Ghent is possessed by a rich, colorful culture whose roots run deep through the foundations of the city. By possessed I mean in the truest sense of the word. Natives are passionate about their city, it's in the blood. And Ghent is beautiful. It oozes history from every pore. Beyond the beautiful medieval facades lie constant surprises. Delicious food, art, technology, fashion, music, museums, great shops, parks, sports, dancing, guilds, theater, opera, bars with hundreds of kinds of beer, and even a red-light district await within an easy-to-walk, compact city center that is also stress-free to navigate with public transport.
Ghentians (Gentenaars in Flemish), called themselves The Nooses (Stroppen in Flemish) and Ghent being the city of rebellion is perhaps best explained in that nickname. In 1537, the infamously unruly inhabitants defied their ruler, the Emperor Charles V who needed funding for the war against France, by refusing to pay the imposed taxes. There was an audacious revolt prompting Charles to show up in person, and backed by a large army, punish his birthplace. The penalty was brutal. The St. Bavo Abbey was demolished and replaced with a Spanish prison. The city lost its privileges and was heavily fined.
There was a toll in persecution too. Barefoot and dressed in cassock, a great number of the population were made to get on their knees before the Emperor and beg for mercy. Twenty-five leaders of the rebellion were beheaded. Fifty others were forced to go through the city dressed in a shirt and with a noose tied around their neck to show they’d earned the gallows. The event is honored annually in a moving reenactment at the Ghent Festival each year.
In addition to its historic value, Ghent has a lively university culture and a diverse expat community. This benefits visitors two-fold: there’s a thriving nightlife with unique bars and music locales, as well as a foodie atmosphere with restaurants representing a diverse mix of Belgian and world cuisines, all housed in centuries-old neighborhoods.
As mentioned earlier, looking beyond the facades, you can find things to see and do that are pretty unique e.g. if the ancient skill of crossbow shooting is something of interest, contact the in 1821 established St Rochus Guild. Expressing an interest may get you in for a peek.
Or do you love puppets? Puppet-theater was a favorite pastime in proletarian neighborhoods at the start of the twentieth century, and to this day, Ghent remains a mecca. Easily the most famous Ghent native is a puppet called 'Pedrolino', who performs in the native dialect, is known as Pierke Pierlala, and is a beloved figure in the life of local children.
There is live music of just about any genre, any night of the week, and the yearly Ghent Jazz Festival attracts big names. Electronic dance music events and dance cafes are also available.
Belgium and cycling are practically synonymous. There is an annual cycling event in the Ghent velodrome, called "The 6 Days of Ghent” which draws many cycling stars for competitive races in an electrifying atmosphere. As highly charged sporting events go, the 6-Days is a must see!
If it’s floral art and gardens, you love, planning a visit around the Floralies is ideal. It is one of the most prestigious flower and plant art shows contests in the world and happens every five years. An exciting change for next year’s edition: rather than an indoor affair, four unique locations in the cities’ art district will be the backdrop for the flower festival!
Many emotions wash through me when I’m asked about my birth city. It's hard to express them. The heart of Ghent is the first place where I found independence. Its folklore and spirit is colored into my genetic make-up. I love this place. I’m completely biased.
So, don't take my word for it. Until you can scratch this city off your bucket list, you can catch the spirit in this epic documentary called Ghent in Motion.
The following are my recommendations for a truly authentic experience. First, nobody does a better job of giving insight into the Ghent culture and spirit than the Belgium Beer Tourism people. They offer tons of tips for where to experience the city like a real Noose :
THE CASTLE OF THE COUNTS, PATERSHOL, GRASLEI, KORENLEI, VRIJDAGSMARKT, THE BELFRY with MAMMELOKKER, ST BAAFS CATHEDRAL Just walking around works too!
Unfortunately the Brown Café culture is slowly disappearing, but there are a number of them left in Ghent, and they are worth your time! Among them: WATERHUIS AAN DE BIERKANT, TROLLEKELDER, DE DULLE GRIET, and MISSY-SIPPY features live jazz and blues gigs. JIGGER’S is a real speakeasy, no kidding! Ring the doorbell for entry. The bartenders create cocktail recipes with local ingredients. The bar, and concept is gaining notoriety around the globe! Come early.
Ribs at AMADEUS. At MAX, enjoy waffles baked on the original waffle irons, by 5th generation of the inventor of the Brussels waffle, also known as the Belgian waffle. (Expensive but excellent local fare, waffles and crepes after 2pm until dinner time.)
Local fare in a medieval setting at CHEZ LEONTIEN. Miscellaneous WORLD and LOCAL CUISINE in PATERSHOL AND OUDBURG neighborhood.
For fantastic sushi, sandwiches and homemade ready dinners to pop in the microwave, SLAGERIJ AULA has fair prices for a great meal with high quality ingredients.
GREAT BUTCHERS HALL for sampling of local products on the menu or available for purchase.
On a budget, a student and travel blogger favorite: THE SOUP LOUNG.
As 19th century bakeries go, BAKERIJ HIMSCHOOT is an absolute must!!
There’s a Starbucks. Blah. Get your blueberry muffin if you must, but for a good cup of coffee, walk right by it into the narrow Donkersteeg and visit the Ghent staple coffee bar MOKABON. The place is an art-deco gem and it won’t break the bank. But there are lots of places for waffles, crepes and other delicious things. And the local delicacies Gentse Neuzen, are available from street vendors.