We plan to spend one week in Belgium touring the above 3 cities. Should we stay in one city and do day trips to the others or spend a few days in each?
There's no right or wrong answer here. The cities are fast and easy to get to via train, so you could spend all the time in one place and see the other two by day trips. The only "problem" with this is that get to know a city so much better when you are there overnight. Bruges, in particular, is so much better in the early morning and evening hours. On the other hand, three two-night stays are less relaxing since you have to move all your stuff twice. Still, that's probably what I'd do. Or perhaps pick two to stay in and visit the other for a day.
It's either the whole week in Gent or split it up between Brugge and Antwerpen and have Gent as a day trip from the one or the other. As said above, each approach has its pros and cons.
Claneville: We truly love Bruges and would recommend home-basing there with day trips to Ghent and Antwerp. Having said that, my sense is that appreciation for Bruges is an age-related issue. If you are young and like the party scene, then stay in Ghent--as a university town, it has an edgy vibe that seems to appeal to a younger crowd. If you are over 45, then by all means stay in Bruges. I don't have a frame of reference for Antwerp. In any case, trains are frequent and comfortable--enjoy your visit to Belgium.
On a separate note, given that Belgian beer is the nectar of the gods, let me recommend a wonderful beer whose acquaintance I made last fall--Tripel Karmeliet. One of the best I have tasted!
And I'm in the definitely-over-45 group and much prefer Ghent to Bruges. I haven't gotten to Antwerp yet, sigh. I day tripped to Bruges from Ghent and I thought Bruges was very touristy (also very picturesque - lots of lovely photos), with horsdrawn buggies everywhere and shop after shop of souvenirs. Ghent is lovely after dark when the medieval buildings and bridges are illuminated, and it's very quiet around the center. I imagine that around the university, it may be a bit noisy - if there are classes then. Another consideration for me was that rooms in Ghent were considerably cheaper than in Bruges.
I'm in the over 45 group (even the over 65 group) and I preferred Ghent to Bruges. I did Bruges as a day trip - one whole long day - and was able to see everything I wanted to see. Yes, it's better early and late before and after the crush of day trippers so I think a couple of nights there would be nice. I think if you want to see Bruges without crowds, then split it up 2-3 nights Bruges and 3-4 nights in Ghent with a day trip to Antwerp and maybe a day trip somewhere else. I don't think I'd want to move 3 times for 2 nights each since they are so close. Myself, since I hate to pack up and move hotels any more than necessary, I would probably park myself in Ghent for the whole time and spend some days in the others but come back to Ghent at night. If you're going in summer the days will stay light very late so you can experience all of the cities in the morning (taking an early train) and well into the evenings.
So much for my over-45 maxim. Oh well, chacun a son gout. In either case, have fun and enjoy your travels. And, don't forget to enjoy the beer.
Personally, I like experiencing a city early and late in the day. But that's a lot of moving around in a small geographic area if you spend two nights in each city.
You might consider spending three nights in Brugge and three in Gent, and make Antwerpen a day trip from one or the other.
I just got back from my trip where I spent three nights in Ghent and two nights in Antwerp before heading to the Netherlands. I did Brussels and Bruges as day trips. I was very happy with this choice. With a week I'd still stay in those two cities (4 in one and 3 in the other), and this will give you plenty of opportunity to visit some other places I didn't have time to see.
I'm also over 45, and I'm with those who found Bruges to be highly overrated, perhaps one of the most disappointing places I've ever visited in Europe. What saved the day for me was renting a bike and riding along the canal to Damme, where I had lunch and wandered around a bit. (By the way, no one seems to mention this, but ride to Damme with the canal on your left. The path on the other side of the canal doesn't have a view of the canal for most of the ride because there is a dike in the way. At the very least, do the round trip on both sides of the canal.)
Based on our recent experience, Ghent would be an excellent base for exploration of the region. You could avoid the nuisance of moving from hotels and daytrip to Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges, all about 30 minutes away by train. I would recommend one overnight in Bruges.
We just returned from one week in Netherlands/Belgium--including 4 days in Antwerp/Ghent/Bruges (2 nights in Ghent/1 night in Bruges). We traveled from Amsterdam to Antwerp via Thalys (2 hours) and left Bruges for London via Brussels on Eurostar.
We explored the impressive train station in Antwerp and the area surrounding it for about 2 hours before proceeding to Ghent (about an hour away by local train) where we stayed two nights. We thoroughly enjoyed beautiful Ghent, with lots to see in a compact city center with excellent public transportation and with lots of restaurants on terraces canalside. We hit the highlights over our two days there and could have enjoyed a third. The city is beautifully illuminated at night.
Because of the warnings of crowded Bruges, we chose to travel there in the late afternoon (a quick 30 minutes by train from Ghent), arriving about 3 in the afternoon, just as the tourist hoardes were leaving. We enjoyed an early evening cruise, dinner on the plaza and a magical walk about the quiet, illuminated, medieval streets before settling for the night in at the well-located Crowne Plaza, where we received an upgrade to a lovely two room suite with a view.
Next morning we began the day at 8, had breakfast in a nearby pastisserie, climbed the belfry and scooted away from the main plazas around 10 (avoiding the arrival of busses unloading their cargos of tourist/school groups) to the outskirts of the walkable town to explore churches, the parks and the beginhof in relative peace. The Crowne Plaza allowed a late checkout of 2 pm when we collected our bags and caught the train to Brussels (about an hour away) to board the Eurostar for our next leg to London. I was glad we had spent the night. Bruges is much more enjoyable if you plan to overnight and avoid the choked center which teems with tourists only from 10-3 .