This is often a hotly debated topic - which city in Belgium is better? Bruges or Ghent? Well, it depends on what you mean by “better”....
The cities themselves are quite similar but they also have a lot of differences. Bruges’ (aka Brugge) historical center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With this recognition, it does get a lot more visitors, but most come just for the day (staying overnight is recommended). It has a good-sized market square surrounded by restaurants - most serving mussels and frites (french fries). There are several good bars and shops for the Belgian beer lover. And there is a lot of green space that encircles the town center (complete with a windmill!)
Ghent (aka Gent) on the other hand, is home to a large university (+40,000 students!). Because of this, the town center feels younger than Bruges even if it doesn’t look modern. There isn’t really a center market square area like Bruges has but instead is spread out more. It has a lively area with bars and restaurants located canalside in the center which Bruges doesn’t have.
Both have scenic canals. Both have a brewery you can visit. Both have cobblestone roads. Both have horse-drawn carriages. Both have churches. Both have Belgian frites, Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles. Both are worth staying in for a night or two.
Ghent has a castle. That might be all that I have to say to some travelers. It is a relatively small castle, but located in the center of town it is easy to get to. Visitors follow arrows throughout the Castle of the Counts which take you from the dungeons to the towers. Some rooms hold collections of medieval weapons and suits of armor. Great for kids (just make sure to keep an eye on them). Expect a LOT of stairs.
Bruges does not have a castle but it does have the Basilica of Holy Blood which is said to house a relic of the Holy Blood which was brought to the Basilica in the 1200s. This is a popular sight for most travelers.
Ghent is home to many museums including the Design Museum, Museum of Fine Arts and a contemporary art museum (S.M.A.K.) just to name a few.
Bruges is also home to many museums - but many are unexpected - including the Dali Xpo-Gallery, Expo Picasso and the Frietmuseum (Fries museum).
For the beer lovers, Bruges is probably the top choice. While Ghent does have its own brewery, Bruges is more well-known for its beer bars with their extensive collections as well as the Halve Maan Brouwerij (makers of Straffe Hendrik and Bruges Zot). Ghent’s brewery, the Gruut, is gaining in popularity outside of Belgium due to their unique recipes. They do not use hops but instead use a blend of special spices (“gruit”). Both of these breweries can be visited and tours are available on-site. They both have restaurants as well. De Halve Maan is in the city center in Bruges; Gruut is a bit more off the beaten track but still easy to find.
For the shoppers, Ghent is probably the top choice. There are a lot more areas to shop in Ghent including “high-street” stores as well as an area with boutiques and higher end stores interspersed with small restaurants and cafes. Bruges is the place to go for lace though.
So which one do I like “better”?
I have mixed feelings but I still prefer Bruges. Yes, there are tourists, but if you stay overnight you will see that the town empties out. There are also plenty of areas to wander around and get away from the masses. But that is not to say that I don’t like Ghent. It just doesn’t have the same quaint, small town feel that Bruges has.
My suggestion would be to try to visit both. They are only 30 minutes apart so you can easily stay a few nights in one and do a day-trip to the other. Or if you have time, spread it out evenly amongst both and then make up your own mind on what is “better”!
- I especially like the “hidden” courtyard gardens surrounded by small, whitewashed almshouses. These houses used to house poor elderly people or widows. There are 46 of these blocks of almshouses within Bruges and they make a great escape. We saw so many bumblebees and butterflies in the gardens last time we were there - so nice and relaxing.
- De Halve Maan Brouwerij - Even if you aren’t familiar with their beer, I still recommend doing their brewery tour. You must be able to go up a lot of stairs as they take you to the roof for a panoramic view over Bruges. Afterwards, you can reward yourself with one (or two) of their brews in their on-site restaurant. Outdoor seating in a courtyard is possible in the summer months.
- Continuing on the beer theme, there are several great beer bars and stores within the city center that are definitely a “must” if you are a Belgian beer lover or want to learn more. We especially enjoyed the small Cafe ‘t Brugs Beertje which offers 300+ Belgian beers (and is owned by a woman!)
- Pasta Maria - We stayed very close to this take-out pasta place and we got food to go from here at least three times over four days (we love pasta). You can choose your pasta and the sauce. Affordable and tasty. You can get it to go and then find a scenic place to have a picnic. It is located next to the St Salvator Cathedral (opposite side as the main street).
- Already mentioned it above, but the castle was a lot of fun even though at times exhausting and dizzying (stairs go round and round and round…)
- Waffles! Ghent has their own style of Belgian waffles that are DELICIOUS. Try them at Mokabon which has a take-out window as well as a sit-down cafe (and was conveniently on same street as the Novotel hotel where we stayed).
- Also near the Novotel was the small hole-in-the-wall-but-absolutely-scrumptious bakery - the Bakker Bernard on Donkersteeg. I even had a pastry with raisins that I enjoyed (and I usually hate raisins).
- For the beer lover, it is worth the 10-15 minute walk out to the Gruut brewery. They have five different beers that they brew on-site and all were decent-to-delicious. They also serve food (we had fries with mayo as a snack). They do close early so go during the day.
How to get there:
Bruges is located closer to the North Sea Coast so it is about an hour from Brussels. Ghent is located between the two - so about 30 minutes from each city. There are frequent trains between all the towns with easy connections to other parts of Belgium, the Netherlands and beyond. Renting a car isn’t recommended, or necessary, if just visiting the towns themselves.
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