Visitors to Ghent’s summer festival Gentse Feesten. Photograph: Linda Nylind
By Stijn Buyst, editor of Use-it.be, Maps for Young Travellers in Belgium
The second in our series of guides to Europe’s alt cities takes us to Ghent, a medieval masterpiece on the surface, but bang up to date with its underground music scene, cutting-edge design and pioneering sustainable projects. Local creatives reveal their highlights
Twenty years ago, if you were walking around with a camera in Ghent, you were probably an art student. Today, the chances are you’re a tourist. Travellers have started to discover the pearl between Brussels and Bruges, and it’s now selfie time at the medieval Gravensteen Castle and in St Bavo’s Cathedral, with the famous altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.
One of the great things about this city (the third most populous in Belgium, with 250,000 inhabitants) is that it’s managing to reinvent itself at the edges. Parts of the city centre are now awash with rib joints and places offering thewaterzooi chicken soup – the famous local speciality that nobody actually makes at home – but young people are starting up new bars and clubs in outer neighbourhoods such as Sint-Amandsberg, Gentbrugge and Muide.
The municipality is supportive of the move outwards. What was once part of the harbour next to the decrepit Dampoort railway station will be redeveloped into an imaginative housing project in the next few years. But before people move in, the city has allowed the experimental artistic collective DOK to use the site for concerts, an improvised beach, and for drive-in cinema evenings during which a stunt car jumps through a caravan and a piano is thrown off a factory roof by way of an intermission.
But hip developments aside, Ghent has retained its strong character, and a lot of the new spots are the same old places but with new, young owners. Café Fatima, next to the local art school, made a point of not removing any of the wallpaper when it took over from the couple serving daily dishes to its older regulars (the arcade racing game from the 1980s is still there as well). And when a new restaurant opens, it is often run by young chefs who prefer not to go after a Michelin star because of all the fuss that involves. They prefer to put their energy into no-nonsense menus with local ingredients (think pig) instead of investing in the right cutlery or pulling the chair out for customers when they arrive. But make no mistake, the quality at these Flemish foodie joints is high, and tables are sometimes fully booked for months on end at hot addresses likeVrijmoed or Oak.
Where to go for art and design
DOK is a temporary cultural project in a large area where the old harbour and the border of the city flow into each other – empty warehouses, some slightly out-of-place apartment blocks and the odd second-hand car dealer. The scheme let us set up our first print shop there four years ago. Together with DOK residents, it promotes arts, culture and sports initiatives … It even had a row-in cinema, where everyone was watching Jaws on small boats in front of a big screen on the water.Democrazy takes care of the live music shows, and you can also findSECONDRoom Ghent there, a gallery concept where cutting edge contemporary artists show their work.
Ghent has a vibrant street art scene, featuring the likes of Bué The Warrior and his joyous, colourful creatures, and the enigmatic Roa with his dark, black-and-white animals. Their work can be seen on walls all over town, often in collaboration with other less well-known painters. There’s one wall, at the junction of Sleepstraat, Grauwpoort and Rodelijvekensstraat, where almost all the Ghent street kings have made a big tableau together: Bué, my friend Topo ... all their styles blending in nicely. It’s a good spot to start your tour of Ghent street art.
Another place not to miss is Blanco Gallery, a space inside the Nucleo studio complex. The gallery mounts excellent exhibitions, such as the recent The House Of Ruth Presents Janet, by my friend Ruud Rudy van Moorleghem. And Riot is a great shop, selling mostly artbooks, carefully selected by the owners Jurgen Maelfeyt and Caroline De Malsche. Subbacultcha, which organises concerts all over town, has its offices there as well.
These days, art spaces are popping up outside the city centre. In the old harbour, for example, 019 (Dok-Noord 5L) is a really young and fresh place – an artist-run exhibition, work and concert space in an old welding factory. In summer, the old Grindbakken (grit containers) next to the water, will serve as the perfect background for Wastelands festival.
By Joanna Iselé, an indie-folk composer/performer who performs as Imaginary Family
A recent article in the Guardian highlighted the Belgian underground noise rock scene and Ghent band Raketkanon in particular. They are a great band, but there’s much more. The scene around local sludgemeisters Amen Ra is big as well, with lots of bands and projects centred around the Consouling Sounds label (see below). The scene in Ghent revolves around so many genres: the psychedelic hiphop beats by Dynnoo; local rock royalty-turned superstar DJs Soulwax/2 Many Deejays; my labelmates I Will I Swear; experimental drones by Mathieu Serruysand Hellvete, both operating closely to the long-running Kraak label. The latest sensation is Stuff, who have entered the Belgian mainstream with their crazy mix of jazz, hiphop, funk and electronics.
One reason why so much good music emerges from Ghent is that artists have plenty of opportunities to get out of their basements to perform. There are always free concerts happening around town – I used to go to concerts every night of the week. I only started playing guitar when I was 23, but I got my first show six months later. That’s probably the advantage of living in such a small town with so many stages. Just a couple of years later, I was playing my first record at Vooruit, which has always been a really important venue in Ghent. It’s a former socialist arts centre and meeting place, once combining a theatre with a supermarket and a big hall. In the 1980s a group of artists revived the building and it’s been the cultural heart of the city ever since. The last few years I’ve seen inspiring performances by Grouper, Bon Iver, Mulatu Astatke, Wilco, Caribou and Celestial Shore there. I even saw Joanna Newsom play a show there, and it only cost me €2.
Deeper down in the underground, new (temporary) places like 019,Gouvernement, In De Ruimte and Kerk Gent are popping up all the time, providing a stage for acts that are – if not as enigmatic – just as exciting. Nowadays, the scene is very much about crossovers between visual arts and music. Concerts come with exhibitions and vice-versa. It works both ways: the cover of my EP was drawn by a friend, Korneel Detailleur, and my clips were made by friends as well – Dries Bastiaensen and Ben Verschooris. That’s probably again due to the size of Ghent: staying in your own scene just doesn’t happen here, I guess.
Where to eat/drink
By Nele Buys, a food fanatic who, with husband Mike Keirsbilck, runs the record label Consouling Sounds and the record shop and coffee bar Consouling Store
If you’re talking coffee in Ghent, Mokabon (Donkersteeg 37) is a classic. This small, popular coffee bar and roastery was founded in 1937. Coffee company De Draak goes back even further: it has been roasting handpicked beans since 1864. Coffee to De Draak is a serious matter, that’s why we use its products at Consouling – we like our coffee strong and straightforward.
If you want that extra barista touch, visit Gustaf (Sint-Jacobsnieuwstraat 45), where owner Xavier will happily discuss what you’ll be drinking with you. Drinking coffee becomes a personalised experience. If he thinks you’d like a slow coffee, he’ll make it in a vacuum coffee maker, and tell you all about the process while he works his magic.
Ghent has the reputation of being Europe’s vegetarian capital. I’m not a vegetarian, but if we eat veggie, Komkommertijd (Reep 14) is our place of choice. It serves a variety of food in an all-you-can-eat buffet concept and has a cantina-style atmosphere. It’s very relaxed. As well as vegetarianism, ecological city farming is another thing that Ghent is pioneering in Belgium, and at Le Petit Botanique (Rodekoningstraat 12), every ingredient is sourced from one of the Ghent city farms.
I’m an avid supporter of the weekly local markets. There are several organic farmers here, and they need our support. Every Friday, you’ll find a stall from De Volle Maan – a goat farm – on the Vrijdagmarkt market square. The farm’s yoghurt and the goat’s cheese with red onion are absolutely delicious. There are more organic food markets on the Groentenmarkt square (Friday, 7.30am-1pm) and at Sint-Pieters railway station (Sunday, 8am-1pm).
There are new places popping up all the time. There’s a good buzz aboutL’Amuzette (Krommewal 2) and Ma en ik (Aannemersstraat 1A). But there are also a few classics that I just have to return to now and then. Het Lepelblad(Onderbergen 40) is my favourite for lunch, with a hearty kitchen and a homely feel.
For dinner, Aperto Chiuso (Sleepstraat 82) is an Italian restaurant in a street full of Turkish pizzerias. I’ve been going there for 15 years, for freshly made pasta. I also adore De Superette (Guldenspoorstraat 29), where you can eat pizza with cauliflower and homemade bread. Publiek (Ham 39) is the new concept of chef Olly Ceulenaere, formerly the chef at highly rated Volta. It’s top of my bucket list.
For a drink, I recommend the shop Drankhandel Geers (Ledergemstraat 7), in Oostakker (just outside of Ghent). If they don’t have what you are after, it probably doesn’t exist. Visitors staying in the city centre should drop by the city brewery Gruut (Grote Huidevettershoek 10), which produces excellent brews.
Sustainable and organic Ghent
By Nils Luyten, a human sciences researcher and upcycling enthusiast
Ghent is among Europe’s leading cities when it comes to locally driven green projects and sustainability.
Community gardens are popping up everywhere. De Site in the Rabot district is a really big one, built on a piece of land that in a few years will become a housing scheme. Another project is De Stadstuin (the city garden), near the Handelsdok canal. The plan here is to have local people farm their own chickens, grow potatoes, the lot. But of course we’re in Ghent, and we combine it with a bar. It’s just another example of how people in Ghent try to build communities around ecological projects.
One of my favourite community building projects is Leefstraten (living streets), in which a bunch of streets are being made traffic-free, all summer long. People create façade gardens and jeu de boules courts, and learn to live outside with their neighbours again.
Roof Food is a new project that offers vegetarian meals like celeriac soup with roasted almonds, using biological vegetables, that are grown in small gardens on rooftops. Of course, the produce is being delivered by a bike messenger and the compost used is green waste from locals.
Readers’ tips and Instagram
There’s no better guide to a city than word-of-mouth recommendations – from people who live there and people who have visited. We asked our readers to share their favourite experiences and Instagram pictures of Ghent. These are just a few tips – see more here.
Grab an arty cocktailJigger’s The Noble Drugstore is a cocktail bar in Ghent run by Olivier Jacobs, one of Belgium’s most talented mixologists. Jigger’s is all about taking the art and craft of cocktail making to perfection, and it is done in a lovely, cosy speakeasy-style bar. Olivier has a passion for foraging herbs and flowers, and he creates the most amazing infusions with them. Every week he has at least three new creations on the menu. His cocktails are not only works of art but are unique. A place not to be missed.
Sphinx cinema and cafeVibrant arthouse cinema with lots of festivals, events, premieres and an attractive cafe, with a terrace next door. It also has “happenings”, serves food and a large selection of cocktails, wines, coffees and Fairtrade drinks. All that in the middle of the historic centre of Ghent.
Party till the break of dawn in Club 69Club 69 is a small but fun and nicely-decorated place to spend your evening. In general it is associated with the cool and hipster people of the town. The music they play is varied: from hip-hop to minimal. My personal favourite is Mister Moustache – he just plays the funkiest tunes.
Walking by de Leie … and to Korenlei, Graslei, KraanleiOn a sunny day, I find nothing more relaxing than taking a walk next to de Leie river which runs alongside the city’s ancient buildings. You can then walk towards Korenlei, Graslei, Kraanlei, and end up near Baudelokaai and Portus Ganda. Another idea is to rent a boat (from Minerva near Coupure) and cruise along the Leie with some friends.
Esther de Wildema
Esther de Wildema
Ghent Belfort, the city’s ancient belfryGo and see the 700-year-old Belfort, as one of the three towers symbolising Ghent. It is next to Sint Baafskathedraal Cathedral and Sint-Niklaaskerk. It has been well renovated and houses the carillon that is still being played every week! Next to it you also have the city hall.
Esther de Wildema
Esther de Wildema