In the summer of ’69, Ghent hosted the first of its Gentse Feesten that started the ball rolling into what this artistic ten day Oktoberfest equivalent has now become. This theatrical, music-packed ten days of entertainment is a highlight of the Belgian summer calendar. A full line-up of professional and amateur entertainers takes over the city centre, and although Ghent already has plenty of reasons for a visit, these few days are decidedly special.
You will come across countless ‘added extras’ that make your visit to Ghent even more memorable. Remember the gilded dragon? Last year, the inspiration for Gulden Draak breathed fire from the top of the Belfort tower. Partygoers (‘feesten’ is Flemish for party) were also treated to the scene of a group of middle-aged men in white nighties walking barefoot through the historic centre. These men represented the Guild of the Noose, taking part in a procession that first began in the year 1540.
Unfortunately, when at the Gentse Feesten you will have to make choices. Which of the fifty to seventy shows organised per day would you like to see? From DJs to bagpipes, from dance lessons featuring hundreds of participants to Ghent’s version of Mardis Gras, from ladies volleyball to big-screen live football in large market squares, comedy to puppeteers, and from blues to alternative music, this city celebration has Ghent at its loudest, friendliest and most colourful. There’s plenty for the kids to do, too. And no-one expects you to speak Flemish.
Every brewery and bar offers something special during the Gentse Feesten. The Trollekelder (Troll’s Cellar) organised a pop-up beer-pairing restaurant. The Roman brewery, famous for Gentse Strop beer, provided a draught version instead of the usual bottles. And of course a free baseball cap with every two beers. After a trip to the Gentse Feesten you’ll probably return home with a large collection of new hats gathered from various bars and breweries. A word of warning – the final day of the party is commonly referred to as ‘the day of the empty wallets’.
Starts on “the Friday before the Saturday before July 21st” and lasts ten days.
Five beer-tasting sessions at five different locations as you discover medieval Ghent with a trained and highly knowledgeable guide. While the same is also offered by Gruut brewery, the BeerWalk version of the beer-tasting tour of Ghent is more a general exploration of the city centre which stops at regular intervals for a beer. Gruut’s beer coach concentrates more on specific sites that represent the history of brewing in Gent.
The BeerWalk tours starts at the St Jorishof, mentioned in the restaurant section above, which is located at Botermarkt 2. The tour takes three hours and includes local monasteries and abbeys as well as the usual tourist attractions. A great way to get both your bearings and a short, fun and informative introduction to local brews and buildings.
English version of website: https://www.beerwalk.be/en
Gent Beer Festival
If you’re lucky enough to visit Gent in the late summer your trip might just coincide with the Gent Beer Festival, a city highlight which has been bringing beer appreciators together from all over the globe for the past decade. You’ll find all of the local breweries and microbreweries here and get to try their popular and obscure brews, as well as a whole host of national and international beers. Totem microbrewery from Ghent (http://www.totembeer.com/) was the founding member of this popular festiv-ale. Scroll through the online lists and note down the beers you haven’t tried yet. It will be a very, very long list.
Held annually (usually in August) at Martelaarslaan 13 and open from 12 pm to 10 pm.
English version of website: http://gentsbierfestival.be/ghent-beerfestival/
Ghent Festival of Light
Every three years at the end of January Ghent hosts its Festival of Light. The next time these amazing illuminations colour the city will be in the final week of January in 2021. With 835,000 visitors and over four miles of illuminated artwork lining the centre of the city at the 2018 festival this should become an annual event. But as it’s free the local council have vetoed this idea, even though it’s very difficult to find somewhere to stay in the city during this one short week. Ghent’s modern illuminations brighten even the narrowest medieval alleyway and, while it might be a bit chilly this time of the year, Ghent’s many bars and restaurants are cosy and warm.
The illuminated route is usually one-way but can be joined at any location – a bit like a hop-on hop-off bus route. Lights go on between 6 and 7 pm and continue to sparkle up to midnight. This festival is a new tradition, the first being held in 2011 and immediately repeated the following year due to its huge success. After looking at the ledgers, Ghent council decided to make the festival a triennial event from 2012 onwards.
At least one of the pieces has become a permanent fixture. Walk on the Veerleplein (where the Gravensteen fortress stands) and you might see a double-headed lantern suddenly power up then flicker off, day or night. This doesn’t mean you should prepare for a blackout but instead tells us that a nurse at one of the local maternity clinics has remembered (or has somehow managed to find a free second) to press a button. This button is connected to the lantern at the Veerleplein and tells the city that a baby has just been born.
English version of Ghent Council Festival of Light page: https://lichtfestival.stad.gent/en
Castle of the Counts
Gravensteen or the Castle of the Counts is a fortress located smack bang in the centre of Gent and open daily from 10 am to 6 pm. Constructed in 1180, this castle might not have much of a beer-appreciator’s theme (although the castle would at some point have brewed its own ale), but it is located in a central and stunning historical area of the city and should definitely not be missed. For those that insist on a brewing link, in 1949 a group of students barricaded themselves inside the castle in protest against a sudden 25% increase in beer prices; the single guard let them in but became suspicious when “none of them bought a postcard”. This story hit the international headlines and a commemorative plaque to these students’ bravery was laid as recently as 2018.
Originally built to protect the locals from Viking invaders, a thousand years of history are to be found within Gravensteen’s crenelated walls. There are also lots and lots (and lots) of narrow staircases.
Open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
Address: Sint Veerleplein 11
English-language website: https://gravensteen.stad.gent/en
St Baaf’s Cathedral
Most people who visit St Baaf’s (Saint Bavo’s) cathedral in the centre of Ghent go there to view The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan Van Eyck, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. While the altarpiece has its own viewing times, the rest of the cathedral can be visited daily from 8:30 to early evening (5 pm in the winter or 6 pm in the summer). With a crypt dating back to 1038 and a building schedule that continued for centuries, this gothic cathedral sits, like so many other Belgian cathedrals, tightly squeezed between residential buildings and with very little surrounding grounds. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (the one that liked young, pretty ladies) was baptised on this site, but before the current cathedral was constructed.
Queues in the summer can get very long and their length is almost entirely due to the Ghent Altarpiece. Once these visitors get in they are very disappointed to discover that the dimly-lit triptych is covered by a very thick layer of glass which stops them from taking glare-free (forbidden) photos with a (forbidden) flash – no matter how many different angles they might try. However, there are many other masterpieces by the Flemish primitives and much earlier to be found within the cathedral walls, and these can more or less be enjoyed in relative peace.
Address: Sint Baafsplein
Graslei and Korenlei
Day or night, the riverside areas of Ghent glitter with reflections or lights and always manage to take you back a few centuries. The areas of the Graslei (Grass Quay) and Korenlei (Corn Quay) provide a perfect backdrop as you sit outside one of the many cafes with a historic (or hip and current) ale.
Cold outdoors? Most of the cafes offer space on heated terraces. Raining? These same terraces usually sport awnings or at least waterproof umbrellas. Too hot? The cooler surroundings at the water’s edge make for a much more comfortable temperature. In other words, there’s rarely a worthwhile excuse not to sit back and enjoy the view from a bar terrace on the Graslei and Korenlei.
In between café stops take a boat trip for a completely different perspective of the medieval water’s edge or simply wander the streets, crossing the Grasbrug (Grass bridge) while taking countless photos. You might recognise some areas from the BBC’s recent series, Les Miserables.
Ghent is small enough to be enjoyed during a short city trip and compact enough not to ruin your shoes. This little city with a stubborn streak is a true gem for the true beer-appreciator!