The conference has ended, leaving me a half-day to explore the historic center of Ghent. I was last here about forty years ago when my foreign exchange group spent a night here before boarding the plane from Brussels back to the US. We must have been staying just outside of the city center: I remember nondescript yellow buildings, businesses closed through midday lunch, and a total lack of people on the streets.
I have a better impression the second time around. The historic core is pedestrian-only and the old harbor area has been extensively rehabilitated. Dramatic lighting has been added throughout the core to highlight buildings and improve safety, and this has brought lots of people out to enjoy the restaurants and cafes. It gets a bit kitsch in places (the castle tours and canal boats are more 'Disney cute' than historically informative), but the overall ambience has really improved.
My hotel turned out to be a half hour walk from the center (another reminder to check city maps when booking), and neighborhoods south of the core were more like I remembered: empty, shuttered, quiet, and a bit rough at the edges. But the city is worth a visit, especially in the evenings when the central streets come to life.