Dazzling Christmas lights, spectacular ice-skating shows, Wittamer hot chocolate, a glass of Delirium or two, not to mention the beauty of Grand Place decked out in its festive finery, there are many reasons for visiting Brussels in December. And while, the delectable local chocolates, beers and architecture, as well as the iconic Atomium, are year-round attractions, I was in Belgium for one reason above all else, to visit Brussels’ Christmas Market.
Things to do in Brussels at Christmas
For many years now I’d wanted to visit Belgium but I had never quite made it there, other than passing through without stopping. It seems a lot of people pass by Belgium, and in particular the capital, Brussels, and for some time now I’d been asking myself, why?
The photographs I had seen of Belgium’s towns and cities were enchanting and from what I’d read on the web and learnt from chatting to people who had been there themselves, I’d formed the impression of a vibrant and beautiful country which has so much to offer – great food, excellent beer, superb chocolate, stunning architecture, fascinating (if sometimes upsetting) history, beautiful towns and villages and I’m told, some of the best campsites in Europe and at a fraction of the cost of what you might pay elsewhere. Not that I was planning on camping in December… far from it! Thanks to Avios I travelled in style, flew Club Class and stayed in the 5 star Sofitel Le Louise, in one of the most affluent areas of Brussels. At last, I was be able to see for myself the truth about Belgium and what better time to visit than in the run-up to Christmas.
Hot Chocolate at Wittamer, Sablon
Having checked-in to our très chic hotel, we headed straight out to explore and soon we were walking down quaint cobbled streets, passing beautiful historic buildings and quirky shops along the way.
First stop, Le Sablon and this lovely park in Petit Sablon Square. Look out for the fun statues that surround the park. There’s 48 in all, each one representing a different profession.
Known for its nightlife, restaurants and surrealism, Sablon is many people’s favourite part of the city but I had one thing on my mind… hot chocolate! Not just any old hot chocolate but a Wittamer hot chocolate. I’d been told by a couple of different sources that this was the very best in town. I knew it was in the Place du Grand Sablon and had a bright pink awning, making it easy to find. As I stared in through the shop window my heart did a somersault as my eyes beheld the exquisite cakes and pastries on display.
We found our way upstairs to the charming café with its beamed ceilings, dramatic chandelier and oodles of character. Sitting down by the window, I soon had to sit on my hands to stop myself photographing other people’s orders. With eyes popping I watched a couple, each with a delicious looking ice-cream creation decorated with an over-sized macaron, pick up a white jug and slowly pour melted chocolate all over their dessert. Oh my!
Having ordered our drinks, we waited patiently (ish!) and soaked up the atmosphere. A sense of serenity filled the air as everyone in the room indulged themselves in their favourite Wittamer treat. Then in front of us appeared our drinks, each with a couple of Wittamer chocolates and a large dollop of Chantilly cream. They tasted as good as they looked and were worth every cent of the 6.50€ they cost (each!).
Thanks to Katie from An Unfamiliar Sky for tweeting me this tip together with a link to her fabulous post How to Eat in Belgium.
The Grand Place (or Grote Markt in Dutch)
From Le Sablon, we walked on through more cobbled streets and I caught my first glimpse of the Grand Place, Brussels’ main square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and reputed to be the most beautiful square in Europe. I had high expectations! As I turned the corner I almost felt tearful. Beautiful is not quite the right word… awe-inspiring, breath-taking, stunning… neither my words or my pictures do it justice. Every building that opened onto the square was an absolute gem. Grand and imposing with the most intricate of decorative adornment, these buildings almost sent me into a blind panic, as I wanted to capture it all in my camera, but in which direction to point it first!
above: Brussels The town hall in the Grand Place, below: Maison du Roi (King’s House), Grand Place, Brussels
We returned that evening for the sound and light show and fell in love with the square all over again!
Throughout the weekend we walked into this square a number of times and each time I caught my breath not quite believing what I was seeing. What’s more, I know it will have that same effect on me when I return and return I will!
Brussels Christmas Market
29th November 2019 to 5th January 2020
The real reason I was in Belgium though was to see Brussels Christmas Market.
Each year the main Christmas markets in Brussels are held around the beautiful Grand Place and Place St Catherine with over 200 stalls in traditional Swiss chalets. We spent hours wandering around sampling warming glasses of glühwein (mulled wine) and exotic liqueurs. Edible treats included crêpes, delicious thin pancakes fresh off the griddle smeared in generous dollops of Nutella, spicy speculoos biscuits, not to mention Belgium’s famous triple-cooked fries.
While there were some lovely stalls, with many tasty treats and pretty hand-crafted presents, the highlight for us was the ice-skating exhibition which had the audience gasping on many occasion as they danced, somersaulted and flew across the ice. The blades of one skater coming perilously close to the ‘crown jewels’ of another on a number of occasions!
Sofitel Le Louise
Having had our fill of Christmas delights and tasty treats we wondered back tired but happy. The lights of our hotel, the 5 star Sofitel Le Louise, were a welcome sight and following a night-cap from the bar, we snuggled into what is possibly the most comfortable bed I have ever slept in, for a very good night’s sleep knowing that an equally good breakfast awaited us in the morning.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
The next day we re-traced some of our steps and sort out an arcade that I’d been told was well worth visiting, Galaries Royals, just around the corner from the Grand Place. Opened in the 1840s the arcade has been home to some 70 luxury boutiques including jewellers, fashion designers and the finest Belgium Chocolatiers ever since. In addition, you’ll find theatres, a cinema and an art gallery as well as private residences. It’s the perfect place to explore on a rainy day but well worth popping by whatever the weather.
Out of the chocolate shops we found Le Belgique Gourmande (pictured above and below) the most welcoming. The staff were very helpful and were handing out delicious samples!
Before we knew it was nearly time to leave but not before a sampling a glass of the beer that Belgium is so famous for on rue des Brasseurs by the Grand Place. Somewhere so close to the most popular square in town is usually not the best place for a bite to eat or a drink but a particular bar had caught our eye and even though it was just a few yards from the Grand Place we decided to give Au Brasseurs a try. I think it was the parasol covered in pink elephants and a promise of a glass of Delirium that swung it for us.
As we stepped inside we immediately felt at home in this colourful down-to-earth pub that I could imagine locals enjoying as much as the tourists. Although they had a long list of beers to choose from, how could we say no to a glass of Delerium and very good it was too.
After a little more window shopping we popped back to the same street and were going to try a different bar, just opposite the first, but as we stepped inside we immediately withdrew as it had a most unwelcome feel about the place and without even discussing it we both turned around and headed straight back to Au Brasseurs.
This time instead of selecting a beer by its name, we went for the shape of the glass! Kwak is served in a unique fluted glass with a round bottom, designed so that a coachman, who couldn’t leave his horses to enter an inn, could easily hold the glass while still wearing thick gloves. Once again this proved to be a perfect selection process as another fine beer slipped down our throats. Partway through the second drink, I felt as if I could have happily spent all afternoon there sipping beer and chatting. I was then beginning to feel a little light-headed which surprised me as we hadn’t drunk that much. Just as well it was time to go, as I later found out that the two beers we had tried were 8.5% and 8% abv respectively!
I really would love to go back one day to this very bar for a little more beer research work plus we hadn’t even scraped the surface when it comes to Belgium cuisine so a return visit is inevitable!
I found Brussels the perfect place for a weekend break and, while it may not be as pretty as Bruges or as cool as Antwerp, I can’t imagine anything, anywhere in Belgium (or even Europe) beating the splendour of Brussels’ Grand Place.
Brussels’ Christmas Market & Winter Wonders Highlights 2019
Dates: 29th November 2019 to 5th January 2020
Location: the Grand-Place in Brussels and around the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie, the Place Sainte-Catherine, the Place de Brouckère and the Marché aux Poissons.
Highlights include includes:
- Christmas market with more than 200 chalets
- Fairground attractions including a giant Ferris wheel and merry-go-rounds
- Covered ice rink for skating in Place de Brouckère
- Christmas tree and sound and light show in the Grand-Place
- The Dome, a high-tech 360° immersive installation in Place de la Monnaie
- Popup Christmas Market each weekend in Square Ambiorix, Marolles, Neder-Over-Heembeek and Laeken
- Brussels Vintage Market on 1st and 8th December in Halles Saint-Géry
- Zumba Flash Mob Party on 21st December at 2.30 pm, an hour-long giant Christmas Zumba class will be held at Carrefour de l’Europe.
- Brass bands will be performing around Winter Wonders every Thursday and Friday at 6 and 8 pm.
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