"Here's a secret within a secret: Ghent might just be the best European city you've never thought of visiting, in a country that continues to be criminally overlooked. Ghent hides away in the middle of Belgium's big three - Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp. Most Belgium-bound visitors rushing between these see nothing more than the stately fortifications of Ghent's St Pieter's Station. Those who do hop off the train and stroll along the Leie River to the historic centre will have their eyes out on stalks. Here hides one of Europe's finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses. But this is no place to simply kick back: Ghent has one of Europe's most dynamic festival scenes, which vies for visitors' attention. This year the entire centre will emerge from a major program of rebuilding designed to show off the huge pedestrianised squares" (Lonely Planet's "Best in Travel 2011" guide).
Ghent has been on the cross road of many political and economical shifts in the Western European context. Spanish, Austrian, German, Dutch, French, English,... have influenced the Ghent history and left behind traces, thus enriching a cultural heritage that reflects a unique blend of styles, traditions, architecture, and culinary trends.
The city prospered due to the textile trade, and was one of the largest cities in Western Europe. Visiting kings envied the cultural patrimony and had to cope with the stubborn nature of citizens that strongly defended their autonomy. The city has evolved from a variety of settlements on the banks of the River "de Leie" and "de Schelde".
The city nearly equals Bruges when it comes to the number of museums, canals and bars. It offers a larger variety when it comes to contemporary art, theatres, and concert halls. Your list of "things to see" should include the medieval Gravensteen Castle, the belfry, the cathedral with the famous painting of the brothers Van Eyck "The adoration of the Holy Lamb", the St. Nicolas Church, the three beguinages, monasteries, etc.
Nowadays Ghent is an economical centre due to its renowned international port and a cultural centre due to the large concentration of educational institutes, varying from the Ghent university, the largest concentration in Flanders of higher professional education institutes, to secondary and primary schools.