The municipality comprises the city of Ghent proper and the surrounding towns of Afsnee, Desteldonk, Drongen, Gentbrugge, Ledeberg, Mariakerke, Mendonk, Oostakker, Sint-Amandsberg, Sint-Denijs-Westrem, Sint-Kruis-Winkel, Wondelgem and Zwijnaarde. With 240,191 inhabitants in the beginning of 2009, Ghent is Belgium's second largest municipality by number of inhabitants. The metropolitan area, including the outer commuter zone, covers an area of 1,205 km2 and has a total population of 594,582 as of 1 January 2008, which ranks it as the fourth most populous in Belgium. The current mayor of Ghent, Daniël Termont, leads a coalition of the Socialistische Partij Anders, Groen and Open VLD.
The ten-day-long Ghent Festival is held every year and attended by about 1–1.5 million visitors.
Archaeological evidence shows human presence in the region of the confluence of Scheldt and Leie going back as far as the Stone Age and the Iron Age.
Most historians believe that the older name for Ghent, 'Ganda', is derived from the Celtic word ganda which means confluence. Other sources connect its name with an obscure deity named Gontia.
There are no written records of the Roman period, but archaeological research confirms that the region of Ghent was further inhabited.
When the Franks invaded the Roman territories from the end of the 4th century and well into the 5th century, they brought their language with them and Celtic and Latin were replaced by Old Dutch.
Around 650, Saint Amand founded two abbeys in Ghent: St. Peter's (Blandinium) and Saint Bavo's Abbey. The city grew from several nuclei, the abbeys and a commercial centre. Around 800, Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, appointed Einhard, the biographer of Charlemagne, as abbot of both abbeys. In 851 and 879, the city was however attacked and plundered twice by the Vikings.
Within the protection of the County of Flanders, the city recovered and flourished from the 11th century, growing to become a small city-state. By the 13th century, Ghent was the biggest city in Europe north of the Alps after Paris; it was bigger than Cologne or Moscow. Within the city walls lived up to 65,000 people. The belfry and the towers of the Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas' Church are just a few examples of the skyline of the period.
The rivers flowed in an area where much land was periodically flooded. These rich grass 'meersen' ("water-meadows": a word related to the English 'marsh') were ideally suited for herding sheep, the wool of which was used for making cloth. During the Middle Ages Ghent was the leading city for cloth.
The wool industry, originally established at Bruges, created the first European industrialized zone in Ghent in the High Middle Ages. The mercantile zone was so highly developed that wool had to be imported from Scotland and England. This was one of the reasons for Flanders' good relationship with Scotland and England. Ghent was the birthplace of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Trade with England (but not Scotland) suffered significantly during the Hundred Years' War.
The city recovered in the 15th century, when Flanders was united with neighbouring provinces under the Dukes of Burgundy. High taxes led to a rebellion and eventually the Battle of Gavere in 1453, in which Ghent suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Philip the Good. Around this time the centre of political and social importance in the Low Countries started to shift from Flanders (Bruges–Ghent) to Brabant (Antwerp–Brussels), although Ghent continued to play an important role. With Bruges, the city led two revolts against Maximilian of Austria, the first monarch of the House of Habsburg to rule Flanders.
In 1500, Juana of Castile gave birth to Charles V, who became Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Although native to Ghent, he punished the city after the 1539 Revolt of Ghent and obliged the city's nobles to walk in front of the Emperor barefoot with a noose (Dutch: "strop") around the neck; since this incident, the people of Ghent have been called "Stroppendragers" (noose bearers). Saint Bavo Abbey (not to be confused with the nearby Saint Bavo Cathedral) was abolished, torn down, and replaced with a fortress for Royal Spanish troops. Only a small portion of the abbey was spared demolition.
The late 16th and the 17th centuries brought devastation because of the Eighty Years' War. The war ended the role of Ghent as a centre of international importance. In 1745, the city was captured by French forces during the War of the Austrian Succession before being returned to the Empire of Austria under the House of Habsburg following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, when this part of Flanders became known as the Austrian Netherlands until 1815, the exile of the French Emperor Napoleon I, the end of the French Revolutionary and later Napoleonic Wars and the peace treaties arrived at by the Congress of Vienna.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the textile industry flourished again in Ghent. Lieven Bauwens, having smuggled the industrial and factory machine plans out of England, introduced the first mechanical weaving machine on the European continent in 1800.
The Treaty of Ghent, negotiated here and adopted on Christmas Eve 1814, formally ended the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States (the North American phase of the Napoleonic Wars). After the Battle of Waterloo, Ghent and Flanders, previously ruled from the House of Habsburg in Vienna as the Austrian Netherlands, became a part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands with the northern Dutch for 15 years. In this period, Ghent established its own university (1816) and a new connection to the sea (1824–27).
After the Belgian Revolution, with the loss of port access to the sea for more than a decade, the local economy collapsed and the first Belgian trade union originated in Ghent. In 1913 there was a world exhibition in Ghent. As a preparation for these festivities, the Sint-Pieters railway station was completed in 1912.
Ghent was occupied by the Germans in both World Wars but escaped severe destruction. The life of the people and the German invaders in Ghent during World War I is described by H. Wandt in "etappenleven te Gent". In World War II the city was liberated by the British 7th "Desert Rats" Armoured Division and local Belgian fighters on 6 September 1944.
After the fusions of municipalities in 1965 and 1977, the city is made up of:
The climate in this area has mild differences between highs and lows, and there is adequate rainfall year-round. According to the Köppen Climate Classification system, Ghent has a marine west coast climate, abbreviated "Cfb" on climate maps.
Much of the city's medieval architecture remains intact and is remarkably well preserved and restored. Its centre is the largest carfree area in Belgium. Highlights are the Saint Bavo Cathedral with the Ghent Altarpiece, the belfry, the Gravensteen castle, and the splendid architecture along the old Graslei harbour. Ghent has established a blend between comfort of living and history; it is not a city-museum. The city of Ghent also houses three béguinages and numerous churches including Saint-Jacob's church, Saint-Nicolas' church, Saint Michael's church and St. Stefanus.
In the 19th century Ghent's most famous architect, Louis Roelandt, built the university hall Aula, the opera house and the main courthouse. Highlights of modern architecture are the university buildings (the Boekentoren or Book Tower) by Henry Van de Velde. There are also a few theatres from diverse periods.
The beguinages, as well as the belfry and adjacent cloth hall, were recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 1998 and 1999.
The Zebrastraat, a social experiment in which an entirely renovated site unites living, economy and culture, can also be found in Ghent.
Campo Santo is a famous Catholic burial site of the nobility and artists.
Important museums in Ghent are the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts), with paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, and many Flemish masters; the SMAK or Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (City Museum for Contemporary Art), with works of the 20th century, including Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol; and the Design Museum Gent with masterpieces of Victor Horta and Le Corbusier. The Huis van Alijn (House of the Alijn family) was originally a beguinage and is now a museum for folk art where theatre and puppet shows for children are presented. The Museum voor Industriële Archeologie en Textiel or MIAT displays the industrial strength of Ghent with recreations of workshops and stores from the 1800s and original spinning and weaving machines that remain from the time when the building was a weaving mill. The Ghent City Museum (Stadsmuseum, abbreviated STAM), is committed to recording and explaining the city's past and its inhabitants, and to preserving the present for future generations.
In Ghent and other regions of East-Flanders, bakeries sell a donut-shaped bun called a "mastel" (plural "mastellen"), which is basically a bagel. "Mastellen" are also called "Saint Hubert bread", because on the Saint's feast day, which is 3 November, the bakers bring their batches to the early Mass to be blessed. Traditionally, it was thought that blessed mastellen immunized against rabies.
Other local delicacies are the praline chocolates from local producers such as Leonidas, the cuberdons or 'neuzekes' ('noses'), cone-shaped purple jelly-filled candies, 'babelutten' ('babblers'), hard butterscotch-like candy, and of course, on the more fiery side, the famous 'Tierenteyn', a hot but refined mustard that has some affinity to French 'Dijon' mustard.
Stoverij is a classic Flemish meat stew, preferably made with a generous addition of brown 'Trappist' (strong abbey beer) and served with French fries. 'Waterzooi' is a local stew originally made from freshwater fish caught in the rivers and creeks of Ghent, but nowadays often made with chicken instead of fish. It is usually served nouvelle-cuisine-style, and will be supplemented by a large pot on the side.
The city promotes a meat-free day on Thursdays called Donderdag Veggiedag with vegetarian food being promoted in public canteens for civil servants and elected councillors, in all city funded schools, and promotion of vegetarian eating options in town (through the distribution of "veggie street maps"). This campaign is linked to the recognition of the detrimental environmental effects of meat production, which the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization has established to represent nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Ghent has the world's largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.
The city is host to some big cultural events such as the Gentse Feesten, I Love Techno in Flanders Expo, the "10 Days Off" musical festival, the International Film Festival of Ghent (with the World Soundtrack Awards) and the Gent Festival van Vlaanderen (nl). Also, every five years, an extensive botanical exhibition (Gentse Floraliën) takes place in Flanders Expo in Ghent, attracting numerous visitors to the city.
The Festival of Flanders had its 50th celebration in 2008. In Ghent it opens with the OdeGand City festivities that takes place on the second Saturday of September. Some 50 concerts take place in diverse locations throughout the medieval inner city and some 250 international artists perform. Other major Flemish cities hold similar events, all of which form part of the Festival of Flanders (Antwerp with Laus Polyphoniae; Bruges with MAfestival; Brussels with KlaraFestival; Limburg with Basilica, Mechelen and Brabant with Novecento and Transit).
The numerous parks in the city can also be considered tourist attractions. Most notably, Ghent boasts a nature reserve (Bourgoyen-Ossemeersen, 230 hectare) and a recreation park (Blaarmeersen, 87 hectares).
The port of Ghent, in the north of the city, is the third largest port of Belgium. It is accessed by the Ghent-Terneuzen Canal, which ends near the Dutch port of Terneuzen on the Western Scheldt. The port houses, among others, large companies like ArcelorMittal, Volvo Cars, Volvo Trucks, Volvo Parts, Honda, and Stora Enso.
The Ghent University and a number of research oriented companies, such as Ablynx, Innogenetics, Cropdesign and Bayer Cropscience, are situated in the central and southern part of the city.
As the largest city in East Flanders, Ghent has many hospitals, schools and shopping streets. Flanders Expo, the biggest event hall in Flanders and the second biggest in Belgium, is also located in Ghent. Tourism is becoming a major employer in the local area. Recently a local business man donated a substantial amount of money to have all the kerbs lowered by two inches in the city
As one of the largest cities in Belgium, Ghent has a highly developed transport system.
By car the city is accessible via two motorways:
In addition Ghent also has two ringways:
The municipality of Ghent comprises five railway stations:
Ghent has an extensive network of public transport lines, operated by De Lijn.
Apart from the city buses mentioned above, Ghent also has numerous regional bus lines connecting it to towns and villages across the province of East Flnaders. All of these buses stop in at least one of the city's regional bus hubs at either Sint-Pieters Station, Dampoort Station, Zuid or Rabot.
International buses connecting Ghent to other European destinations are usually found at the Dampoort Station. A couple of private bus companies such as Eurolines, Megabus and Flixbus operate from the Dampoort bus hub.
Buses to and from Belgium's second airport - Brussels South Airport Charleroi - are operated by Flibco, and can be found at the rear exit of the Sint-Pieters Station.
Ghent has the largest designated cyclist area in Europe, with nearly 400 kilometres (250 mi) of cycle paths and more than 700 one-way streets, where bikes are allowed to go against the traffic. It also boasts Belgium’s first cycle street, where cars are considered ‘guests’ and must stay behind cyclists.
In the Belgian first football division Ghent is represented by K.A.A. Gent, who became Belgian football champions for the first time in its history in 2015. Another Ghent football club is KRC Gent-Zeehaven, playing in the Belgian fourth division. A football match at the 1920 Summer Olympics was held in Ghent.
The Six Days of Flanders, a six-day track cycling race, is held annually, taking place in the Kuipke velodrome in Ghent. In road cycling, the city hosts the start and finish of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the traditional opening race of the cobbled classics season. It also lends its name to another cobbled classic, Gent–Wevelgem, although the race now starts in the nearby city of Deinze.
The city hosts an annual athletics IAAF event in the Flanders Sports Arena: the Indoor Flanders meeting. Two-time Olympic champion Hicham El Guerrouj set a still-standing world record of 3:48.45 in the mile run in 1997.
The Flanders Sports Arena was host to the 2015 Davis Cup Final between Belgium and Great Britain.