Written on 04/07/2023 by
Whenever I read about Belgium as a tourist destination, Bruges is always prominently mentioned. Unjustly, I discovered, because Ghent has just as much culture, heritage and atmosphere to offer and also benefits from its calmer underdog position. Report of my first, but definitely not my last, visit to the city.

My impression after a short introduction

I recently stepped off the train in Ghent for the first time. My first visit to the East Flemish city was a pleasant experience. Twelve years ago, Lonely Planet called Ghent one of the cities you must have visited at least once. I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t yet visited the city myself. There are so many places I haven’t had the opportunity to discover yet. I’m even visiting Wales for the first time very soon.

Tony Wheeler - Founder of Lonely Planet

What impressed me the most during my first visit to Ghent?

Atmospheric lighting

When I walked back from the city to my hotel after an evening event, I very quickly forgot about the directions on my smartphone. I mainly looked around, found my way back by myself and was pleasantly surprised along the way. The city has a romantic atmosphere at night, thanks to the proximity of the water and the beautiful night lighting. It also seems to be a city with a great nightlife, which I would like to explore further. Maybe I’ll leave that for the next visit, for which I will definitely bring my wife Maureen. 

Cultural heritage

The Ghent Altarpiece also rendered me speechless. It is quite a unique masterpiece. Just the fact that it still exists! Pieces of it have been stolen, shipped all over the world, sold, hidden in a salt mine, you name it. It is also interesting that you can follow the further restoration at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK): how much time does it take, how many people are working on it, that kind of things. For me, that was a very unknown world that opened for a bit. The Castle of the Counts? I have only seen it from the outside. But that is already impressive. Intruders were definitely deterred from attacking the city! So, I have many reasons to come back, that much is clear.

Not overly touristy

I ran into quite a few tourists in Ghent, but at no point did I think it was too much. You cannot compare it to cities such as Barcelona, Venice or Amsterdam, where tourist numbers are of a different order anyway. I also think it’s normal that some services are catered to tourists in Ghent, such as tour buses and boats. It is a convenient commercial way to have people explore a city without it becoming too crowded. Does it change the character of a city? I don’t think so. By the way, I have never seen this many cyclists in the same place! That seems to be typical of Ghent. Small warning? Ghent bicycles may look traditional, but they do go fast. 

Here's a secret within a secret: Ghent might just be the best European city you've never thought of visiting, in a country that continues to be criminally overlooked.
Tom Hall - Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2011

Exploring without pressure

Thanks to Bruges, Ghent still is kind of thebest kept secret’ of Belgium. More than worth visiting, as I have experienced for myself now. Spires, centuries-old houses, idyllic water views: this is such an atmospheric city. And it might not be a bad thing for the city itself to not be at the top of the ‘must visit’ list. Because, who knows, visitors might really take the time to explore the city, instead of quickly finishing their list with activities.

Thanks to Frank Van Os (Atlas & Zanzibar) and Ben Van Alboom

Tony Wheeler

Tony Wheeler is an Australian born in England. His name might not sound familiar, but the name of his iconic travel guides probably does: Lonely Planet. The series of guides, which he created with his wife Maureen, has since been imitated many times, yet never matched. As the ‘inventor’ of modern travel guides, Tony has visited many places around the world. It was high time he discovered Ghent. 

Read all blogposts by Tony Wheeler