46 Best Sights in Ghent and the Leie, Belgium

Begijnhof van Kortrijk

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Kortrijk's 13th-century beguinage ("begijnhof" in Dutch) was home to a religious group of women known as "beguines" who weren't bound by the Orders of nuns.  Although they were cloistered away, many had to earn their stay in the community through teaching and handicrafts, and the story of the beguinage runs alongside that of the city. It was plundered by the French, along with the rest of Kortrijk, in the aftermath of the 1382 Battle of Westrozebeke, and later repurposed as a field hospital when Europe descended into acrimony at the end of the 18th century. It was even taken out of the hands of the beguines for a period, when inns and brothels moved in, much to the distaste of the Grand Mistress. By 2013, the final beguine in Belgium had died and an era ended. Only recently has the 35-year-long project to restore the cluster of whitewashed town houses and chapel that makes up the beguinage been completed, and it remains perhaps the finest example of its kind in Belgium. Visits are free; there is a new museum in the St. Anna room but this is largely in Dutch, so audio guides (€2) are well worth the small outlay.  

Belfort van Gent

Fodor's choice

This 300-foot belfry tower symbolizes the power of the city guilds and was constructed in 1314 to serve as Ghent's watchtower. (The current stone spire was added in 1913.) Inside the Belfort, documents listing the privileges of the city (known as its secreets) were once kept behind triple-locked doors and guarded by lookouts, who toured the battlements hourly to prove they weren't sleeping. When danger approached, bells were rung—until Charles V had them removed. The view from the tower is one of the city's highlights. 


Fodor's choice

This magnificent row of guild houses in the original port area is best seen from across the River Leie on the Korenlei (Corn Quay). The guild house of the Metselaars (Masons) is a copy of a house from 1527. The Eerste Korenmetershuis (the first Grain Measurers' House), representing the grain weigher's guild, is next. The oldest house of the group, the brooding, Romanesque Koornstapelhuis (Granary), was built in the 12th century and served its original purpose for 600 years. It stands side by side with the narrow Renaissance Tolhuis (Toll House), where taxes were levied on grain shipments. No. 11 is the Tweede Korenmetershuis (Grain Measurers' House), a late-Baroque building from 1698. The Vrije Schippers (Free Bargemen), at No. 14, is a late-Gothic building from 1531, when the guild dominated inland shipping.

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Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)

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Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)
Kim Briers / Shutterstock

Surrounded by a moat, the Castle of the Counts of Flanders resembles an enormous battleship steaming down the sedate Lieve Canal. From its windswept battlements there's a splendid view over the rooftops of old Ghent. Today's brooding castle has little in common with the original fortress, which was built to discourage marauding Norsemen. Its purpose, too, changed from protection to oppression as the conflict deepened between feudal lords and unruly townspeople. At various times the castle has also been used as a mint, a prison, and a cotton mill.

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Huis van Alijn

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The museum itself comprises several settings, with its interior largely devoted to everyday 20th-century household items lovingly preserved. The courtyard features 18 medieval almshouses surrounding a garden, reconstructed to offer an idea of life here 100 years ago. The visitors' route takes you from the houses to the chapel and out through the crypt. Children are often drawn to the giant pageant figures, board games, and frequent shows in the beamed-and-brick puppet theater, where the star is "Pierke," the traditional Gent puppet. Tickets to shows can be bought at Uitbureau.

Kasteel Ooidonk

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Of the 3,000 or so castles found in Belgium, Ooidonk still numbers among the most eye-catching. It stands on the site of a 13th-century fortress that was destroyed when Ghent rose up against the Habsburg ruler Maximilian I. It was, again, razed during the social upheavals of the 1500s, before its transformation into a residential estate by the wealthy Antwerp merchant Martin della Faille. In doing so, its Hispanic-French architecture broke away from the “murder holes” and pragmatism of the early Middle Ages, adding Renaissance flourishes like its “onion” towers. It has been in the family of owners Count and Countess t'Kint de Roodenbeke since 1864, and they still live in residence. For part of the year, the castle interior can be visited on guided tours (April–October), revealing magnificent tapestries, antiques, and artworks; the rest of the time you can only visit the park and gardens, though these are sufficiently grand to make the trek worthwhile. The best way to reach the castle is to walk, or cycle, the 6 km (4-mile) riverside trail from Deinze.  

MSK – Museum of Fine Arts Ghent

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This is one of Belgium's finer art museums, and its temporary exhibitions are usually exceptional. Built in 1902 at the edge of Citadelpark, the neoclassical Museum of Fine Arts (or Museum voor Schone Kunsten) has holdings that span the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, including works by Rubens, Géricault, Corot, Ensor, and Magritte. Its collection of Flemish Primitive painters is particularly noteworthy, with two paintings by Hieronymus Bosch: Saint Jerome and Christ Carrying the Cross. It also has a fine collection of sculpture and French painting. When panels from the Ghent Altarpiece go for restoration, they are done here, with visitors able to see the restorers at work. 

Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens

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The museum is named after its two founders, Jules and Irma Dhondt-Dhaenens, whose private collection of modern art is exhibited piecemeal throughout the year. Temporary exhibitions fill the rest of the schedule, typically leaning towards more challenging works. It offers a fascinating counterbalance to the fiercely antimodern Latem Schools, for which the region became famous. 

Sint-Alexius Begijnhof and Museum

Fodor's choice

The begijnhofs (“beguinages” in French) were home to religious-minded women who wanted a life of devotion to God without having to take the Orders (of fidelity and poverty) that nuns were beholden to. This UNESCO-listed begijnhof was originally formed in 1288, and in its 17th-century heyday was home to some 200 beguines. The last beguine here died in 1975, but you’ll find an interesting museum spread across a pair of houses that covers the life of the beguines and local folklore.  

Begijnhof 11--24--25, Dendermonde, 9200, Belgium
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Rate Includes: Free, Museum closed Mon.

Sint-Baafs Kathedraal

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Construction on the cathedral of St. Bavo (or Sint-Baaf) began in the 12th century but it wasn't finished for hundreds of years. Consequently, you can spy every flavor of medieval Gothic in its stonework, from the more austere early sculpting to the fine Brabantine style that swept the Low Countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. Inside is breathtaking but, for the past five centuries, most visitors come here for one thing: to see the famous Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most influential paintings of the Middle Ages.

The altarpiece, a series of 12 panels, was created by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck and has long lived in infamy. It has been the victim of several thefts, and after one of its lower panels was stolen in 1934, it was never recovered (a replica stands in its place), giving rise to numerous conspiracy theories and inspiring Albert Camus's novel The Fall. Ongoing restoration of the altarpiece since 2012 has seen what remains gradually returned to its original condition, with visitors able to see the restoration work up close at the Museum of Fine Arts. The rest now sits in a newly built visitor center, with augmented-reality tours offering an in-depth look at the history of this iconic artwork.

Elsewhere, the cathedral has many works of art. Its ornate pulpit, made of white Italian marble and black Danish oak, was carved in the 18th century by the sculptor Laurent Delvaux. A Rubens masterpiece, Saint Bavo's Entry into the Monastery, also hangs in one of the chapels. Other treasures include a baroque-style organ built in 1623 and a crypt crammed with tapestries, church paraphernalia, and 15th- and 16th-century frescoes.

Steamtrain Dendermonde–Puurs

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These charming heritage trains (both steam and diesel) only run in the summer, between July and September. The oldest (Cockerill 2643) dates back to 1907, though the steamers mostly come from the early 20th century. Its journey from Baasrode-Noord, a few miles east of Dendermonde, to the small village of Puurs takes you through countryside wrapped by the Scheldt. There is room for bicycles, so if you only want to travel one-way and cycle the 17 km (10½ miles) back alongside the river to Dendermonde, you can. For €200, you can even be the "stoker" of the train for a day and ride upfront. 

Texture Museum

Fodor's choice

Flanders's damp conditions were perfect for growing flax, a crop used to make food, oil, and fibers, particularly linen. It might seem an uninspiring subject, but the crop is so woven into the history of Kortrijk that visits to Texture are surprisingly fascinating. The flax grown in the area had a lighter color, gaining the Leie the nickname the "Golden River." When processed in its waters, flax was even thought to gain unique properties, such was the quality of the linen produced. In reality, it was just generations of local knowledge that made its cloth so fine. By the 15th century, Flanders was the epicenter of the linen industry, and Kortrijk its jewel, especially famed for its damask. The city's fortunes ebbed and flowed with the industry, taking a hit in the 19th century, as industrial cotton and linen flooded the market; post World War II, it would collapse entirely. The museum explores this journey, from the multitude of uses for the crop (even the U.S. dollar bill is made of 25% flax) to its complicated history, with no shortage of style.  

Tour of Flanders Museum

Fodor's choice

Cycling is everything in this part of Flanders. It's here that the famous Tour of Flanders (known as "De Ronde") culminates, and the city even has its own museum dedicated to the race. Regardless of whether you get shivers at the sight Eddie Mercx's racing glove or care little about the sport, it draws you in nicely. Audio guides explain what you're seeing; there's even a virtual cycling machine to give you a taste of the Tour. It's not just about the race, either, and gives an interesting overview of the Flemish Ardennes, whose hills, history, and isolation made it the perfect playground for the Tour organizers. At the ticket desk, you can also organize bike hire and cycling tours of the area.

Bastion VIII

This small nature reserve on the western edge of town takes its name from the 11 bulwarks that used to reinforce the city defenses. This was where the eighth once stood, though only parts of the wall still survive here, with bats having taken up residence in the old gunpowder bunker. It makes for a pleasant stroll or picnic spot and is filled with beehives. 

Begijnhoflaan 45, Dendermonde, 9200, Belgium
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Rate Includes: Free


There are three beguinages ("begijnhof" in Dutch) in Ghent, built centuries ago to house women (beguines) who lived lives of prayer and devoted themselves to charitable works but did not take religious vows. It sounds like something from another age, but the last beguine to live in Ghent only died in 2013. The best surviving example is Our Lady ter Hoyen, founded in 1235 by Countess Joanna of Constantinople. This is the smallest of the three and is protected by a wall and portal. The surrounding homes were built in the 17th and 18th centuries and are still organized in a medieval style, each holding a statue of a saint. Today, you can walk quietly through the main building and peek into the stone chapel—the houses are off-limits, with the larger ones leased for residential use. The smaller houses have become artists' workshops. Although entry is free, a gate closes to keep out nonresidents 10 pm--6:30 am.

The city's second beguinage, the UNESCO-listed Groot Begijnhof, is found on Van Arenbergstraat, west of the city center. At its peak, some 600 beguines lived there. The city's third and final beguinage is on Begijnhofdries, but its walls have long since come down.

Lange Violettestraat 77--273, Ghent, 9000, Belgium
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Rate Includes: Free

Brusselse Forten

Up until the end of the 1800s, like most towns in Brussels, Dendermonde was still wrapped by ramparts and wide canals, a hangover from its days as an important position on the banks of the Scheldt and Dender. Their remains still scatter this pretty park alongside the water's edge, southwest of the center, where you'll find plenty of locals peacefully fishing.  

Brusselse Forten, Dendermonde, 9200, Belgium
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Rate Includes: Free

Buda Island

Central to the recent revival of the city has been its renovation of the riverfront and Buda Island. This small scoop of land, between two branching arms of the Leie, is typically reached by Broel Bridge, guarded at either end by 14th-century twin towers built to control traffic on the Leie. They were part of the original city fortifications, but can only be entered with a guide these days. On the banks on either side of the river runs a stepped pedestrian and terrace area. Just a few years ago this was a miserable car park; now, it is the most popular part of the city in summer, when a beach (May–September) is created and the bars open long into the evening. The island itself has been colonized by arts studios, and while there is little here for tourists, the vibe is rather hipper than it used to be. Wander its bridge and you will find the beautiful courtyard of the Hospital of Our Lady. Its monumental gate was erected in 1658, but it dates back to the early 13th century when it was built to provide a night's stay for vagrants outside the city gates. 

Buda Island, Kortrijk, 8500, Belgium
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Rate Includes: Free

De Wereld van Kina (The World of Kina)

This kid-friendly natural-history museum exhibits cover geology, the evolution of life, human biology and reproduction, and a diorama room of indigenous birds. There is also a garden site a short bus ride from Sint-Pietersplein (No. 5; get off at Tolhuislaan) with more than 1,000 plant species, a bee colony, and live tarantulas.

Gevert-Minne Museum

The painter, poet, writer, and composer Edgar Gevart married the daughter of George Minne, one of the central figures of the first Latem School of artists, in 1916. They built their home soon after, a charming mix of Gothic and traditional cottage styles. When he died, his wife, Marie, opened his studio to the public, showing not just her husband's work but that of her father. Today, its collection on display is much broader, ranging from Xavier de Cock’s early paintings to the arrival of the prewar Expressionists. Its "sheep stable" also holds temporary exhibitions. Note: visiting hours can be a little eccentric here, with doors only opening between 2 and 5 pm.

Edgard Gevaertdreef, Sint-Martins-Latem, 9830, Belgium
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Rate Includes: Free, Closed Mon. and Tues.

Grote Markt

The dominant building on the market square is the Stadhuis (Town Hall), a fairy-tale-like medieval aldermen house. Its turrets once ran to street level, but various sieges and fires have taken their toll. It has been frequently redesigned, but gained its current neo-Gothic facade in 1891. The architect drew inspiration from a 17th-century engraving of the building and sought to give it back its medieval charm, sapped by endless renovations. Beside it you'll find a pair of replica fountains: the Mannekin Pis and the Marbol, the original of which dates back to 1392. 

Grote Markt

The centerpiece of the city is the market square, in the middle of which stands its UNESCO-listed belfry. First mentioned in 1248, it was originally part of the old cloth hall that stood here but the surrounding buildings have long since been demolished. Statues of the folk figures of Manten and Kalle, a couple said to symbolize fidelity, strike the bell on the hour. But in 1382, the original Manten was stolen by the Burgundian armies of Philip the Bold and given to Dijon. Replacements were added over the years. Across from the belfry lies the magnificent Stadhuis (City Hall), built in the Gothic-Renaissance transition style in 1520. Visitors can enter for free in the summer between 2 and 5; at any other time, you can only see its richly decorated alderman's hall, council hall, and art collection with a guide. 

Grotemarkt, Kortrijk, 8500, Belgium
(056)-277--840-tourism office
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Rate Includes: Free, City hall opens July and Aug.

GUM -- Ghent University Museum

What do you do when you have a scientific collection so sprawling and disparate that there's no coherent way to display it? This new museum offers an ingenious solution: simply look into how such things are investigated. Sections touch upon "classification," "doubt," "measurement," and other scientific conundrums, explored via formaldehyde-preserved animals, fossils, zoetropes, ancient sites, and even sex surveys. 

Huis Arnold Vander Haeghen

The home of Arnold Vander Haegen, the city's 18th-century former governor, and the recently opened aristocratic residence of the d’Hane Steenhuyse family can be seen in one visit. The Nobel Prize--winning playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) kept a library at the former, which still contains his personal objects, letters, and documents. The latter home is simply a charming glimpse at the ancien régime, as the era is brought to life by historical clips and tales of etiquette. 

Veldstraat 82, Ghent, 9000, Belgium
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free; €6 guided tours, Closed Mon.–Thurs.


The city's main square is fringed with gabled buildings, cafés, and shops; it's also the site of one of the city's busiest tram stops. Adjoining the square, along Korte Munt, is the Groentenmarkt, the former vegetable market and site of the city's pillory, where criminals were put in the stocks and exposed to public abuse, back in the Middle Ages.

Next to St. Niklaaskerk, Ghent, 9000, Belgium

Liefmans Brewery

Lying just north of town, this brewery has an enviable heritage. Liefmans has been going since 1679, and its dark beers are a staple of local bars. Outside of Oudenaarde, it's perhaps best known for its commercial fruit beers. Visits must be booked online, but make sure you get a peek at the magnificent Baudelot hall no matter what. Several beers are made here, including the dark Oud Bruin, the Goudenband, and the very sweet Kriek (cherry) and Frambozen (raspberry) beers.

Aalststraat 200, Oudenaarde, 9700, Belgium
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Rate Includes: €12, Closed Sun., Visit must be booked online

Manneken Pis

Everyone knows the Manneken Pis. It's Brussels's famous peeing cherub, or is it? The modern version standing in the capital is actually a replica of a statue made by Jérôme Duquesnoy in 1619 to replace the original 15th-century fountain (then known as "Petit Julian") made in 1450. Around the same time, in 1452, Geraardsbergen was in the process of being destroyed by Ghentish forces. In rebuilding the city, they ordered a new lattoenen mannekin ("man in brass") from the Brussels fountain master Jan Van Der Schelden. By 1459, the peeing putto (cherub) was in place, and while a replica now stands in the square, the original can still be seen in a new visitor center beside the town hall. So, while Brussels's statue was made first, it is long since gone, and Geraardsbergen's is the older surviving example. If you arrive on the first Sunday of June, it gets even more curious, with the traditional "throwing" of a golden Manneken Pis from the steps of the Town Hall. And it gets stranger still: inside the visitor center, you can also see a selection of 300 special outfits gifted to the statue. 

Minerva Boat Company

Boating, popular along the river and canals, is a fantastic way to see the city and surrounding area. As an alternative to a boat tour, rent your own motorboat from the Minerva Boat Company. Whereas in nearby Bruges everyone except for registered guides are forbidden from boating on its canals, here self-sail boats for four to five people can be hired and no special license is required (although experience is recommended). It's not cheap (from €55 for two hours), but great fun. The embarkation and landing stage is at Coupure, on the corner of Lindenlei.

2A Coupure Rechts, Ghent, B9000, Belgium
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Rate Includes: Apr.–June, Sept., and Oct., daily 10–8; July and Aug., daily 9–9, Closed Nov.--Mar.

MOU – Museum Oudenaarde and the Flemish Ardennes

Oudenaarde's town hall is a dazzling expression of just how wealthy the city was by the 16th century. Even today it takes the breath away, and once prompted the novelist Victor Hugo to declare: "There is not a single detail [of it] that is not worth looking at." The main building is adjoined by the city's UNESCO-listed Brabantine-Gothic belfry, etched in elaborate hunting scenes and flocks of angels. Within, you'll find tourist information and the city museum (MOU), the centerpiece of which is a collection of tapestries hanging in the adjoining 14th-century cloth hall. These were Oudenaarde's golden ticket. By the 1500s, the fame of its artisans had spread across Europe and their work fetched high prices. Audio tours circumvent the Dutch info plaques, elaborating the secrets stitched within the hangings and what made them so prized. Less successful is the rather disparate silver collection, though some fine examples of curiosity cabinets and the strange objects coveted by the wealthy make it worth your perusal.  

Museum Gust De Smet

Before his death in 1943, this was the home and studio of the artist Gust De Smet, one of the later stars of the Flemish Expressionists who found their way to the villages of the Leie in the early 1900s. On the bottom floor, his home is kept as it was; upstairs, his work hangs in situ, charting the various stages of artistic development. There is even a Gust De Smet "wandelroute" (walking trail), which starts at the house and offers a pleasant stroll around Deurle and its sights. 

Gustaaf de Smetlaan 1, Deurle, 9831, Belgium
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, Closed Mon.–Thurs.

Museum van Deinze en de Leiestreek (MUDEL)

The star of this museum is its collection of regional artworks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including two masterpieces: Emile Claus's Beets Harvest (1890), which fills an entire wall of the gallery, and Gustave Van de Woestyne's The Wilful Blind and the Lame Who Wants to Teach a Child How to Walk. It's probably the most rounded collection in the area, with works by the De Cocks, Servaes, De Smet, Raveel, and others scattering the walls. The second floor is given over to the city’s industrial history and its heroes, such as 1926 Tour de France winner Lucien Buysse, but with little in the way of English translation. 

Lucien Matthyslaan 3/5, Deinze, 9800, Belgium
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Rate Includes: €6, Closed Mon.