When traveling in Belgium, visitors often ask whether they should choose Ghent or Antwerp for a 2-3 day stay. Both cities are in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, both port cities on the Scheldt river.
Which of Ghent or Antwerp is a better choice for a short stay? While the two cities are only an hour apart by train, both have strong touristic appeal. Antwerp is a larger city and is home to key Renaissance Flemish architecture and art. Ghent has a pretty medieval old town and scenic canals, and hosts a world-famous 15th-century painting. While many travelers choose Ghent for its picturesque sights, others prefer Antwerp for its diversity and great shopping and dining.
Ghent and Antwerp are two of the Belgium “Big Four” cities – which also include Bruges and Brussels. While Bruges is generally considered the main touristic highlight, Ghent and Antwerp also have a lot to offer (perhaps more) and are much less overrun by tourists. Antwerp and Ghent have populations of roughly 500K and 250K.
Ghent or Antwerp: what travelers say
- Ghent is a very attractive city with many picturesque medieval facades, a castle, and nice squares. The historic center is compact and can be visited in a short time. It’s a clean, quaint, laid back town travelers like to stay in. It’s not nearly as touristy as Bruges – see this other post
- Antwerp has more of a big city vibe, is more industrial and modern, but doesn’t have Ghent’s charm and scenic appeal. However, the city has a lot to offer including great museums worth seeing, a historic center, fashion stores, and an attractive waterfront along the Scheldt river.
- Travelers generally feel either Ghent or Antwerp is a good choice for a 4-night stay. Some choose to spend 2 nights in each city. Some choose to stay in Ghent a few days also to enjoy the city’s beautiful lighting at night.
- Travelers who like Ghent say half a day is enough to visit the city’s main sights – such as the guild houses on the river, the castle, and the Mystic Lamb altarpiece – as they are all close to each other.
- Antwerp, on the other hand, may deserver more time. The city’s attractions include canal boat trips, visiting a castle, art nouveau architecture, modern design, fashion, old master art, and diamond trade history.
- Ghent has many restaurants with terraces alongside the canals, another major appeal of the city. The city also has large universities and rich student life.
- Since Antwerp has a population double the size of Ghent, locals generally outnumber tourists when visiting places, which is not always the case in Ghent. Antwerp’s center is also more spread out than Ghent’s so it requires more than a day to visit thoroughly.
- Antwerp is more cosmopolitan than Ghent and Bruges, more authentic and less touristy. It also feels more open and welcoming to visitors.
- Some travelers feel Ghent is very similar to Bruges through less crowded and more authentic, less of an open-air museum. Antwerp has a very different, more real-life feel than both Ghent and Bruges.
Ghent or Antwerp: access & transportation
Traveling between Amsterdam and Antwerp is easy and fast by high-speed Thalys train or by the frequent but slower intercity trains. Getting to and from London is also a breeze by going through Brussels and catching the Eurostar.
Antwerp and Ghent are roughly the same distance from Brussels by train – about 50 minutes for Antwerp, about 40 for Ghent. Likewise, Ghent is roughly as far from Antwerp as it is from Bruges, so it’s a good base for visiting both. Day tripping from Ghent to Antwerp or vice-versa is feasible.
In Antwerp, you can walk from the Antwerpen Centraal train station to the historical center, a 15-minute walk along the main shopping street (Meir) lines with beautiful facades. Alternatively, you can take the metro line 2, 3, or 15 to Groenplaats.
Flanders mostly has busy roads and larger metro areas vs vast countryside, so renting a car is usually not a convenient option for visiting Belgian cities.
Both Antwerp and Ghent have an excellent network of trams, buses, and underground metro. As mentioned, Ghent is also very walkable.
Ghent or Antwerp: vibe & people
Compared to Antwerp, Ghent s a lot smaller and more compact and can be visited mostly on foot. Thus, Ghent may be a better choice to stay in for a very short break (e.g. 1 day).
Antwerp is a port city, not as quaint as Ghent. Though it’s more spread out, most of the key sights are also within walking distance. The Antwerp main square has the most guild houses in Europe.
To some travelers, Antwerp can feel a bit shady after dark – its special atmosphere is the setting for Zone Stad, the most popular Flemish crime TV drama. However, Antwerp is as safe as other European cities of its size – avoid the red-light district, train stations, and drug-related areas at night.
While Ghent is nice and centrally located in Belgium, travelers who have spent time in Bruges may choose Antwerp for a different scenery – it’s also a beautiful city with lots of restaurants, bars, and attractive buildings.
As mentioned, Ghent is somewhat similar to Bruges, however it’s larger (2x), more modern, living and functioning, and not as tourist-overrun – although boat trips on the canals as just as crowded.
Thus, some travelers see Ghent as a good middle option between Bruges and Antwerp – less touristy than the former, more scenic than the latter. It has a gorgeous cathedral, pretty canals, and pleasant strolls. Travelers generally agree Ghent is much more picturesque than Antwerp.
Antwerp, however, has more sights and activities than both Ghent and Bruges, and by far the best shopping opportunities of the three – some even say of all Belgium.
Ghent or Antwerp: sights & culture
As mentioned before, Antwerp has a lot to see and do, including an attractive old center with cobblestoned streets and nice squares, great historical and modern architecture, impressive museums, and scenic river walks.
The Het Steen medieval fortress on the Scheldt river bank is impressive. The 14th-16th-century Cathedral of Our Lady is a grand Gothic building with masterpieces from Ruben and other painters.
In the old town, the Grote Markt central square and the Stadhuis (City Hall) building are beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture with Flemish and Italian influences. The Stadhuis is surrounded by numerous other 16th-century colorful Flemish guildhalls (historic trade houses).
Antwerp also has significant Art Nouveau architecture with a unique concentration of some of the best-preserved buildings in Europe on Cogels-Oyslei street and the Zurenborg neighborhood. The ornate Antwerp train station is also worth exploring.
Noteworthy museums in Antwerp include the Rubens House Museum (17th century), the Ship Museum, the Plantin and Moretus museum (16th-century printing), the Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten (a major art gallery), the ModeMuseum fashion museum.
Antwerp’s mainly orthodox Jewish Diamond Quarter is also worth a visit, the world’s largest diamond district with thousands of diamond brokers, merchants, and cutters and 4 diamond-trading exchanges.
The renowned Royal Academy of Fine Arts, along with the city’s dozens of fashion stores, also make Antwerp an important fashion center
Ghent also has a well-preserved medieval historic center and a stunning 10th-century castle, the Gravensteen, with impressive panoramic views. One of the main attractions in the old center is the scenic Graslei, a line of guild houses bordering the former medieval port on the Leie river.
Ghent’s touristic highlights include three high medieval towers, the 90-meter Gothic Saint-Bavo Cathedral, the 90+-meter Het Belfort belfry, and the Gothic style 13th century Saint-Nicolas church.
The Saint Bavo Cathedral hosts the famed 15th altarpiece signed by acclaimed Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one of the 10 most important easel art pieces in Europe. In the summer, expect a long wait to see it.
Ghent also has a few great museums such as the excellent Museum of Fine Arts, which has Bosh and Rubens paintings, and the Contemporary art gallery SMAK.
In addition to the historic center and its impressive architecture, and the unique art offering, canal-side strolls and boat rides are a major attraction in Ghent.
Ghent or Antwerp: food & nightlife
Travelers overall agree Antwerp has a great choice of bars and restaurants in various areas of the city, including along the river around the cruise terminal – such as Het Zuiderterras (glass building) and Noorderterras (more expensive) – and around the Grote Markt.
The area around the cathedral has live and historic restaurants and bars. One example is the Elfde Gebod (Eleventh Commandment) with its unique decor (for a meal or a beer). The De Groote Witte Arend, just South of the cathedral, also offers Belgian food at reasonable prices.
Het Gebaar, next to the botanical garden, is a very good restaurant, though obtaining a reservation is not easy. The Jane is also a beautiful place but very hard to get into.
Travelers often recommend the De Vagant, Kulminator, Den Engel, Paters Vaetje, ‘t Oud Arsenaal and Bier Central, and ‘t Pakhuis brewery (very large bar/restaurant). The Jenever cafe has over 200 Belgian types of jenever liqueur (a local specialty).
The trendy ‘Eilandje’ neighborhood North of the city also as excellent bars and cafés. Beer Passion Weekend is a great event on Groenplaats (a secondary square) for tasting all sorts of beer.
In Ghent, the canals are lined with relaxed bars, cafes, and chocolate shops. The town also has its fair share of good restaurants, such as the reputable Oak, Vrijmoed, and De Vitrine. Belga Queen and Pakhuis are quite glamorous.
Other good places for a meal include House of Elliott, Roots, Volta, J.E.F., Benoit de Witte (in Ouwegem 20km), and Fleur de Lin (Zele – 30km). Waterzooi stew is a popular local dish. Places like De Gekroonde Hoofden or Amadeus offer all-you-can-eat spare ribs.
Ghent is a university town so it has many students and young professionals, resulting in a lively nightlife, namely around Koornmarkt, Overpoortstraat, Oude Beestenmarkt, and Oude Beestenmarkt. Thursday night is typically the best time for going out.
Ghent or Antwerp: shopping
Antwerp has a major shopping street (Meir) often considered to have some of the best shopping in Belgium. The shopping areas in Antwerp primarily cater to locals rather not tourists, which makes it attractive to travelers.
The main shopping areas in Antwerp include the historic city center, the Meir area, Quartier Latin, Wilde Zee, the Fashion District, Het Zuid, and the Station District.
Ghent or Antwerp: lodging
In Antwerp, many travelers choose to stay near the Antwerp Central train station, which makes it convenient for traveling to and from Paris or Amsterdam or taking a day trip to Ghent.
The Ibis Budget is often mentioned as an affordable, clean and modern, albeit relatively basic option. It’s a short tram ride or a 15-20 minute walk away from the Grote Markt main square.
There are many other hotels of different categories around the Antwerp central station. All are conveniently located, allowing you to quickly drop your luggage and walk to the city center for a day visit.
In general, hotels located in the area between the Italielei boulevard that wraps around the old town, and the river are typically within walking distance of the center and have restaurants and bars around them.
Lodging in Ghent is generally relatively affordable due to the large student population.
The Carlton Hotel in Ghent is often recommended – good breakfasts, helpful staff and managers. The Ghent Marriott also has a good reputation.
Other lesser-known, popular places are the De Waterzooi B&B across from the Gravenstein castle, described as having great food and atmosphere, and Snooz Inn, a smaller hotel with positive mentions.
Ghent or Antwerp: day trips
If driving between Ghent and Antwerp, you can stop by St Niklaas which has one of Europe’s largest town squares (with nice cafés).
Ostend, on the North Sea coast, is a 40-minute train ride from Ghent. You can then catch the coast tram (kuustram) and explore different coastal towns, namely De Haan which has a pretty beach and a long seafront promenade. You can also visit the German Atlantik Wall museum.
From Antwerp, you can of course take day trips to Brussels, Leuven, etc (under 1 hour by train). Lier, a nice little town with many canals often referred to as “little Bruges”, is also within day trip distance.
(1) Featured: “Ghent” (CC BY 2.0) by interbeat
(2) “Antwerp city centre” (CC BY 2.0) by quinet
(2b) “Korenlei, Ghent” (CC BY 2.0) by Dimitris Graffin
(3) “Graslei, Ghent” (CC BY 2.0) by Dimitris Graffin
(4) “Entering the castle” (CC BY 2.0) by Pedro Nuno Caetano
(5) “Gravensteen, Ghent” (CC BY 2.0) by Dimitris Graffin
(6) “Ghent at night” (CC BY 2.0) by Naval S
(7) “Gilded shopping center in Antwerp” (CC BY 2.0) by Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints
(8) “Veldstraat, Ghent” (CC BY 2.0) by Dimitris Graffin
(9) “Antwerp train station” (CC BY 2.0) by MatthieuBout