Ask Americans what a European Christmas Market is, and they’ll likely look at you in confusion. Different than a craft fair? More than a carnival? Some excuse to drink in the dark of winter? The answer is yes and no.
Christmas markets are street fairs traditionally held in the town square during the 4 weeks of Advent leading to Christmas. They likely stemmed from Vienna’s “December market” dating from 1298. Munich held the first actual “Christmas Market” in 1310. The markets offer food, drinks, and seasonal items for purchase from open-air “chalets” amid traditional singing and dancing.
Hasselt, in the east, near the border with Germany, offers Winterland Hasselt. Scheduled for 6 weeks, it’s the perfect location for a winter excursion. Its friendly atmosphere and delicious food and drink are so wonderful, it’s where Santa keeps a house.
From the brilliant Ferris wheel to the colorful grand carousel, the ghost house, or the funhouse, the carnival atmosphere of this Winter Market reminds me of the festivals of my American youth, tugging at my dad’s jacket to take us on the next ride. And they have games with a Flemish twist: toss rings or try your archery skills hitting water balloons. It’s so much fun to giggle with the little (and old) ones. And then get your photo taken with the Reindeer Sleigh to use as next year’s Christmas photo. Skate at the ice rink with the transparent roof for a little exercise where the common language is laughter.
Jolly food and drink abound from Jenever (a juniper-flavored gin) bars and mulled wine to Belgian fries, Flemish beignets, Liege waffles, Spanish churros, German bratwurst, and Finish Flammlachs. Our favorite was the spiral potato, cut, sliced, and boiled on a skewer right in front of us.
In Belgium, it’s customary to purchase small gifts to exchange at parties. With 80 vendors, some making their items onsite, many of the crafts and goods are found within “Kerst Market.” Their fine woolen items, Christmas ornaments and decorations, wooden figurines and bowls, and clothing make checking items off your Christmas gift list a breeze.
Santa’s House is a replica of the one in Rovaniemi, Finland. Children who visit Santa receive a small gift. One city square has never been so packed with the Christmas spirit. Pick up the atmosphere and add snow, you’ll have the perfect snow globe to take home to relive the memories.
Liege, in the southeast section of Belgium, hosts the oldest and largest Christmas Village in Belgium. It remains loyal to the Germanic tradition, being so close to the border, it’s among the most likely places to speak German. As you enter the area from the west, you’ll spy a giant teddy bear in an ornament casing. Round the curve and you’ll see its open-air Ferris wheel towering above the festivities.
The River Meuse contrains your trek in this town yet it’s difficult to contain the festivities. Enter the greenery rings with ribbons of gold to wild displays of color from candy to waffles to wreaths of all sizes. Liege hosts 200 food and artisan chalets in the central area with an additional 40 around the Cathedral ice-skating rink.
The passion this city has for Christmas, food, drink (try the peket or Belgian Owl), proves that having a foot toward the future but maintaining respect for the past provides the best of both worlds.
Gorgeous Ghent doesn’t have the canals of Bruges, or the bustle of Brussels, but has the most family feel at the confluence of the rivers Scheldt and Leie. Its Christmas market lasts only 3 weeks but the 150 wooden huts guarantee there’s plenty to see and do, spread out from the Sint-Baafsplein to the end of the Korenmarkt, where you’ll find the 44 meters high Grand Soleil Ferris wheel.
Stroll along the festive sparkling light-covered paths with fairytale decorations showcasing the three medieval towers, including the Gothic Saint Bavo Cathedral, the Ghent Belfry, and the City Theater.
In case you plan to ice skate your way across Belgium’s Christmas markets, Ghent’s ice-skating rink can be found in the City Pavilion. The rink has a dedicated section for kids as well as weekend training sessions to improve their skills.
One of the truly spectacular landmarks is the medieval castle of Graventseen, aka Castle of the Counts, whose wooden structures hail from the 9th century. It’s transformed into the Winter Wonder Castle filled with extraordinary chandeliers and elegantly set dining tables, Christmas-themed decorations, and activities.
And #GWF because we really did enjoy Ghent.
Pro Tip: Climb the 366 steps to the tower of the Ghent Belfry around sunset for magical views.
When my friends and fellow travelers learned I was going to Belgium, the first, second, and third places they told me to visit was Bruges, on the west side of the country. They’ve been enchanted by the canals, called Reie, as the river Reie connects to the Zwin, a deep branch of the North Sea. The comparison to Venice is immediate and intentional. Some even call it the “Venice of the North.”
The Bruges Winter Glow Christmas Market is most like a maze of corridors, festive and crowded, whose riot of colorful designs, patterns, and shapes at the artisan chalets stopped us in our tracks.
Grote Markt, the city’s main square, remains the heart of the action. Listen for the fast clip-clop of the carriage horses rounding the square or watch the tourist boats from one of the romantic bridges along the banks of the canals. The 15th-century belfry towers 272 feet over aisles of wooden chalets filled with Santa hats and winter caps, mugs, alpine houses and figurines, Christmas ornaments, homemade waffles, hot chocolate, and all the meats of the day.
For the ice-skating aficionados, the Minnewater rink is at the south end of the city center on the “Lake of Love,” an artificial ice rink on a floating pontoon, providing a unique, Santa-approved experience.
Grand Place is a sight to behold on Christmas Eve. I’ve seen many pictures of this most beautiful center square of Europe draped in a royal purple, but never bathed in a gentle green, reminiscent of the northern lights which embrace you as the buildings’ bright lights surround you with holiday spirit.
The Brussels Christmas tree sits front and center with the truly not-to-be-missed Nativity and stable which is the focus in this grand and majestic square. The 5-week Winter Wonders Christmas market spreads between Grand Place, Rue de la Bourse, Place Sainte Catherine, and Marche aux Poissons (Fish Market).
In addition to the festive light and music show at Grand Place, you’ll find the covered ice-skating rink, concerts, parades, and light projections across historic buildings that highlight the wondrous wintertime celebration.
The 200 vendor chalets accent the colorful shops open late to serve customers and aid in your Christmas shopping choices. No matter where you go, the spirited crowd buzzes with a palpable, hopeful excitement.
After several Christmas markets, you wonder what will be the new and exciting twist that will come next. In Antwerp, in the north, the market spreads across several blocks, winding through Old Town from the Hilton Hotel to the river, creating another fairytale locale.
Not far from the Hilton, the freezing ice-skating rink may be the largest, where gloves are required, and the warming area is highly frequented. In the square surrounding the rink, chalets offer hats and other knitted goods, olive wood items, and special foodstuffs.
Follow the crowd toward de Kathedral and witness the art installation. Our year, it was a moody scene with nests and tree branches and a sea creature protecting a young child. All larger than life, it helps transport you to this mystical land.
As you progress toward the river you will find more food, vendors, several food and drink chalets, and more warming houses. Separated fire pits bring strangers together. Different languages don’t mask the joy at finding a spot to stay warm and dry.
Cross the street and climb the hill to see the Ferris wheel and check out the view of the River Scheldt which links the city to the North Sea. Back down at street level, find more chalets. More food stations demand attention — potato swirls, appelbottons, meats, and empanadas. The festive spirit and old school music — not always Christmas, but ’50s to ’80s American music as well — keeps people singing and dancing along the rows.
Leuven, close enough to Brussels to make the Christmas market easily accessible for a half-day visit, is home to Belgium’s oldest university, KUL. It’s the oldest and earliest of markets and sticks to a limited schedule the 10 to 14 days before Christmas. With the University library as a backdrop, you can understand why it’s been proclaimed the coziest of the European Christmas markets.
The Town Hall looks incredible with its festive lighting and is worth the trip to see it.
New this year, the Ferris wheel and ice-skating rink are situated at the Ladeuzeplein.
Whether it’s the vendors with their lovely artisan goods, the food from the meats, fries, waffles, and special treats, or the arcade rides that remind us of childhood, it is fun, fresh, and relatively inexpensive entertainment on these dark and overcast mid-winter days.
Laughter, family, food, friends, the Christmas spirit in these beautiful locations — you can’t go wrong with a visit to any of them.
Christmas Markers have been a popular pastime with travelers to Europe: