Its flemish sisters antwerp and Bruges may be better known, but the town of Ghent, a 30-mile drive northwest of Brussels, has the best of both worlds: stylish new restaurants, bars, and boutiques that compete with Antwerp’s line centuries-old cobblestoned streets similar to those in Bruges. Together, they bring a palpable energy to this city of roughly 240,000. In the Middle Ages, Ghent (Gent to the Flemish and Gand to the French) grew fantastically rich on cloth and wool and was the second-biggest town in Europe, after Paris. Today, its medieval heritage is on view on the Graslei, an old merchants’ street that runs along the bank of the Leie River, where you’ll find Gothic guild houses with stepped roofs and ornately carved façades. University students account for 15 percent of the population, and on weekends they fill the Old City’s Friday Market square and the pint-size cafés of arty neighborhoods such as Patershol, to the north. Just east of the Graslei lie two of Ghent’s great monuments—St. Nicholas church and St. Bavo Cathedral—and, in the ultimate juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, Vlaanderenstraat, a narrow street that leads practically from the steps of the cathedral’s door to Ghent’s small red-light district and has become the center of cutting-edge design and clothing shops.
Ghent’s hotel scene was once dominated by generic chains, with the occasional offbeat option such as the Great Value Boatel (doubles from $115), a moored canal boat refashioned into a seven-room floating hotel. The past few years, however, have seen an explosion of chic inns. In the Patershol district, British transplants Simon Turner and Christopher Joseph recently opened a B&B at their casual coffeehouse Great Value Simon Says (doubles from $123). The Art Nouveau building has two contemporary rooms with funky white fluorescent light fixtures and sandstone bathrooms. The husband-and-wife team behind Great Value Chambre Plus (doubles from $125) run a cooking school in the cellar where guests learn to make Belgian chocolate. Upstairs, you’ll find three spacious guest rooms—the best of which is the honeymoon suite, with private access to a vine-covered garden. At the family-run Great Value Hotel Harmony (doubles from $200), top-floor rooms have views of the Kraanlei canal and the city’s tiled rooftops.
Vlaanderenstraat is the city’s ground zero for shopping. The latest boutique arrival: Switzerland-based Vitra, which sells Midcentury Modern furniture by such legendary designers as Charles and Ray Eames and Jean Prouvé. For more local finds, head to Eva Bos, who makes custom vintage-style jackets and dresses. Pick up one of her tailored, Audrey Hepburn–inspired evening gowns. Caroline Naudts was so taken with Belgium’s emerging fashion scene that she opened Het Oorcussen to showcase innovative designers such as Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten. Around the corner, Naudts’s brother Frank runs Obius, a clothing boutique with Martin Margiela sweaters and Veronique Branquinho heels.