Just a 30 min train ride from Brussels, Ghent is one of our favorite cities in Europe. The old architecture and medieval feeling of the city make you feel as though you have been transported in time. This little canal city is just close enough to find without trouble but far enough off the beaten path that it doesn’t get too many tourists. For this reason it has retained much of its middle age charm. It’s not a large city so you can see just about everything in 2 or 3 days, making it perfect for a short weekend trip.
The train station is a quite a way from the city center so you’ll want to take the bus or a taxi into downtown. Once you are there, however, you shouldn’t need any other transportation as everything will be within walking distance. We stayed at the Ghent Marriott, which was very reasonably priced (this may have been due to the fact that we were there in the off-season. We visited at the end of April). We found that the location of the hotel was absolutely perfect and the service and accommodations were great as well. They had 2 clean and assembled baby beds waiting for us by the time we checked in and got upstairs.
The best way to see Ghent is just to walk around the city. In 2 days of wandering we felt like we stumbled in to all the right places. In our meanderings we found good places to eat, lots of fun buildings and even a couple of little parks where our kids got to take breaks and play. There are a few things below, however, that you’ll want to plan to see.
The Cathedrals: there are two as well as a bell tower (which we walked past but didn’t enter). The first Cathedral is St. Nicholas’s Church. It is stunning. The walls seem to climb for miles before the finally meet the ceiling. St. Nicholas’s is free to enter and welcomes visitors from 10:00am to 5:00pm Tues. – Sun. The church is closed for Monday morning mass but opens briefly afterward from 2:00pm to 5:00pm. The second is the St. Bavo Cathedral which houses the famous Ghent Altarpiece. The Cathedral itself is free to enter but there is a fee to view the altarpiece which is set up in a separate guarded room in the corner of the cathedral. St. Bavo’s was consecrated in 942 A.D. but has undergone many renovations since that time. It is an intricate and spectacular building. As you wander the halls you will find many sculptures and paintings including Saint Bavo enters the Convent at Ghent by Peter Paul Rubens. The church is open to the public everyday from 8:30am to 5:00pm. While you can certainly light a candle and offer a prayer, both Cathedrals are meant more for viewing than for worship. This made us feel more comfortable bringing in our, sometimes not-so-quiet, children.
Gravensteen Castle. The fortress towers down over the river just north of the center of town. You can’t miss it. It is free to everyone under the age of 19. Tickets for adults run between 4 and 8 euro depending on your age. While the castle itself doesn’t close until 6pm, last admission is at 5pm. Once inside you will find a self guided tour of the structure. Plan on lot of stairs and tight spaces. Thus, no strollers are allowed (or even possible) so bring the child carriers.
Saturdays there are little markets set up in the square where vendors sell everything from live chickens to antique jewelry. This part was particularly fun for the kids. The little ones will particularly enjoy the animals. You might consider giving each child a couple of Euro at places like these and let them pick out their own souvenir (provided they don’t choose a chicken, of course). Other than that just make sure not to miss out on the Belgian Chocolate! There is a chocolate shop between the bell tower and St. Bavo’s called Van Hoorebeke’s Chocolate Shop. Here you can look down through the glass floor and watch as the chocolatiers work their magic. The staff is also known to have a soft spot for children and will often treat them to a free chocolate in exchange for a smile. Overall we found Ghent to be a charming and friendly city. Defiantly worth a visit.