Anyone who’s seen In Bruges will know why this small tourist town in Belgium is so popular. Full of winding canals and crumbling brick houses that teeter over the water, Bruges looks like something straight out of a movie set. For decades now, Bruges has topped lists of off-the-beaten-track city breaks and romantic getaway destinations. However, like so many other places, Bruges’ charm is fading as it struggles under the weight of tourist numbers, hotel chains and city tours. For that reason, you’re better off discovering its “edgier” neighbour, Ghent: a lively student town with just as much charm, and a fraction of the crowds.
Ghent – the Best of Bruges
From pictures, Bruges looks like a sleepy medieval town, frozen in time. Yet, Bruges has never been more alive, buzzing with souvenir shops, hotels and boats that shunt tourists back and forth across town day-and-night. Though the historic centre is still largely un-touched (thanks to very strict protection laws), the onslaught of tour buses and group tours nonetheless takes away some of the magic. Whilst Bruges is certainly still worth visiting, for those who yearn for a real medieval escape, you’re better off heading 50km east to the beautiful East Flanders city of Ghent.
Ghent, like Bruges, is a fantastically preserved medieval city, surviving centuries of war and political upheaval (not to mention World War II), to bring you a glimpse of life a thousand years ago. One of the biggest cities in Europe in the 13th century, Ghent was an important textiles centre and maintained vital connections with other European capitals, its long-lasting prosperity reflected in the grandiose churches, university buildings and museums that cluster around the River Lys.
An Artistic Haven
Since the 20th century, Ghent has gradually developed a reputation as a university town and a cultural centre, attracting migrant artists and liberal thinkers to set up home here from all over the world. Unlike Bruges’s somewhat traditional, uptight sensibilities, Ghent defies the characteristics of many historic towns by rejecting convention and embracing change. You can see this from the various pop-up art galleries across town, its packed calendar of cultural events and its internationally renowned nightlife!
In the same way that people often compare Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, Ghent is the trendier sister to toy-town Bruges, built for locals, by locals. Bruges’s cultural scene exists mainly for tourists, and some have complained (others rejoiced!) that the town feels somewhat deserted at night once the last coach tour departs. Ghent, on the other hand, is just getting started, as the live music bars of Charlatan and Hot Club de Gand fling open their doors to students, local families and visitors alike.
Design Museum Ghent – Full of contemporary design furniture and Art Deco pieces, this museum offers a fascinating collection of objects, all housed within a glorious 18th century hotel
Industriemuseum – Learn all about Ghent’s history in the textiles industry from the 18th century onwards. The museum paints a vivid portrait of industrial Ghent and in particular, the role of local women and children in the labour process.
Museum of Fine Arts – This is one of the oldest museums in Belgium, displaying the work of many of the great Flemish artists and beyond. Within the collection are several works by Rodin, Bosch and James Ensor.
Hot Club de Gand – This live music bar has four jazz performances a week, with a rotating line-up of strong local talent. Grab a Belgian beer and settle in for a night of entertainment in cosy, warm brick surrounds.
De OmgekeerdeWereld – This popular student bar is a cosy little hideaway, crammed with rickety tables, LED signs and book-lined walls. From as little as €1.80 a beer, you’ll find it’s one of the cheapest bars in the city. Just try pronouncing this place's name after you’ve had one of their 10% volume ales…
Culture Club – This multi-floor nightclub offers huge weekend parties and is particularly famous for its impressive light shows. If you’re in the mood to party the night away, you’ll be in good company.
The Capital of Veggie Cuisine
Whilst Bruges tends to offer up the Belgian classics (think beef stew and steak-frites), Ghent is known by some as the vegetarian capital of the world! Not only is it absolutely packed with high quality vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but it in fact also dedicates an entire day of the week to vegetarianism, every week. Thursdays in Ghent are known as “veggie day”, after a local initiative in 2009, and schoolchildren and civil servants alike are all encouraged to opt for a veggie meal on this day.
If you’ve ever been on a European city break and torn your hair out trying to find a half-decent vegetarian option – consider heading down to Ghent, where you can eat out to your hearts content.
Top Vegetarian Restaurants:
Tuin van Eten – translating to “garden of eating”, this restaurant offers delicious platters of vegetarian food in its tastefully designed space. Head out to the wooden-decked garden for a meal beneath twinkling lights and climbing vines.
Aywa Beirut Street Food – Not strictly vegetarian, but packed with options, this Lebanese joint has a mouth-watering menu of chickpea salads, falafel, and sweet treats. Grab a selection of dishes to share and tuck in.
De Appelier – This trendy restaurant has a daily selection of vegetarian dishes, depending on whatever’s fresh. Pick your salads and quiches from a blackboard on the wall and watch as a generous plate is brought over to you, piled high with healthy goodness.
Other Great Restaurants:
Gaston – A beautiful rooftop bar and restaurant for a special meal at a reasonable price. With views all over the city and an extensive menu, this is the perfect place to mark the final night of a perfect city break.
Roots – For the real foodies, this is the place to go. Offering a six-course set menu, the chef creates a magical culinary experience, prioritising vegetarian cuisine. Though not cheap, you’ll find it’s worth every cent.
Kin Khao – If you love Thai food, this is easily the best Thai place in Ghent, serving up hot stir fries and curries fresh from the wok. Seated on long shared tables and benches, the restaurant has a great communal atmosphere for a quick lunch or a relaxing evening meal.
Where to Stay?
Ghent is bursting with accommodation options, and you shouldn’t have an issue finding a place that suits you. From Airbnbs to grand hotels, there’s a stay to fit every budget and every taste. If you’re more the backpacking type, the jewel in Ghent’s hostelling crown is the main dorm room in Hostel Uppelink, with windows that face right out onto the river. For €23 a night, you get the best views in the city 😎.
Hotel Uppelink – from €23
KaBa Hostel – from €23
Het Rustpunt – from €82
Hotel Gravensteen – from €91
Burgstraat 17 Apartment – from €160
Hotel Harmony – from €192