Behind the world-famous van Eyck altarpiece and away from the crowds of Castle Gravensteen, there’s an alternative and quirky side to Ghent that you’ll want to discover. Here’s your ultimate guide to the best of hidden gems, unusual things to do, and secret spots in Ghent!
Holy Food Market
For the ultimate foodie experience in the city, be sure to head to the Holy Food Market. As its name would suggest, this food hall can actually be found within the walls of a former church. And, as the foodie hotspot markets itself, dining here is simply put a ‘divine’ experience.
Housed in a 16th-century former chapel, this space is inspired by food halls like those of Rotterdam and Barcelona, once inside you can expect to find a wide variety of cuisines; from Japanese food to Portuguese dishes, there’s plenty of options to choose from (though the dishes tends to err on the pricier side of things). On Monday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings, the market is even transformed into a dance club!
Drink a ‘shoe beer’ in Pub de Dulle Griet
Have you ever been to a bar, only to leave a deposit of a shoe in exchange for a glass? Well, in Ghent you can! Pub de Dulle Griet can be found on a square of the same name. The bar is open every day of the week and boasts the largest selection of Belgian beers in Ghent!
Furthermore, if you’re looking for one of the most unusual things to do in Ghent, it has to be ordering the proef onze max van het huis (‘max of the house’ house beer). After all, should you opt to order this drink, not only will you soon discover that the shape of the glass is most unusual (and comes with its own little wooden stand), but that in order to be given your tipple, you’ll need to hand over a shoe, which is then hung over the bar in a little metal cage! The bar is cash only. Proost!
Frequent, ‘t Galgenhuis, the Smallest Bar in Ghent
Seating just eight people and situated close to the Groentenmarkt, this building was once in use as a tripe house where people could purchase animal entrails at a reduced rate. After all, while the other side of the River Scheldt dealt in fish, the side where ‘t Galgenhuis can now be found was where meat was sold.
Today, you can wander into the adjacent ‘Great Butchers’ Hall’ (Groetenmarkt 7) where the quality of meat sold in the city was regulated during Medieval times. Back at the cosy brown bar (known in Dutch as ‘bruine kroeg’ and characterised by its wooden furniture and smoke-stained walls), the café has served locals and visitors alike since 1776.
‘Little Nose War’
Though not necessarily a hidden gem so much as a story you should know about, it’s the spat behind the Belgian delicacy of the cuberdon that is just so fascinating! If you’ve never heard of this typically Ghent sweet before, then this treat is also known as neuzekes (little noses) and is essentially a ‘nose shaped’ sweet with a candy hard shell and sweet raspberry interior.
The story goes that one day, one vendor decided to tout his wares from his bakery window on the Groetenmarkt in the city centre. Soon enough, another city vendor caught onto the prime location and moved to the Groetenmarkt. After the original salesman decided that switching to a vintage cart would increase sales, the other man even bought a near identical cart!
What was to ensue was a long and hard battle between the two salesmen. So much so, that the local media has dubbed the fight ‘the little nose war’. After all, incidents have escalated to a brawl on the streets between the two men, water dumped over one another, and of course, plenty of gossip!
Ghent Graffiti Street (Werregarenstraatje)
Within the heart of the city, steps away from the historic city centre, one street is unique in that it is one of the only places in Belgium where graffiti is not only legal but is actively encouraged by the authorities. This ever-changing and offbeat street can be found between Onderstraat and Hoogpoort.
Elsewhere in Ghent street art lovers will absolutely adore the Tweebruggenstraat, as well as the promotional fresco ‘The Monuments Men’. This mural was created by graffiti artist Bart Smeets on the corner of Predikherenlei and Van Stopenberghestraat and is certainly well worth admiring if you’re passing by…
Le Bal Infernal Used Book Café
For some of the very best speciality coffees in the city, as well as the opportunity to peruse some reading material, be sure to head to Le Bal Infernal used book café. Close to the Griet Dulle bar and not far from the Serpentstraat, this coffee shop serves delights such as speculoos macchiato and chai tea.
The walls are stacked from floor to ceiling with books you can read, while a ‘free cookie’ wall beckons you to order a coffee and sit back and relax for a while. Perfect for hanging out with friends this trendy hotspot even lets you exchange books you’ve already read for new ones!
Begijnhofdries (Holy Corner) Ghent
Within the city limits of Ghent today, there remain a few beguinages you can still explore for free. Commonly found throughout the Netherlands and Belgium, ‘Hofjes’ as they are so-called in Dutch were typically religious-founded almshouses where older women and those most in need would live.
This beguinage was founded as early as the 13th-century byCountess Johanna van Constantinople and is now one of the quietest secret spaces in Gent. For other European examples of beguinages, you should check out the hofjes of Amsterdam or the Begijnhof close to the Antwerp city centre.
Soak up the ambience of a former abbey in Coyendanspark
Just a few hundred metres away from the Dampoort station, all that remains of a former Abbey Church is a green space and a few crumbling walls that now function as a public park. Free to visit and outside the historic city centre, the ecclesiastical building was destroyed by Charles V in the 16th-century.
Once upon a time, Saint Bavo’s Abbey was constructed in an attempt to convert residents of nearby Ganda, the ancient name for the modern city of Ghent, to Christianity. Like many such buildings throughout Europe, the abbey’s prosperity peaked in the 11th-century.
Unfortunately, this was not to last and following the Ghent uprising of 1540, Charles V destroyed the abbey and adjacent town of Ganda (modern-day Ghent, or Gent as it is locally known). Today, the crumbling wall of the abbey is often said to be ‘Ghent’s oldest wall’. Now, should you frequent the park, you’ll soon discover that the shape of the Romanesque church is laid out in towering box shrubs.
One of the prettiest streets in Ghent can be found in the form of Serpentstraat. Literally translated into English as ‘snake street,’ this cobbled lane is filled with independent shops and boutiques. Somewhere between the graffiti street and the Dulle Griet piazza, be sure to head here if you’re looking for some quirky shopping experiences in Ghent!
Smallest Prison in Ghent
Located below the Execution Bridge (also known as the Decapitation Bridge and in Flemish as Onthoofdingsbrug or Hoofdbrug) and close to Ghent’s fortified castle, the smallest prison in Ghent can solely be identified by a little iron grill. During its time, the prison could only hold two people on their knees.
If you want to see this small site for yourself, then the little cell can only be spied from the water! As such, you’ll need to book a boat tour like this one. I personally loved the 40-50 minute tour as our chatty guide revealed plenty of secret facts and little known things about Ghent.
Admire Geeraard de Duivelsteen, Ghent’s secret and alternative castle
Ever dreamed of living your own fairytale European dream? Well, in Ghent you can! Though Ghent officially only has one castle (the Gravensteen), the 13th-century Geeraard de Duivelsteen (Castle of Gerald the Devil) is certainly an impressive feat of architecture. Over time, the ‘castle’ has been used as a monastery, a bishop’s seminary, and even as a prison.
Admire Les oiseaux de Mr. Maeterlinck art installation (Lightning Bird Tree)
Wander along the Scheldt River at night and you can expect to enjoy the illuminated installation of the Lightning Bird Tree. Inspired by l’Oiseau Bleu fairytale, this piece of quirky Gent art was previously a highlight of the Ghent Light Festival in 2012. Before you go after drinking a few of those Belgian beers, you should know that the birds are only lit up before midnight!