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Summer city trips in Belgium #1: Ghent
Ghent was once a busy medieval port city and the second biggest city in northern Europe. With its picturesque medieval buildings and quaint cobbled streets, today it’s anything but a boring relic. It’s a creative hub, teeming with rebellious and innovative energy, named by Lonely Planet as ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’.
The Castle of the Counts was built by the Counts of Flanders to repress the people of Ghent. This medieval colossus is ideal for visiting with children: you can watch knights duel at one of their theme days. Sint-Baaf’s cathedral is home to the most frequently stolen work of art in history, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which was painted by the Van Eyck brothers in 1432 and has undergone a painstaking restoration. For modern art, head to Werregarrenstraat, or the graffiti street, the only place where graffiti artists can legally paint on the walls.
If you want to give it a go, there’s a small shop at one end selling spray paint for around €3 for a small can. Hang around until it gets dark, and marvel at Ghent’s award-winning lighting, which highlights the city’s beautiful architecture. You can download a map of the lighting route from the tourist website. From the roof of the new city library De Krook, you get a fantastic free view of the city.
Ghent shows its edgy side with its Kitchen Rebel scene, described as haute cuisine without the fuss. The city’s most famous chefs are a group known as the Flemish Foodies, who have opened several restaurants, including J.E.F, Vrijmoed and De Superette. The latter is a traditional bakery and brasserie, opened by one-time Michelin-starred chef Kobe Desramaults. To satisfy your sweet tooth, sample the local speciality, neuzekes, sweets with a raspberry centre, from one of the carts on the Groentenmarkt.
Head to the Graslei for a drink or an ice cream. You can choose a cafe or bring your own drinks and sit on the banks of the river and enjoy the scenery. Book lovers should head to Paard van Troje, a bookshop/cafe with plenty of outdoor seating. The Gruut brewery is also worth a visit for beer brewed without hops, using special herbs according to a medieval recipe. If you’re more of a cocktail fan, then Jiggers is a must. This underground bar serves classic cocktails with a twist. Since the city’s new traffic plan has rendered Oudburg car-free, the street promises a festival atmosphere all summer long.
A hop-on, hop-off water tram service takes you to most of the tourist destinations in the city; it operates on weekends until November. Alternatively, you can see all of Ghent’s sites on foot, or you can rent a bike from one of the rental services such as Biker.