Ghent is the undiscovered corner of Belgium, a European destination brimming with family attractions sure to please your tweens and teens. Families touring the country will find that the capital city Brussels enjoys a cosmopolitan air coupled with a graceful pace, excellent for sightseers who want to catch their breath as they giggle at Manneken-Pis and visit the small-scale delights of Mini-Europe. As the headquarters of the European Union, it is as multi-cultural as you can get, and you will hear a polyglot of languages spoken in this already bi-lingual city.
Bruges is Belgium's storybook-pretty, unspoiled medieval town. Though you will have to contend with the throngs of other tourists who flock here, one boat ride on its magical canals and your family will join the many who have fallen under its spell.
In contrast, the Flemish city of Ghent is an under-the–radar destination… but probably not for much longer. Its once secret charms are out now that Lonely Planet named it one of the top 10 places to visit in 2011, shining a much-deserved spotlight on this city.
What Ghent Offers to First Time Family Visitors
Ghent’s picture-perfect panorama of centuries-old castles, historic churches and swan-laced canals somehow blends perfectly with the hip, youthful vibrancy that is fitting for Belgium’s largest University town.
Its combination of trend-setting youth, rich cultural calendar, open-minded Flemish spirit, casual food scene and teen-friendly museums make Ghent an excellent stop for vacationing families who are looking for just the right quirky mix of medieval and modern.
If you’re traveling with hard-to-please teens looking for the next great not-yet-discovered town, Ghent should be high on your must-visit list.
Best Family Activities in Ghent
The most scenic way to get to know Ghent is by boat ride on the town’s meandering waterways. As you glide along the enchanting canals and underneath the scenic bridges, your multi-lingual captain will give a guided commentary and point out perfectly preserved medieval buildings. There are five boat tour companies, all offering pretty much the same tour for the same price, so you can’t go wrong choosing any of them.
The impressive and imposing Castle of the Counts was built in 1180, though additions were later added to the original stone structure. Once inside the castle you will be treated to a fine collection of armor. This should whet your kid’s appetite for the gruesomeness that awaits them. A torture museum complete with an 18-foot dungeon and a spine-chilling collection of medieval torture instruments is a must-see for tweens and teens, and their brave younger siblings should enjoy it as well.
Ascend to the top of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Belfry Tower for one of the best views in town. You will need to climb a few flights of stairs, but an elevator takes you some of the way up, so it’s not too strenuous. The gilded-copper dragon on top of the neo-gothic spire adds an appropriate touch, and the 54-bell carillon plays tunes every 15-minutes as well as the town’s anthem hourly.
Walk or Bike the Streets of Ghent, Belgium
Ambling the streets is a great way to get the true flavor of Ghent. Renting a bike will allow you to get around like the locals do. With its large student population it seems as if everyone is pedaling the cobblestone in Ghent. Cars are very accommodating to cyclists, but of course do be cautious.
Unfortunately, bike helmets are a rarity as they still are in much of Europe. You can rent bikes from Max Mobiel, located behind the train station.
If your time in Ghent is brief, consider joining an organized walking tour run by Ghent-Authentic. They have number of kid-appropriate tours led by enthusiastic guides, and they are happy to customize an itinerary to suit your family’s specific needs and interests.
Shopping in Ghent
Shopping in Ghent presents an interesting array of quirky shops. Temmerman is a quaint 19th century sweet shop that sells regional specialties such as the dark purple neus, nose-shaped chewy candies that may not be sweet enough for most foreign kid’s taste buds, but are worth a try.
If your kids think mustard was created in a Gulden’s jar, visit Tierenteyn, where they have been making homemade mustard since 1818. It is scooped out of a vat and is so fresh it needs to be refrigerated.
Teen fashionistas should visit Vlaanderenstraat, the up-and-coming area of town that is full of unusual and vintage boutiques that cater to the student population. Lots of inexpensive coffee shops and cool cafes can be found here. Belgium is famous for chocolate and lace and you will find many traditional shops that sell these products all over town, both excellent souvenirs.
What's in Ghent, if the Kids Enjoy (or Tolerate) Art
St. Bavo’s Cathedral is the home of the Van Eyck brother’s masterpiece, The Adoration of the Lamb. The 12-paneled religious-themed painting is considered a prime example of Flemish Primitive painting. If your kids don’t enjoy art, they may be enticed into a brief visit thanks to the awesome audio tour, which takes you through each panel in a descriptive and informative manner.
The Design Museum’s large collection of decorative art includes some high-tech, futuristic pieces, so if your familiarity with Flemish art ends with the Primitives, be prepared to be wowed into the 21st Century. Examples of futuristic design means that many kids will find something to hold their interest.
Festivals Galore in Ghent and Flanders
Ghent is chock-full of festivals year round. They include a popular film as well as several internationally respected music festivals. For 10 days each July, this culture-rich town explodes with color and sound during Ghent Festivities.
Ghent Festivities is reminiscent of the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, only on a more manageable scale. Non-stop live concerts of every musical genre, circus acts, puppetry, dancing, a floating festival and a fully mirrored tent where you can imitate the performers mean families will enjoy round-the-clock entertainment for no charge. It is the place to catch the next up-and-coming acts from all over the globe.
Note! The city gets crowded during this period, so it is prudent to book your accommodation in advance.
Belgium Eats & Flemish Foodies are a Ghent Specialty
Belgian’s are known for their hearty appetites. Families will be happy to know that most of the eating here is casual and street food is very popular. Waffles (both sweet Liège-style and fluffy Brussels-style) and fries (twice cooked, making them extra crispy) are sold on nearly every street, and they are as delicious as they are cheap.
Beer is the national beverage and the Belgians take it as seriously as the French take wine. The drinking age is 18, but it is not strictly enforced and you will see many Belgian families indulging in a late-afternoon beer together. If you are open to your teen testing the waters, kriek is a very light, cherry-flavored beer that is a good starting point. Non-alcoholic kinder beer is usually available.
If you are traveling with a junior foodie, you need to know about the Flemish Foodies. The Flemish Foodies are a collaborative of fast-track young chefs who share a passion for creating cutting-edge recipes that highlights local ingredients. Check out the list of where the Flemish Foodies cook in Ghent for a real taste treat.
It is not surprising that the eco-conscious citizens of Ghent have organized Thursday Veggie Day, to encourage everyone to eat a meat-free meal once a week. There are lots of inexpensive vegetarian eateries in town. Try Tasty World for a good veggie burger on the cheap. If you are seeking a soothing bowl of soup, Soupelounge, offers four varieties of freshly made soup for a low price. For a slightly more formal meal, try Allegro Moderato, Italian in name but with a delicious, locally inspired menu.
Where to Stay in Ghent with the Family
The Ghent Marriott is located in the middle of all attractions. Most rooms are housed in the sparkling clean main building, but the hotel maintains a few original, old-fashioned water view rooms that are filled with charming touches. Like Ghent itself, the hotel has effortlessly blended old and new to create a comfortable base during your stay. Expect to find amenities like flat screen televisions and a friendly staff.
Getting to Ghent
Many families will arrive in Ghent from Brussels and this EU capital city is easy to get to. Brussels Airlines recently inaugurated convenient daily non-stop service from New York’s JFK to Brussels.
Once you are in Brussels, there are frequent daily trains that will get you to Ghent in a speedy 35 minutes, making a day trip from Brussels possible. The Ghent train station is a few minutes tram ride from the city center, or about a one-mile walk.
The new, high-tech Ghent Tourist office in the center of town is the place to get free maps, self-guided walking tour information, or purchase the handy all-inclusive Ghent Museum Pass, which includes admission to all major museums and sites plus free public transportation. The historic center is compact, so you should be able to walk everywhere.
For more information on visiting Ghent and Flanders, check out the Visit Flanders site and, for lots of trip planning hints on Brussels, see Visit Brussels.
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