Why go now?
This beautiful and accessible Flemish city has a colourful heritage, and all the indulgence you could want from a weekend away. November is low season, meaning good rates for accommodation – though crowds will descend for the 2015 Davis Cup Final (27-29 November; daviscup.com), in which Andy Murray will spearhead Great Britain against Belgium. In December, an ice-skating rink will be installed under the City Pavilion (1), and there will be a Christmas market (visitgent.be).
The city's main station, Sint Pieters (2), is just half an hour by train from Brussels Midi, where Eurostar services arrive. Buy a Eurostar ticket from London to the Belgian capital (03432 186 186; eurostar.com) and you can extend it to Ghent for £5 each way. Direct trains from Brussels airport take about an hour.
From Sint Pieters station (2), tram No 1 runs into the centre for a flat fare of €3. Or buy a CityCard for €30, which gives you 48 hours' transport, plus entry to Ghent's classiest attractions and a day's bike rental. You can buy it at De Lijn public transport offices, hotels, attractions or at the main tourist office (3) inside the Old Fishmarket (00 32 9 266 5660; visitgent.be; 9.30am-4.30pm daily) – easily reached by hopping off tram 1 at Sint Veerleplein, beside the Castle of the Counts (4).
Get your bearings
Ghent is the heart of Flanders, between Brussels and the coast, and equidistant from Antwerp and the French border. Its medieval core occupies a thumb of territory in a loop of the River Leie.
Of the many squares, the main focus is Korenmarkt (5), with St Michael's Bridge (6) just to the west. To the north lies Patershol, an old quarter full of places to eat and drink. To the south is Kunsten-kwartier, the cultural quarter, where many of Ghent's 70,000 students live.
Hiring a bike is a great way to see the city and to celebrate the fine cycling tradition of Flanders. Biker (7) at Steendam 16 (00 32 9 224 2903; bikerfietsen.be) rents them for €6.50 a half-day or €9 for a full day.
The Ghent River Hotel (8) at Waai-straat 5 (00 32 9 266 1010; ghent-river-hotel.be) uses dramatic modern architecture to link a Renaissance townhouse, dating from 1518, and a former sugar refinery and cotton mill. Doubles cost as little as €90 a night, excluding breakfast but including a view of the river.
For something even more historic, not to mention economic, the Hostel Uppelink (9), right by the bridge at Sint-Michielsplein 21 (00 32 9 279 44 77; hosteluppelink.com), fills an 800-year-old mansion at the city's heart. The 16th-century Count of Egmont lived here until he was decapitated by Spain's Duke of Alba. And in 2012, it was converted into a well-appointed and atmospheric hostel.
For as little as €21 a night you can enjoy an intriguing location, good company and the hostel's very own bar – where a bottle of beer costs only €1.50, the cheapest in Ghent. The price includes a fairtrade breakfast.
The NH (10) expands boldly behind an ancient façade at Hoogpoort 63 (00 32 9 233 3331; nh-hotels.com). Even at short notice, you can often find double rooms for €99, or €125 with breakfast. Adjoining the stylishly modern lobby is the hotel's own art gallery.
Take a view
From the top of the 14th-century Belfry (11) you get a 360-degree view over the city and to the rural bliss of Flanders beyond (belfortgent.be; 10am to 6pm daily, €6).
Ghent rewards shoppers who look beyond the global brands for independent retailers. At Koestraat 24, Sao Paulo (12) is a coffee emporium (00 32 9 225 4411; saopaulo.be) that sells beans from the Galapagos and Papua New Guinea. You can also order a cappuccino as you take in the aroma.
Yuzu (13) at Walpoortstraat 11a (00 32 473 96 57 33), is where chocolatier Nicolas Vanaise channels many influences to create dense designer confections in all colours and flavours. But for something spicier, the Tierenteyn-Verlent (14) mustard emporium on Groentenmarkt has been dispensing yellow goo for almost two centuries. Watch your order being scooped from a barrel into a jar (price €3.15).
Opposite at the Groot Vleeshuis (15), the city's former meat market has been adapted as a showcase for East Flanders regional specialities.
Lunch on the run
Outside the Groot Vleeshuis (15), Frituur Filip serves up the finest Flemish frites with stoverij – beef slow-cooked in beer – topped with mayonnaise, for €3.50.
Take a hike
At this time of year, late afternoon/early evening is an excellent time to take a walk through Ghent, because of the city's custom of lighting up its historic treasures. Start at St Michael's Bridge (6), built in 1913 when the World's Fair was staged in Ghent. Just to the east, across Korenmarkt, stands St Nicolas Church (16) and the award-winning 21st-century City Pavilion (1). Take Stadhuis-steeg to the end, jink left then right along graffiti-filled Werregarenstraat, go right then left and along cobbled Serpentstraat which opens up on to Vrijdagmarkt (17). Follow the south-west side of the square towards the river and you'll find the Grand Cannon (18) – an enormous gun that is now a civic ornament. Go right then left over the river, and cut down the steps on the left. Back at road level, there's a water fountain (19) for animals, with levels for dogs, horses and birds.
Few big European cities have a fortress in the city centre, but Ghent's Castle of the Counts (4) dominates the skyline (graven steen.stad.gent; 9am to 5pm daily, €10). It was built in the 12th century for the ruling dynasty of Flanders. Don't miss the quaintly named “Museum of Judicial Objects” with a guillotine centre stage.
Next, turn right out of the castle, cross a bridge and go left along Jan Breydelstraat, which soon opens up to the river – where you can walk at the water's edge. Marvel at the spectacular façades of Graslei opposite, before returning to St Michael's Bridge (6).
In 2012, the creative cocktail came to Ghent in the shape of Jigger's (20) – a speakeasy-style bar at Oudburg 16 (00 32 9 335 7025; jiggers.be). Ring the bell to be admitted to a drinking den where the cocktails are mixed from seasonal ingredients – with silver cheese fizz (a mix of rum and blue cheese) a perennial favourite.
For Belgian beer, put on your best shoes and make the short hop to De Dulle Griet (21) at Vrijdagmarkt 50 (00 32 9 224 24 55; dedullegriet.be). For the signature 1.25-litre glass of beer (€10), you have to surrender a shoe, which is then hauled up in a hanging basket as a deposit.
Dine with the locals
“All senses cuisine” is the promise of Naturell (22) at Jan Breydelstraat 10 (00 32 9 279 0708; naturell-gent.be). The chef, Lieven Lootens, believes sight and sound are as relevant as flavour. The menu is short and topical, with North Sea shellfish augmented by local vegetables, all prepared theatrically in the open kitchen.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
Pain Perdu at Walpoortstraat 9 (13) (00 32 9 224 18 25; painperdugent.be) has an airy, bright and convivial interior. Cold meat and cheese are served with fresh bread and strong coffee.
Take a ride
If you have rented a bike, take it to the end of Wondelgemstraat, north-west of the centre, where British cycling legend Sir Bradley Wiggins was born. The Olympian's early home is on the second floor, opposite a Bulgarian shop. Next, pedal (or take bus No 38) to the Flemish Cycling Centre Eddy Merckx at Zuiderlaan 8 (00 32 9 245 75 08; bloso.be). For just €16.50 you can rent a track bike and go round in circles on the velodrome for two hours.
A walk in the park
Citadelpark, south of the centre near Sint Pieters station, is dotted with attractions such as the University Botanic Gardens (23) with 10,000 plant species (open 9am to noon at weekends; to 4.30pm weekdays, entry free). The Succulent House has very short opening hours – or, more accurately, opening hour (Sunday 11am to noon).
Besides nature, Citadelpark is full of art – notably at the Museum of Fine Arts (24) (00 32 9 240 0700; mskgent.be; 10am to 6pm daily except Monday, €8). The repertoire begins in the Middle Ages, with a 15th-century peasant's wedding by Bruegel. Picking up the cultural baton in around 1950 is S.M.A.K. (25), the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (00 32 9 221 1703; smak.be; 10am to 6pm daily except Monday, €12), which has works by Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol.
Go to church
St Bavo was a sixth-century aristocrat who atoned for his excesses by devoting himself to helping the poor. A place of worship was created in his honour a millennium ago, and it is now the city's Cathedral (26) – with a renowned altarpiece, Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The masterpiece (looted by the Nazis and featured in George Clooney's film The Monuments Men) is in a side chapel, entry €4. The cathedral opens 10.30am to 4pm daily, on Sundays the chapel is open only from 1pm.
Icing on the cake
Belgium and beer go together like The Thompson Twins from Tintin. So finish your weekend with a tutored tasting at the city's last brewery: Gruut (27), by the water at Grote Huidevettershoek 10 (00 32 9 269 0269; gruut.be).
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