Ghent, a small Belgian city (pop. 240,000) in the Flemish part of Belgium, may not be first on your Belgium list – but it should at least be in the top 5. My friend who lived there for a few years noted that “it’s like Bruges without all the tourists,” and although I’ve never been to Bruges, I’m inclined to believe her.
Row houses line canal streets in the old city, which may have been populated since the Iron Age but rose to power in the region in the 12th century. The city is very pedestrian-friendly and can be seen in a few hours on foot or on a leisurely boat tour through picturesque canals. As far as sights, the Museum of Fine Arts (Museum voor Schone Kunsten) is world-class and displays works by many Flemish masters, notably Hieronymous Bosch.
Ghent’s claim to artistic fame, however, is Jan van Eyck’s incredible altarpiece "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" in the Saint Bavo cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal). The work is under restoration at the time of writing, but there’s a viewing window where guests can watch restorers carefully poring over segments of the work.
Americans and history buffs can swing by the house on Veldstraat where John Quincy Adams' delegation resided during talks before the Treaty of Ghent was signed. And a walk through the 13th-century Castle of the Counts (Graventseen) is worth it for the small museum and awesome views of Ghent from atop the walls.
What made Ghent especially memorable for me, unsurprisingly, was the food and drink. Visiting one of the many hole-in-the-wall jenever (gin) bars and sampling the extensive house-made flavored gins (don’t try pepper... do try chocolate) is an absolute must. Also, search menus in bars and restaurants for a glass of “roomer,” a traditional locally produced wine infused with elderberry blossoms. When you're about to drink one of the delicate flowers, you're supposed to make a wish.
Of course, there's also the cheap and excellent selection of native beer on tap in pub establishments all over town. Fantastic chocolate shops abound (check out Neuhaus on Koestraat), and don’t forget to grab a hot, fresh and chocolately waffle from one of the many stands near the Groot Vleeshuis, a cool 15th century indoor meat market.
Ghent’s restauraunts are delicious and varied (Belgian, French, and Turkish cuisine abound) and mostly concentrated in the city center. Plan for at least an entire day and you will not be disappointed.