Ghent is one of Belgium’s glittering jewels.
With its network of narrow canals, red-brick buildings and magnificent Gothic architecture, it has a medieval cityscape to rival that of Bruges, its more famous neighbour. Better still, as this is a small city, a day trip to Ghent will allow you to hit its highlights with ease.
But what are the best things to do during one day in Ghent?
Whether you are visiting Ghent on a day trip or spending a few nights there, this Ghent itinerary will ensure that you see the best things that it has to offer. If you have more time to spare – I recommend spending two days in Ghent if possible – I have included some additional tourist attractions.
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A Short History of Ghent
Much of the appeal of today’s Ghent is rooted in its prosperous past.
Ghent thrived in the Middle Ages due to the Flemish cloth trade. During the 13th and 14th Centuries, this was one of the largest towns in Western Europe.
Around 1482, the city came under the rule of the mighty Habsburg Empire but slipped into a slow economic decline in the centuries that followed. Thanks to an ambitious restoration programme over the past 20- years, Ghent’s historic core has been restored to its former medieval glory.
WHAT LANGUAGE IS SPOKEN IN GHENT?
Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. In Ghent, people speak Flemish which is essentially a dialect if Dutch with some different pronunciations and words. However, many people will also speak English as a second language.
Top 5 Things to Do in Ghent in One Day
One Day in Ghent: Itinerary
Ghent self-guided walking tour map
To help you on your way, here is a map with my pick of the best things to do in Ghent. For an interactive map, simply click here or on the image itself.
You can also use this as a self-guided walking tour of Ghent. From the starting point at St. Bavo’s Cathedral to the finish at Graffiti Street, the total distance is a mere 2km.
But if you prefer someone else to take care of the arrangements for you or you want to benefit from local knowledge, join an organised walking tour. This is also one of the best ways to meet people as a solo traveller.
ST. BAVO’S CATHEDRAL & THE MYSTIC LAMB
Our day in Ghent begins with one of the world’s artistic masterpieces, Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Housed in the Gothic St. Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal), the so-called Ghent altarpiece has survived wars, fire and theft to be restored to its former luminous glory and sited in the cathedral’s Villa Chapel.
St. Bavo’s Cathedral is also home to a typically energetic Rubens painting (St Baaf entering the Abbey of Ghent) and a massive marble and oak Rococo pulpit, representing the Tree of Life.
GERALD THE DEVIL
After you exit St. Bavo’s Cathedral, take a short detour to take a look at Gerald the Devil.
Don’t be fooled by the name. A devil has never lived in this sombre 13th Century fortress.
Staring life as a knights’ residence, throughout the centuries it has been used as an arsenal, a monastery, a school, a bishop’s seminary, a 17th Century madhouse for the mentally ill and a home for male orphans.
That’s quite a CV.
BELFORT OF GHENT
Across from the cathedral, on the west side of the main square, is the UNESCO-listed Belfort of Ghent (Ghent’s Belfry).
Built from blue-grey limestone ferried from Tournai, work started on this tower in 1313. The building was tinkered with many times over the ensuing centuries and its current dragon-topped spire dates from the 20th Century.
Take the elevator to the roof of the belfry for windy views over the city centre. The entrance is on the south side of the adjoining Lakenhalle, Ghent’s historic Cloth Hall.
CUBERONS: GHENT’S SWEET TREATS
Try Ghent’s local candy when you are in town. The famous cuberon is a conical sweetie, traditionally flavoured with raspberry. These sweets are sold from wagons across the city centre.
GHENT CITY HALL
Ghent’s striking City hall or Stadhuis is a building of two halves.
The later section, dating from the 1580s, is pure Italian Renaissance with its perfect symmetry and majestic columns and pilasters. But turn the corner, and the flamboyant façade is pure Gothic, the style intended for the entire building until the collapse of the wool trade killed the finances.
The only way of taking a look inside the Stadhuis is on an organised walking tour with a guide. More information here.
ST NICHOLAS’S CHURCH (SINT-NIKLAASKERK)
A few minutes’ walk from Ghent’s city hall is St. Nicholas’s Church (Sint-Niklaaskerk). Another of Ghent’s landmarks, this Gothic church built from blue-grey Tournai stone was completed in the 13th Century.
Step inside to take a look at the Baroque high altar and its representation of the Last Judgement.
Entrance is free.
Are you looking for a fun way to explore Ghent? Then why not take part in a scavenger hunt? Armed with a smartphone app, you’ll uncover Ghent’s highlight solving riddles along the way.
For further information, click here.
ST. MICHAEL’S BRIDGE
No day in Ghent is complete without stopping to admire the view from St. Michael’s Bridge (Sint-Michielsbrug). Offering fabulous views over Ghent’s skyline, this landmark was built in 1913 to offer visitors to the Great Exhibition the best vantage point from which to admire the city centre.
To the south, there is the handsome Gothic Sint-Michielskirk. In the opposite direction is Tussen Bruggen, Ghent’s oldest harbour, and its iconic quays, the Graslei and the Korenlei.
Back in medieval times, Ghent’s boatmen and grain weighers were essential to the fortunes of the city. A lasting legacy is the row of gorgeous guildhouses that line the Graslei, the gable of each decorated with a symbol indicating its function.
On the opposite side of the harbour, the Korenlei is home to an ensemble of 18th Century merchants’ houses built in the Neoclassical style. Take a look at the Guildhouse of the Unfree Boatmen at number 7 which has a façade that features exaggerated dolphins and lions.
GHENT BOAT TOUR
Now it’s time to rest those feet. You deserve it.
Boats depart the Graslei and the Korenlei for a 50-minute trip along Ghent’s canals. This is an excellent way to learn more about the city.
This boat tour is included in the CityCard Gent.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR GHENT BOAT TOUR
We are now going to make our way towards Ghent’s castle via Jan Breydelstraat. This is one of the city’s prettiest streets and is lined with inviting shops and restaurants.
The hulking and forbidding walls and turrets of Het Gravensteen, or the castle of the counts in Flanders, look like they have been lifted straight from a child’s storybook. First built in 1180 to intimidate and protect Ghent’s unruly citizens in equal measure, the castle has had many incarnations in the subsequent centuries.
A kitsch (and overlong) self-guided tour takes you through its main buildings, passing medieval military hardware and instruments of torture along the way. From the castle’s wall, there are lovely views over Ghent’s city centre.
Northeast of Het Gravensteen is the Patershol, a picturesque labyrinth of brick terraced houses, dating from the 17th Century, that was once the heart of the city. This is a good spot to grab a bite to eat.
For centuries, the Vrijdagmarkt was the political heart of Ghent and the site of public meetings and executions. The imposing statue in the middle of the square is that of the guild leader Jacob van Artevelde.
WHAT ABOUT THE GREAT BUTCHER’S HALL?
In better times, the Great Butchers’ Hall would be included on any Ghent itinerary. The culinary delights of east Flanders are displayed within its 15th Century walls.
However, the Great Butchers’ Hall has been closed for renovation.
GRAFFITI STREET (WERREGARENSTRAAT)
Street artists are let loose with their spray cans on Werregarenstraat, otherwise known as Graffiti Street. It’s worth taking a detour to this narrow alleyway to look at works by artists such as Roa and Bué the Warrior.
JOIN A BEER TOUR WITH A LOCAL
If you are staying overnight in Ghent, you must join this excellent beer tour with a local guide.
Beer is one of the things for which Belgium is famous and prior to World War II, there were over 100 breweries in Ghent. Today’s brewers have rediscovered Ghent and both microbreweries and larger breweries are booming.
Liselot, our super-enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, introduced us to five types of Belgian beer in three bars. At the end of the tour, she provided personalised recommendations for beer that is widely available in Belgium.
In case you’re wondering, I should go for Gulden Draak Quadruple, a mere 10.7% ABV. Cheers.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TOUR
Other Great Places to Visit in Ghent, Belgium
Ultimately, how you spend your day in Ghent will depend on your tastes and interests, and how relaxed you wish your itinerary to be.
So what else can you do if you want to squeeze in more sights or if you have two days in Ghent?
Here is my pick of the bunch.
ST. PETER’S ABBEY
St. Peter’s was a Benedictine abbey founded in the 7th century by St Amand. It thrived during the 14th and 15th Centuries, growing into a sort of abbey village with farms, gardens, homes and estates.
Its garden with its vineyard is gorgeous and it has a fine courtyard. But the highlight for me was clambering up to the organ for a view over the fabulous Renaissance Our Lady of St. Peter’s Church.
HOUSE OF ALIJN (ALIJN HUIS)
This folklore museum use is housed in former children’s hospital, St Catherine’s Hospital, the only conserved almshouse in Ghent.
The almshouse was founded in 1363 to resolve a long-running blood feud between two of the city’s patrician families: the Rijms and the Alijns. Think of them as the Flemish version of the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo & Juliet.
The museum’s rooms depict life and work in 19th and 20th Century Ghent with reconstructions of living spaces and shops.
FINE ARTS MUSEUM (MSK)
Ghent’s Fine Art Museum displays over 600 pieces from its collection of about 9,000 works, spanning the Middle Ages to the first half of the 20th century. These works are arranged thematically, starting with Religion and ending with Progressives vs Conservative (I liked room 16: Travelling around the World).
If contemporary art is more your thing, head across the road to the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, or the S.M.A.K. for short. It’s not my cup of tea but its collection is considered to be the most important of its kind in Flanders.
Is the Ghent City Card Worth It?
Like many cities, Ghent has a tourist pass – CityCard Gent – that offers free or discounted admission to its main attractions from €38. It also includes a boat tour and bicycle rental for one day.
But is the Ghent City card good value?
I’m not usually a massive fan of these city cards but, for me, it was a travel bargain. Like any of these city cards, you will need to do the maths to work out if it is the right choice for you.
You can pick one up at the city’s tourist information centre or at participating attractions.
READ THIS NEXT: Is the Ghent City Card Worth It?
Plan Your Day in Ghent, Belgium
How many days do you need in Ghent?
You can cover most of Ghent’s main attractions in one day. However, I recommend allowing two days to see all that the city has to offer in a leisurely fashion.
I used Ghent as one of my bases for spending a week in Belgium. From here, it was simple to take a day trip to lovely Leuven and discover the best chocolate shops in Bruges.
READ THIS NEXT: A Perfect 1-Week Belgium Itinerary by Train
How to get to Ghent from Brussels or Bruges
Ghent is located at the midpoint of the train line between Brussels and Bruges. From either city, it’s a 30-minute journey.
Trains are frequent and not expensive.
The only downside is that Ghent St. Peter’s Station is a 30-minute walk from the historic city centre. However, if you are feeling weary or want to save time, tram line 1 runs from the station to the city centre every ten minutes.
How to visit Ghent as a day trip from London
Thanks to Eurostar, it is easy to take a day trip to Ghent from London. You will need to change trains at Brussels Midi / Brussels Sud.
For example; if you caught the first Eurostar train from London St. Pancras International at just after 8 am, you would be ready to start your day in Ghent at midday. The last train for London departs Brussels just before 9 pm.
How to get around Ghent
Ghent is a very walkable city. Its main attractions are spread over a small area and the best way of getting around is on foot.
Where to stay in Ghent
If you are staying overnight in Ghent, base yourself in its historic centre to be close to the attractions included in this one-day itinerary.
Here are my top choices:
I stayed at this superb apartment in the heart of the historic city centre, which is a great self-catering choice in Ghent. The washing machine, Nespresso machine and roof terrace were welcome bonuses.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR STAY
Here are some other choices of accommodation that may suit other tastes and budgets:
If you are looking for a first-rate accommodation choice that is closer to the train station, this could be it. This 4-star B&B has gardened fabulous reviews.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK A ROOM
Push the boat out and stay at this guesthouse housed in a historic building in the heart of the city. There is also a peaceful garden in which to relax after a hard day’s sightseeing.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK A ROOM
>>> None of these take your fancy? Explore other great accommodation choices in Ghent here.
Can You Visit Bruges and Ghent in One Day?
As Bruges and Ghent are separated by a mere 30-minute train journey it is possible to visit the two cities in one day.
Both cities are very walkable. Whilst there are similarities between Bruges and Ghent cities, they each have something unique to offer.
However, visiting both of these cities in a day will be a rushed experience. Furthermore, you will need to be highly selective in what you see and very organised to make the best of your day.
My advice is to spend a day in both cities if possible. If that’s not an option, then pick a city.
But life isn’t always perfect. If you are short on time, I recommend joining an organised day tour to make the most of your precious day.
This day trip to Ghent and Bruges from Brussels has excellent reviews, is affordable and offers free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance.
Is Ghent Safe for Solo Travellers?
Overall, Belgium is an easy country for solo travellers, even if you are travelling alone for the first time. It has an excellent infrastructure, relatively affordable accommodation, rich history and buzzing nightlife in the main cities.
Keeping safe is a key concern of female solo travellers. Ghent is a friendly city with locals, students and tourists enjoying its attractions, bars and restaurants. Even after dark on weekdays, I felt safe.
That said, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. Watch out for pickpockets, especially in popular tourist areas and transport hubs. Remain vigilant and keep your belongings close to you. If you have a safe at your accommodation, use it to store valuables.
Is Ghent Worth Visiting?
Whilst Ghent is not as well-known as either Brussels or Bruges, ignore it at your peril.
It attracts a fraction of the visitors descending on these two cities which has to be a good thing. If you ever visited Bruges on a weekend day in summer, you will know what I mean.
It has history and culture in spades, friendly locals, glorious architecture and meandering canals. And if that’s not enough, Ghent also has a lively restaurant and bar scene and is home to a growing number of breweries.
All the ingredients for a perfect weekend break.