2011's tourism hotspots: what to do in Ghent, Belgium

The Belgian port city of Ghent has been cruelly overlooked as a tourist attraction, it seems.

Known internationally for its huge carnival and among its neighbors for its busy port and popular university, Ghent is situated in the northwest of Belgium, well within the Flemish-speaking area of the country, but nowhere near as famous as its nearest major neighbor, Bruges.

Its historical center dates from medieval times and is centered around the imposing Gravensteen Castle, as well as being almost entirely car-free, making it a great place to get around as a tourist.

Last year, Lonely Planet named Ghent among its top cities to visit in 2011, describing it as Flanders' "unsung city."

Despite its relative obscurity, there is an absolute wealth of things to do and see in the city - here are come of the best:

See the lie of the land. Gravensteen Castle was built in 1180 to showcase the magnificence of Philip of Alsace and it's still an incredible place. Dubbed the "Castle of the Counts", Gravensteen has managed to dodge wars and destruction through the years to emerge as one of the city's best tourism destinations.

Eat mustard. Ghent makes one of the world's most revered - and little known - mustards, using a recipe discovered by the Tierenteyn-Verlent family in the late 18th century. Visit the Ferdinand Tierenteyn store at the Groentenmarkt to find out more and try some of the creations for yourself, perhaps with some fresh produce to accompany it from the market outside.

Take a walk. Ghent boasts some of the most stunning panoramas in Europe, all easily accessible to the tourist by taking a walk along the Leie River between the rail station and the historic center.

Party. The Gentse Feesten (English: Ghent Carnival) is one of Europe's largest street parties, welcoming over 2 million visitors. Its program of concerts, shows, exhibitions and markets runs for ten days every July - see http://www.gentsefeesten.be/en for more information

Buy and cook. Continuing the foodie theme, Ghent is a wonderful place to pick up ingredients - as well as several markets, the Great Butchers' Hall offers Flemish specialities in a stunning market building which dates from the 15th century.

Listen. Ghent was named the 2009 Creative City of Music and offers a wide-ranging performance program in several city concert halls and arts centers.

Admire. The Belfry of Ghent stands 91 meters tall, dominating (along with the St Nicholas tower and the Saint Bavo - or Baaf - Cathedral tower) the Ghent skyline, but don't spend too long looking up. At ground level there is the Cloth Hall, which dates from the 15th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with plenty of other beautiful architecture dating back hundreds of years.

See the lights. Ghent's buildings come alive at night when they are illuminated, and not just during the annual festival of lights which takes place at the end of January. This video tells the story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bc39fjh6hnM


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