Ghent (35 mi/56 km northwest of Brussels) is set on the banks of three rivers—the Lys, Lieve and Scheldt. This university town has a nice combination of the ancient and the contemporary—and fewer tourists than Bruges, even though it isn't quite as perfectly preserved as its neighbor.
The old section of town should be seen on foot. Start at St. Michael's Bridge to get an overview of the famous Ghent towers (St. Nicholas' Church, the Belfry, St. Bavo's Cathedral), then visit the belfry (note the copper dragons on top), the town hall (part Renaissance and part Gothic in design), St. Nicholas Church and the impressive guild houses on the Graslei quay.
For a grisly display of torture instruments, stop by the walled Castle of the Counts of Flanders or the Castle of Geraard de Duvel—Gerald the Devil. A nicer side of human nature is shown at St. Bavo's Cathedral, which has a magnificent art collection, including works by Van Eyck and Rubens. The church closes rather early, so be sure to get there in time to see it.
For a different view of the town, take a boat ride along the canals (not all boat tours are offered in English, so check first). There are many other museums, castles and abbeys in the city and surrounding area. We especially liked the Huis van Alijn, which is a folklore museum. Every five years, the gentse floralien (flower show) displays a huge range of flowers in riotous color, brought in from the surrounding countryside: The city is especially famous for its begonias.
If you're driving via Aalst, stop to see its 52-bell carillon and early-13th-century belfry, which looks as if it would be right at home in Bavaria. A day trip can also be made to Sint-Niklaas, which has a museum containing the personal and professional belongings of Gerardus Mercator (the great 16th-century mapmaker). Sint-Niklaas also has the biggest market square in the country (and that's saying a lot in Belgium).
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