When I asked my friends who are based in Brussels if it’s possible to visit Antwerp and Ghent in a day, they hesitantly said yes you can, but you’ll not see all the attractions, there are so many things to do and visit in both cities. Oh well, since I’ve got only one day to spare, I’ll take a punt and persevere. Most likely no museum visits this time, just feel the vibes of both cities. Rewind, a few years ago when I visited Brugge (link here), it took me a full day to appreciate everything this city had to offer.
ANTWERP / (Dutch: Antwerpen / French: Anvers)
My booked train was the 07:59 IC from Brussels Midi to Antwerp through Omio site, fare was €9.40 second class unreserved. I arrived early at the station, still plenty of time for a caffeine fix. Midi is a huge station, train platforms upstairs look deserted but on the ground level you’ll find a large area of shops, cafes and restaurants. Station is fairly busy throughout the day with departing and arriving commuters but navigating around is easy, just check out the overhead signs to find your way around.
Train departed on time and travelling time was under an hour. Carriage where I sat was clean, comfy and warm for a cold Belgium morning. Arrival was spot on 08:35 at the colossal Antwerpen Centraal. It’s an impressive station, it has four levels and 14 tracks covered by a huge iron and glass ceiling with amazing light-effects. The awe inspiring dome above the waiting room is an architectural marvel, an exciting crossroads for travellers.
Diamonds are forever! If you want to buy a jewellery with a diamond(s), then you’re in the right place. When you step out of the station, directly opposite you’ll find shops lined up specialising in this precious stone. These shops form part of the Antwerp Diamond District or Diamond Quarter. 84% of the world’s mined diamonds end up here in Antwerp.
Next to the Central Station is Antwerp Zoo. From the outside, it looks like a big park. Due to my limited time, a visit to the zoo was added to one of the things I’ll do next time I’m in Antwerp.
If shopping is high on your agenda then the Meir area is the premier hotspot for the shopaholic, a combination of all the charms of architectural masterpieces mixed with history and blended with today’s modern designs. You’ll find a lot of restaurants, cafes and specialty shops in this area. A must visit is the Stadsfeestzaa, the opulence of this majestic building is jaw dropping.
Grote Mark / Main Square is rather small but stunning! With many guild houses around the square. The majestic Town Hall was built from 1561 to 1565 in a Renaissance style with Italian and Flemish influences. You can see the Cathedral of our Lady in the background, another attraction to visit. I would really love to spend more time here, maybe lunch or coffee in one of the restaurants but due to my limited time, I’ll do it next time.
Before I headed back to the station, I managed to have a quick lunch at Takumi Ramen Kitchen. I have been dying to eat a good ramen and I tell you it didn’t disappoint.
Self guided walking around Antwerp is great, it’s a pocket-sized city, very friendly for those who like to be independent without a guide. Public transport by trams and buses is very handy. Tickets for rides are available at tourist centres, newsagents and vending machines. You can also download De Lijn app for discounted fares before you go.
GHENT (Dutch: Gent / French: Gand)
I caught the 13:37 train to Ghent-Dampoort station, last stop before Gent-Sint-Pieters, the main station. Travelling time was around 45 minutes which gave me enough time to stretch my legs and catch a power nap. This station is about 15 minutes walk away but if you prefer public transport, you can catch buses 3, 17, 18, 38, 39 at Korenmarkt stand or you can even rent a bike and pedal your way to the city centre.
From the station, I just literally walked along Schookai, a tree lined street parallel to the river. You’ll cross bridges here with some resting areas. Perfect spot for photo op with the river in the background without the crowds as it’s a mostly residential area. Only a few blocks away is the centre with lots of shops, restaurants and the must-see landmarks of this city.
The awe-inspiring Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal) takes your breath away! The Cathedral boasts beautiful stained glass windows and black-and-white marble/wood corridors to name a few of its features, free admission but a donation is always welcome towards the up keep. However entry to the chapel with the magnificent polyptych ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck, cost 4€ (Adults) which includes a multi-lingual audio guide. It’s one of the most important works of art in Europe. There has been controversy stirring up in the art world with art lovers alike over the recent restoration of this artwork, it’s all over the news and on social media. Find out and let me know of your thoughts. Note: taking photos and video inside the chapel is forbidden.
Opposite Saint Bavo’s Cathedral is the Het Belfort van Gent, a 91-metre-tall belfry, the tallest in Belgium built between 1313 and 1380. There is an interesting exhibition inside. If you don’t get claustrophobic and are not afraid of heights, then you can climb the structure via the narrow stairs. For an easier or more accessible option there is a lift which costs €8 for adults. Once up, you can enjoy the panoramic views of Ghent and beyond.
Next to Belfry is the magnificent St Nicholas’ (Sint-Niklaaskerk), it’s free to visit too. Magnificent exterior in a high gothic style, step inside to appreciate the stunning architecture, stained glass windows, and paintings. It has a number of altars and a large organ dating from the mid 19th century. Saint Nicholas’ tower together with Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Belfry forms the famous ‘Three Towers’ image of Ghent.
You can always stop here at Korenmarkt for a meal, coffee, beer or Belgian waffles. Located just next to St. Nicholas’ church and Leie River on the other side. Browse inside in one of the historic buildings for gifts and souvenirs. There are yearly cultural festivals held in this square.
Graslei perhaps is one of the most breathtaking spots that I’ve visited in Ghent. It’s a walkway surrounded by centuries old guild houses which line both sides of River Leie. A selfie spot with an instagramable display of step-gabled rooftops. Standing on St Michael’s Bridge you’ll have the most amazing views of Ghent, Belgium’s most beautiful city!
If you have plenty of time, tour the city by boat along the gentle river. You can purchase your tickets from one of a number of operators in this area. I love being on the water, it gives you such a different way to appreciate a city, shame again that I didn’t have enough time to indulge in this pleasure.
My last stop was the The Gravenstee, a medieval castle which dates from 1180. Unfortunately when I got there, I missed the opening hours, It closed at 6 PM. Never mind, there’s always next time!
I wrapped up my half day in Ghent with a nice Ename Dubbel, a dark abbey beer along with grilled Belgian chicken in one of the bars in the city centre. Love this city!
My day trip to cover Antwerp and Ghent is definitely worth considering if you only have a day to spend. If you want to do this as a self guided trip, planning is vital for the key points you want to visit. If you like to spend time inside museums and historic attractions maybe this hit the ground running style is not for you. Public transport in both cities is very well organised and can get you around quickly. Ghent offers a wide network of trams and buses from Gent-Sint-Pieters or Ghent-Dampoort railway stations. The CityCard allows you unlimited travel in Ghent from 48 to 72 hrs. For me, I relied with my shoes but on the way back I took a bus for convenience and to rest my feet! A single journey was 3€ to Gent-Sint-Pieters for my connection to an IC train back to Brussels.