Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, Belgium

Ghent Gravensteen castle Belgium

Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, Belgium

While oftentimes some of the most splendid castles are generally found in rural areas far from city centres, this cannot be said about the massive medieval pile that is the Gravensteen Castle in Ghent. Plopped on the canal bank in the centre of lovely Ghent – one of Belgium’s most fascinating and underrated cities – the spires of the Gravensteen reach for the sky and its walls crumble into the moat. This fortress was built around 1180 by Philip of Alsace, which he modelled after castles he encountered while fighting in the 2nd crusade. Threatened with destruction in the 19th century, the owner of the Gravensteen decided to make the originally medieval castle ‘even more medieval’ — thereby commencing a lengthy restoration project. In some ways, this  caused experts to question its authenticity, but this is the nature of continually-inhabited buildings: they evolve. As the Gravensteen is located in the middle of the city, modern objects such as power lines, asphalt roads, and cars criss-cross the castle grounds with roads encircling its walls. Yet the real-fake medieval castle sits in the Place Sint-Veerleplein, unaffected, steadfast and silent, watching as the modern world whizzes by.


Pro tip: Full admission is €10, and your ticket also gets you a virtual guide at the Abbey St Peter. The castle is open daily from 10-6pm. While in Ghent, poke around the lovely second-hand and antique shops and walk along the gorgeous canals. For the other end of the history spectrum, hit up Graffiti Street – an alleyway constantly painted by local artists so that it looks different upon each visit!


Find other great castles in Europe:

This post originally appeared in June 2014. It has since been updated and revised. 

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Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

Ghent again, I know. But it’s hard to resist such a wonderfully tempting city! Ghent is one of those places that few people have heard of and no one really thinks about – and turns out to be a hidden treasure trove for those who do somehow wind up here. The Flemish city of Ghent (or ‘Ganda,’ as it was once known, meaning ‘Confluence’) did indeed start as a settlement at the confluence of two local rivers, the Scheldt, and the Leie, though Ghent’s glory days were really in the Middle Ages, when mercantile trade and agriculture from the rich green fields outside the city caused Ghent to become one of Europe’s richest and most populous cities of the time (50-60,000 citizens), leading to the explosion of building projects. In particular, the wool industry was an important generator of wealth for the city-state, even going so far as to create one of Europe’s first successful  industrialised zones. But history aside, Ghent’s lucrative Middle Ages left an important mark on the city, particularly in architecture. In more recent times, perhaps owing to the fact that Bruges and Brussels are more influenced by tourism and international politics than the overlooked Ghent, Ghent was left to its own devices to find its individual core – which turns out to be pure hipster! The Art Nouveau style took off in Ghent, as did many unique-concept ideas such as the ‘Wasbar,’ a local dish called ‘Balls & Glory,’ and an art project that constructed a hotel room at the top of the train station’s clock tower (read this post for more info). The student atmosphere is strong here, cafes are popular and numerous, bookshops and antique stores dot the city, trees line the canals and the possibiltles for enjoyment are really endless.

 

Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

Hipster Ghent. Quirky Ghent. Fun Ghent. Ghent is a place to forget who you are, kick back, and live in the moment. Whether you like studying Art Nouveau architecture (see more regarding Art Nouveau here), finding funky graffiti, hanging out in hipster bars, following quaint canals lined with weeping willows, curling up in snug coffeehouses and bookshops, rooting through the hodgepodge of antique shops, visiting ancient castles like the Gravensteen or exploring the cobbled alleys in search of hidden treasure, there’s a good chance that Ghent is for you. Ghent is a city like no other – it is something of a mix of Brugges‘ charm and heritage, Berlin’s nightlife, Prague’s quirky attitude, Riga’s unique architecture, and Montpellier’s youth. Though little-known, Ghent will surprise and amaze you on any trip to Belgium! (oh and yes, there are Belgian fries, beer, waffles and chocolate…this is Belgium after all).

Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, part of the Flemish part of the county, is often overlooked in favour of its more famous cousin, Bruges. Yet, both cities are incredibly beautiful and deserve a visit! In Ghent, you will find canals draped in weeping willows, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture, art nouveau designs, cheerful students sipping coffees in colourful cafes, food trucks and tiny restaurants selling fries and gaufres (waffles) in the streets, couples strolling down the cobbled streets. It is a hipster city, and those tourists who decide to visit this beautiful city relish in striking off the beaten path. Visit Gravensteen Castle, take a boat tour of the Ghent Canals, and admire the intriguing Art Nouveau architecture. Here, it is easy to mingle with the locals. Simply stroll along one of Ghent’s many canals until you find a cozy cafe, cheerful restaurant or lively bar – and strike up a chat with the locals. You won’t regret it!


More Places to Visit with Beautiful Canals
    1. Bruges, Belgium
    2. Amsterdam Canals, Netherlands
    3. Annecy, France
    4. Strasbourg, France
    5. Copenhagen, Denmark

 

Antwerp, Belgium

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Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp is a diamond in the rough. No, seriously–this little Belgian town is Europe’s diamond capital. Fun fact: supposedly, the amount of diamonds in the world isn’t as small as they’d want us to believe–diamond epicenters like Antwerp apparently limit the number of available diamonds in order to keep prices high and create the illusion of supply and demand. But even outside the diamond shops, (in the area around the beautiful, art nouveau train station) Antwerp is worth a quick stop when already in the area to visit beautiful Bruges and hipster Ghent! It’s funky, full of chocolate and Belgian waffle shops, and downtown walking the cobbled streets under the shadow of the cathedral spire, one can find plenty of charming places for a Belgian beer. Unusual meets traditional here in this little-known Belgian city otherwise known as the European diamond mine.

Ghent Canals, Belgium

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Canals in Ghent, Belgium

When most people hear the words “canal” and “Europe,” Venice immediately springs to mind. And while Venice is certainly the most famous and probably the most beautiful, the continent has many beautiful canals flowing through equally beautiful cities, such as Annecy, Amsterdam, Bruges, and, as evident from the above photo, Ghent. Hipster Ghent has seemingly endless quaint waterways streaming through the medieval town. While it’s less “Disney world/honeymoon-paradise” than its neighbour Bruges, Ghent is no less beautiful, and no less short on canals. A simple boat trip will take you on a relaxing trip around the city’s watery arteries, providing a new perspective of the beautiful buildings lining the canals. And not only that, Ghent’s innate and adorable quirkiness will leave you just as much in love with this small city as all of the locals!

Ghent, Belgium

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Ghent, Belgium

Known as Belgium’s ‘hipster city’ (though of course the Ghentians? Ghentiles? will never admit to this label), Ghent is a very cool place. Nowhere near as famous as its neighbour, Bruges, it’s just as ancient, beautiful, untouched and medieval–but the best part is that it’s relatively undiscovered. Perhaps this is what draws the hipsters the city is so known for? Not only is the city peppered with funky art nouveau buildings, local cafes, chic galleries, vintage shops, and hole-in-the-wall bars, there are also gems such as  the ‘Wasbar’ (laundromat meets bar), a cafe known for its bizarre meatballs with the amazing name “Balls & Glory.” In 2012, as part of a city-wide public display of art in which 41 artists took part all over Ghent, artist Tazu Rous constructed a “hotel room” around the the clock tower of the train station, so that “guests” would in fact be sleeping next to the enormous clock-face…how’s that for an alarm clock!? Ghent is, undeniably, a ‘weird’ city–but in some ways, that’s the best kind of city. Perhaps there is some truth to Lonely Planet’s statement that this bohemian, nonconformist city “might just be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting.” So maybe you should start thinking about it!