Ghent's pretty, winding canal-side pathways Photo: AlamyBy Lindsey McWhinnie1:06PM BST 25 Sep 20122 CommentsAs my train draws into Ghent station, the first thing I notice is the bicycles. I’ve heard of the Low Countries’ passion fortwo wheels, but quite how a city of 250,000 inhabitants can collect this vast number of cycles is beyond me. But once Ihave spent a little more time in delightful Ghent – with its pretty, winding canal-side pathways, immaculately preservedmedieval buildings and a public transport system that would keep even the most avid petrolhead off the road – I begin tounderstand the sheer pleasure that can be had by traversing the city at a leisurely pace.And, as it quickly becomes clear, Ghent has plenty to offer someone whose preferred mode of transport is two feet. I amkeen to discover the historical, cultural and culinary highlights of Ghent, so I spend my first morning in the company ofLeen, who takes me on her Yummy Walk (vizit.be), taking in some of the city’s historical hot spots, punctuated by visitsto her favourite cafés, chocolate shops and delis.
Ghent has plenty to offer ontwo feetWe begin in Kouter, a grand square, that has for centuries been the meeting place for both working people and thebourgeoisie of the city, and was the original site, in 1843, for the now famous annual Ghent festival. We stop at thecharmingly old-fashioned Fevery patisserie, on Brabantdam, then head north towards the city’s historical centre.Arriving at Limburgstraat, I get my first glimpse of the three towers of St Nicholas Church, the Belfort and St Bavo’sCathedral. From where I stand behind the north-west corner of the Belfort, I can catch a history lesson in one glance –the 14th-century Belfort itself, the 15th-century Cloth Hall and the 16th-century Town Hall.RELATED ARTICLES• Brussels city break guide15 Sep 2011• A cultural guide to Bruges26 Sep 2011• A cultural guide to Brussels19 Oct 2010• A cultural guide to Antwerp21 Dec 2010• Ghent: a girl's guide to the best shops, hotels and restaurants26 Jun 2011Ghent’s wealth in the early medieval period was thanks to the import and export of wheat, and the manufacture of luxurywoollen cloth. The city’s great and good weren’t shy about parading their riches and the Catholic Church was often thehappy recipient.
St Nicholas Church inLimburgstraatI head into the city’s first cathedral, St Bavo’s, founded in the seventh century, to see just how extravagant those earlywealthy Ghentians were. I marvel at the Rococo pulpit, built in Danish oak and marble by the Belgian sculptor LaurentDelvaux in 1745, then at the prolific artwork on the cathedral walls.But the thing most people want to see in St Bavo’s is the 1432 altarpiece, The Adoration Of The Mystic Lamb, and it’sworth the short queue and minimal entrance fee to witness one of religious art’s greatest creations.Then, feeling I need to see what modern Ghent has to offer, I stroll along the Graslei and over the Leie river to theDesign Museum. Housed behind an 18th-century façade, a modern extension plays host to a fascinating collection of17th- and 18th-century furnishings, as well as examples of Belgian Art Nouveau and Art Deco.Following the Leie river north, I find myself in the narrow cobbled streets of the Patershol district. I stop at It Velootje, abar on Kalversteeg, which is an impressive clutter of bicycles and junk crammed into a small room. The combination ofbeer and – once again – bicycles is the perfect end to my visit to Ghent.Ghent essentialsGETTING THEREEurostar (0843 218 6186; eurostar.com) has services from London St Pancras to Ghent (changing in Brussels) from £80return. There are three tram lines running from Ghent train station to various central locations. Tickets can be purchasedfrom the automatic machines at the tram stops for about €2/£1.50. Taxis from Ghent train station into the city centre costabout €30/£24.THE INSIDE TRACK• As well as an art gallery, the medieval St Peter’s Abbey also has a delightful oasis of a garden, perfect for alunchtime pit stop, plus, rather incongruously, a vineyard.• For a bell-ringing experience that’s hard to beat, climb the 300ft (91m) Belfort just before midday to see the clockchiming in its full glory.• Belgium is famous for its chocolates, and you can’t get much better than new kid on the block Joost Arijs. Hisminimalist shop is at Vlaanderenstraat 24 (joostarijs.be).
• For some seriously stylish shopping, pick up a Maart Design Maand map. It conveniently collates all the bestindependent Belgian fashion stores in the city.THE BEST HOTELSSandton Grand Hotel Reylof £Exceptionally good value four-star with high ceilings, eggshell-blue walls and gold doors in the lobby. Rooms are modernand comfortable and there’s also a wellness centre (0032 9 235 4070; sandton.eu; doubles from £100 per night).Hotel Harmony £Modern and comfortable in a trendy location with 25 simple yet stylish rooms, plus a terrace and pool (324 2680; hotelharmony.be;doubles from £110 per night).De Waterzooi ££Pretty three-roomed b & b in a former 16th-century church. Centrally located with an airy breakfast room and verycomfortable beds (330 7721; dewaterzooi.be; doubles from £160 per night).Hotel Verhaegen £££An 18th-century chambre d’hôtes, beautifully decorated by its interior designer owners. The five rooms are a treasuretrove of modern art and 18th-century antiques. Breakfast in bed is perfect (265 0760;hotelverhaegen.be; doubles from£160 per night).THE BEST RESTAURANTSStreet cafe in Vrijdagmarkt,the Friday MarketHet Groot Vleeshius £Housed in an old meat market, this relaxed canteen-style café is the best place to try the Ghent speciality of waterzooi, asubstantial fish or chicken soup-like stew (Groentenmarkt 7; 223 2324; grootvleeshuis.be).Pakhuis ££Bright, high-ceilinged brasserie serving an extensive menu of local dishes with modern twists. Tasty roast chickencomes from their own farm, plus amazing roast potatoes (Schuurkenstraat 4; 223 5555;pakhuis.be).Belga Queen £££
Behind the façade of a medieval grain warehouse is a thoroughly modern interior of spotlights, steel pipes and darkleather chairs. Serving equally stylish modern fare and delicious cocktails, this is a special occasion destination (Graslei10; 280 0100; belgaqueen.be).De Blauwe Zalm £££In the Patershol district, the serene interior of this smart yet friendly restaurant belies the excitement of what appears onits plates. Delicious concoctions include a potato salad with salmon eggs, crab and sesame seeds, and skate withmustard mash and an apricot and caper sauce. Simply superb (Vrouwebroersstraat 2; 224 0852; deblauwezalm.be).WHAT TO AVOID• Getting in the way of those cyclists – the delineation between cycle lane and pavement is not always clear.• Paardenlookworst on a restaurant menu, if you’re not too adventurous in your culinary tastes – it’s a traditionalhorsemeat and garlic sausage.• Citadelpark at night. On the southern edge of the city, it’s perfectly delightful during daytime hours, but best avoidedafter dark.DID YOU KNOW?Despite building an abbey in Ghent, St Bavo was a religious recluse and lived in a hollow tree.