While we were gallivanting around Iceland last month, we were guided through a harrowing snowstorm by a lovely Belgian couple, and while we wound down from our near death experiences over an overpriced pizza, we began discussing our travel plans. When they heard that we were going to be spending some time in Bruges and Brussels, they had one piece of advice: Skip both of those and go to Ghent. Ultimately, that turned out to be the best piece of travel advice we've received so far aside from "You can bring your own mini bottles of liquor on an airplane".
Ghent was founded in 650 AD, and by the middle of the 13th century had become the second largest city in Europe after Paris. That's right, GHENT WAS THE SECOND BIGGEST CITY IN EUROPE AND YOU HADN'T HEARD OF IT BEFORE YOU READ ABOUT IT ON GETTING IN THE MAP. When Ghent's role as a metropolis of Europe was ended in the 17th Century by the Eighty Years' War, the city became an afterthought on the Trafalgar Tours' which wind their way through Northern Europe. While Paris is the City of Love and Amsterdam is the Venice Of The North, this stunning port city has no nickname. The medieval structures in the City Centre are so beautifully well-preserved because they escaped the bombing of World War II that decimated so many cities like their Dutch neighbors Rotterdam, and the three most famous relics (St. Michael's Cathedral, St. Nicholas' Church and the Belfry) are literally within shouting distance of each other. FUN FACT ALERT: The Belfry has a golden dragon on top, which (in medieval times) they would pump smoke out of the snout as enemies approached so that they would think A DRAGON PROTECTED THE CITY. THIS IS SOME GAME OF THRONES SHIT WHY IS GHENT NOT THE MOST POPULAR CITY IN THE WORLD?
One of the ways we know that we love a city is that within the first hour of arrival we begin googling prices of homes we think we could live in, and Ghent passed this test with flying colors when Renee announced that there was an apartment in a three hundred year old building in the city center available for 150,000 Euros. With a view of the canals. Oh, did I not mention that there are canals running through the medieval center of the city? That you can sit next to and enjoy the water slowly going by whilst enjoying a rare Belgian beer that would cost you over $10 in the States and cost less than four Euros? HOW ARE YOU NOT BOOKING YOUR FLIGHTS?
We spend our three days in Ghent alternating eating waffles, chocolates, fries, and beers, all of which Belgium is famous for and all of which were mind-numbingly delicious; how there are not twelve million hugely fat Belgians walking around I will never understand. We also took a day trip to Bruges (FYI, if you're visiting Belgium, this is our recommendation. Stay in Ghent, and take a day trip to Bruges and Brussels, you'll like Ghent better than either of them), which we found incredibly touristy. Bruges had the same gothic medieval beauty of Ghent, but with the unwelcome addition of dozens of souvenir shops on every street and thousands of tourists blocking up the streets with their "I GOT BRUGES-ED IN BELGIUM" or "I HEART BELGIUM" t-shirts where the heart is a beer mug GROSS NO THANKS. We spent five hours in Bruges and turned around and came home. Beautiful city ruined by too many people.
But Ghent shockingly doesn't have this problem. The boat tours offered (there's only four boats available as opposed to the hundreds in Amsterdam) were never full and allowed you take beers on board. We stayed at the Hostel Uppelink, which recently won best Hostel in Europe, for $21 a bed, and while it was directly on the river, it stayed quiet enough for us to be able to sleep at night The only attraction which we didn't manage to see because it cost too much (Four Euros, yes we're cheap) was The Mystic Lamb, the most stolen painting of all time; we were told the reason they charge money to enter was to keep from giving too many people the opportunity to steal it again. The streets have a peaceful feel to them, no matter the time of day, not packed with tourists or even cars (The city center of Ghent is one of the largest non-vehicular areas of Europe) to keep you from enjoying the centuries-old structures. The souvenir shops are mostly just places that sell beer, and they all keep bottle openers behind the counter, not to sell but to open their wares.
We were constantly surprised at how inspiring Ghent was at every turn, right down to the thousands of lights which are turned on when the sun goes down (after 10 PM, FYI) and light up the entire city, enabling you to see Ghent in a completely different context. There is a bar with a beer list a mile long that requires your shoe as a deposit for yard glasses. They were named the UNESCO "Creative City Of Music" and proved it by having both an extremely competent blues band and a Prince Tribute Night on a random Sunday at bars near our hostel. Oh, and I may have buried the lede. Renee loves Josh Groban, and guess who happened to be playing a show while we were there?
Even if you don't run into Grobes, you will love your time in this city. Ghent there before the rest of the world discovers it. You won't re-ghent it.