Just as picturesque as Bruges, but with only a fraction of the tourist traffic, Ghent is Belgium's hidden gem. With its canals and cobbled alleyways, it's perfect for a romantic getaway, and its thriving university gives the city a youthful buzz. And last week, a four-month cultural celebration of Ghent was unveiled; The "art experience" Track highlights the city's landmarks and open spaces via specially commissioned artworks (track.be; until 16 September).
Equally as agreeable is Simon Says, housed in a striking, brightly painted Art Nouveau block on the edge of Patershol, Ghent's trendy restaurant district and a five-minute stroll from the old town. This is a cut above your standard B&B – the ambience is intimate as well as stylish. You really feel like a house guest staying here, rather than just another traveller passing through. In addition, it has a ground floor, vintage-styled Coffee Bar that's a popular rendezvous with locals and buzzes throughout the day.
There are only two bedrooms, Een and Twee (Flemish for One and Two), which are decorated in a sleek, minimalist style, with Rietveld lamps and iPod docks on the clock radios. The overall effect is subdued modern – light, neutral and unobtrusive – but the furnishing doesn't feel cold or impersonal. Both rooms have smart, en suite bathrooms. There's not much to choose between them – Twee is slightly bigger, Een has a bit more natural light. You may hear some noise from the street below, but Ghent's amiable bustle is a big part of its appeal, and this stylish guesthouse is in the heart of town, a short walk from the cathedral and the castle.
Breakfast is served until midday in the cosy café on the ground floor, which is always full of locals. It's a pleasant place to linger, with lots of English-language magazines.
The menu is a healthy mix of British and continental: Fairtrade Belgian chocolate from Oxfam, fresh croissants from the local baker, Dorset Cereals and Rose's marmalade. If you're here on a Monday, when the café is closed to non-residents, you can have breakfast here at any time you choose.
Chris and Simon are a friendly English couple in their thirties. They met in England, moved to Ghent and bought this house, which they converted into café-cum-guesthouse five years ago. They live upstairs, on the first and third floor. The guest rooms are on the second level, up two steep flights of stairs. The house is full of quirky touches: Lego keyrings, Scrabble tiles on the doors ... "We try to keep it playful," says Simon. "We don't take ourselves too seriously." But they don't scrimp on the details – those are real Eames chairs in the bedrooms.
Ghent is a treasure trove of fine art, but the museums aren't overwhelmed with sightseers. The Museum voor Schone Kunsten (00 32 9 240 0700; mskgent.be) has a wonderful collection of Flemish Primitives, including a couple of nightmarish masterworks by Hieronymus Bosch.
Ghent's prize possession is Hubert and Jan van Eyck's flamboyant altarpiece, "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb", in St Bavo's Cathedral (sintbaafskathedraal.be). If your tastes are more modern, Ghent's splendid Design Museum (00 32 9 267 9999; designmuseumgent.be) is a short walk from Simon Says.
The pit stop
The Old Town is awash with beer, moules and waffles, but for a more sophisticated meal head for de Vitrine (00 32 9 336 2808; de-vitrine.be) on Brabantdam. It's in the red-light district but don't be deterred – this is one of Ghent's best new restaurants. With a different set menu every night, you never know quite what you're going to get – the house style is traditional Flemish with an innovative modern twist.
I ate chicken livers with apple and chicory, followed by veal cheeks with potatoes and red onions. Housed in an old charcuterie, the decor is plain and unpretentious, and at €45 (£36) for four courses, de Vitrine offers excellent value for such fine food.
Simon Says, Sluizeken 8, Ghent, Belgium (00 32 9 233 0343; simon-says.be). Both doubles cost €105 (£84), B&B.
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