Ghent's historic monuments have not all been prettified. Some of them look downright gray and forbidding, which, oddly enough, gives them a more authentic feel. The Castle of the Counts of Flanders was actually meant to look gray and forbidding, since the citizens of Ghent were so often in revolt against its overlord.

This is a city to be seen on foot. Indeed, only by walking its streets, gazing at its gabled guild houses and private mansions, and stopping on one of its bridges to look down at the canal below can you begin to get a sense of the extraordinary vigor of the people who have lived here over the centuries.

The "Three Towers of Ghent" you often hear referred to are St. Bavo's Cathedral, the Belfry, and St. Nicholas's Church, which form a virtually straight line pointing towards St. Michael's Bridge.

Ghent's large Stadhuis (Town Hall), Botermarkt/Hoogpoort (tel. 09/223-99-22), turns a rather plain Renaissance profile to Botermarkt, and an almost garishly ornamented Gothic face to Hoogpoort. Its schizophrenic appearance probably came about because its construction, started in 1518 under the direction of Mechelen architect Rombout Keldermans, was interrupted by Emperor Charles V in 1539, began again at the end of that century, was halted once more in the early 1600s, and wasn't completed until the 18th century. The changing public tastes and available monies of those years are reflected in the building's styles. In its Pacificatiezaal (Pacification Room), the Pacification of Ghent was signed in 1567. This document declared to the world the repudiation by the Low Countries provinces of Spanish Habsburg rule and their intention to permit freedom of religion within their boundaries. The Town Hall can be visited on guided tours (May-Oct Mon-Thurs 3pm) that depart from the tourist office in the Belfry cellar.

Throughout the city's long history, when trouble erupted in Ghent, as it so often did, the huge Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market Square) was nearly always the rallying point. The statue of Jacob van Artevelde that stands in the square is a tribute to a 14th-century rebel leader; its base is adorned with the shields of some 52 guilds. The square is also the location of the building in which Belgium's Socialist Party was born under the direction of Ghent's native son, Edward Anseele. Today this is a major shopping area and the scene of lively street markets on Wednesday and Friday mornings and Saturday afternoons. A short distance away, the smaller Groot Kanonplein square is guarded by a gigantic cannon known as Mad Meg (Dulle Griet), which thundered away in the 1400s in the service of the Burgundian armies.

The mansion at Veldstraat 45-47: On Christmas Eve 1814, in this house south of Korenmarkt, John Quincy Adams, the future sixth president of the United States, signed the Treaty of Ghent that brought to an end the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Peace came too late to save the White House, though. Along with most other public buildings in Washington, it was burned by the British when they captured the city in August 1814 and chased President James Madison out of the capital. It took weeks for word of the treaty to cross the Atlantic, affording Andrew Jackson time to exact revenge by defeating the British assault on New Orleans in January 1815.

The building on Veldstraat now houses a department store, and sports a 1964 plaque from the United States Daughters of 1812 thanking the people of Ghent for their hospitality to the U.S. delegation.

Graslei & Korenlei--Two beautiful canalside streets just west of Korenmarkt, Graslei and Korenlei are each home to a solid row of towering, gabled guild houses built in a variety of architectural styles between the 1200s and 1600s, when the Leie waterway between them formed the city's harbor, the Tussen Bruggen (Between the Bridges). To fully appreciate their majesty, stroll down one street, then walk up onto the high Sint-Michielsbrug (St. Michael's Bridge) on the south side and pause to admire the fabulous and famous view of the two streets as a whole, before crossing to the opposite bank.

Try to conjure up in your imagination the craftsmen, tradesmen, and merchants for whom these elegant buildings were the very core of commercial and civil existence. The dramas that unfolded within the walls of each are enough to fill a library of books based on Ghent's independence of spirit. This is an ideal spot for leisurely exploration and for snapping a picture that captures the essence of Ghent.

On Graslei the building at no. 9, from 1435, was the first Korenmetershuis (House of the Grain Measurers); no. 12, the second, or annex House of the Grain Measurers, from 1698; no. 14, from 1531, was the ornate Brabant Gothic Gildehuis van de Vrije Schippers (House of the Free Boatmen), decorated with symbols of boats and boatmen on its sandstone facade. Among the highlights across the water on Korenlei are no. 7, from 1739, a Flemish baroque building called Het Anker (the Anchor), with the roof a gilded sailing ship, which was the Gildehuis van de Onvrije Schippers (House of the Tied Boatmen); and no. 9, the 16th-century De Zwane (The Swan), formerly a brewery.

There's an equally good outlook from Grasbrug, the bridge crossing the north end of the old harbor, at the junction of the Lieve Canal and the Leie River.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.