The Belgian Rail Pass
Note - Since VT have decided to promote our "Country" pages as a sort of city and town gazetteer then there's no point is writing this tip as part of a Belgium page. Therefore it'll appear in exactly the same form on all my Belgian locations which have a train station.
The best way to travel around Belgium, in my opinion anyway, is by train. The country is particularly well-served by its nationalised rail network run by the NMBS/SNCB and pretty much every town and city is connected. The creation of a national railway system was one of the first major pieces of infrastructure planned by the foundling Belgian government after the country gained independence in 1830 and in fact the first continental European passenger train ran on May 5th 1835 between Brussels and Mechelen.
The trains run frequently from early until late, are usually reliable, clean and well-maintained and, apart from some commuter services, are rarely over-crowded. Fares are very reasonable and cost exactly the same whether bought in advance or on the day. Tickets should be bought before boarding, which can be done online (printed at home), from the ticket offices at stations and from the station machines (all major cards accepted). If for any reason you don't have a ticket for your journey you can buy one from the conductor with an "On-Board Fare" surcharge of 7 euros.
As well as standard fare point-to-point tickets there are a variety of other types of ticket and passes, including several options for people under 26, over 60, regular travellers and for families and groups - the easy-to-use www.belgianrail.be website explains these quite clearly.
For us tourists, if intending to make several journeys, the Belgian Rail Pass (pictured) is exceptionally good value. For 76 euros (Jan 2016) the pass is good for 10 single journeys within 12 months, of any length, using the NMBS/SNCB trains within the Belgian network. These can be bought from any station ticket office - noting that it’ll be in French or Dutch depending on which part of the country you are travelling from. To use it you simply fill it in as you go, one line per journey, with the date, start station and end station. It is then valid for any reasonable route, including connections, between those stations on that date. The same ticket can be used by more than one person by filling in the appropriate number of lines.
The only trains it is not valid on are the fast services such as Thalys and for cross-border trains, say to Roosendaal or Aachen (but there are other ticket options for those). Also it doesn't cover the "Diabolo" surcharge between Brussels International Airport (BRU) and Brussels city, for which a separate ticket must be bought.
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Ghent lies at the intersection of the E17 and the E40 motorways and is therefore easily accessible by car or coach. With two railway stations in the city and the international ‘Brussels Airport’ at Zaventem less than an hour’s drive away, arrival by train or plane are certainly easy options.
Shuttle bus to and from Charleroi Airport:
Nine times a day a shuttle bus travels between Charleroi Airport and Bruges via Ghent, making our city more accessible to tourists visiting Flanders via Charleroi Airport.
The bus service is offered by Flibco.com, a company specialised in transport to city-trip destinations from transport hubs.
The bus stops near the Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station, where you can easily hop onto tram no. 1 and head to the historical city centre.
You can book a seat on www.flibco.com
Ghent is easy to reach by train from all Belgian and European cities and is only half an hour from Brussels South Station.
The two main stations in Ghent are:
From here tram no. 1 will take you direct to the city centre, temporary stop 'Korenmarkt'
Visitors arriving in Ghent by train at the Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station can browse information at a digital 3D information point.
From here, buses 3, 17, 18, 38 and 39 will also take you direct to the city, stop 'Korenmarkt'.
From Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station you can reach the station Brussel Zuid in half an hour (by 'IC' Inter City or 'IR' InterRegio train). Here the Eurostar and Thalys high-speed trains can rush you to Paris (1½ hours) and London, Amsterdam or Cologne (2½ hours).
- See more at: http://www.visitgent.be/en/train?from_category=3414&context=tourist#sthash.IaLC7UHE.dpuf
Getting to Ghent
Train is the best mode of transport to Ghent (Gand in French). From Brussels Midi station, trains depart roughly every 15 minutes and take half an hour, and they are fairly inexpensive. This is how we got to Ghent for the day.
Parking in Gent
We had an absolutely miserable time trying to find a place to park in Gent, we finally found a spot on the street and then tried to use our credit card in a pay box. The machine wouldn't take it so we scrounged up enough change to cover the 2€ per hour charge.
To Gent by train
I came to Gent by train from Antwerp and left the city on the same route. Apart from that, I also went to Brugge by train from Gent. Both lines were served at least half hourly and travel times were approx. 1 hour to Antwerp and 30 minutes to Brugge.
In December 2013 a standard single ticket to Antwerp cost 9,20 Euro and to Brugge 6,30 Euro. During my visit of Gent the Belgian Railways also offered a special Christmas Deal for a day return ticket between any Belgian towns for only 10 Euro. So it seems to make sense to check all price options on the below mentioned website in advance.
Tickets can be bought online, at a staffed counter or at self-service machines. All machines take cards and some even take Euro coins (no notes). There is no price difference wherever you buy the ticket and tickets are not bound to any train.
Gent has two train stations: Gent Sint Pieters and Gent Dampoort. The more important Gent Sint-Pieters station is equipped with all facilities, which you expect to find at a modern train station. It is situated just over 2 km south of the historic city centre, which can be reached by tram #1.
The station Gent Dampoort can be found about 800 metres east of the city centre. So if you know what you are doing, you can also get off the train here, as all trains seem to stop at both stations.
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Explore Gent by tram
Gent's public transport network is operated by the Flemish transport company De Lijn. Although it consists of trams and buses, tourists will most likely only use the trams as they cover the main routes along the city centre.
A useful tram is line #1 which connects the train station Sint Pieters with the city centre (e.g. Castle Gravensteen).
Tickets can be bought from vending machines, at special De Lijn offices or for a supplement from the driver. In December 2013 a single ticket cost 1,30 Euro if bought in advance or 2,00 Euro if bought from the driver. The ticket has to be stamped on board of the vehicle and is then valid for 1 hour.
A day ticket costs 5 Euro and is valid on all De Lijn vehicles all over Flanders.
- Budget Travel
Explore Gent on foot
With approximately 240.000 inhabitants, Gent is Belgium's third biggest city. Still, the city centre is best explored on foot as most of the main sights can be found here. Apart from that, many small streets are pedestrianised and therefore not accessible to cars.
All around the touristy heart of the city, signposts with distances and directions to the main sights can be found, which make orientation quite easy.
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The Rambler - Ideal For A Beer Between Trains
On this visit (October 2013) I was literally just changing trains here, between Antwerp and Oostende, with about 40 minutes before my connection. It was a pleasantly sunny afternoon but with only 40 minutes I wasn't going to stray too far from the station and so a beer on a cafe terrace seemed like a good idea.
The Rambler is ideally located for such an arduous task, facing the corner of the square in front of the station. The terrace had a pleasant buzz, with I assume mostly fellow travellers, and service was swift and friendly - a bit too swift perhaps as I managed to squeeze three beers into my forty minutes!
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Windmills Outside the Train Window
While riding the train between Ghent & Bruxelles the sight of modern-day windmills was common.
Riding anywhere by train in most of Europe, it is commonplace to see the wind turbines. Wind power is generating a larger share of the Continent’s electric power. Smart move!
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Trains to Gent
From Brugge to Gent there are two trains an hour. The journey takes less than an hour.
When I was there the price of a standard ticket was € 9.00 (as of 2012), but there was also such a thing as a summer ticket for € 7.50 (only in the summer, as the name suggests).
For us older folks there is a Seniors Ticket from any station to any other station in Belgium (and back on the same day) for only € 5.30 – so I took the Seniors Ticket even though I was only going one way, because that was still the cheapest.
Before travelling in Belgium it is worth while to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with the Belgian Railway website, because there are numerous reduced fares and special deals, one of which just might apply to you. They have a calculator called “Which is the right ticket for me?” which will help you get the best price. Like the rest of the website, this is available in Dutch, French, English and German.
There are also special fares for job seekers (“Travel to your job interview at reduced cost with the jobseekers’ discount”).
Pregnant women may travel in 1st class at no extra cost with a 2nd class ticket, but only in the last 4 months of pregnancy.
Gent has four tram lines and several bus lines, so you’ll have no trouble getting around town even before you have rented a bicycle.
To get to my hotel with my luggage I took the tram # 1 from the station.
All the trams and buses in Gent are operated by the Flemish Transport Company De Lijn (meaning The Line), which runs the local public transport services all over Flanders.
For example, De Lijn runs the bus lines in Brugge and the subways, trams and buses in Antwerp.
According to their website, De Lijn was established in July 1990, after urban and regional transport was transferred from the Belgian federal government to the three regions, namely Brussels, Wallonia and Flanders.
Weer een Auto Minder
When I visited Gent in August 2012, a lot of the bicycles had little signs on them reading “Weer een Auto Minder”, which means: Again one less car. Or: Another car less. Or: Another car fewer.
(When I was in school, were taught to say “fewer” instead of “less” when talking about countable nouns. But never mind, the point is to have more bicycles on the streets and not so many cars.)
Four Legs or Two Wheels
Getting around Ghent is easy on foot, your own two feet.
For those who want to relax as the sights pass by, try a horse-drawn carriage. A guide will explain the surroundings as the carriage slowly rolls through the streets.
Bicycling is popular too, especially with the locals.
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Bicycle parking at the opera
Apparently lots of people come to the opera and the concert hall by bicycle, because there is a sign (first photo) showing where there are additional bike parking spaces for evening visitors.
These additional spaces are in the Universiteitstraat (second photo), which is an ugly street but certainly does have a lot of modern, state-of-the-art bicycle stands in front of the Faculty of Law, Politics and Social Sciences.
Location of the concert hall (and the sign) on Google Maps
Bike rentals on Steendam
I asked at my hotel where the closest place was to rent a bicycle, and they gave me this address on Steendam, near the Friday Market.
When I got there they had only one rental bike left, supposedly, so I took it even though it was a bit small for me. I neglected to note down the price, but I don’t think it was excessive.
An interesting feature of this bike shop is the building it is in (fourth photo). It has a stepped gable, like many historic houses in Gent, but it is made of stones, not bricks.
Their bike did get me around town, all right, but I think the next time I’m in Gent I’ll try somewhere else. For instance there is a bike shop next to the railroad station that I haven’t tried yet.
Steendam 16, 9000 Gent, Belgium
Location in Google Maps