Of the great Flemish cities of Belgium, it is Ghent that many visitors hold closest to their heart. An invigorating university town of elegance and poise, it is walkable, with excellent restaurants and some unusual cultural highlights, says Anthony Mason


Early summer is a good time to visit Ghent. The university is still up, and students rattling over the cobbled streets on their bikes bring youthful vigour to the town. For aficionados of contemporary art, the cutting-edge municipal gallery SMAK has a major exhibition by the Arte Povera artist Jannis Kounellis (until 23 June).


The most convenient way to get to Ghent is by car. It is 90 minutes' drive from Calais. Eurotunnel (08705 35 35 35, www.eurotunnel.com) charges about £182 for a five-day return. The SeaCat to Ostend with Hoverspeed (0845 674 6006, www.hoverspeed.com) costs roughly the same, leaving a drive of 60km. By rail you can reach Ghent via Brussels with Eurostar (0870 160 6600, www.eurostar.com) from £79 return. Trains travel to Ghent from Brussels Midi station in 30 minutes (€6.40/£4 each way). You can also travel to Brussels by air with BA (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) from about £120 return, then take rail connections (Belgian railways website: www.b-rail.be). Trains stop in Ghent at Gent-Sint-Pieters, 2.5km south of the city centre, connected to the centre by trams (€1/62p) and taxi (€5-€10/£3-£6).


The historic centre lies largely within a loop of the canalised river Leie, shaped like an inverted U, with the folksy Patershol district just to the north of the river. The Tourist Office (00 32 9 225 36 41, www.gent.be; April-November 9.30am-6.30pm, November-March 9.30am-4.30pm) is at the base of the Belfort. There is an excellent public tram and bus network; journeys cost €1 (62p), but on the first Saturday of each month all public transport in the city is free.


The Hotel Erasmus, Poel 25 (00 32 9 224 21 95, www.proximedia.com/web/hotel-erasmus.html), is a 16th-century "patrician's house", furnished in appropriately antique style; €96-€125 (£60-£78) a night. Among the many international-style hotels is the more unusual Aparthotel Castelnou (00 32 9 235 04 11, www.castelnou.be), which lets rooms for long and short stays from €70 (£44) a night. B&B accommodation in historic houses right in the centre is available for €40-€70 (£25-£44).


The classic view of Ghent is from the Sint-Michielsbrug (St Michael's Bridge), which affords an entrancing panorama of the city. Eastwards lies the Sint-Niklaaskerk (Church of St Nicholas), the Belfort (Belfry), and Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo's Cathedral). To the north is the prettiest stretch of Ghent's canal system (here actually the river Leie) flanked by quays lined by ornate guildhouses.


Take a boat trip on the canals. De Bootjes van Gent (00 32 9 223 8853, Easter-Nov 10am-6pm, departures every 10 minutes), at the northern end of the Korenlei, has well-informed guides (€4.50/ £2.80). Or take tram 1 or 10 from the Korenmarkt to the Charles de Kerchovelaan stop, close to SMAK, Ghent's answer to the Tate Modern (00 32 922 11703, www.smak.be; daily except Monday, 10am-6pm; €5/£3). While there, visit the Flemish masters at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten.


This route takes you through the most picturesque streets of the old city. Start at Sint-Baafskathedraal and head west past the Belfort and the Stadhuis (the 16th-century town hall) to the Sint-Michielsbrug. Head north along the Korenlei, then along Jan Breydelstraat to reach the Gravensteen, the 12th-century Castle of the Counts (open daily April-Oct 9am-6pm, Oct-March 9am-5pm, €6.20/£4). Continue along the river. To your left is the Patershol district, a grid of cobbled streets. Cross the river at the next bridge (Zuivelbrug) and walk to the Vrijdagmarkt, where a market is held on Friday mornings and Saturday afternoons. Return to the river to take Lange Muntto the Groentenmarkt, and the 15th-century Groot Vleeshuis (Great Butchers' Hall, open daily 10am-6pm).


The medieval Groot Vleeshuis (Great Butchers' Hall) contains a restaurant called the Promotiecentrum voor Oost-Vlaamse Streekproducten (00 32 9 223 2324, closed Mondays), where you can sample East Flemish dishes. Brooderie, Jan Breydelstraat 8 (00 32 9 225 06 23, closed Mondays) is a bakery-cum-restaurant, serving savoury tarts, sandwiches and salads. But as you're in Belgium you should eat chips (Europe's best). Frituur Jozef, on Vrijdagmarkt (open 11.15am-10pm, Saturday 11.30am-8pm, closed Sunday), has been frying since 1898. Chips with stoofvlees (beef stewed in beer) will cost a mere €4 (£2.50) or so.


Ghent's two best museums are first-class examples of their type. The Design Museum at Jan Breydelstraat 5 (00 32 9 267 9999, open 10am-6pm, closed Mondays, admission €2.50/£1.50) is a museum of furniture and furnishings, displayed in a grand 18th-century town house. It takes visitors chronologically through a series of exquisite rooms, ending up with an excellent Art Nouveau collection. The Huis van Alijn, Kraanlei 65 (00 32 269 2350, open 11am-5pm, closed Mondays, €2.50/£1.50) is a folk museum of local life set out in old almshouses, and is jam-packed with extraordinary curios.


The best shopping streets to wander around are in the largely pedestrianised area to the south of the cathedral, including Mageleinstraat, Kalandestraat and Koestraat, Volderstraat and the more commercial Veldstraat. Lange Munt is another pedestrianised shopping street. Also, the palatial 19th-century, neo-Gothic post and telegraph office on the Korenmarkt has recently been ingeniously converted into a stylish mall called the Post Plaza Funshopper.


It has to be a Belgian beer. Head for Dulle Griet, Vrijdagmarkt 50 (00 32 9 224 2455, open 12pm-1am, closes at 7.30pm on Sunday, Monday 4.30pm-1am), a self-styled "beer academy" offering 250 brands of beer. The next evening, you could enliven the experience by drinking a beer with a traditional chaser of jenever gin at the little pub called 't Dreupelkot, Groentenmarkt 12, which has a terrace overlooking the river.


Chez Jean, Cataloniestraat 3 (00 32 9 223 30 40, closed Sunday and Monday), is a modern, family-run restaurant in an old gabled patrician's house, with a flare for both traditional and inventive cooking; allow about €40 (£25) per head. For a bit more pazzazz, go to the Brasserie Pakhuis, Schuurkenstraat 4 (00 32 9 223 55 55, closed Sunday, www.pakhuis.be), a huge restaurant in a converted 19th-century warehouse; French-Italian cuisine to suit all tastes and appetites. Keizershof, Vrijdagmarkt 47 (00 32 9 223 44 46, closed Sunday and Monday) is an imaginatively renovated old tavern serving a range of Belgian standards such as garnaalkroketten (potato croquettes with shrimps), and steak and chips; around €20 (£12.50) per head.


The grandest church in Ghent is Sint-Baafskathedraal, which has a service at 11am on Sunday mornings. But Sint-Niklaaskerk is a more scintillating space. Its vast Gothic windows bathe the towering 13th-century stonework in soft light. This was the guilds' church, so the walls are filled with chapels, while the magnificent baroque altarpiece soars heavenwards like a trumpet blast for the Counter-Reformation. Sunday service at 10am.


Look no further than the brunch-specialist and "bistro-gallery" The Medici Steps, Sint-Michielsplein 14, (00 32 9 233 7995, closed Monday). The interior is kitted out with sculpture and renaissance pictures, even a pond, providing a quirky backdrop for a gentle late-morning meal of breads, pastries, egg dishes, cheese, bacon and beer. Brunch menus at around €8 (£5); no smoking.


Head for a unique experience of the Low Countries, a béguinage (or begijnhof in Dutch). The first béguinages were set up during the Crusades as refuges for women (béguines) whose menfolk had gone off to fight. Béguinages remained pious, charitable institutions thereafter. The Klein Begijnhof (entrance on Lange Violettestraat, open 6am-10pm, admission free) is one of the most beguiling in Belgium ­ and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot. It is an oasis of calm with houses (still used for social housing) set around a miniature park.


Write home from the Graslei or Korenlei, sitting on one of the low walls that line the still waters of the canal/river, overlooked by weathered brickwork and golden ornament of the medieval guildhouses. This is now a tranquil zone, set apart from the hum and traffic of the city centre, but it was once the city's main port, the throbbing heart of one of the great trading cities of northern Europe.


The crowning glory of Ghent is Jan van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the outstanding masterpieces of Western art. A supreme example of very early North European oil painting, dating from 1426-32, this huge multi-panelled altarpiece, dazzling in its detail, is kept in a special room inside Sint-Baafskathedraal (open 8.30am-6pm, closed Sunday, admission €2.50/£1.50).