Lyon blazed the trail. Then Durham flew the flag for Britain. Now Ghent is aiming to be the highlight of Europe's winter-festival calendar with the Light Festival Ghent (lichtfestivalgent.be), a public art event running next weekend, 27-29 January.
The second city in Flanders (after Antwerp), Ghent has forged a reputation for its innovative lighting work in recent years, winning design awards for a policy of up-lighting historic buildings with warm-white light. The free-to-visit winter festival maps out 30 light installations along a 3.5km (2.2 miles) walking trail around the city centre, illuminating historic and often-missed buildings.
Examples of the works include a light-and-sound installation in Ghent University's Aula building by the Dutch artist Mr Beam, and Guerrilla Lighting – a flash-mob light installation in four locations by UK artists Light Collective.
Ghent continues the art theme in spring with Track (track.be), a major public art festival across the city's six districts, running from 12 May to 16 September. Nearly 40 artists from across the world will exhibit large-scale works, ranging from video to performance and classical painting. British artist Cerith Wyn Evans will base his installation in the sky-scraping Belvedere Room at the University of Ghent Library's Book Tower (www.boekentoren.be). The landmark tower was built in the Bauhaus style by Flemish architect Henry van de Velde in the 1930s and will be the highlight of the university's ongoing €41m (£34m) restoration project – expect completion in 2017.
Many of the Track installations will be free to visit and a hi-tech new tourist information office, located in the Old Fish Market, opens in March in time for the build-up (visitgent.be).
There's still plenty for non-art lovers to appreciate here, too. Ghent boasts the largest student population in Flanders and, as such, has a more living-breathing feel than Bruges or Brussels, plus an easy-to-walk historic centre and a pleasing lack of coach parties. Instead, galleries, cafés, weekend markets and waterside mooching on the banks of the River Leie are the order of the day.
... the art trail. Citadelpark in the city's south is home to the two key art museums, the Museum of Fine Arts (mskgent.be) and Smak, the Museum of Contemporary Art (smak.be). The latter will be the central hub for the forthcoming Track festival. Look out for Le Décor et son Double by the French artist Daniel Buren, one of the original Ghent art installations, now housed downstairs.
... St Bavo's Cathedral also celebrates Flemish art but from a more Gothic perspective. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the 15th-century masterpiece of religious art by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, is the jewel in the crown. View it behind glass in a temperature-controlled room. Rubens' St Baaf Entering the Abbey of Ghent is in the north transept.
... the Patershol district. The city's main restaurant quarter, overshadowed by the 12th-century Castle of the Counts, is the place to find interesting little places to eat. Sample the local fish stew, vis waterzooi, and look out for De Blauwe Zalm (deblauwezalm.be) for organic local produce. The area comes alive each August for a long-weekend jamboree of music and tastings around the labyrinthine, medieval streets.
... stocking up on local goodies. Temmerman is a turn-of-the-century sweet shop rammed with traditional gobstoppers, while Tierenteyn-Verlent (tierenteyn-verlent.be) is a living-history mustard shop. After souvenir hunting, you'll be ready to dip your specculoos (ginger shortcrust biscuits) into a coffee at Barista, an organic bakery and café on the edge of the Friday Market.
... a walk by the water. The pick of Ghent's medieval, gabled guildhouses are to be found along Grassley and Korenlei. After exploring, call into T'Dreupelkot (dreupelkot.be), a traditional jenever (a juniper-flavoured liquor, also called Dutch gin) café and the perfect cosy winter bolthole. Owner Mr Pol will be chomping on his cigar and mixing up flavours such as cactus, prune and tiramisu.
Ghent is striving to entice visitors away from the familiar sites of the historic centre and explore other quarters. The first area to make its mark is the cultural hub of De Bijoke to the south west. It's home to Stam (stamgent.be), the landmark new museum tracing the city's history, and Music Centre De Bijloke for concerts and events. A seasonal water taxi service whisks you back to Korenlei in the old town in 10 minutes.
Hip young Flemish pastry chef, Joost Arijs, recently left the Michelin-starred Hof van Cleve restaurant to set up his own sleek chocolaterie-patisserie in Ghent. He offers a modern take on traditional Belgian confection with flavours such as saffron and balsamic, plus colourful macarons and souvenir-perfect sets of chocolate biscuits.
Details: Vlaanderenstraat 24 (00 32 9 336 2310; joostarijs.be)
Sandton Grand Reylof hotel
The latest opening in Ghent is a lavish new property from the Dutch Sandton group. The rooms are all stripped-back chic while the cocktail bar ups the glamour ante. But it's not cheap. Head across the road to Café Labath (cafelabath.be) for good coffee, free Wi-Fi and a less stuffy atmosphere.
Details: Hoogstraat 36 (00 32 9 235 4070; sandton.eu/gent)
The Flemish Foodies, a triumvirate of trendy young chefs, have all opened new places across Ghent in the past year. The latest, Volta, the new eatery from Olly Ceulenaere, brings good-value food to a former electricity transformer station in the up-and-coming Rabot area. The motif is industrial chic with a huge, star-shaped chandelier hanging from a 10-ton winch system.
Details: Nieuwe Wandeling 2b (00 32 9 324 0500; voltagent.be)
For a different take on the city, plus a chance to burn off some new year lethargy, try the new guided jogging tour of the city that takes in the key sites. The company is planning guided tours during the Light Festival; tours from €12 (£10) per person.
Details: 00 32 499 53 23 65; jog-tours.com
"A great place during the festivalis the new pop-up bar-cum-shop,Ben on Bennsteg (benpop.be). It has clothes, interior design and lamps crafted from photos by its co-owner, An Gyselinck. It's between locations 17 and 18 on the Light Festival map."
Project leader, Light Festival Ghent
How to get there
Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com) offers two-night packages from £239 per person, including return rail travel from London St Pancras and two nights' B&B at the four-star Marriott hotel.
Tourism Flanders-Brussels: 020-7307 7738, visitflanders.co.ukGhent Tourism: visitgent.be
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