I haven’t been on a bicycle in years. At first I’m not sure if the old rule that you never forget how to ride will apply to me, but soon I recover my skills. Following the guide, I pedal off on a cycling tour of Ghent.
Throughout the morning, the Max Mobiel tour takes my group through the city center, passing by beautiful historic buildings and over canals. It takes us out to the edges of town, then back through trendy neighborhoods like Patershol before returning to the heart of the city.
My cycling tour of Ghent is just one of the many tours I take during my three-day trip to Belgium. I am there on a tour in itself, with Eurostar having invited me on its train from London to Brussels, which is a quick 30-minute train ride from Flanders. The trip is packed with all kinds of sightseeing, cycling being just one.
Another is a boat tour of Ghent with De Bootjes van Gent. On a sunny afternoon, we settle into a brand new canal boat for a cruise past historic and modern buildings, a stone castle, and lots of open-air cafes. Along the way we learn about Ghent’s history as a center of trade and commerce as we sip Champagne in the sunshine.
But Belgium isn’t known for its Champagne. What it is known for is revealed to us on a food tour of Ghent. Our Nibbling Tour guide from Vizit takes us to Kaas Mekka, a famous cheese shop where we sample organic Hinkelspel, Pas de Bleu goat’s cheese, and cow’s milk Orval cheese.
We then follow her to the 15th century butchers’ hall, where we try cured ham from East Flanders and local Ferdinand Tierenten mustard.
The next stop is Julie’s House, a bakery with mouth-watering window displays where we taste everything from pear clafoutis to rhubarb crumble.
The food tour finishes with a stop at Chocolaterie Van Hoorebeke, a chocolate shop in Ghent where we sample pralines of all kinds.
The food tour isn’t the only one where we sample local produce, though. On a tour of Ghent’s famous Vooruit arts center, we are taken to the roof by the resident beekeeper, Liesbeth, from Vizit. She shows us her bee houses and lets us sample the honey, which is sold in the shop downstairs.
When the official tours end, we take ourselves off to explore more of the city on self-guided tours of Ghent. The friend I have brought with me discovers a great lace shop called Kloskanthuis Home Linen and stocks up on everything from aprons to dish towels.
Nearby we find Bubbles at Home, a pretty home goods store, and Yves Tierenteyn-Verlent, a famous mustard shop in Ghent. In front of it is a vendor with a cart selling the famous cuberdons, or purple noses of Ghent. The cone-shaped candies are filled with a sweet raspberry-flavored liquid.
The next day we explore some of Ghent’s Sunday markets, including one that exclusively sells live animals. Everything from rabbits and geese to chickens and fish is for sale, and it’s hard to tell whether people are shopping for pets or food (probably a bit of both). It is one of the most unique markets I’ve ever come across on my travels.
Back on the sightseeing trail, we take a self-guided tour of the 12th century castle in Ghent. I love the views from the ramparts. Less thrilling is the medieval torture instrument exhibition.
Speaking of torture, our group meets for a cooking class at Avalon, a vegan restaurant in Ghent. The demo is great, but the service afterwards is so slow and inattentive that we start to wonder if they are trying to starve us to death.
Things look up at Brasserie Pakhuis, a restaurant in Ghent that is housed in a former warehouse. It reminds me so much of La Quincaillerie in Brussels that for a moment I wonder whether I’ve been transported to the Belgian capital.
Also noteworthy is Salons Carlos Quinto, a traditional restaurant in Ghent where we try everything from fresh white asparagus to Waterzooi stew. And our lunch at the sleek, modern Restaurant Belfort allows us to sample international cuisine with our lambic beers and French fries (which are actually Belgian!).
But the true foodie highlight of my trip to Ghent is Max, a beautiful historic cafe where the Belgian waffle originated. Overpriced and touristy, it nonetheless wins me over with its heavenly, lighter-than-air waffles covered in everything from powdered sugar to strawberries, whipped cream, and chocolate.
After three days of touring and eating my way through Ghent, it is time to travel back to London. We check out of the NH Gent Belfort Hotel, hop in a taxi, and catch a train to Brussels. There we relax in Eurostar’s lounge before traveling in Business Premier back to the UK.
The seats are the same as in Standard Premier, which we traveled out to Brussels in (and in which I traveled to Lyon in May), but the menu is developed by Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc and there is Champagne involved. It all serves to pleasantly numb the pain of leaving Belgium and allow me a couple of hours to rest my legs after so many great tours of Ghent.