Bruges and Brussels step aside; if you want to experience Belgium (and, by extension, Europe) in a gorgeously mediaeval microcosm, then get yourself to Ghent, home of tottering townhouses, a car-free cobbled Old Town, cool canalside drinkeries, and an uncommonly intact castle. Here’s our get-the-most-out-of-it guide…
Going over to Julie’s House for a salty breakfast sounds rather risqué, until you realise Julie is the proprietor of a beloved local bakery, and her breakfasts are a choice of healthy, salty, sweet or hangover-curing. Borrowing its concept from Copenhagen and Barcelona, Ghent’s Holy Food Market has the added novelty of being set in a converted 16th-century chapel. Cue allusions to ‘divine flavours’, but in reality, this is an exceptionally well-curated food hall, including a stall selling crab, caviar and oysters sourced from Belgian shores and a workshop that allows you to craft your own champagne-flavoured ice cream. For a more intimate meal or afternoon tea, dine at Maison Elsa, whose secret terrace peeps onto the canal from an otherwise sheer, mediaeval wall.
Ghent’s most atmospheric drinking hole is Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, lined with flower baskets right on the canal. Its Trappist and Abbey beers range from blonde and breezy to jet-black and brain-scrambling. A short stroll from the Old Town you’ll find Vooruit, a very active arts centre founded as a workers’ co-operative in 1880. The leafy, open-air terrace of this muscular, turreted building draws creatives for coffee, beer and light lunches. Further south, Portuguese Didier Faustino has clad the futuristic XYZ Lounge in hallucinatory pink marble and olive green panels, which ascend into a spire-shaped funnel. It’s enough to send you spinning (if the cocktails haven’t already).
A few doors down from Vooruit is Rewind, where sparse white walls and hardwood floors let the men’s and women’s garments do the talking. Expect charcoal, navy and white to dominate, for outfits such as edgily patterned wool paired with oversized Dr Martens – all with a healthy dose of avant-garde. Eva Bos is a more glamorous affair, housed in a tiny art deco shop and specialising in tailored 1950s dresses. Look out for the rail hung with Eva’s own designs. For handmade jewellery, leather goods and fair-trade cosmetics, pop in to Catalogus, whose founder Sophie Speck is obsessed with unusual items carrying eco-friendly backstories.
The city’s gothic splendour has been channelled expertly into what was the old post office, right on the city’s famous mediaeval quay, the Graslei. 1898 The Post is a brooding boutique hotel bristling with fairytale turrets and tall windows overlooking the canal. Postal paraphernalia such as writing bureaus and antique pencil cases can be found in the hallways and deliciously dark-walled rooms – all of it reassuringly kitsch-free. Socialise over cocktails in the Cobbler or fix a drink and settle in with some Edgar Allen Poe in the turret-set honesty bar, replete with rows of leather-bound tomes and stag beetles in glass cases.
Gawp at one of the world’s most influential paintings, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, housed inside St Bavo’s Cathedral. The history of the Van Eyck brothers’ 15th-century altarpiece is just as intriguing as some of its shocking details (whoa there, lady with the pincered tongue). It holds the curious accolade of being the world’s most stolen painting, with one panel, the ‘Just Judges’, the subject of Da Vinci Code levels of intrigue. Evidence unearthed this year suggests the panel, which disappeared in 1934, might be buried beneath one of Ghent’s cobbled squares. Looking in such fine fettle you might think it was assembled for a Disney film, Gravensteen is in fact a 12th-century castle set smack-bang in the city centre. Its untainted condition is due to the fact it was only ever invaded once, in 1949, by local students protesting the rising price of beer. Students, eh?
Even though Eurostar journeys terminate in Brussels, tickets are conveniently for ‘all stations’ in Belgium, meaning they automatically include your connection from the capital to Ghent, and then on to other major cities if you so desire, from which you can begin your return leg. Ghent’s Sint-Pieters station sits a handful of tram stops to the south of the Old Town. For flights, the closest international airport is Brussels, which is served by many European routes. There are direct flights from some larger US airports, too.