The sun beat down on Ghent. It was the hottest day I could remember ever spending in Belgium, and it was a relief to be on the water. I paddled the canoe through the confluence of the Lys and Scheldt rivers. The voices of sunbathers carried from the quay, where moored houseboats bobbed beneath gabled houses and planters popping with pink flowers. But I didn’t dwell on Ghent’s undeniable charm. Instead, I watched the water … until I saw it up ahead, partially submerged: a plastic bottle, riding the currents on its way to the North Sea. I extended my trash-grabber and snatched it.
Ghent is Belgium’s unsung capital of cool
Over the years, I keep returning to Belgium’s second city. Once I made a pilgrimage to see a world-famous masterpiece, Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” also called the Ghent Altarpiece. (It’s also known as the most stolen painting in history, but more on that later.) The city’s energy was so irresistible that I’d returned to survey the happening restaurant scene with a friend from Brussels. On each successive trip, I’ve been amazed that Ghent — just about half an hour by train from Bruges and Brussels, and about an hour from Antwerp — isn’t overrun with tourists. Most recently, I wanted to dive into Ghent’s green ethos. Beyond its cool vibe, the city has been making waves for its sustainability initiatives and eco-minded tourism strategy.
So I boarded a boat by DOKano. The idea behind this nonprofit: Rent a canoe for the price of a bucket of trash that you retrieve yourself from Ghent’s waterways. (A donation is also welcome.) What started in 2017 as the brainchild of five parents at school pickup has morphed into an organization that’s popular with both locals and visitors. DOKano also offers team-building outings and educational excursions with school groups, who are encouraged to sort the trash before nominating the “catch of the day.” Some of the more curious finds? A toy monkey, sneakers and perfectly usable heart-shaped luggage.
“DOKano’s mission is to take action with as many people as possible to create plastic-free waters,” says co-founder Hans Marly. “The goal is to remove litter while raising public awareness of the problem.”
The plight of plastic in our environment can be depressing. For me, going canoeing with DOKano was a means of exploring the beautiful waterways while doing something proactive. “Projects like this are positive for both tourists and locals and reflect the city’s goals,” says Deputy Mayor Bram Van Braeckevelt. “We aim to keep tourism in Ghent sustainable — to find a balance with the city’s livability, to invest in projects that provide a return to the local community, to take measures to avoid overtourism in the future.”
The rebellious noose bearers
Ghent’s vibrant spirit and political engagement stem from its history. The story is told with flair at STAM, the Ghent City Museum, whose very architecture — an amalgam of restored medieval cloisters and contemporary glass — reflects the modern city itself. Back around 630, a wandering French missionary named Amandus arrived to proselytize the local population, building a church that later became St. Bavo’s Abbey. Ghent grew into a medieval powerhouse thanks to the cloth trade. In the oldest written description of Ghent (1154), geographer al-Sharif al-Idrisi waxed poetic in Arabic: “It is a beautiful, flourishing city with many stately homes and grand vistas. It possesses gardens, orchards and fields that provide a continual harvest.”
In the Middle Ages, Ghent was the second-largest city in northern Europe after Paris. This prosperous trade hub even boasted its own army, with which it challenged the Counts of Flanders and Dukes of Burgundy. Over time, the creation of craft guilds — each demanding political participation — encouraged diplomacy and the exchange of ideas.
“Ghent has always had a rebellious streak,” says Luk Darras, a former Belgian ambassador who has lived here for 17 years, referring to an infamous 16th-century episode. Charles V, the future Holy Roman Emperor, was born in Ghent but later squashed a revolt, forcing the locals to parade through the streets wearing hangman’s nooses around their necks in punishment. To this day, Ghentians are called “stroppendragers” (or noose bearers), and you can find a noose proudly depicted on a local beer label.
Today, the population numbers more than 265,000 people of about 160 nationalities, with approximately an additional 85,000 university students arriving each autumn. “It brings an injection of youthful energy,” says Mieke Thienpont, a professional guide and president of the Ghent Guides association.
“The city is very much alive,” Darras says. “It’s friendly and dynamic — open to industry and change — and also socially engaged.”
Ghent’s heritage is reason enough to travel here. There’s the formidable Castle of the Counts, the 15th-century Great Butchers’ Hall, the UNESCO-listed belfry lording over it all. Founded in 1235, the Beguinage of Our Lady at Hoyen — also a UNESCO site — once housed religious women in a unique, self-sustaining community. Guildhalls with ornately sculpted facades flank the quays of Graslei and Korenlei. The Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), considered Belgium’s oldest museum, is celebrating its 225th anniversary with a rich program. And back to the aforementioned Ghent Altarpiece, of which Darras says is “the one painting you have to see in your life,” a visitor center inside St. Bavo’s Cathedral brings the newly restored work to life through an augmented-reality experience that’s an immersion in the Van Eyck brothers’ world.
But besides all this cultural wealth, it’s the energy and ambiance that keep luring me back. As I walked Ghent’s cobblestoned streets, I fed off the laughter from the busy cafes, the rush of commuting bikes, a flamenco concert at ENTR, where I nursed a local Lousberg beer. Admiring the city’s prolific street art, I met local legend Klaas Van der Linden as he painted a wall on Graffiti Street. His works are all over Ghent; for example, the astonishing “Lost at Sea” is an enormous self-portrait in exuberant color. He has a master’s degree in arts, though he learned spray-paint techniques on the streets, and his paintings are exhibited in shows across Europe. A crowd had gathered to snap photos, and Van der Linden was gregarious, inviting some passersby to check out his studio: a medieval cellar with vaulted ceilings that’s quintessentially Ghent.
It’s this authenticity that the city champions (and promotes through measures such as the “Walk Local” campaign, showing where famous residents hang out to entice visitors away from the city’s Instagrammable historical center). “Ghent is so much more than just a selfie,” Van Braeckevelt says. “We invite people to bring their pajamas and stay overnight — to feel the city’s vibe like Ghentians.”
When I checked into the Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel, opened in 2021, I found a buzzing hangout with great energy. It draws locals for coffee and co-working in the morning (the coffee is by a neighborhood roastery called Vandekerckhove), after-work cocktails in the bar (try “Lucifer’s Kiss,” with jalapeño-infused Pisco), and dinner in the glass-roofed atrium (served by friendly waiters wearing white Puma sneakers). A soon-to-open rooftop will no doubt attract the cool crowd for DJ sets with a panoramic view. There’s a real focus on design here, along with sustainability. As Belgium’s second hotel with Green Globe certification, its eco-friendly measures include solar-heated water, upcycled glasses by Belgian company IWAS and kitchen ingredients sourced from local farms.
A playground for artists, Ghent is fertile ground for experimental ideas, particularly in sustainability. Most recently, the city’s tourism recovery plan, launched in 2021 with a green focus, was the result of diplomacy and compromise. To determine the future of tourism, local residents were engaged alongside business managers in citywide debates.
Other examples abound. The Ghent Light Plan was launched in 2007 as a means of illuminating the city’s monuments and buildings at night in a dazzling yet energy-efficient way. Cycling culture is pervasive, boosted by infrastructure (such as bike parking garages) and city incentives. A low-emission zone was established in January 2020 to keep polluting cars out of the city center. In fact, many locals have ditched their cars in exchange for bikes or community car-sharing services. Ghent was the first Belgian city to launch Fairbnb, the sustainable vacation rental platform that reinvests 50 percent of its revenue in local communities. But perhaps the biggest example of pioneering initiatives: In 2009, Ghent witnessed the launch of “Thursday Veggie Day,” now a global phenomenon that encourages people to skip meat for a day to help fight climate change. Ghent is today a vegetarian capital with a variety of restaurants.
“We couldn’t have launched anywhere else but Ghent,” says Paul Florizoone, who founded the trendsetting Greenway brand 26 years ago. Before vegetarianism went mainstream, Greenway innovated with meat alternatives, and today, alongside its three restaurants in Belgium, it offers a range of retail products, such as sausage made from locally grown cauliflower and cordon bleu from celeriac. Newer to the scene is Epiphany’s Kitchen, a lively spot named Belgium’s best vegan restaurant by BE Vegan in 2021. You won’t find avocado toast on the menu. The dishes are the result of creative kitchen experimentation — such as the pizza crust made from crushed yuca root — which you can taste among flickering candles and a riot of flowers. Everything is made in-house. “It was a success since the beginning, and I didn’t initially market it as vegan,” explains owner Epiphany Vanderhaeghen. “I wanted to invite people into my world to experience it.”
On my last night, I sat at the bar at Publiek, a Michelin-starred restaurant with a real cool factor. Chef Olly Ceulenaere is a champion of the Flemish terroir, reputed for exalting local products (whether that be endives, Bintje potatoes or North Sea fish) in refined cuisine that’s also accessible. Appetizing smells wafted from the open kitchen while I slurped an oyster topped with berry-infused granitas, washed down with a rhubarb and raspberry beer. The ambiance is fun and relaxed — the non-harried waiters open to chatting — and it struck me that, with its laid-back style, the restaurant captures the spirit of Ghent. Tipped off by the waiter, I tried the Dame Blanche, a dessert that’s not on the menu. It’s a seemingly simple classic: vanilla ice cream made fresh when you order, accompanied by warm choux pastry and cups of melted chocolate and whipped cream. But it’s sublime because of the quality of the ingredients.
“I want people to have a good time,” Ceulenaere says. “I run the restaurant to be a place where I would want to eat.”
It was late when I left the restaurant. But the buildings were aglow, the streets humming with cyclists on their way home from a night out. I resolved to return for one of the city’s epic festivals; during the Ghent Light Festival, the gilded dragon that’s perched atop the belfry even spits fire — a fitting mascot for such a spirited place. A light rain began to fall as I followed De Reep, the same waterway I had earlier traversed by canoe. Then the skies above Ghent crackled with the electricity of a thunderstorm.
Where to stay
Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel
Brabantdam 33, Ghent, Belgium
This design-centric boutique hotel has become a vibrant hub for locals since it opened in 2021. Creative bar drinks and tasty restaurant cuisine are just as appreciated as the morning coffee by a neighborhood roastery. Certified by Green Globe, Yalo prioritizes sustainability. Its motto is, “Connect to the good life.” Rooms about $140 per night.
Where to eat
Awarded a Michelin star, Publiek offers a cool vibe and great value. Chef Olly Ceulenaere works his magic in an open kitchen. Open Tuesday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m., for lunch. For dinner, open Tuesday to Thursday, 7 to 9 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday, 6 to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Lunch from about $48 for three courses; dinner from about $80 for five courses.
The concept at this atmospheric spot is plant-based, though you can add a sustainably sourced fish or meat protein to your meal. Open Thursday to Monday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Entrees from about $20.
Sint Salvatorstraat 18a
This popular cafe is located in a former industrial site in the Dok Noord that’s been converted into shops, offices and restaurants. Lunch and dinner are served as a delicious vegetarian buffet, though a meat dish is always available. Open Monday to Friday, noon to 2 p.m., for lunch, and Friday, 6 to 9 p.m., for dinner. When the weather’s nice, the terrace fills up fast. Lunch about $17; dinner about $21.
What to do
Houtdok, Chinastraat 1
Working for clean, plastic-free water, this nonprofit organizes excursions and educational team-building activities with school groups on Ghent’s waterways. You can “rent” a canoe from DOKano in exchange for picking up a bucket of trash. (Donations suggested.) Book your boat by email: email@example.com.
St. Bavo’s Cathedral visitor center
This visitor center offers an augmented-reality experience shedding light on the creation of “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” or the Ghent Altarpiece. Forty- and 60-minute tours available; tickets can be booked online in advance. Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.; last admission 4:30 p.m. About $16 per person ages 12 and older; about $8 per person under 12.
STAM, the Ghent City Museum
Bijlokesite. Godshuizenlaan 2
The story of the city’s history is told with flair at STAM. The museum’s architecture reflects the modern city itself. Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Wednesday. Tickets about $10, about $2 ages 19 to 25 and free for people under 19.
Museum of Fine Arts (MSK)
Fernand Scribedreef 1
Considered Belgium’s oldest museum, MSK has an extraordinary art collection. The 225th-anniversary celebrations include special events, exhibitions and artistic activities. Open Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday. Tickets about $15 per person, about $3 for ages 19 to 25, and free for under 18.
Walking tours with Gentse Gidsen
Professional city tour guides offer a range of Ghent tours, whether your interest is history or street art. The Ghent history tour, which meets at the Tourist Information Center, is about $8 per person, while the other themed two-hour walks start from about $105 per guide.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.