Traveling over the New Year holiday can be a tricky venture. While New Year’s Eve is usually a busy, festive time when cities around the world host impressive parties and dazzling fireworks displays, New Year’s Day is just the opposite. Streets are empty, stores and restaurants stay dark, and a sense of sleepiness takes hold. New Year’s Day may not the best time to get to know a new city, but because we travel on limited vacation time (and often over the holidays at the end of the year), we decided to make the most of the first day of the new year with some light exploration. That’s how Ghent, Belgium ended up on our European itinerary.We spent the days leading up to New Year’s Eve in Bruges. We awoke early on New Year’s Day, slightly tired from a late night of celebrating but filled with the excitement and adrenaline that often fuels our vacations. By mid-morning we had checked out of our hotel and walked to the train station, and just 30 minutes later we arrived in Ghent. Like Bruges, Ghent still slumbered from the prior evening’s parties; bits of colored confetti blew about in the breeze, and a lone taxi idled a few meters from the train station on the off-chance someone might be motivated enough to venture into the city. Unfortunately for the driver, our Ghent hotel was a short walk from the train station, so we walked down a pedestrian-less sidewalk to check in before a day of sightseeing.
Despite the quiet, Ghent proved to be a worthy destination filled with magnificent spots to visit. We spent several hours walking through Ghent as part of a fun city walking tour, and we were amazed by how much there was to learn and discover. If you plan to spend one day in Ghent, build your itinerary by visiting a few of the places we enjoyed seeing during our trip!
St. Michael’s BridgeUnder a gray, misty sky, St. Michael’s Bridge was the first to welcome us to Ghent. It came into focus as the road curved to meet it, and while it’s usually crowded with tourists posing for an iconic photo we were two of just a handful of people who stood upon it to take in the view.
Like Bruges, Ghent looks a bit like a fairytale town amidst looming gothic architecture and the kinds of castles and churches that would look at home in a cartoon featuring a Disney princess. While so much of what you can see from the bridge is centuries old, St. Michael’s Bridge itself is comparatively young; it was built in 1910. Standing on the mostly empty bridge made us glad that our one day in Ghent coincided with a major holiday. Turning in a slow circle, we had the chance to take in some of the historic buildings we would pass by as our walking tour of the city continued. If you are looking for some classic photos and a great vantage point from which to see and appreciate the city, St. Michael’s Bridge is unmissable—and with just one day in Ghent, it’s also just the right place to start your journey.
Belfry of GhentLike so many of our favorite destinations, Ghent is home to a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Belfry of Ghent. The Belfry of Ghent is part of a collection of 56 belfries of Belgium and France that have together earned the UNESCO distinction. It is also the youngest and tallest of the city’s three medieval towers. Construction took almost 70 years and was frequently interrupted by disturbances including the Black Death and Hundred Years’ War. 300 years later a local architect designed a cast-iron spire for the belfry, which took close to 100 years to incorporate and was ultimate removed and replaced with a stone spire in 1913.
The belfry had a few key roles in Ghent history, notably to serve as a fortification for the city’s important documents and as a bell tower. The largest of the bells was nicknamed Roland, and while originally the bells were used for religious services, they gradually assumed additional responsibilities by announcing the time every hour and providing a warning if troops were advancing upon the city or if the people of Ghent were victorious in battle. In fact, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a favorite of mine in part due to his connections to both Portland, Maine and Boston, Massachusetts) referenced Roland in his poem The Belfry of Bruges.
Although the Belfry of Ghent is regularly open to the public and offers some great city views, it was closed during our New Year’s Day visit, which meant we didn’t have the chance to explore the interior. If your one day in Ghent aligns with a day when the belfry is open, the interior offers several rooms that provide a nice historical perspective of the city and a chance to see how the still-functional clock tower works today.
GrasleiOne of the most historic and picturesque spots in Ghent is Graslei, a row of beautiful houses that are a protected part of the Ghent landscape. Houses have stood in that location since the 5th century, and while the homes have been extensively renovated and look quite different than they did when they were originally constructed, they are an unmissable sight when spending one day in Ghent. On warm days Graslei is a popular spot to enjoy a meal or a drink, but on New Year’s Day and in the absence of crowds we had the chance to experience Graslei in a quiet moment, admiring its reflection in the calm river beneath it.
St. Bavo’s Cathedral
To one side of the Belfry of Ghent stands St. Bavo’s Cathedral. While it was built in the late 13th century, the cathedral replaced the former Chapel of St. John the Baptist that previously inhabited the space. The cathedral is perhaps best known for its interior, specifically its altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb created by Jan van Eyck and widely considered to be his greatest masterpiece. When the cathedral was a focal point for an iconoclast uprising in 1566 and numerous pieces of artwork and stained glass were destroyed, the altarpiece was saved and is preserved today. Dozens of other pieces of artwork can be found within the cathedral, which makes it an outstanding destination for art and art history fans. It is possible to visit the cathedral’s interior on most days, which can also include a climb to the top for more city views: a wonderful item to include if you have one day in Ghent.
GravensteenEvery great medieval city needs a castle, and Ghent has Gravensteen—the Castle of the Counts. While you won’t find royalty living inside these days, the museum now housed within the stone walls tells the story of the castle’s role during centuries of rich history. Originally built in the 10th century, Gravensteen first burned down in 1176 and was reconstructed four years later during Phillip of Alcase’s reign. Heavily fortified and surrounded by a moat, Gravensteen was the home to several Counts of Flanders (hence the nickname!) until the 1500s. It served in several additional roles: the castle was Ghent’s mint for close to 150 years, it was both a court and a prison until the 18th century, and it was a cotton factory before being scheduled for demolition. Fortunately, the city purchased the castle and gradually undertook restoration efforts that lasted into the 20th century.
The castle is now a great museum that offers an audio guided tour to visitors looking for a history lesson; you can walk through Gravensteen in just more than an hour, which makes it a perfect addition if you are limited to one day in Ghent. One of the castle’s most interesting features is right outside; if you are particularly lucky, you might see an old-fashioned street light on the corner flicker as you walk by. A local Ghent tradition celebrates the birth of a new baby by allowing the parents to push a button in the hospital’s maternity ward that creates the flicker. For many people passing by it would be an unremarkable occurrence, but if you see the light flicker when passing by Gravensteen you can know that somewhere a brand-new human has just been welcomed in Ghent.
KorenmarktKorenmarkt translates to wheat market in English and has historically been the center of activity for Ghent: a fact that remains true today. Korenmarkt is surrounded by several of Ghent’s famous landmarks, including St. Nicholas’ Church and the Leie River, as well as a number of bars and restaurants often bustling with tourists. Korenmarkt also hosts several big events each year, including the Festival of Ghent that celebrates music and theater and the annual Christmas market. Our winter visit coincided with the Christmas market’s final days; while Ghent maintained its sleepy façade throughout most of our walk, by mid-afternoon the Christmas market had sprung to life and attracted a solid crowd. We were grateful not just for the festive atmosphere but for the chance to explore a bit of local culture while sipping gluhwein in the raw chill of the overcast day.
If your one day in Ghent, Belgium falls during the winter, Korenmarkt will have plenty of options to keep you entertained, and during warmer months it is a great place to relax with a drink to reflect on your Ghent adventures.
Dulle GrietJust like every great medieval city needs a castle, every great medieval city also needs a cannon. Enter Dulle Griet, or “Mad Meg,” a product of the Holy Roman Empire that has resided in Ghent since 1452. Dulle Griet is technically considered to be a supergun, and the cannon is large and intimidating, but local stories share it was never fired in its defense career. Due to its large size it attracted many tipsy university students over the years who would climb inside to sleep off their buzz, and eventually the cannon’s interior was blocked to prevent such behavior.
St. Nicholas’ Church
To the other side of the Belfry of Ghent, St. Nicholas’ Church is approximately as old as St. Bavo’s Cathedral and completes the trifecta of medieval towers that can be prominently seen from St. Michael’s Bridge. Before the belfry came into existence St. Nicholas’ Church held the responsibility of housing the bell system that provided both religious and secular tones to the people of Ghent. The church is a massive structure that looms large as part of the Ghent skyline, and its interior is just as impressive as its exterior. Inside you’ll find an incredible organ crafted by the famous organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, which has only been available for public viewing for less than a decade after being hidden as part of a preservation and restoration effort that continues today. The organ itself has not been played for almost 60 years. Entrance to the church is free, which means it is easy to add a stop as part of your itinerary with just one day in Ghent.
WerregarenstraatAlthough we knew it would be hard to compete with Auckland’s Piggy Stardust, we have to admit some of the most interesting street art we have encountered is in Ghent. Werregarenstraat, a Ghent street that has been turned over to local artists, boasts an eclectic collection of graffiti that spans two blocks. The street was originally provided as a means to deter the spread of graffiti elsewhere in the city; officials believed if artists had a designated spot to create their art they may refrain from defacing historic buildings throughout the city. The plan has largely worked; to see street art during your one day in Ghent, Werregarenstraat is the destination to pick. If you visit Ghent more than once, Werregarenstraat will still be a great destination: the walls are periodically returned to a blank canvas, allowing artists a brand-new chance to create something unique and ensuring the experience of walking through the alleyways will be different each time you visit.
Swans at the Ghent Marriott Hotel
Swans are an international symbol of love, and we have seen them in corners of the world stretching from Ghent’s neighbor Bruges to Boston to Slovenia’s Lake Bled. Traditionally, two swans looking at each other signify romance. If two swans are looking away from each other, they symbolize just the opposite. In ancient Ghent, when sailors would arrive by sea, many would seek out the building displaying two swans looking away from each other; inside they would find a brothel. Today, the building still exists as the Ghent Marriott Hotel, an amusing rebirth for a building with a colorful past. If your one day in Ghent takes you along the Leie River and across from the Graslei, turn around to the Marriott and look for the golden swans—they appear innocuous, but they tell an interesting story about a different time in Ghent’s history.
More Information: Booking.com/Hotel/be/Ghent-Marriott
Take a Ghent Free Walking TourIn the hopes that we might have even a few hours of entertainment while we were in Ghent, we joined a free walking tour that—lucky for us!—operated on a holiday when so many other attractions were closed. We met a good-sized group and our guide, Nick, from Ghent Free Walking Tours for a two-hour stroll through the city. Nick was a fantastic guide who shared some memorable stories and fun facts about the city, and we had a fantastic afternoon that helped us identify a few spots to return to when the tour ended and we were back on our own. The tour is geared toward backpackers—it departs from the Hostel Uppelink—but it attracted a number of people who weren’t staying at the hostel as well. We take free walking tours whenever we can because they are so often led by knowledgeable locals that really love sharing their city’s stories, and Nick and Ghent Free Walking Tours did not disappoint!
More Information: GentFreeWalkingTours.com
Where to Stay in Ghent
Because we had just one day in Ghent to spend exploring, we opted for a hotel close to the train station to expedite our arrival and an early morning departure to Luxembourg. We enjoyed our stay at NH Gent Sint Pieters, which is a short walk from Ghent Sint Pieters (the train station). Our room was clean and comfortable, as was the bathroom, and the hotel was wonderfully quiet when we returned to rest before continuing our adventures. If you will have more than one day in Ghent you may prefer a hotel closer to the city center, but if you plan to spend just one day in Ghent and will arrive and depart by train you may appreciate the convenience of the NH Gent Sint Pieters as we did.
More Information: Booking.com/Hotel/be/NHgent
We found a great deal on Booking.com, which we use to find the vast majority of our hotels when we travel. If you are planning to visit Ghent, take a look: you may find a great hotel just like we did.
Even in the quiet of New Year’s Day—perhaps even because of the quiet—we found Ghent to be spectacular. What started as a day trip to make the most of an empty day in our itinerary became a true highlight of our vacation in Europe, and we’re looking forward to spending much more than just a day in Ghent when we return to Belgium. If you only have one day in Ghent to explore, there are plenty of wonderful ways to get to know the city—and there’s a great chance you’ll enjoy your time there just as much as we did!
Looking for more fun European cities to visit? Here are a few more of our favorites!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited multiple locations in Ghent on our own and as part of a walking tour, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.