Ghent or Antwerp

Hi all, We only have two days. We can either stick to Ghent or Antwerp or try to do one day in each of these cities. We can't squeeze anymore time in. We can either focus on one and forget the other or try to do a day in each. Do people recommend both or just try to do one and do it up well? Which one? If both, which one should be our home base? :-) This is mom-daughter planning our trip. If any of you have answered any of my other questions before - thank you so much!!! I love this forum and I love this group of people. Rick Steve's and his followers are totally invaluable to trip planning. Thanks!!!

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

Visiting one as a daytrip from the other is very feasible. The areas of interest to tourists are fairly compact and you can get a decent overview of each in less than a day. I would probably lean more towards staying in Ghent over Antwerp, especially if your daughter is within a decade or less of college age. Advantages of Ghent- it's kind of like the Austin of Belgium. It hosts a large university, and many of the graduates stay around as young professionals for a few years, so it has a hopping night life. Antwerp, in contrast, can seem a little scary after dark. It has nightlife of it's own... but there's a good reason that the most popular Flemish crime drama, Zone Stad, takes place in Antwerp. If you're visiting during the summer, the wait to view the most popular piece of art in Ghent, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb can become quite significant. The display area sits in a small alcove of a cathedral, and only a handful of people can view it simultaneously. If you arrive early enough in the morning, you can simply buy a ticket and walk straight in. By mid morning, the line can be quite long.

Posted by Tim
Wyckoff, NJ, USA
673 posts

kathy, maybe you've seen over at TripAdvisor, at least 1% of the questions about New York City involve the word "safe". And it's an exceptionally safe "big city." I've spent 8 weeks in the last five years in Antwerp, and I've never felt the least bit unsafe. However, I don't look for drugs, hang out in the red-light district, or cruise the train stations. I don't think Antwerp is less safe than any other city of its size in the world. BTW, my family-oriented, idyllic suburb of 16,000 had a heroin arrest last month. At least we don't have a crystal meth problem, like many American cities smaller than Antwerp. Anyway, there is a lot more to do in Antwerp. I would say that Ghent is a little cleaner and prettier, but much shallower - I mean that last word in a neutral way, like maybe some resort cities in the US are shallow. Fore example, the Ghent canals are cute. The Schelde (river) in Antwerp was very important in WW II and important to commerce today. Ghent is indeed an excellent substitute for Brugge. The Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) is one of the ten most important pieces of easel art in Europe. But if only the Antwerp mass of Rubens paintings were on display (the museum is being renovated), that would be just as important.

Posted by Christi
Whitsett, TX, United States
400 posts

Gent is a neat medieval city - not too big - I would stay there. We loved it - it is not nearly as touristy as Brugge.

Posted by kathy
new brighton, USA
23 posts

Thank you for all the postings and especially the last one. I happen to love big diverse cities - love Rome - love Paris - love it - so it sounds like I will love Antwerp too. And, I understand what you mean about the superficial. I get what you are saying. :-) So, thank you all. I love this board so much and the traveler souls that love to answer questions - love it! Well, we kind of put it out there to the universe too. I am a pretty spiritual person too and I put out a bunch of feelers for accommodations and had this one in mind that would be the most economical of all the options - and it is in Antwerp - so that is where we are supposed to stay because it is one of only three yes answers we got and the most economical :-) - now do we take a little day trip to Ghent - as in get up early and take the train - see the castle - and then head back? We are very efficient city seers. What is your thought on that - especially asking this of the most recent poster.

Posted by Tim
Wyckoff, NJ, USA
673 posts

Kathy, it's a matter of taste in Gent. If I had young children,I might take them to the Castle of the Counts. But for adults, the canals-even tourist boat rides, the Cathedral and the Mystic Lamb, the art museum, the walking of medieval streets, inexpensive and finer restaurants (university towns tend to keep restaurant prices low ... ). I thought the shopping looked promising, but I've been there twice on Monday, when many stores are closed. I'm glad I saw the Castle, but if you're over 15, it's very missable. I did get a discount for my age, even though I'm not a Belgian citizen! Gent is very close to Antwerp and you won't waste much time on the train. You might waste time in line buying tickets.

Posted by Harold
New York, NY, USA
2852 posts

I preferred Antwerp to Ghent. Antwerp is not only bigger, but definitely has more of a "big city" vibe (which, depending on what one is looking for, cuts either way). Given that some love Ghent, some love Antwerp, some hate both, and some love both, I think you should plan a day in each (as said above, you can get a good highlights visit of each in a day, and it's easy to stay in one for both nights and visit the other as a daytrip. Even though Rick's book is still called Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels, it now includes both Ghent and Antwerp, so it's worth taking a look for his recommendations on what to see and do.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

"and if you like Mussels you will find none better than in Bruges." Actually, Brugge would be the city I would least recommend for mussels in Belgium. Why? In most of the country, mussels are a seasonal dish only. But I've noticed that many restaurants in Brugge serve them all year long. Basically, they're playing to the expectations of tourists who expect beer, chocolate and mosselen en fritjes; I'm not sure where they're getting them from, but I'm willing to bet it's not from nearby Zeebrugge, Knokke, De Haan or Oostende. So, how do you know if you're getting mussels during the proper time of year? Look at what the typical Belgian bistros and brasseries are serving in a town that doesn't see nearly as much tourist traffic, like Antwerp, Hasselt, Leuven, Kortrijk or Tournai. If you see them there (and the restaurants will usually advertise the mussels in the window), you're probably safe in Brugge and Brussels.

Posted by Shelley
Trenton, Ontario, Canada
298 posts

Another city you might consider is Bruges. We contemplated between Ghent or Bruges and were so enthralled with Bruges we are looking to go again next year on our way to the Ferry to England. The older area is not too big and very clean. Do take the small boat ride thru the city and if you like Mussels you will find none better than in Bruges. A place call Cambrinus just off the main square on Philipstockstraat have (IMO) the best and they serve it in a big pot, more than enough for 2 people. As recommended by another poster do get the RS book on Amsterdam, Bruges it is most informative.

Posted by Smitty
Salisbury
20 posts

I've been to both cities about 5 times and would choose Ghent over Antwerp because it is smaller, not quite so modern, and has the Mystic Lamb. The Altarpiece takes more than a quick look amid the crowds. If you spend some time with it, for example, stare for 10 minutes, notice details and overall impressions, talk a walk around the church, return to the Lamb, ponder, notice something you've missed, etc., the image will seep into your soul and you will never forget it.
Once, staying with Flemish friends in Ghent for a week, I went just about every day. I was there again this past February and it was as intriguing as ever. The Lamb is never old. It's the Mona Lisa but with more mystery.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

The Antiques Roadshow appraisal was for a 1945 collection of silver nitrate prints, presented in a spectacular handmade box, of the 'Mystic Lamb' altarpiece. You can watch it at: http://video.nhptv.org/video/2344062955/ There is also a book titled "Stealing the Mystic Lamb" that recounts the fascinating and mysterious history of this amazing masterpiece. I stood in front of it for about 90 minutes in April, listening twice to the excellent audio guide and peering closely to see every detail described by the narrator. It truly does get inside your soul. I almost never say 'must see' but RS is right about this one.

Posted by Denny
Columbus, OH, USA
733 posts

Tim, I'd love to know what other works are on the list. I believe I recall a PBS Antiques Roadshow episode featuring a book about the Mystic Lamb, perhaps a presentation from the Belgium government to a long time US diplomat? Big bucks.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

"I almost never say 'must see' but RS is right about this one." It only took him 30+ plus years to add it to his guidebook, even though every other book on the market mentioned it...

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

I think Gene Openshaw actually writes/edits (co-authors?) much (if not all) of the art history material in the RS publications. I'm fairly sure I remember seeing a segment long ago on 'The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' in one of the RS PBS videos, and possibly reading about it in one of his non-guidebook publications. I remember it because I made a note to be sure to include it if/when I made a trip to Gent. Finally I did this year.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

Rose, you might be thinking of his show where he explores Colmar and goes on about the Isenheim Alterpiece at the Unterlinden Museum. As far as I know, RS has only produced one show about Belgium, and it was mostly about Brugge, with a tiny bit of Damm and Brussels tacked on. Ghent was never mentioned. If I seem a bit prickly about this topic... well, that's because I got into quite an online scuffle about Ghent several years ago before it was an officially Blue Book-approved destination. Let's just say I was advocating it as a possible alternative to Brugge, and some of the more... um, how to put this without provoking another smack-down?... devoted Rick Steves fans (Rickniks) reacted like I was Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on the door of Wittemberg cathedral. Which only made me more fervent in my pro-Ghent crusade. Suffice it to say, I had at least two converts, and of the Defenders of Dogma faction, one was subsequently banned from this site permanently and the rest rarely, if ever, post anymore. I don't claim any influence on ETBD's eventual inclusion of Ghent, but I'm glad it's in there just the same. Now that it's in there, I don't have to advocate much anymore for the city, other than to occassionally note than younger travelers may find it a better fit than Brugge to spend the night. So when I read something like "I almost never say 'must see' but RS is right about this one.", I have to gnash my teeth, because several years ago, the party line was "If Rick Steves doesn't include it, it can't be worth much of an effort to see."

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Thanks, Tom. I'm totally with you. I'm not a zealot. I went to both Gent and Brugge and enjoyed them both very much. I don't know what causes Rick and Gene to decide to include some things but not others. I do think, however, that he has his finger fairly accurately on the pulse of the average American traveler, who is relatively unfamiliar and inexperienced with European culture and language and probably spends little, if any, time in museums in general. The majority of people who post on these boards are FAR above average, IMO. I guess that Rick picks those locales and sites that he believes through experience will be relatively easy for (again, average) American travelers to get to and be able to appreciate in a fairly condensed period of time. And to cater to average Americans, those locales need to have certain types of accommodation and food options. One of my colleagues went on a cruise that included St. Petersburg. What did he show in his post-trip slideshow? Photos of McDonalds and Subway. Go figure. :)

Posted by Brendon
Auburn, Washington, USA
497 posts

I went to Ghent in June and also Brugges. If I had to pick between the two, I would pick Brugges hands down. Ghent is nice, but nothing compared to Brugges. I have never been to Antwerp, so can't help you there. Brugges has the church of the holy blood which has a vile that says is Jesus's blood. So if I were you, skip Ghent and do either Brugges or Antwerp.

Posted by Kelly
St Petersburg Florida
948 posts

Team Ghent!
I daytripped to Antwerp on a sunday...it was rainy....lots of muddy road construction everywhere....the shops were all closed.....I am not a Ruben's fan....we could not wait to leave and go back to Bruges, where all is quaint, clean, and charming as heck. We found no charm in Antwerp. Maybe it was circumstantial but it just didn't sing to us. We loved Ghent as well, and way more than Antwerp.

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9131 posts

Speaking of which... some chamber of commerce in Belgium just released two promotional films about the country, one aimed a tourists, the other at the business community. Perhaps these can add to the debate? PS- I thought the magic floating sphere was a little unnecessarily cheesy...