Despite being Belgium’s fourth-largest city, not many people seem to know about Ghent, which is a total shame, as it’s full of well-preserved medieval architecture (thanks to its former mayor, who basically bribed advancing German troops in WW2 not to bomb it), criss-crossed by picturesque bridges over the meandering river Lys, and liberally scattered with museums, galleries and stylish, independent boutiques. Not to mention restaurants.
The hotel: We’re all for hotels that started life as something else, and 1898 The Post used to be, you guessed correctly, Ghent’s main post office. Sitting by the river, it couldn’t be more central. Housed in the upper two floors of an impressive, neo-Gothic-style building with step-gabled roofs and a clock tower, inside are 37 oh-so-stylish rooms, many with double height windows and duplex level bathrooms. All are painted matte dark green, with quirky touches including antique furniture, a do-it-yourself minibar, and a smattering of old-timey artefacts (some of which are actually for sale). There’s a cool cocktail bar, The Cobbler, but after-hours, guests can make for the cosy Honesty Bar, located in one of the turrets.
Who goes? Smartly-dressed, affluent young Europeans and the occasional well-heeled Yank.
The food: Zannier Hotels, 1898’s owners, deliberately chose not to have a restaurant on site (though they do offer breakfast), judging that with the city’s hundreds of restaurants, including a handful of Michelin stars, part of the pleasure of a weekend away is trying as many as possible. Don’t miss Cochon de Luxe (which translates as ‘luxury pig’) where chef Tom Van Lysebettens plays with textures, flavours and visuals; or Roots, which serves picture-perfect, innovative dishes, such as cauliflower with mussels and whey, or cod with smoked horseradish. In 2009 - ahead of the curve - the climate-conscious city declared that every Thursday would be a vegetarian day; try a miso bowl or wholewheat pasta dish at stylish plant-based eatery Le Botaniste, designed like a vintage pharmacy. Local specialities to bring back include the fiery mustard made by the Tierenteyn company and ‘cuberdons’, amusing cone-shaped jelly sweets, nicknamed ‘noses’.
The culture: With a population of around 250,000, Ghent is compact and easy to get around. The centre is home to several impressive churches and a 91m high belfry (if you climb its 366 steps, you’re a better person than I), but head to St Bavo’s Cathedral to gaze at its stunning 15th century altarpiece, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, painted in rich, jewel-like colours by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck. More medieval art and Old Masters can be found at the elegant Museum of Fine Arts, set in the Citadelpark; next door is its complete contrast, SMAK Contemporary Art Museum, known for its challenging, provocative exhibitions. Stroll up Werrengraacht, an alleyway devoted to street artists; you might spot Ghent-born Roa’s distinctive oversized rabbits.
Quick related fact: The Allies’ mission to get back stolen works of art - including the Van Eyck altarpiece - from the Nazis, was made into the George Clooney film, Monuments Men.
Need to know: Eurostar offers fares from London St Pancras to Ghent via Brussels from £35 one-way with their ‘Any Belgian station’ ticket; book via eurostar.com. Rooms at 1898 The Post start from e180/approx. £156 per night, excluding breakfast. To book, visit zannierhotels.com. For more info go to visitgent.be