Gent | Europe’s best kept secret?

Ghent | Europe’s best kept secret?

Unlike the popular European cities of Amsterdam, Paris, Florence and Berlin, Ghent (or Gent) is a largely undiscovered Belgian city. I knew very little about Gent until a few months ago, when friends came back from holidaying there, waxing lyrical about how amazing it is.

Our friends also have young kids, so we thought we could trust their opinion that it was a city worth visiting, even with our three young’uns in tow. We were not disappointed!

The historical centre of Gent is fairly compact for a major city, but it’s packed full of impressive churches and cathedrals, winding rivers straddled by pretty bridges, cobbled streets, a stunning medieval castle, a graffiti street – where you can legally graffiti and more museums in one place then you’d believe possible!

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It is a low emission zone, so you won’t see many cars in the centre (ideal with children) but it’s still bustling with cyclists, trams, boats and pedestrians. The smells and sounds of the city are delightful, with the aroma of Belgian waffles wafting through the streets and the sound of live music – we heard a man skilfully playing Einaudi in the street on a public piano, a contemporary flautist playing a concert in a museum and a choir singing in one of the churches. The Belgian people are so friendly; we were blown away at how they could switch from Dutch to French to English with ease. We felt comfortable, safe and welcomed in the city, and when you’re travelling with young children that makes all the difference.

Ghent |  Europe’s best kept secret?

We were camping at the Urban Gardens in Gent, meaning that our stay was very affordable (it cost around £100 for our family of 5 to stay there for 3 nights with an electric pitch). There was a free shuttle bus into the city centre, it ran every 15 minutes or so and took about 15 minutes to get into the very heart of the city.

Gent City Card

We had two full days in Gent and made the most of it by using the 48 hour Gent city card. The card costs €38 per adult and gives free access to:

– public buses and trams

bike hire

– hop on hop off water tram

– guided boat tour

– 14 different monuments and museums

We packed our days full, but still had far more to see than we could fit in – if you’re lucky enough to have more time to spend in Gent then we did, then you can purchase a 72 hour city card for a bargainous €44.

We didn’t get Gent city cards for the children; their entrance is free into museums and they travel for free on public transport. We paid a small charge for our 6 and 8 year old on the guided boat tour (€6 each) and for the use of the incredible bike that we hired (€14) – more about that later…

Treasure Hunting with kids in Ghent

If you are visiting Gent with children then we highly recommend downloading the free Fosfor the Dragon App. It is a fun treasure hunt that takes you round the key sights of the city – children complete challenges, answer questions about what they are seeing on the landmarks and must finish the treasure hunt before 6pm for a surprise grand finale. All three of our children (aged 3, 6 and 8) absolutely loved it, and it helped our usually reluctant 3-year-old to be motivated to walk for a change!

On our first day in Gent we did the Fosfor the Dragaon tour, popping into beautiful churches and climbing up the tower of the Belfry on our way. We also ate Belgian waffles smothered in hot chocolate sauce, did a guided boat tour, visited the Castle of the Counts (an incredible castle, complete with a torture chamber which Horrible-History-loving-children are sure to enjoy!), and we even sipped white wine and played Dobble at a river side coffee shop on the afternoon.

The next day we hired bikes for the day and used them to travel to 2 museums that were just slightly out of the centre. We all really enjoyed riding the bikes, and it was definitely a highlight of our holiday. Bikes are free to hire with the Gent card, but because we borrowed a specialist bike for our 2 boys to ride on with dad, we had to pay a supplementary €14. My bike with bike seat for our 3 daughter was free with the card.

Ghent | Europe’s best kept secret?
Ghent | Europe’s best kept secret?

We cycled along cobbled streets and down picturesque riversides to the STAM (History of Gent) museum which had an incredible aerial photo of Gent that you can walk on – the children loved finding the major attractions that we had visited, and even the exact spot of grass where our tent was. There is a children’s trail around the museum, lots of hands on and audio-visual exhibits and the main reason we wanted to go there – a Lego room! There are impressive Lego models of the key towers in Gent, and the children are encouraged to build their own skyline of Gent too – unsurprisingly, our children didn’t want to leave.

Our next stop was the Museum of Industry, which had live demonstrations of printing presses and weaving machines. On the top floor there is a panoramic view of the city and a “Tinker Studio” where children can use any of the materials to build their own inventions. It was a big hit with the kids.

Had we had more time in Gent then we would have loved to have visited the House of Alijn museum which has vintage children’s toys and games; The World of Kina House which is a natural history museum and the World of Kina Gardens which has an elf-guided sensory garden and where children can learn about carnivorous plants and hairy tarantulas.

Truthfully, I would recommend at least 72 hours in Gent to feel like you’ve really done it, there really is so much to do. My only complaint of the city of Gent is that we didn’t get quite enough time there, it really is a charming place and deserves the Lonely Planet’s description, “Ghent is Europe’s best kept secret.”

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Cathy who is married to Scott and has three lively little'uns. Aged 9, 7 and 5.

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