Bruges offers visitors myriad attractions for a full two-day visit, but if you’re staying longer than a weekend, then consider a day trip to Ypres, Ghent, Brussels, Flanders Field or Ostend. All are within easy reach of Bruges – by road or rail – and make a worthwhile add-on to your Belgium experience. In the first in a series of day trips tips from Bruges, Gina Baksa takes a stroll around the historic city of Ghent
Only 20 minutes from Bruges by train – a tad longer by car – Ghent has with an edgier, funkier feel than its more sedate neighbour, especially after dark when the cafés and bars come alive. There’s a thriving music scene – jazz especially – and the nightlife is eclectic and vibrant, thanks in part to the large student population. Ghentians love their food. From budget eats to Michelin-starred restaurants, the East Flanders capital is a smorgasbord of culture, design and history – and offers abundant gustatory pleasures for the discerning gourmand.
Divided into two distinct areas: the museums are mainly situated in the Arts Quarter, while the historic district – with its pedestrianised streets – offers visitors a cultural feast of medieval towers, fortress and of course the near-mythical Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.
A day’s walk around Ghent
The route I took is around 1.5 miles, but with a stop for coffee, lunch, museums and sights along the way, you can easily spend a day exploring.
From Gent-Sint-Pieters station – collect a street map inside – jump on the number 1 tram – the stop is under the bridge on the left as you exit the station – and alight at Korenmarkt stop, just 15 minutes away. Make your way to St Nicholas Church (stniklaas.com) ahead of you – a restored 13th-century Gothic masterpiece with its Baroque altar, then head east to Sint-Baafsplein and the 300ft Belfry (visitgent.be). For some major bell-ringing action, time your climb just before noon. Unlike the belfry in Bruges, bell tower has a lift if you’d rather save your energy for lunch!
Passing the Cloth Hall (Lakenhealle) next to the Belfry you can’t miss St Bavo’s Cathedral rising majestically in front of you on the eastern side of Sint-Baafsplein.
The interior of this Gothic masterpiece boasts memorable treasures, including the van Eyck brothers’ Mystic Lamb altarpiece. This 20-panelled painting is famous for its mélange of mystical and natural themes and is displayed in the former baptismal chapel.
Leaving St Bavo’s take Biezekapel on your right, continuing over Hoogpoort and walk down Zandberg. A great lunch choice here is De Warempel (de.warempel.be)
Popular with locals, this vegetarian hotspot has inventive and tasty dishes that will satisfy even the hardened carnivore. If it’s too early for lunch then head round to St James’s Church (Sint Jacobskerk) to Vrijdagmarkt. The square is bordered by mansions and guildhouses, and there’s been a market here since the 13th century. My advice would be to head straight for Dulle Griet pub (dullegriet.be), which serves the largest selection of Belgian beer in Ghent. Order the immense 1.2-litre long glass of house beer and they will take your right shoe as a deposit and winch it up to the ceiling.
Assuming you haven’t overdone the amber nectar, make your way out of Vrijdagmarkt via Groot Kanon-plein and head over the bridge. You’re now in Patershol – the former red-light district – now home to trendy boutiques, bars and restaurants. Explore the streets behind Kraanlei quayside, bordered by 17th-century houses once occupied by tanners and weavers.
Continuing south down Kraanlei you’ll arrive at no 65 – the Folkore Museum (huisvanalijn.be) – a former hospice for children that shows what daily life was like in the city during the 19th century with an emphasis on craft and trade.
On leaving the museum continue to the end of Kraanlei and make a right onto Sint Veerleplein and a visit to the impressive Castle of the Counts (visitgent.be) with its fine buttresses (love that word), collection of Medieval torture instruments and a great view from the battlements.
On leaving the castle walk down Burgstraat across the river, then left down Korenlei to the Design Museum (designmuseum.gent.be). Once a family mansion, pieces on view include an impressive Art Noveau collection and 17th and 18th century furniture.
A post-design pit stop at the Brooderie bakery café (brooderie.be) opposite will touch the spot for a late lunch. If you can’t get a table (it’s tiny) head for Reserva just along the street for coffee and snacks.
Once replete head out along Kornlei – this part of the river is known as Tussen Brugen (between the bridges) and was Ghent’s commercial centre during the 11th to 18th centuries. The Marriott hotel was a former brewery and at no. 7 you’ll see the Guildhouse of the Tired Boatmen – aka The Anchor. Walking down to St Michael’s Bridge turn left and walk up Graslei. The Corn Stockpile House dates from the late 12th century and has allegedly the oldest step gable in the country. Next door is the Customs House and other sea-faring related dwellings, all restored.
Walking back to St Michael’s Bridge you’ll get great views east towards Ghent’s three towers. St Michael’s Church is worth a look and has the 1630 portrait of Christ by Anthony van Dyck. You’ve now arrived back where you started, near St Nicholas Church.
Take train to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station. Journey time: 20 minutes. Then take tram no. 1 into the city. Get off at Korenmarkt stop (15 mins).
Follow signs to the E40 and stay on it till you reach Ghent. Journey time: 30 minutes.
The LF5 Cycling route passes from Bruges to Thorn via Ghent.
Cycling routes website here: http://www.fietsroute.org/index.htm
Michelin-starred restaurants in Ghent
Publiek (Olly Ceulenaere) | Ham 39 | +32 9 330 04 86 | http://www.publiekgent.be
Horseele (Danny Horseele) | Stadion KAA Gent, Ottergemsesteenweg – Zuid 808 | www.restauranthorseele.be | +32 9 330 23 20
Vrijmoed (Michaël Vrijmoed) Vlaanderenstraat 22 | +32 9 279 99 77 | vrijmoed.be/en/
Pakhuis | Schuurkenstraat 4; +32 9 223 5555 | pakhuis.be