We don't get a ton of inquiries for travel to Belgium, to be honest. And I'm not entirely sure why that is. Brussels is a bustling center of business and politics. Bruges looks like something out of a fairytale. Husbands, take note: your wife will love you even more if you take her diamond shopping in Antwerp.
It's easy to visit in conjunction with a trip to Amsterdam, Paris, or even western Germany. And the entire country is so small, you can drive across it in a matter of a few hours. So in truth, Belgium, as a whole, is a bit off the beaten path. But the city I fell in love with during my trip there is the most underrated of all: Ghent.
I was drawn to Belgium for a few reasons. I am an unapologetic beer snob, and Belgian beers are among my favorite kinds. I was thrilled with the prospect of getting my dubbels, tripels and quads straight from the source. I'm also a big fan of the country's national soccer team. (You may be noticing a pattern here: see my Off the Beaten Path blog on Colombia!)
But I had no idea I would enjoy my time there as much as I did. Belgium is about far more than beer and soccer (though yes, they are very good at both of those things).
Ghent, like picturesque Bruges, is home to some impressive medieval architecture,and houses sitting right on a collection of canals. The best views of the old town are from Ghent's belfort, which rings merrily on the hour.
One of the cathedrals in the city is home to the famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb altarpiece, and is a must-see for art buffs.
And Gravensteen Castle looms over the center of town, its history dating back to the 12th century.
But much like my favorite city in the world, Madrid, Ghent is about much more than the sightseeing. There's just this...feel to it. It's almost hard to put into words. The people are so warm and welcoming! I can't tell you how many local friends we made over beers (or frites). We stumbled upon a beer bar hidden away in Ghent's Patershol neighborhood that felt more like a man-cave in a garage than a drinking establishment. With a roaring fire in the background, the barkeep invited us in, introduced us to his favorite brew, and lit a candle at our table, before asking where we were from and launching into a story about the American craft brewery that named a beer after him.
Another place, Dulle Griet, has a brilliant form of theft protection. Some of its beers come in tall, fancy glasses, but if you order one, you'll need to part with a shoe. They'll put it in a basket and hoist it up to the ceiling, far out of reach. Drink your beer and return the glass, and you'll get your footwear back. That quirkiness is quintessentially Ghent.
We toured the belfort a half hour before it closed for the night. Feeling a bit sheepish, like when you walk into a restaurant that's closing up shop, we almost bagged the idea. But the kindly museum docent greeted us heartily, and told us to start at the top and work our way down, as he was planning on closing the tower from top to bottom. If there's a European equivalent to "Minnesota nice," it's everywhere in Ghent.
Sure not to miss the frites in a place that invented the (misleadingly named) "French" fry, we stopped by a spot on a lively plaza. Thoroughly impressed, we went back the next night. One of the staff members excitedly approached us - she remembered us, and was so glad we were back for more.
You can walk the entire city center in the span of 15 minutes, and we knocked out all the sightseeing on the first night we arrived. But again, that's not what Ghent is really about. Go for the beer, the frites, but most importantly, for the people. I guarantee you'll leave with a smile on your face.