surprising flavours created on-site like vanilla, chocolate, pina colada, mango, and cactus genever. Pours are generous and the atmosphere is always convivial.
A swanky arrival on the craft cocktail scene, The Cobbler is tucked inside 1898 The Post, a former post office turned luxury hotel in Graslei. Wood floors, comfy armchairs, book-lined shelves, and a marble fireplace create a clubby ambiance to savour classic mixed drinks, ambitious signature cocktails, and a variety of aperitifs, as well as scrumptious dessert cocktails. In warm weather, enjoy your drink al fresco, from the terrace overlooking the Leie river. There’s also a small menu of tapas and finger foods that are ideal for sharing.
Tucked inside a baroque 18th-century mansion is the Design Museum Gent, whose collection of international decorative arts spans from the 15th century to the modern day. Make your way through the less exciting period rooms to the new wing, a bright, airy space filled with items from the 20th and 21st centuries, including furniture, ceramics, household goods, typewriters, and even luggage. Among the highlights are sublime pieces from Victor Horta, the Belgian founder of the Art Nouveau movement, groovy 60’s-era furniture from Knoll, a bright-red cardboard armchair by Frank Gehry, and a shiny metallic sofa from contemporary designer Ron Arad.
A formerly neglected waterfront area between the historic city center and the university district has become an architectural pilgrimage with the construction of De Krook, Ghent’s main library. Composed of horizontal metal and glass layers in varying lengths, the stark structure towers over the river, surrounded by a vast plaza that’s home to the colorful sculpture De Passanten (The Passersby) by Michaël Borremans. Inside, huge windows afford great views of the city and the river, or head out to the Krook café’s seasonal terrace to enjoy a drink and a snack with spectacular vistas.
In the shadow of the 14th-century Belfry tower sits a modern structure of concrete, wood, and glass, with pitched roofs that mimic the surrounding Gothic buildings. This is the Stadshal, or Market Hall, a pavilion that hosts occasional events, from seasonal markets to live performances. Even if there’s nothing going on, it’s worth stopping by to snap a photo of this dynamic building, especially at night, when interior lights illuminate the hundreds of glass roof shingles.
Ghent’s medieval architecture is phenomenal by day, but by night, it’s even better. Every evening, from dusk until midnight, the streets, buildings, squares, and monuments of the city are illuminated as part of the Ghent Light Plan. Walking the whole circular route, from Kouter to the Opera house, takes about two hours, but the best part is central Leie riverfront, with the glorious guild houses of Korenlei and Graslei on either side. You can also go farther afield and see other lighted areas, including the Art Nouveau houses along Kunstlaan. It’s easy enough to walk it yourself, with a downloadable map available on the Visit Gent website, or you can sign up for guided tour.
Overlooking the River Leie in the pretty, cobblestoned Patershol district is this stylish boutique property, just a stone’s throw from the foreboding Gravensteen Castle and a short walk to St. Bavo’s Cathedral. Sleekly designed rooms are done up in cool gray or olive tones and feature wall-sized black-and-white images of famous Ghent sites. Some Cosy rooms, located on the ground floor, have interior patios, but it’s worth the splurge for an Exceptional View room, overlooking the canal or the towers of the old city. For even better views, head up to the heated outdoor pool on the rooftop, which is open seasonally, from May to September.
Hotel Astoria Gent
A convenient walk from the train station and a short tram ride to the city center, this small, family-run hotel is solid budget option. Rooms are decorated in a variety of styles, from classic—with herringbone floors and neutral striped wallpaper—to contemporary, with modern furnishings and bright pops of colour. Some offer private terraces while spa rooms boast big Jacuzzi tubs. A lovely garden with a stone patio is the perfect spot for enjoying breakfast on warmer days.