Originating from a chapel built back in 942 for Saint Jean-Baptiste, Ghent’s standout attraction is the historic St Bavo Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal), notable as the location of Emperor Charles’ baptism. Today, the cathedral’s crypt is the last remaining remnant of the original Romanesque structure and the majority of the cathedral dates back to the 16th century, renamed in honor of Saint Bavo of Ghent.
Don’t be distracted by the cathedral’s less-than-impressive exterior, a muddle of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque architecture, because a breathtaking collection of artworks, sculptures and carvings adorn the interiors. The dramatic centerpiece is the show stopping ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, a 24-panel Hubert and Jan van Eyck polyptych, completed in 1432 and housed in the chapel of Joost Vijd. Additional highlights include an oak and marble rococo pulpit by Laurent Delvaux, Rubens's The Conversion of St. Bavo and the tombstone of Bishop Triest.
Moated Gravensteen Castle is a circular, gray fortress built in 1180 alongside a split in Ghent’s River Leie to symbolize the power of Philip of Alsace, who was the ruling Count of Flanders. Although a wooden castle had existed here for centuries, the new fortification was built to send out a clear message of his supreme power to his political enemies. Philip had been on several Crusades and clearly modelled the design of his new home on the austere crusader castles scattered around the Mediterranean Sea from Portugal to Greece. Its two-meter (six-foot) thick walls were made of Tournai limestone and fortified with battlements while the castle’s towers and turrets housed stables, a church and state apartments as well as a torture chamber to deal with anyone brave – or foolish – enough to cross Philip. Following extensive restoration in the late 19th century, today the torture chamber is a gruesome museum displaying guillotines, branding irons and thumbscrews.
Book-ending the square of Botermarkt with St Bavo’s Cathedral, the ornate UNESCO-listed Belfry and the Cloth Hall at its feet stand testament to the great wealth of Ghent in the 14th century; built with money from members of the wool and textiles guilds, they are in striking Brabant Gothic style. The Belfry is topped with a gilded copper dragon and holds a carillon of 54 bells that have rung for more than six centuries; take the elevator to the viewing gallery at 66 m (217 ft) above Sint-Baafsplein to see the bells and take in panoramic views of gabled facades, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Gothic ornamentation of St Nicholas’ Church. A small museum displays models of the church, a few pieces of armor and the original dragon from atop the tower.
The medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei face each other across the canalized River Leie and originally formed part of Tusschen Brugghen, the city’s thriving harbour. Their banks are lined with a rare architectural treat – the loveliest gabled guild houses and warehouses in Belgium, built between the 1200s and 1600s by rich merchants and guilds whose wealth came from trade. The streets are united by St Michael’s Bridge, from where their gabled delights can be seen at best advantage, and although considerable restoration work has taken place, these distinctive townhouses have maintained their allure.
Graslei is lined by canal-side restaurants blessed with a graceful backdrop of gabled gild houses; the oldest is the Het Spijker (Stockpile House) at no. 10; other ornate façades once contained the guild houses of the stonemasons, the free boatmen and the grain measurers as well as the former customs house.
Ghent is Belgium’s best-kept secret, a cosmopolitan university city of imposing churches, top-quality museums and some of the most beautiful medieval architecture in Europe. Add to this a vigorous cultural scene, packed late-night bars, restaurants and clubs, plus stylish hotels and this is a city not to be missed.
The city’s pedestrianized heart surrounds triangular Korenmarkt, which was the medieval market place, with most of the major sights – the ornate Stadhuis, St Bavo’s Cathedral, St Nicholas’ Church and the Belfry – within easy walking distance. Just northwest of Korenmarkt, the River Leie is canalized and bordered with the medieval quays of Graslei and Korenlei; it curls through Ghent on its way to join the River Schelde and a network of canals leading to the port. Close by, the austere Gravensteen Castle lies on a split in the Leie, and beyond that is Patershol, an enclave of narrow streets crammed with 17th-century artisanal cottages.
Built by the Count of Flanders in the late 12th century, the dramatic Gravensteen Castle or ‘Castle of the Counts' still looms over the center of Ghent and remains one of Belgium’s most important medieval castles. Used throughout the years as a residence for the Counts, a prison and even a textile plant, the remnants of Gravensteen’s varied history are still visible today.
Still surrounded by part of its medieval moat and encircled by towering ramparts, the castle forms a dramatic backdrop to the concerts and theatrical performances that are held in its grounds throughout the year, but the grand fortress is also a hugely popular tourist attraction in its own right. A tour of Gravensteen takes in the eerie underground dungeons, the castle crypt, the court hall and the enormous banquet hall, but most fascinating is the gruesome Museum of Instruments of Torture, crammed with weaponry, armor and medieval torture devices.