Capital of East Flanders, the port city of Ghent recently eclipsed Belgium’s previous football powerhouses of Brussels and Bruges when KAA Gent won the title in 2015 and reached the knock-out rounds of the Champions League.
In 2017, it was in the later stages of the Europa League that Gent overcame Tottenham in front of 80,000 at Wembley before losing to Genk in an all-Belgian clash.
The seventh-oldest club in the country, thus awarded with the matricule number of 7, Gent date back to the earliest days of the Belgian game.
As a multisports operation, Gent, originally known as La Gantoise, can trace their history back to 1864. By the time a football team was added to hockey, cricket and fencing ones in 1900, the club had a serious local rival: Racing.
Formed the year before from an amalgamation of AC Gantois, FC Gantois and SP Gantois, Racing nonetheless received a matricule number of 11. Playing in black and white, RC de Gand were early frontrunners, making the first Belgian Cup final of 1912 and achieving two top-five league finishes between the wars.
The post-war years weren’t kind to the venerable club, who went through several mergers in modern times before a final one with KFC Oostakker in 2002. Now officially known as KRC Gent-Zeehaven but still referred to as Racing, the black-and-whites are based at the PGB-stadion at Eikstraat 85A in Oostakker, by the city’s main port north-east of central Ghent. Bus Nos.70, 71 and 73 run from stop 3 at Gent-Zuid and stop 8 at Gent-Dampoort to Oostakker-Eikstraat, journey time 15-20min. The club currently plays in Division 3, Group A, at the 2,500-capacity PGB.
By contrast, KAA Gent – like Racing, the club switched names from French to Flemish in the modern era – run out at the swish new-build Ghelamco Arena, opened in 2013. Having switched from black and white to blue, and gained a bizarre nickname after Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West circus to town, the Buffalos had been based at the Jules Ottenstadion from 1920.
Built just before the Antwerp Olympics, the Ottenstadion was named after one of the club’s founders. It only hosted one match for the 1920 football tournament, the great pre-war Italians Renzo De Vecchi and Adolfo Baloncieri playing in a 2-1 victory over Egypt.
The Ottenstadion witnessed the rise of the Buffalos to cup winners and league runners-up in 2010. Set in Gentbrugge close to the N9 that runs south of Ghent to Brussels, it is not too far as the crow flies from the Ghelamco, south-west of town.
Several years in the planning, strangled by red tape and squeezed by the credit crunch, the Ghelamco eventually opened in 2013 – at least three years after its due date and two after the Ottenstadion had staged a last international, Belgium’s 1-1 draw with Finland.
All the delays were forgotten about when KAA beat Standard Liège to win the Belgian title at the Ghelamco in May 2015.
Ghent is the same distance from Antwerp and Brussels airports, around 65km (40 miles) away.
Sint-Pieters is a short tram ride south of the mainly pedestrianised town centre – Gent-Zuid bus station is walking distance.
Local transport in Ghent consists of trams and buses. A single ticket (valid 1hr) is €3 from a machine, Lijnwinkel kiosk or on board. A day pass is €7, €9 on board.
For a local cab, call Taxi Gent on +32 9 333 3333.
With both the stadium and train station on the south side of town, staying close to Sint-Pieters makes sense. Opposite the station, the friendly, family-run Castel has its own brasserie while the mid-range Carlton round the corner is more business-like. Further up, nearer town on Koningin Elisabethlaan, the Best Western Chamade is a standard three-star.
To stay in the city centre, near the cathedral, the NH Belfort on Hoogpoort offers a gym, sauna and 174 four-star rooms. Practically next door, the Novotel Gent Centrum has its own courtyard restaurant and bar.
On the other side of the church, on Sint-Jacobsnieuwstraat, the Hotel Cathedral suits standard needs, with its own bar, too. Nearby on Barrestraat, the Flandria is more boutiquey, some rooms with views of St Bavo’s beyond.
Between the historic centre and the narrow Leie waterway, the Ghent River Hotel on Walstraat occupies two historic buildings, one dating back to 1518. The sun terrace breakfast area woos repeat custom. Just over the water, the characterful Erasmus is set in a house from a similar era.
Further down on Onderbergen, the 24-room hotel of the same name belies its two-star status and contains Irish bar/restaurant Patrick Foley’s at street level.
If you’re coming into Dampoort station, the floating Boatel offers an alternative stay on Voorhuitkaai.
Traditional bars serving varied Belgian beers dot Ghent’s historic centre. There’s an Irish pub too, the Celtic Towers, across from the Korenmarkt, with three big screens for sport and live music.
The other main Irish pub in town, Patrick Foley’s on Recollettenlei, attached to the Hotel Onderbergen, is more a restaurant, but provides a pleasant terrace facing the river, stays open silly late and shows games in the party lounge.
Almost facing it over the water, ‘T Center at Koophandelsplein 33 also offers a quiet terrace drink, with TV football inside.
Few visit Ghent without a drink at the historic ‘t Galgenhuisje on nearby Groentenmarkt, a former tripe house in operation as a café since 1776. A few steps along the waterway, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant offers 165 beers in a house almost as historic, although this one was a brothel.
In the quiet square of Sint-Veerleplein just across the Leie, friendly ’t Geduld is another beer sanctuary in the shadow of a tenth-century castle.
Slightly further up on Vrijdagmarkt, De Dulle Griet is something close to Belgian beer heaven. Across the square, The Cover is where a lot of local bands started out, done out in iconic album covers. Football isn’t forgotten – there’s a TV for match broadcasts. The bar also has own hostel. On a corner of Vrijdagmarkt, K27 shows matches and serves drinks on the terrace.
For more late-night music, head round to the Charlatan on Vlasmarkt.
In Ghent’s busy student quarter, on the city side of Citadelpark, Porter House on Stalhof appeals to a young clientele while nearby Speakers Corner on Hofbouwlaan is more party-oriented than expat pub.
There’s a few bars handily located opposite Sint-Pieters station: friendly Baziel and the corner bar Rambler both show matches. Next door, New Watson does too and generates a real atmosphere for Belgium games.