Every year, 1 million people flock to Bruges, the heavy-on-charm medieval burg in western Belgium. Few of them bother to take the 25-minute train ride east to Ghent, popularly (though unofficially) billed as: “Bruges, without the tourists.”
It’s not a wannabe claim. Despite its cobblestoned nooks, centuries-old architecture and bridges over canals that ooze picturesque romance, Ghent avoids the obvious tourist trappings and favors its natural flair for beauty, fed by a youthful atmosphere of avant-garde culture and a penchant for indulgence.
For much of the middle ages, Ghent was the largest city in Europe outside of Paris and became rich from its cloth trade. This legacy is most evident smack dab in the middle of the city center. The wonderfully Gothic Belfortstraat is home to both the 16th-century city hall and the Belfort, a watchtower built in the 1300s. Climb its 256 spiraling stone steps for a magnificent panoramic view.
The other towers that dominate the downtown landscape are connected to churches: Sint-Nicholas is the oldest, while Sint-Baafs is the largest. In Sint-Baafs sits Ghent’s biggest artistic claim to fame: the altar piece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” one of the world’s earliest oil paintings. After Flemish Primitive Jan Van Eyck created it in 1432, it was nearly destroyed by the Calvinists, censored by the Austrians, stolen by the French and hidden by the Germans. One panel has never been recovered and is the source of an ongoing mystery to this day. The audio tour is a must.
From here, it’s easy to wander through Ghent’s many squares and canal-side cafes. Belgium as a whole is known for three things: beer, chocolate and frites . This says a lot. Belgians are all too happy to live up to their gustable, Burgundian heritage. An endless variety of meat and potatoes — and mussels, a national specialty — crowd the menus. Vrijdagmarkt square is surrounded by such restaurants dishing out typical Belgian fare. The best of these is De Jacob, which serves up a mean waterzooi, a Ghent specialty of chicken and veggies smothered in cream sauce.
Vrijdagmarkt is also the place for Ghent’s best frites (or frijtes in Dutch) served out of a caravan parked in the corner. Order it like a local — smothered in mayonnaise. Across the square is a not-to-be-missed Ghent classic: the Dulle Griet. The consummate dark-wood Belgian bar interior houses a few hundred beers. If you’re overwhelmed, simply order a Westmalle Tripel, one of the country’s finest ambers.
For dinner with atmosphere, reserve at the House of Elliot in Jan Breydelstraat. Named for the British TV series, the owners have crazily stuffed it with 1920s memorabilia. One end of this street feeds out at the Gravensteen, Ghent’s castle, built by the region’s counts in the 12th century. It’s pretty enough to look at, but nearly every square inch is a reconstruction, and not an accurate one at that. It’s more like a Disney attraction that’s best skipped, but across the street are a few entrances to the extraordinary Patershol neighborhood — also like a fairy tale and authentically medieval. Get lost in the tiny, crooked streets searching for the Rococo, the pub with the friendliest owner, and Punjab Tandoori, the best Indian food in a neighborhood crammed with it.
Ghent’s population is 250,000, of which 50,000 are university students. They swarm the film festival sites and keep the city lively far into the wee hours. The festival center is across the street from a canal on which, by happy coincidence, floats a cozy bar aboard a boat. In the core of the city center, meanwhile, you’ll find plenty of company in the Galgenhuisje, the smallest bar in Ghent — stake out the tiny room at the top of the stairs for an intimate evening of Belgian beer and conversation. Across the road and down an alley, you’ll see both young and old crammed into the Drupelkot, home of Belgium’s official spirit, jenever. In an atmosphere that feels like it hasn’t changed since the middle ages, choose from a hundred flavors of the outrageously popular liquor.
The city of Ghent strategically lights up its historical buildings at night. Cross one of its many bridges and look out over the canal: you get the impression that maybe real life is as good as the movies after all.