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Summer staycation in Belgium: Ghent
In the middle ages, Ghent was the second largest city in northern Europe and a leading port town. While it still retains its ancient architecture and quaint cobbled lanes, it’s also a creative hub, teeming with rebellious and innovative energy. Visit Ghent this summer to find out why Lonely Planet says that anyone who does “will have their eyes out on stalks”.
Sint-Baaf’s cathedral is home to the most frequently stolen work of art in history, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, othwise known as the Ghent Altarpiece. The 24-panel altarpiece was painted by the Van Eyck brothers in 1432 and is currently undergoing a painstaking restoration.The central panel was finished amid great fanfare late last year. No visit to Ghent is complete without seeing this masterpiece, one of the world's first oil paintings. Don't skip the audio tour.
For a decidedly more modern art experience, head to Werregarrenstraat, or the graffiti alley. This is the only place where graffiti artists can legally paint on the walls. And it shows.
Also in the centre of Ghent is the belfry, one of Belgium’s finest. A carillon at the top plays frequently, and you can climb the many, many stairs for astonishing views. Floors on the way up contain artefacts of the old city (and provide respite from the climb). There are also fantastic views of the city from the top floor of the newish city library De Krook.
Hang around until it gets dark, and marvel at Ghent’s award-winning lighting, which highlights the city’s beautiful architecture. You can download a map of the lighting route from the tourist website, which also has a wealth of information in English.
Outside of the city centre, the museum quarter will keep you entertained for many hours. It is home to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Smak contemporary art museum and Stam, the city museum. Stam’s permanent collection is closed until the autumn, but its temporary exhibitions are open. The city museum is part of the Bijloke arts campus, home this summer to open-air concerts, theatre and more.
Ghent wears its hipster vibe on its sleeve in the food scene. While it is home to some of the greatest Michelin star restaurants in the country, including Vrijmoed and Oak, it is much more inclined towards casual chic. Shaggy-haired tattooed chef Kobe Desramault is the poster boy of the genre, and his De Superette is crowded with young foodies. Also worth checking out is A Food Affair, which many claim is the city’s best Thai food, and Komkommertijd, an expat owned and operated vegan buffet.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, line up to get a table at Julie’s House, ostensibly a cupcake emporium, but with a wide array of desserts that are so good you’ll wonder where they’ve been all your life. For sweets on the go, sample the local speciality neuzekes, the triangle-shaped sweet with a raspberry syrup centre. They are sold from wooden carts on Groentenmarkt.
Head to the Graslei for a drink or an ice cream while gazing at the flower-lined canal. Choose a cafe or bring your own drinks and sit on the banks of the river like the students do. At number 16, the well-hidden entrance to the Cobbler cocktail bar is worth finding. Make your way up the winding stone staircase to find the cosy plush bar, which has taken over from Jigger’s as the place to be for drinks. (Though at Jigger’s you'll find more of a party atmosphere on the busy streetfront and a romantic terrace at the back.)
Book and coffee lovers should head to Paard van Troje, a bookshop/cafe with plenty of outdoor seating on the Kouter square and a selection of books in English. The Gruut brewery is also worth a visit for beer brewed without hops, using special herbs according to a medieval recipe.
Getting there and around
From the Gent-Sint-Pieters train station, hop on tram 1 to get straight to the city centre. Or rent bikes (or buggies or wheelchairs) at Fiets Ambassade behind the station. From the Ghent Dampoort train station, meanwhile it’s short jaunt into the city centre. Once in the centre you'll probably catch sight of the Wandelbus, a tiny free shuttle that has eight stops across the city centre. But you can get on anywhere, just stick up your hand, like hailing a taxi. If you'll be in Ghent two or three days, pick up a CityCard, which offers major savings on admissions and transport.
Photos: Ghent by day and night (c)Bas Bogaerts/Stad Gent/Dienst Toerisme, Cobbler courtesy Cobbler/Facebook