Ghent was one of the first cities I visited in my travels. Dozens of countries and hundreds of cities later, I went back to see if it was as magical as I remembered. Here’s how my opinion of Ghent changed over the years.
I arrived in Ghent with Dee shortly before sunset on a bus from Rotterdam. We were headed to London, but Flixbus tickets were the same price with a stop in Ghent as they were direct. To keep our costs down, I found a Couchsurfing host, the same as I had done during my original trip to the city three and a half years earlier. After a small hitch learning how to pay for the bus system (it’s €3 ($3.45) on the bus and €1.80 if you download and pay through the app), we made it down to our host just as his other three guests were arriving.
Couchsurfing in Ghent
Yep, you head that right. Michael, our charismatic, comical and caring host had five guests at one time. Unfortunately, that didn’t come close to breaking his record of nine, which he does plan to do someday. The three girls called dibs on the couches in the living room, while Dee and I had the single bed and air mattress in the spare bedroom. As soon as we arrived and dropped off our bags, Michael took us back out to Stephano’s Place, the best Vlaams friteshuis (Flemish Fries House) in town. We all had a meal of viandel (Dutch sausage with a crunchy coating), fries, saté spices, mayonnaise, and julientje (a meat stew sauce named after the late owner of the famous friteshuis Gouden Saté). One portion was way too much for one person, and we quickly realized we both should have shared one.
Among Michael’s many adventures and accomplishments, he was once a comedian in Japan! Calling him comical is a tragic understatement. I couldn’t believe how quickly he could come up with witty remarks and responses, some of which I’m still chuckling over.
Michael really takes care of his guests. When he said he got some drinks for us, he wasn’t kidding. There was hardly any room in his fridge left for food. The next morning’s breakfast was equally impressive with a huge selection of cereals, pastries, yogurts, drinks, cheeses, etc. We were certainly stuffed by the time we went off to explore the town.
That evening, Michael met up with us in the center to give a private guided tour. He was really knowledgeable about the history and facts of Ghent. I was reminded of many things I’d learned the first time I visited the city and picked up many new tidbits. One fact that really stands out is that Ghent was once the second-most prosperous city in Europe, with only Paris superior to it. You can still see that in the grandeur of the city, even if it doesn’t currently show up on most modern “Best Cities in Europe” lists.
Before leaving, I was glad I could contribute to Michael’s “Couchsurfing shelf” where he receives gifts and trinkets from guests all over the world.
The first time I visited Ghent, I had two different Couchsurfing hosts. The first was Nele. She had a beautiful little studio overlooking one of the canals. She also took me on a wonderful guided tour around town on the night that I arrived and even treated me to a dinner at the Mosquito Coast restaurant. I had the Mac Marrakesh lamb burger there which I still fondly remember as one of the best burgers I’ve ever had in my life. We’ve stayed in touch ever since my visit, and recently I’ve had the joy of seeing photos of her new child growing up.
My next host was Lien. She brought me out to a “house leaving” party in the center of town. There was one really funny incident I remember with her. We were riding bikes to the party, but my bike was really hard to pedal. The wind was so strong that there were times when I was pushed nearly to a standstill. On the way back from the party, I rode the bike off a curb and there was a snap within the gears. After that, the bike worked perfectly.
Overall, I have to say Ghent is a wonderful city to Couchsurf in. There are a ton of options. Of course, it might be hard to find a host in the height of summer, but you can always follow my tips to getting a host in my article on Couchsurfing.
Revisiting my Favorite Restaurants
Some of my fondest memories of Ghent were in the restaurants there. The first was the incredible meal I had at the Mosquito Coast. I know it’s trite and possibly even exaggerated to say the burger there was the best I ever had, but it certainly seems that way, even to this day. The two owners of the cafe had traveled the world before opening up the restaurant back in 2006, offering some of their favorite meals from their journeys. Dee and I spent some time in their lounge charging our phones and enjoying a hot drink. We considered having dinner there, but unfortunately Mosquito Coast is one of the more high-end restaurants in Ghent, and their meals aren’t cheap. As much as I wanted to try the Mac Marrakesh again and see if it was as good as I remembered, we went off in search of cheaper fare.
The first meal Dee and I had in town (after breakfast at Michael’s), was at Souplounge. When I found the restaurant during my first visit to Ghent, I was elated. Then as now, I was on a tight budget. The four homemade soups they serve are exceptionally good, and come with two rolls and an apple. The portions are massive. A large takeaway is just €5 ($5.75). This time I had the mushroom soup, and we sat at the tables down by the canal (which wasn’t really an option in the near-freezing February temperatures the last time I visited).
Chocolato and Cafe Barista
I strongly believe that Belgian chocolate is the best chocolate in the world. The last time I was in Ghent, I found Chocolato, a cafe by Saint Michael’s Bridge serving true Belgian hot chocolate where they heat up the milk and stir in a large cube of chocolate until it melts. They even served a small glass of water to cleanse the palate before the hot chocolate, and some small chocolate nibs to seal in the flavor at the end. Sadly, Chocolato has since closed, so I had to find a new cafe to sit at for a couple hours to get some work done. After scouring the streets, I ended up at Cafe Barista. With a view of Dulle Griet (the six-largest cannon ever cast) outside the window, I enjoyed a hot chocolate properly made with Belgian chocolate buttons stirred into hot milk.
‘t Velootje Bar Peculiar
Exploring the Architecture
Perhaps the key factor in my opinion of Ghent relates to the architecture. When I first visited, I thought the town was right out of a fairytale. I don’t have entirely the same viewpoint this time. As I started to walk around town, I honestly thought I wasn’t in the same city. Modern buildings interspersed with a rather drab setting. Luckily, things got better as I neared the center. Apparently, Flixbus uses the bus stop on the far side of town, in a neighborhood that’s a little more rundown. The real gems are in the city center.
The highlight of Ghent is the three towers. Standing from Saint Michael’s Bridge, you have the best view of Saint Nicholas’ Church, The Belfry of Ghent and Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. From the same position, you have Saint Michael’s Church behind you, the Old Post Office (now a luxury shopping center) on your left, and more beautiful buildings up the river Leie. At night, the scene is even more beautiful with all the towers and bridges lit up against a black background.
The churches and belfry are beautiful and worth exploring inside. At the time of our visit, there was an art exhibit in Saint Nicholas’ Church. Tickets to the top of the Ghent Belfry are €8 which was out of our budget, although I believe the Ghent CityCard for €20 is worth it if you’re planning to visit all the attractions in town. Bavo’s Cathedral is the Crème de la Crème. It’s massive and has a huge crypt full of old relics, bishop uniforms, and tombs to explore. This is also where you can see the Ghent Altarpiece (for €4). Also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the altarpiece dates back to the 15th century and is one of the most valuable pieces of art in the world. As such, it’s also the most stolen artwork in the world! It was highlighted in George Clooney’s movie The Monument’s Men, wherein you can see how close we were to losing the twelve panels forever.
On the north end of the town is a district called Patershol. This is the medieval heart of Ghent. If I remember correctly, it used to be where the servants lived, but I’ll probably get corrected on that. Now it’s the posh part of town. I actually didn’t recognize it as I walked through this time. I realized most of the district had been under renovations in 2015, with boardwalk platforms on the streets and construction fences everywhere. This is where ‘t Velootje and the Amadeus Ribs Restaurant can be found. I didn’t revisit the latter as Dee isn’t a fan of ribs, although we did see their second location in the center of town.
Another prominent location we visited was Graffiti Alley. I learned from the tourism board that there are now two alleys in town; the other out beyond Patershol. On my first trip, I was told that the alley was continually updated every night with current events. I no longer believe that to be the case, but the alley still has some really amazing pieces.
Ghent has its own castle too. Gravensteen is located right in the center of town. Dating back to the 12th century, it has a really colorful history. We learned mostly about it from Michael on our tour. Tickets for the castle are €10, which is another reason we could have gotten the Ghent CityCard.
Last but not least is the waterfront on the River Leie. It’s one of the most popular spots in town, especially with many of the 80,000 local university students lining the banks while drinking, smoking and chatting. There are some really interesting buildings, such as one which looks like it’s going to collapse at any moment, next to another tiny building which used to be the tax office. On the other side of the river is the Marriott Hotel, formerly a high-end brothel. On that building are two golden swans facing apart. Two swans facing each other would form a heart with their necks. When they face away, they allude to a brothel. Personally, I find it really fun to walk into the Marriott. The facade is the same from the old brothel, while the interior is a giant, glass-enclosed modern hotel.
Kayaking on the Rivers of Ghent
Perhaps the best way to get an idea of the beauty of Ghent is by water. There are dozens of boat tours leaving each day from the center, just up from Saint Michael’s Bridge. They’re very reasonably priced and last up to an hour, depending on the tour you choose.
Another option is to go kayaking on the rivers and canals. Hostel Uppelink is located right beside St. Michael’s Bridge. In addition to being an amazing hostel, they have free walking tours of Ghent, as well as kayaks to rent. Dee and I got a double kayak for three hours. With that much time, we were able to go up and down every waterway in the town center. We went around the Gravensteen Castle, dodged overhanging trees and went under a long tunnel on the other side of town. There used to be two long tunnels, but the second was restored to the open air in the same week we visited!
My Opinion of Ghent
Alright. So my opinion of Ghent might not be from the same starry-eyed viewpoint I had at the beginning of my travels. However, I still think the city is gorgeous. I’m already looking forward to my next visit, which hopefully will coincide with the Festival of Ghent, one of the largest festivals in Europe. For other travelers, I would definitely recommend a visit. After all, it’s only an hour away from Antwerp, Brussels and Bruges – in other words, in a perfect location.
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