Last updated on May 22, 2023 by Wandering our World
Aside from being a center for European politics, Belgium is famed for its chocolate, Belgian waffles, beer and the stunning and varied architecture on display within its historic cities.
When it comes to choosing which city to visit — Ghent or Antwerp — there’s plenty to see and do in each city: there are castles and cathedrals, medieval museums, and modern shopping. And when you need to refuel, there’s Belgian beer, fries, and delicious pastries! But which should you visit….
Well Antwerp, often referred to as the fashion capital of Belgium, is Belgium’s largest city by population. The city is a seaport, sitting on the river Scheldt and linked to the North Sea by the river’s Westerschelde estuary. Antwerp has more things to do than Ghent, and will likely be the better choice for families.
Famous attractions to explore include the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, the diamond district, Het Steen Castle, and Rubenhuis, where you can admire the artwork of Flemish artist and former Antwerp citizen Peter Paul Rubens.
Meanwhile Ghent is Belgium’s second-largest city by population and is also a port city thanks to the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal, which links it to the North Sea. Often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North,’ Ghent is arguably the more romantic and prettier city of the two and can be explored via its cobbled lanes or by canal.
Not to be outdone by its eastern neighbor, Ghent also has plenty of history to uncover; explore the 12th-century Gravensteen Castle, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Sint-Pietersabdij Abbey, and take in great views of the city from the Belfort tower.
Luckily if you’re planning a short city break to Belgium and are trying to decide between Ghent and Antwerp, we’re going to dive deeper into the differences and similarities between these two cities to help you decide.
Read on as we show you which is easiest to get to and explore, which has the best cultural attractions, the best day trips, the best nightlife and more…
- Which Has The Best Attractions?
- Which Has The Best Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Families?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
Which Has The Best Attractions?
With archeological evidence proving human activity in the area that predates the Roman period, you can be sure both cities have a rich history to explore when there.
Throughout the centuries, this area of north-western Europe has seen many political changes, and a few historically important battles have taken place within Belgium.
Both cities have an array of museums, churches, abbeys, and art galleries to explore, and both cities are lined with stunning architectural examples from various periods of history.
So with that the case, we’re going to take a look at a few of the top cultural attractions in each city in order to help you choose which one is best for you:
Antwerp: The Attractions
1. Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)
The Museum aan de Stroom, known simply as the MAS Antwerp, is the city’s most prestigious museum. The building itself is a work of art, with stunning views across the city from the roof of its tenth floor.
Inside, the museum’s different floors portray different themes, with the 8th floor’s world-famous collection of art from pre-Columbian America being a popular spot.
Aside from the exhibits and views, the museum also houses a two-Michelin-star restaurant, ‘t Zilte. The restaurant’s kitchen is officially the highest kitchen in the city, and the food is superb.
2. Rubens House
A visit to Rubens House (Rubenshuis) will enable you to walk around in the private accommodations, workshop, and beautiful garden of the house where Flemish artist and diplomat Sir Peter Paul Rubens once lived and worked.
Rubens acquired the property in 1610, and it was then bought by the city in 1937 before being opened to the public in 1946.
Several paintings and artworks by Rubens and his contemporaries are on display, as well as period furniture. Notable paintings include his early Adam and Eve and a self portrait made when he was aged about fifty.
3. Cathedral of Our Lady
The construction of the Gothic-style Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady began in 1352, and although the first stage of building was finished in 1521, the whole project was never officially completed.
Initial plans included two equally high towers, but the south one remains about half the height of the northern tower.
Aside from the stunning exterior architecture, the first thing you will notice is the church’s size. It occupies one hectare of the city center and is the largest Gothic church in the Benelux Union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. It can hold 25,000 people and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
4. The Diamond District
Antwerp has been an important player in the international diamond trade since the middle of the 15th century. Its historic diamond district, next to the Central Station, is believed to handle 80% of the world’s uncut diamonds.
Visitors can wander around the district and check out the jewellery shops, and to learn more about the historic diamond trade, you can also head to the nearby DIVA, the diamond museum.
5. Het Steen Castle
Het Steen Castle is a medieval fortress dating back to the thirteenth century. It is Antwerp’s oldest building, and its name, when translated from Dutch, means “the rock.” Over the centuries, the building has served a few different purposes, from a prison to a museum.
These days it’s a visitors center with a panoramic rooftop and is home to The Antwerp Story exhibition, which showcases the history of the city and gives an overview of its districts, its people, and what makes Antwerp special.
Ghent: The Attractions
1. The Castle of the Counts
The Castle of the Counts, known locally in Dutch as the Gravensteen, is a medieval castle that dates back to 1180.
This castle was the official residence of the Counts of Flanders until 1353, since when it has been used as a court, a prison, a mint, and even for a period as a cotton factory. It is the only remaining medieval castle in Flanders with a moat and a largely intact defense system.
The Counts of Flanders converted the earlier wooden building work into living quarters in the Middle Ages, and the castle featured 24 towers. The building’s impressive size would have been even more impressive at the time of its construction, and it stood as a symbol of the Counts’ power.
Visitors today can explore a collection of ancient torture devices. If you want to explore Ghent’s rich history, there’s no better starting point than the Gravensteen.
2. St Bavo’s Cathedral
Ghent’s oldest parish church, St. Bavo’s Cathedral, sits on the site of its two predecessors, which were built in the 10th and 12th centuries, respectively.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the site was redesigned, and St. Bavo’s Cathedral was built. With its long and rich history, the cathedral has acquired a number of art treasures that visitors can admire.
Highlights include the Baroque high altar, the Rococo pulpit in oak, gilded wood, and marble, and a masterpiece by Rubens. The cathedral also houses the famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb artwork.
This is a multi-paneled piece, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, that was completed in 1432. The work is attributed to the painters and brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck and is considered a masterpiece. It was the world’s “first major oil painting”, and is seen as starting the transition from Middle Age to Renaissance art.
3. Ghent Belfry
The Belfort van Ghent, or the Belfry of Ghent in English, is one of a collection of three medieval towers that sit in the old city center. The other two can be found at the beautiful Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church.
The Belfort reaches 91 meters (299 feet), is the tallest belfry in Belgium and is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its construction began back in 1313 and continued until 1380.
The belfry features an iconic dragon, which was put in place in 1377 to keep an eye on the city and be the symbolic guardian of the belfry. You can climb up to the top of the tower for sweeping views across the city.
4. St Peter’s Abbey
A former Benedictine abbey, it was founded in the 7th century by St Amand, the patron saint of all who produce beer.
The abbey now houses a museum and exhibition centre, and its gardens and vineyard are a much-loved green area of the city, and a great place for a coffee in the sun.
The Abbey was chosen as the final resting place for many Counts and Countesses of Flanders, and it has been under restoration since the 1950s, with work still ongoing in the refectory wing.
5. Museum of Fine Arts
Art lovers can enjoy a stroll around the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), Belgium’s oldest museum. With works by old masters and modernists hung side-by-side, it’s like taking a walk through the history of art.
Works by Bosch, Rubens, and Magritte are among the impressive collection of art from as far back as the Middle Ages right up to the 20th century.
Panels from the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which is displayed at St. Bavo’s Cathedral, are being restored here, and visitors can see the restoration work taking place live.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., and you can get tickets in advance online instead of queuing up when you arrive.
Which Has The Best Day Trips?
The beauty of smaller nations is that getting around is so much easier.
And a visit to either Ghent or Antwerp will allow you to visit other areas of the country pretty easily. In fact one option for a day trip from Antwerp is Ghent, and vice versa.
You can hire a car and drive between the two cities in under an hour, traffic permitting. So, if you arrive in Antwerp and suddenly fear you made the wrong choice, simply hop in a car or train and go find out…
Brussels is a similar distance from Ghent as it is from Antwerp too, and it is kind of in the middle of the two cities. You can easily head into Brussels for the day from either city on the train.
As the country’s capital city, there’s plenty to see and do in Brussels. Aside from the excellent shopping, Brussels is home to the European Parliament, NATO, and a strangely appealing statue of a boy urinating, the Manneken Pis (Dutch for ‘Little Pissing Man’).
Another popular destination for a day trip from either city is a visit to Waterloo, just south of Brussels. Waterloo was the infamous site of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington.
The Battle of Waterloo took place near Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and you can visit the battleground to see the Lion’s Mound and a panoramic painting of the battle.
The Lion’s Mound commemorates the spot where Willem, Prince of Orange (and from 1840, King Willem II of The Netherlands), was injured when a musket bullet knocked him off his horse during the battle.
If you’re all ‘historied-out’ and would rather escape to explore Belgium’s green countryside, a trip to Belgium’s only national park, Hoge Kempen National Park, is a great option.
It’s an hour away from Antwerp and about ninety minutes from Ghent, and it’s covered by heathland and pine forest and can be explored by foot, bicycle, mountain bike, or horseback.
So all in all, it’s hard to separate Antwerp from Ghent when it comes to day trips. Although the fact Belgium’s only national park is a little closer to Antwerp may make it the better choice for some.
Which Is Better For Families?
If you’re traveling with the children, you’ll be pleased to know that both cities have plenty of attractions to keep them entertained.
In either city, you will be able to find plenty of cinemas and shopping opportunities, and the kids will enjoy exploring the castles.
Belgian waffles and fries always go down well with the kids too, but if you’re looking for child-specific activities, Antwerp may be the better option.
In Antwerp, taking the kids on a subterranean adventure to explore De Ruien is always a winner.
De Ruien is the city’s old sewer and underground canals, which can be explored with kids three years old and up. The boat tour takes you through the old sewers and lasts about 15 minutes.
And Plopsa Station Antwerp is a mini indoor theme park that celebrates Belgium’s famous cartoon characters, the Smurfs and Tin-Tin. It’s located close to the main train station, and it’s a good place to keep the kids entertained for a few hours—perfect should it rain.
On top of that, Chocolate Nation in Antwerp is the world’s biggest chocolate factory and is always a big hit with the children. It has interactive multimedia exhibits and occasionally runs chocolate-making workshops. Be careful in the gift shop, though…
Ghent has fewer options, specifically for the kids, but there’s still plenty to do. Aside from bowling, cinemas, and karting, there are also some large parks to explore, especially if you visit during the summer, including a big skate park (Blaarmeersen).
One activity that’s a little different in Ghent but not aimed solely at children is going rafting—in the city! There are no rapids, but you can enjoy a different view of the city as you paddle around her ancient waterways.
While you’ll have plenty to do in each city, Antwerp is perhaps a little more geared up for children, and there are a few more options for keeping them entertained here.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
If you’re planning on letting your hair down on your city break, you will be pleased to know that both cities have plenty to do once the sun goes down. Both cities have healthy student populations, and there are plenty of bars and clubs to enjoy.
Try Trollekelder if you want to visit a traditional tavern and drink some real Belgian beer. Charleton is a fascinating bar that occasionally becomes a little rowdier as the night progresses.
And if you want to keep going into the wee small hours, Kompass Nightclub is a good bet, although it’s a little outside the city center, so plan your transportation before you start enjoying yourself too much.
Antwerp also has an abundance of bars and pubs and is often touted as having the best nightlife in all of Belgium – better than Ghent.
You’ll be able to find numerous cool bars where you can just hang out with a few buddies and listen to live music.
If you plan to dance the night away, the city’s top clubs are Café d’Anvers and IKON Antwerp. Café d’Anvers is situated in a 16th-century church in the middle of Antwerp’s red light district, and in 2011, it was voted number 38 in DJ Magazine’s “Top 100 Clubs in the World” poll.
While there are plenty of bars in each city where you can relax into Belgian beer culture, if you’re looking to party well into the night, Antwerp may just be the better option.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
If you’ve already searched for flights to these two cities, you will have noticed that only one of them, Antwerp, has its own airport.
Antwerp International Airport (ANR) is a small international airport located three miles (five kilometers) south of the city. It is used for some scheduled and charter flights, but only receives direct flights from London and a few southern European cities.
Ghent, on the other hand, does not have its own airport.
But before you assume Antwerp will be much easier to reach, you should also check out Brussels as an entry point. Of the 50 states and territories of Europe, Belgium is only the 35th largest, and as such, it’s very easy to move around between the cities.
Brussels is less than an hour’s drive from both Ghent and Antwerp, and it is also home to two international airports. Brussels-Zaventem Airport (BRU) is the busier of the two and receives direct flights from all over Europe as well as from a few major eastern US cities, the Middle East, Africa, and from a couple of Asian destinations. The airport is located seven miles (12 kilometers) north-east of the city center.
Brussels South Charleroi Airport (CRL), sometimes referred to as Brussels-Charleroi Airport, is the smaller of the two Brussels’ airports, but it is very well connected to the rest of Europe.
The airport lies around thirty miles south of the center of Brussels, and there are regular buses and shuttles into the city and to its main train station.
While it will depend on your point of origin, you may find it a little easier to get to Antwerp. But with both cities being a similar distance from Brussels—around fifty kilometers—both Ghent and Antwerp are reasonably easy to get to, especially from within Europe.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Luxury: Simply put, the five-star Botanic Sanctuary Antwerp is a piece of paradise in this bustling, busy city. The grounds are gorgeous, the rooms photogenic and the service world class. See photos and rates!
Budget: Violet Suites is a great place for a weekend budget stay. Not only is the location fantastic and just a few minutes away from many bars and restaurants, but some suites even come with their own private outsIde space. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Boutique hotel 1898 The Post is set in a stunning historic building right in the heart of Ghent. The facilities are excellent, the service world-class, and the hotel itself one of the most beautiful in the country. See photos and rates!
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Moving around within both of these two cities is pretty straightforward too. The two cities may be the largest cities in the country by population, but they are not as big as sprawling metropolises like Paris or London.
Their relative compact size makes getting around pretty easy, and with lots of public transport options, getting from A to B should be pretty easy in either city.
Both cities have plenty of taxis, buses, and trams to help you move around, and each city has a city travel card (the CityCard Ghent and the Antwerp City Card), which makes using public transport even more affordable and convenient.
You can also explore either city by bicycle, with each city having shared cycle options and various pick-up and drop-off points conveniently placed around the cities.
Antwerp vs Ghent: Which Is The Better Choice?
As two cities with long and varied histories, you can be sure you’ll find plenty of cool and interesting activities in both Ghent and Antwerp.
Both are blessed with stunning architectural examples from different periods of history; both have cool castles to explore and impressive cathedrals.
Belgian beer, fries, and chocolate are widely available in both cities, but if you’re traveling with kids or looking to party hard, Antwerp may be the better choice.
And you will always have the option of visiting both on the same trip. As one of Europe’s smaller countries, getting around Belgium is pretty easy, so you can always visit both cities in one trip.
Both Antwerp and Ghent are fun and vibrant cities with plenty going on. Whichever destination you choose, you’re sure to have an interesting and enjoyable trip.