For a month now, I have been living in Ghent, Belgium with a dear friend who I met while studying abroad. Despite having visited Belgium twice before, I had never given it too much attention – I visited quiet Bruges and bustling Brussels, but I never knew that smack in the middle was an absolute gem, a best of both worlds. Ghent, much larger than increasingly touristy Bruges, contains all of Bruges’ winding canals and medieval architecture, while boasting a lively, artistic, student-driven ambience that distinguishes itself in often tourist-filled Western Europe.
Ghent is a city that exudes youthful energy while sitting among mazes of old streets and buildings. It is a contrast that sharpens the senses. It’s a creative environment, full of hipsters, students, professors, musicians, and artists. Therefore, there are art shows, an abundance of live music, political and science lectures, and book fairs nearly every week – you just have to look for them, or run into them.
Since, in my opinion, anyone visiting Belgium should make a stop in Ghent over places like Bruges, Brussels, or Antwerp – I’ll tell you how to find and immerse yourself in what makes Ghent different: its music, art, cultural, and café scene, found in a hodgepodge of dynamic neighborhoods.
What do you need to do first if you want to experience the unique Gentse culture? Place yourself in the areas that overflow with Gentse history, of course. Start out by exploring Patershol, Ghent’s most ancient neighborhood. In Patershol, one can find Gravensteen, the medieval fortress of Ghent, occupied originally by the Counts of Flanders, and seemingly growing out of the water. Surrounded by Amsterdam-like dancing canal houses, on nights with warm weather the yard of the castle is filled with students drinking, singing, and enjoying the one-of-a-kind beauty of their city. Simply wander the streets of the Patershol quarter surrounding Gravensteen and you will find houses with arching doors for horse-pulled wagons, eclectic cafés and pubs, wide and narrow winding canals, and plenty of green space for sitting down and having a drink or a picnic.
Closer to the center, between Saint Michael’s and Saint Nicholas’ Churches, lays a plethora of creativity-inspiring cafés. My favorites include two used-book cafés: Paard van Troje (The Trojan Horse) and Le Bal Infernal, where the writer and bookworm alike can enjoy a coffee or strong, golden Belgian beer while picking books from the shelves that have changed hands numerous times. If you are feeling like leaving your mark on the city, bring a good book and exchange it for another on the shelves. Unlike most pubs, you don’t just consume here, you interact and create, which is what I love about spots like Troje and Infernal.
Two more spots at short walking distance from Le Bal Infernal and Paard van Troje are De Aap (The Ape) and Café de Trollekelder. Walk between any two of these options and you will have seen Ghent’s bustling center. I point out Trollekelder and De Aap because they both offer second-floor seating that gives the patron truly awe-inspiring views and settings. At Trollekelder, troll dolls hang from the walls, which are adorned with rustic charm – venture up the winding stairs and sit next to the window, where you can peer out at the illuminated outline of Saint Baaf’s Cathedral. Do the same at De Aap – climb the winding stairs in the back and sit up top, where you will most likely have the entire room to yourself. Upstairs, a candle-lit, wooden interior adorned with old leather seats and tabletops for two await you – it’s the perfect place for creativity, a rousing conversation, or just gazing out onto the cobblestone streets of the old city center.
The last neighborhood I will mention is actually a street – filled with students and all sorts of eclectic happenings. Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat is brimming with cheaper options to go out, eat, or have a coffee. This student street is directly south of the city center. Start at the south end and walk north, through the University of Ghent and a variety of local shops and eateries. At the end of the street you will come to a large building reading ‘Vooruit,’ or ‘forward’ in Dutch. The building was built in 1911 as a festival center of the European socialist labor movement, and has now evolved into an art center. A walk up Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat displays the heavy student influence, local businesses, and history all in one. A trip to Ghent would not be complete without seeing where the nearly 40,000 students spend most of their time.
Another neighborhood worth visiting is Rabot, the most heavily Turkish and Syrian influenced neighborhood. Walking through it brings the charming feeling of being in a mesh of Flanders and Turkey. If you have a free afternoon or night, grabbing dinner or a drink in Rabot would be a splendid choice. It’s always important to remember that immigrants have heavily influenced Western Europe – and we should enjoy that as well. Ghent is the perfect place to do it.
Safe travels, and if you decide to visit Ghent or Belgium, I’d love to hear about it.
Guest Author: Keegan Roembke
I am a student and writer from Indiana currently living in Ghent, Belgium, working on a Master’s in Global Studies. My passion for writing and poetry stems from travels and constant curiosity about the world. I write poetry, social commentary, and travel pieces on Medium and Vocal, and recently graduated from the University of Southern Indiana, where I studied German and International Studies. I have travelled to 22 countries throughout Europe and Africa by train, bus, and foot. Read poetry and commentary at https://vocal.media/authors/keegan-roembke