Discover the best things to do in Ghent at Christmas with a festive guide to this Belgian city, featuring canal boat trips, Christmas markets, decorated castles, light trails and chocolate tours.
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The gorgeous waterside city of Ghent (known as Gent in Flemish) might not be as well known as its nearby neighbour Bruges, but it shares a lot of the same charms – medieval buildings, cosy restaurants, boat trips on the canals and plenty of chocolate. The bonus is that it doesn’t see as many visitors, so it’s a lot more relaxed and uncrowded.
Ghent is extra magical at Christmas, when its car-free streets are filled with market stalls, fairground rides and sparkling lights. And as part of the annual Winter Festival there are festive events taking place from early December to the end of the year. So here’s our guide to a Belgian winter break, featuring the best things to do in Ghent at Christmas.
What’s the Ghent winter weather like?
The weather in Ghent in winter is usually fairly mild, with average daytime high temperatures of 7ºC (45°F) and nighttime lows of 3°C (37ºF) during December. So you’re unlikely to see much snow. Rain is much more likely though – with an average of 19 days of rainfall in December – so make sure to pack a waterproof coat and umbrella.
Ghent only gets around eight hours of daylight around the shortest day in mid-December. But the city and the Christmas markets are beautifully lit up at night.
The best things to do in Ghent at Christmas
Admire the decorated Gravensteen
Also known as the Castle of the Counts, Gravensteen is one of Ghent’s best-known buildings. This medieval stone fortress was built in 1180 for the Counts of Flanders on the site of an older wooden castle. It’s a real storybook castle, with turrets and battlements surrounded by a moat, and dungeons where prisoners were once tortured.
When the counts left in 1353, Gravensteen was used as a court and prison, and it was later sold off and turned into a cotton mill in the 18th century. But it’s now a popular tourist attraction, and you can take a 45-minute audio tour voiced by local comedian Wouter Deprez (which is a bit light on historical detail but strong on toilet humour!).
The castle’s austere interiors get a dose of festive sparkle for the ‘Winter Wonder Castle’ event, with rooms decorated with Christmas trees, candles, garlands and greenery. Don’t miss the views from the top of the keep, where you can see out across Ghent’s rooftops to the three towers of St Nicholas’ Church, St Bavo’s Cathedral and the Belfy.
There’s also a cosy winter bar (open to non-ticket-holders too) under the vaulted ceiling of the medieval stables, where you can warm up with a hot chocolate or gluhwein.
Shop, eat and drink the Christmas markets
One of the main reasons to visit Ghent at Christmas is for the Christmas markets, which are part of the Ghent Winter Festival (Gentse Winterfeesten) and take place through December (7–31 December in 2023). The city doesn’t have one central market, instead 150 wooden stalls are spread through the historic centre, from Sint-Baafsplein to the Korenmarkt.
You can pick up local gifts and crafts, and there’s plenty to eat and drink, including Belgian favourites like waffles and frites. And the Moose Bar (Botermarkt) and Chez Babette (City Pavilion) are popular spots for a few Christmas beers or mulled wines.
You can also take a spin in on the 44-metre-tall Ferris wheel at the Korenmarkt. And there’s a roller skating rink under the City Pavilion, fairground rides outside St Bavo’s Cathedral and a carousel near Gravensteen. The markets get very busy on weekend evenings, so if possible try to visit on a weekday or during the day to dodge the worst crowds.
Climb the Belfry tower
Ghent’s Belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which dates from the 14th century when it was used as a bell tower and a watchtower to guard against fires or invaders. At 300 feet high it’s the tallest belfry in Belgium, and there are more fantastic views from the top, with St Bavo’s Cathedral in one direction and St Nicholas’ Church in the other.
You don’t have to slog your way up its 300 steps to get there either, as there’s a lift from the first floor. At the top you get a bird’s eye view of the Christmas markets down below. And you can also see the carillon, a musical instrument made up of 54 bells, which uses a rotating metal drum like a music box to play different tunes every 15 minutes.
Admire artworks in St Bavo’s Cathedral
Gothic St Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal) was built in the 15th century on top of an older Romanesque cathedral. It’s full of artistic treasures, including a marble and gilt pulpit, Baroque altar and a painting by Rubens, all topped with a 290-foot bell tower.
The cathedral is best known for the Ghent Altarpiece, a masterpiece of Renaissance art. Also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the altarpiece was painted by Belgian artists the Van Eyck brothers in 1432 and is made up of 24 oak panels (though the bottom left panel was stolen in 1934 and never recovered so has been replaced by a copy).
There’s an entrance fee if you want to see the altarpiece, which includes an augmented reality virtual tour. It is very popular though so it’s advisable to book in advance. It’s free to visit the rest of the cathedral. And if you’re visiting over the festive period look out for special Christmas concerts or you can join in Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Visit scenic Graslei and Korenlei
Some of Ghent’s prettiest buildings can be found along Graslei (Grass Market) and Korenlei (Wheat Market), which sit on opposite banks of the River Lys. This area was a harbour from the 11th century, with ships docking to load and unload goods. Many of its narrow gabled waterfront houses were originally built as guildhalls and customs houses.
Today there’s a row of cafés and restaurants along the water’s edge, many with patio heaters and blankets so you can still sit outside in winter. You also get one of Ghent’s best views from St Michael’s Bridge, with the city’s three towers lined up.
Take a boat tour of the canals
Graslei and Korenlei are one of the starting points for boat trips* around Ghent’s network of waterways, which are made up of a mix of rivers and canals. They’re a relaxing way to soak up the views, with a different perspective on the city from the water.
Tours normally last 40–50 minutes, and there are several types of boat available – some which are open-top and others which are covered with glass sides. They normally take in the city’s most famous landmarks like Gravensteen, St Bavo’s Cathedral, the Belfry and St Nicholas’ Church, with commentary to give you an insight into their history.
Follow a trail of light
Ghent holds a spectacular light festival every three years (the next takes place from 31 January–4 February 2024), but even outside that the city is beautifully lit up by night. Ghent developed a Light Plan in 1998 which aimed to light up its historic buildings, museums and monuments by night using sustainable, energy-efficient lighting.
There’s a 3.2km/2-hour trail you can follow around the city centre highlights at any time of year (or a longer route that takes you out further). And there’s lots of extra sparkle around Ghent at Christmas, with decorations lining the streets and canals.
Feast on chocolate
Belgium is famous for its chocolate, and Ghent is a great place to indulge in some. At the Chocolade Ambassade (Chocolate Embassy), in a historic building in Patershol close to Gravensteen, four expert chocolatiers with contrasting styles have combined forces in one venue, and run tasting sessions where you can learn about chocolate making.
You can take a chocolate-themed guided walking tour* around the city which visits different chocolatiers. And we also loved the hot chocolates at In Choc, which come topped with cream and an optional shot of rum to warm you up on a cold day.
How to get to Ghent
Ghent is well connected by train – the city’s main train station Gent-Sint-Pieters is less than half an hour from Brussels and Bruges or an hour from Antwerp.
From the UK you can catch a direct Eurostar train from London to Brussels Midi (2 hours), then onward travel to any station in Belgium is included for free. Or the nearest airport is Brussels-Zaventem, which is just under an hour from Ghent by direct train.
Getting around Ghent
The car-free city centre of Ghent is compact and easy to get around on foot, but trams and buses are also available. The tram system is undergoing an upgrade in 2024, with the existing three lines being replaced by four lines, so there may be disruption and some services replaced by buses – check the De Lijn website for the latest information.
A single ticket costs €2.50, and you can also get day tickets, three-day tickets and 10-journey tickets (known as a lijnkaart). You can buy them from ticket machines at tram stops, via the De Lijn website or app, or you can also use contactless payment.
Where to stay in Ghent
1898 The Post* is a converted 19th-century post office in the historic centre of Ghent which comes with plenty of old-school charm. Its 37 rooms – ranging from the compact Stamp to the lavish octagonal Tower Suite – feature antique furniture, bookcases and muted colours. There’s also the cosy Cobbler Bar where you can try its namesake signature cocktail.
Hotel Harmony* is located on the riverside close to Gravensteen, with Ghent’s main sights an easy walk away. Two historic townhouses have been merged together to form the hotel, decorated with vintage photos of the city. Its top-floor bedrooms have panoramic views – and if you’re visiting outside of winter there’s an outdoor pool and terrace.
Or the NH Gent Belfort* is a good-value hotel in a convenient location close to the Belfry. The 174 rooms are bright and modern, with a range of different sizes. Car parking is available (though it’s quite pricey) and there’s a bar, restaurant, gym and sauna.