With its medieval town square, picturesque waterways and sky-scraping belfry, Ghent is cut from much the same cloth as nearby Bruges. But the port city has a personality all of its own, thanks in no small part to its university crowd that keeps things lively and interesting. A day trip from Brussels is a no-brainer: direct and frequent trains from Midi station take just half an hour. But it’s worth staying a day or two to soak up the city’s laid-back, bohemian atmosphere. Evenings here are particularly enticing: though its historical centre is compact, Ghent packs in an impressive number of cocktail dens, gin bars and top-notch jazz joints.

To get your bearings, start with an amble along the Graslei and Korenlei, two elegant quays lining the banks of the Leie river. Housed in an imposing 18th-century mansion, the Design Museum is worth a visit for a quick glance at the history of Belgian design. With its moat, fortified turrets and underground dungeons, Gravensteen Castle – the Castle of the Counts of Flanders – is impossible to miss. Once you’ve explored its 11th-century grounds, make time for a wander around the neighbourhood. From tempting bakes to street art and inviting bars, here’s our pick of the best of modern-day Ghent.

  • For brunch and bakes: Julie’s House

    Kraanlei 13, 9000

    Just beyond Gravensteen’s crenelated walls, this bijou café’s squeezed into one of Kraanlei’s narrow townhouses. It’s known for its namesake owner’s bakes, from red-velvet blondies to slabs of speculoos cheesecake. Portions are generous, so arrive hungry. If you can find a table, it’s an excellent spot for brunch – which, come the weekend, spans French toast, pancakes and more.

  • For drinks with a view: De Alchemist

    Rekelingestraat 3, 9000
    Stop for a sundowner at this charismatic spot, opposite the castle. On sunny afternoons, its pavement tables are perfect for people-watching, while candles flicker in the cosy, wood-panelled bar. There are Belgian beers on draught, but the specialty here is gin, with a connoisseur’s array of blends, and expertly matched tonics. If it’s in stock, try the small-batch, seasonal Filliers Tangerine.
  • For jazz soirées: Hot Club Gent

    Schuddevisstraatje 2, 9000
    Hidden down a narrow alleyway, this tiny jazz club has a suitably underground feel. Inside, trumpets hang from the beams, above the sliver of a stage and handful of rickety tables. There are live jazz and jam sessions five nights a week, running from free improv to gypsy swing and jazz standards. Affordable beers and friendly locals add to the appeal, though chatting during sets is a no-no.
  • For street art: Werregarenstraat

    Werregarenstraat, 9000
    It’s a five-minute stroll from the castle to Werregarenstraat, an officially designated space for the city’s street artists. Stretching two blocks, the cut-through’s become a kaleidoscopic, ever-changing canvas, where even the pavement’s scrawled with tags. It’s a riotous mix of cartoon characters, arty stencils and amateur scribbles – and a popular backdrop for in-the-know selfie-snappers.
  • For inventive cocktails: Jigger’s

    Oudburg 16, 9000
    The bartenders at this dapper cocktail den can whip up any classic, but the house creations are even better. Take your pick from the handwritten menu, which changes every week, and makes ingenious use of homemade sodas, syrups and liqueurs. It might run from quince-laced spritzes to a beetroot-spiked Old Fashioned, or a dinky ‘two-sip’ martini perfect for a quick pick-me-up.
  • For the best of Belgian design: Het Oorcussen

    Vrijdagmarkt 7, 9000
    Overlooking the cobbled Vrijdagmarkt square, this white-painted womenswear boutique eschews frills and flourishes. Instead, expect bold, grown-up pieces from a handful of cherrypicked designers, including local legends Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. Look out, too, for precision-cut separates from cult London label Toogood, along with understated dresses by Italy’s Sara Lanzi.
  • For intimate concerts: Tinnenpot Theatre

    Tinnenpotstraat 21, 9000
    Tap into Ghent’s artistic side at this Tardis-like cultural complex, where every available corner’s become a performance space. Anything goes on its freewheeling programme, from experimental theatre and cabaret to classical recitals, via flamenco and foot-tapping fiddle quartets. Its cosy auditoriums create an intimate vibe and ticket prices are a steal, so it’s always worth taking a chance.

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