Walking Tour: Historic Ghent
Time: 3 hours, longer should you linger in museums and at other points of interest along the way.
Best Times: Morning or afternoon.
Worst Times: Museums along the route are closed in the evenings and on Mondays, so if you should want to take in one or more, you'd need to avoid these times.
Ghent combines stellar medieval and other historic sights with touches of gritty urban reality and the bustling character of a genuine, living city. You'll get to view some of the best of all these worlds on this stroll through the Old Center.
The jump-off point, Korenmarkt, can be reached from Ghent's Sint-Pieters rail station by tram 1, 10, 11, or 12. On the east side of this bustling central square and public transportation hub is:
1. Sint-Niklaaskerk (St Nicholas's Church)
An impressive mixture of Romanesque and the Flemish style known as Scheldt Gothic, the 13th- to 15th-century church has undergone extensive renovation work. Its belfry is one of the "three towers of Ghent" that form a distinctive city image -- in fact it was the first of the three to grace the city skyline. A baroque high altar and other rich decorations embellish the interior.
At no. 4 on a narrow medieval street called Klein Turkije at the side of the church, a dismal-looking (on the outside) 13th-century inn, now a bar called Den Rooden Hoed, housed Albrecht Dürer in 1521 when he was court painter to the Habsburg Emperor Charles V.
Across the square is the city's neo-Gothic former main post office, from 1904, which has been redeveloped as a shopping center.
Take Sint-Michielshelling, at the side of the old post office, and climb up to the Sint-Michielsbrug (St Michael's Bridge). From here you have a fine view of the three medieval towers of Sint-Niklaaskerk, the Belfry, and St. Bavo's Cathedral, all in a line. Cross over Sint-Michielshelling and descend to:
2. Sint-Michielskerk (St. Michael's Church)
This solid-looking 15th- to 17th-century, more-or-less Gothic church (that never quite got completed in any style) contains a painting by Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (1629), but the church is rarely open.
Re-cross Sint-Michielsbrug and descend to the Leie River and the waterside at:
3. Graslei and Korenlei
These two quays lined with handsome guild houses facing each other on either bank of the Leie were the heart of Ghent's medieval port. Today they are the starting point for canal-and-river boat tours of the city, and a magnet for photographers.
You get more fine views on the water from the pretty little Grasbrug bridge over the Leie at the north end of Korenlei and Graslei. From here, on the left bank, take Jan Breydelstraat to no. 5 for the:
4. Design Museum Gent
Housed in a graceful old mansion with a central courtyard (the Hotel De Coninck, from 1755), the collections here cover both antique and modern in furnishings, household accessories, ceramics, and more. Across the street is the notable French restaurant Jan Breydel.
At the end of Jan Breydelstraat, go right and cross the Lieve waterway by the bridge on Rekelingestraat. To your left is the:
5. Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)
The lugubrious fortress-seat of the counts of Flanders on the Lieve served a double purpose: to protect the count's lands from foreign invaders and protect his person from the slings and arrows of domestic strife.
Cross Sint-Veerleplein and Geldmuntstraat into waterside Kraanlei. Off to your left, behind Kraanlei and reachable by various side streets, is:
This compact medieval district was home to the city's craftspeople and laborers. Restored and to an extent gentrified, it is well worth a stroll through to take in its atmospheric, traffic-free streets and to note some spiffy restaurants and bars that have taken root in the refurbished old buildings.
The problem is, Kraanlei is also worth taking in. A solution is to make a clockwise circuit through Patershol, beginning by going left on Hertogstraat, near the start of Kraanlei, and then keeping to the right on Plotersgracht, Rodekoningstraat, and Corduwaniersstraat, which brings you back via a left on Hertogstraat to your point of departure on Kraanlei. Along the way, note for possible future reference the world-cuisine cafe-restaurant Vier Tafels at Plotersgracht 6.
Back on Kraanlei, continue to the city's folklore museum, at no. 65, in the:
7. Huis van Alijn
Housed in the cottages of a medieval almshouse complex around a courtyard, the museum takes as its theme life and culture in turn-of-the-19th-century Ghent.
Before crossing over the river on the next bridge, stop to admire the beautifully decorated facades of the old houses at Kraanlei 79 and 81, both from 1669. No. 79 is called De Fluitspeler (The Flute Player), after the carving of a flautist on the gable medallion. No. 81 has been dubbed De Zeven Werken van Barmhartigheid (The Seven Works of Charity), after carved images of six of the works and its own former role as an inn as the seventh. Now, it is the counter-intuitively named French restaurant De Hel (Hell), whose motto is: "Because enjoyment is no longer a sin."
Cross over the Leie on the bridge at Merseniersstraat to:
8. Groot Kanonplein
"Big Cannon Square" is so called because of an outsized 15th-century bronze artillery piece, known as Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), deployed in the square. The gun looks like it's been positioned to slam its big stone cannonballs into any likely target -- rebellious citizenry, perhaps -- that heaves into view from neighboring Vrijdagmarkt.
Continue straight ahead into:
The Friday Market square might well have been a source of suitable targets. The middle of the square is occupied by a sculpture from 1863 of local hero Jacob van Artevelde (ca. 1290-1345), who led an insurgency against the counts of Flanders. He was initially successful but was later murdered.
Among the many eateries on the square is:
Take a Break--Keizershof, Vrijdagmarkt 47 (tel. 09/223-44-66), a relaxed yet trendy place on several floors.
If you'd sooner have a drink than a meal, I recommend a course of study at the Bieracademie at no. 50, a great Old Flemish tavern where no fewer than 250 different beers are waiting for you.
From Vrijdagmarkt, take Vlas Markt, which you'll easily recognize by the gloomy Romanesque/Gothic pile of the Sint-Jacobskerk (St James's Church). Go right, into Koningstraat, and keep straight ahead to:
This small square contains a stone obelisk surmounted by a French imperial eagle, erected in 1810 to commemorate a visit by Napoleon during the French occupation.
Cross over Hoogpoort into:
The entrance to this narrow street is flanked by two impressive dwellings that belonged to the powerful medieval Van der Sikkelen family: a bleak fortified 13th-century mansion on the left, and a graceful 15th-century mansion on the right, indicating that the family had lightened up with the progression of the centuries.
Further along, music students can be seen going to and fro under a relief of Orpheus serenading animals with his lyre, at Ghent's recently restored Koninklijk Conservatorium (Royal Conservatory), in the rambling 14th- to 15th-century Achter Sikkel house, which belonged to the Van der Sikkelens.
Dead ahead, a fine view framed by Biezekapelstraat's houses, looms the tower of:
12. Sint-Baafskathedraal (St. Bavo's Cathedral)
The city's 13th- to 16th-century cathedral is well worth visiting in its own right, and for its treasures, which include one of the finest works of medieval art, the famous polyptych altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
On the square outside St. Bavo's, Sint-Baafsplein, on which is set a rectangular water pool, you can admire the graceful exterior of the neo-Renaissance Koninklijke Nederlandse Schouwburg (Royal Netherlandic Theater), also known as the Groot Huis (Grand House), from 1899. Look out also for the Hof Hamelinck building at no. 10, dating from 1739, which was formerly a theater; note the bust of the Roman goddess Juno on the facade.
Cross to the far side of the square to the:
13. Belfort en Lakenhalle (Belfry and Cloth Hall)
This Gothic medieval complex of bell tower and cloth exchange is evidence of Ghent's power and wealth during the Middle Ages, when it was for a time the richest city north of the Alps.
Go north across Gouden Leeuwplein (Golden Lion Sq.) to Botermarkt and the:
14. Stadhuis (Town Hall)
Although it was constructed in fits and starts over a period of nearly 4 centuries from 1518, and in a variety of architectural styles, this still adds up to one of the most handsome civic buildings in Belgium. Inside, the magnificent Pacificatiezaal is where the Pacification of Ghent, aimed at ending the religious wars in the Low Countries, was signed in 1576.
Across Botermarkt, the remarkable Sint-Jorishof/Cour St. Georges Hotel has been a place of lodging since 1228 (it was the quarters of the Guild of Crossbowmen). At the time of writing, it is closed, temporarily by all accounts, for badly needed repairs and restoration.
Return to Gouden Leeuwplein, passing by a modern fountain with a sculpture group of five naked, kneeling figures, to the Sint-Niklaaskerk, on the other side of which is your starting point on Korenmarkt.