Had a business trip to Amsterdam so Chuck and a colleague/travel companion, Allison, decided to join me for a week prior in Belgium; Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent. I had assumed that Bruges would be our favorite city but was surprised to find that Ghent won hands down. Bruges is small and quaint but very touristy. Ghent had all the charm of Bruges, a college atmosphere, low percentage of tourists, and was a thriving food mecca. Wish we had planned a few more days to really get to know the city. But we can always return!
Ghent is a medieval masterpiece but very modern in its atmosphere and gourmet scene. This port city sits in northwest Belgium, between the Leie and Scheldt rivers. During the Middle Ages it was a prominent city-state, and today it’s a thriving university town and cultural hub. The pedestrian walking center has wonderful medieval architecture such as 12th-century Gravensteen castle and the Graslei, a row of guildhalls beside the Leie river harbor.
- Gravensteen Castle – medieval castle situated in the middle of the city with excellent views from the top.
- Klein Begijnhof – beautiful small historical quarter. Walls surround the houses and the church, drowning out the sounds of the city.
- Shopping – found the most unique and authentic shops and bought some interesting jewelry and clothing (and I usually don’t like to shop on holiday)
For a small city there are a good number of charming hotels to choose from including a small hotel, with just three rooms, owned and run by one of the top chocolatiers. And the only way to sample his chocolate today is to stay at his place, Chambreplus.
- Hotel Verhaegen – small boutique hotel in an 18th century mansion-house. Lovely courtyard garden. Close to the historic center.
- Hotel Harmony – modern and stylish hotel in two historic buildings in the center of town, with lovely views from the rooms on the upper floors. Has a pretty courtyard garden and a pool.
- Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof – has a new and old part of the hotel. The old part is a 18th century town house juxtaposing the other new section – which somehow works together. The hotel and its coach house are listed as Ghent monuments.
- Chambreplus – in the heart of old town, this historic building has just three bedrooms – the Congo Room, the Sultan Room and the Côté Sud. And you will get chocolates!
Ghent is becoming Belgium’s best city for foodies, and with only a few days we tried to sample as many as we could. Very creative chefs and very reasonable prices for the quality of food.
- Volta –. 2b Nieuwe Wandeling, +32 9 324 0500, voltagent.be – short walk out of the city center and you will find a cool restaurant housed in a vast converted turbine hall. The kitchen is run by a young chef, Olly Ceulenaere, who prepares a fabulous seven-course tasting menu, €59 in the evening, with surprising dishes.
- JEF – 10 Lange Steenstraat, +32 9 336 8058, j-e-f.be – Chef Jason Blanckaert left the Michelin-starred restaurant he was working in, C-Jean, to open his own casual, minimalist diner. He calls his cuisine, “real food”, with hearty portions of slow-cooked veal, pork belly, and oven-braised cod with shellfish and pumpkin. €25 at lunch, €55 at dinner.
- De Vitrine – 134 Brabantdam, +32 9 336 2808, de-vitrine.be – one of Belgium’s most talented chefs, Kobe Desramaults cooks his signature “earthy” cuisine in a cult restaurant in the Flemish countryside. He opened De Vitrine, an ancient butcher’s shop in Ghent, run by one of his young team. Drinks and Flemish tapas are served around a butcher’s marble counter, with a small dining room at the back. They get booked way in advance so call early. Three-course lunch €33, three-course dinner €45.
- Gruut – 10 Grote Huidevettershoek, +32 9 269 0269, gruut.be – an old industrial building, renovated by the owner, Annick de Splenter, who turned it into a brewery, bar and restaurant. Her beers are delicious, and the menu features hearty local favorites such as a tasty chicken stew, or tender beef braised in beer.
- Guido Meersschaut – 27 Ajuinmarktstraat, Gent-Ledeberg, +32 9 232 3322, meersschaut.be – a bit out of town but worth the cab ride. This fourth generation fishmonger opened this casual restaurant with a tasting bar to discover the difference between Breton, Dutch and Colchester oysters, and sample raw herrings, and eel braised in a parsley sauce.
- Publiek – Ham 39, +32 9 330 04 86 – one of the new eateries that’s turning Ghent into a foodie paradise. Only a year old and received a Michelin star already. So book way in advance as it is almost impossible to get a reservation.
- Vrijmoed – Vlaanderenstraat 22, Ghent, Belgium +32 9 27 99 977 – Chef Michael Vrijmoed overseas this sophisticated restaurant which he calls his laboratory. He strives to make ordinary dishes extraordinary and is known for his unusual combination of ingredients. He is constantly experimenting with the menu to push the boundaries of Flemish cuisine and balances flavors in a way you won’t find anywhere else.
And one can never go to Belgium and not discuss Chocolates! All of the ones I list are handmade, not factory made like the majority of the names we are familiar with. Some you will have to visit Brussels for, but there are three in Ghent…
- Mary – 73 rue Royale, Brussels (00 32 2375 5848; mary.be)
- Pierre Marcolini – 1 rue des Minimes, Brussels (00 32 2247 9950; marcolini.be)
- The Chocolate Line – 19 Simon Stevinplein, Bruges (00 32 5034 1090; http://www.thechocolateline.be ) – Dominique Persoone has unique combinations of flavors in his chocolates and is one of the only chocolate shop to be listed in Michelin. His marzipan with black-olive purée has to be eaten to be believed.
- Hendrik Mesuere – Ghent – stopped working as a full-time chocolatier so there only two ways to sample his subtle chocolate: go on one of his chocolate-making courses, or stay at his delightful little hotel, Chambreplus.
- Yuzu – 11a Walpoortstraat, +32 47 396 5733 Ghent – off-the-beaten track boutique showcasing the creations of local chocolatier Nicolas Vanaise. He makes his seductive chocolates each morning in his own home and can’t keep up with demand. He mixes strange combinations of flavors and textures, such as lemon and coffee, and they really work.