Near the end of 2019, after a week in Athens, most of which was spent working, I boarded a flight to Brussels with plans to spend a day and a half in Bruges.
Was it an aggressive plan?
Kind of, but with onward plans to spend nearly a week in Amsterdam, followed by London, and then several weeks at home in the States, I was okay with a busy couple of days if I meant I could see a new place in Europe.
Especially if that place was Bruges, known for its beautiful canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings.
But, of course, the universe had other plans.
Flight and train delays pushed me to reconsider my night in Bruges- if I’d continued on with it, given the delays, I’d actually only have about a half day there. As much as I wanted to visit Bruges, I just couldn’t justify the trouble it’d take to get there for such a short amount of time.
Instead, I did an impromptu overnight in Brussels, and loved it. It ended up being one of my best ‘travel mishaps’ of 2019.
I’d been to Belgium once before on a tour of Europe years prior, years ago, but had forgotten how beautiful Brussels was. Maybe it was the fact my first time visiting was fleeting, or that it was sandwiched between visits to Paris and Amsterdam, but on this trip, in many ways, I felt like I was seeing Brussels for the first time.
And, at Christmas, it’s really something. The city transforms to a beautiful, winter wonderland, home to one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe.
While wandering the city, I couldn’t get over how idyllic things seemed- cobblestone streets, twinkling lights, copper lamp posts, and the smell of spiced wine wafting in the air.
From Christmas markets and mulled wine, to charming carousels and pretty window displays, Europe knows how to do Christmas well.
There are several markets in Brussels, but I only had time to visit the main one in old town, Winter Wonders. It’s massive, the largest Christmas market I’ve ever been to with over 2.5M visitors annually and over 200 chalets.
You’ll find everything from handmade goods to gluhwein, to waffles, to Belgium treats, and fresh oysters served with champagne.
What’s interesting about the Brussels market is that they celebrate something different each year.
In 2018, for instance, the market’s theme was Finland, which saw the takeover of a small section of the market to sell traditional Finnish goods. In 2019, when I visited, the focus was on Manneken-Pis, a tribute to 400th anniversary of the city’s iconic statue of a peeing man.
Strolling the market, I noticed sampling genever seemed to be popular- with more of a presence than Christmas markets I visited in Germany and Austria.
Genever is a clear spirit, dating back ~500 years. Back then, the Netherlands and Belgium were part of the same kingdom, so it makes sense both countries still love it today. At the market, you can sample flavours by the shot, typically for €2-3.
While the genever was tempting, Gluhwein is my favourite part of the Christmas market experience. Nothing quite says wandering a festive market, adorned in thousands of lights like sipping mulled wine from a mug illustrated with Christmas cheer.
Ready for more Christmas cheer, I walked over to the main square, also known as the Grand Palace.
The main square in Brussels always wows, it’s oft called the most beautiful in Europe. If you only have time to see one sight in Brussels, make it this one- the gold detailed builds are just exquisite.
During the holiday season, every half hour from 5:30 pm until 10:30 pm, people assemble in Grand Palace for the light show.
There aren’t any chalets at the Grand Palace, bur it’s worth visiting during the day to see the glistening gold architecture, and then again at night for the light show.
While not the classic Christmas vibes you may expect, the light show is interesting nonetheless. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. Plus, the show only lasts about 10 minutes, and it’s close to another Brussels gem, Delirium.
My first time in Brussels, I missed visiting this iconic beer hall, so I was glad I had time to check it out on this venture. The Delirium red is incredible – notes of sour cherry, perfectly sweet and tart.
With dinnertime nearing, I decided to treat myself to two of my favorite Belgium eats- frites (fries) and waffles.
Few things are more Belgium than snacking on frites in the drizzling rain in the city’s main square. Fritland has the best fries. If you really want the Belgian experience, get mayo instead of ketchup.
Waffles are practically synonymous with Brussels, but did you know there’s no such thing as a Belgian waffle? Instead, look for the sweeter, more compact Liege waffle, or a fluffier Brussels waffle. Either way, make sure you’re getting a hot, freshly made one. I’m a big fan of Waffle Factory, which is located near the Grand Palace and makes everything piping hot to order.
The next morning, I had to catch a train to Amsterdam, but not before grabbing a flat white and croissant from a cafe that came highly recommended, Velvet Peck.
Heading to the central station, I was surprised to realize how said I was at the thought of leaving.
I hadn’t expected to love Belgium’s Christmas scene so much- the market, lights and decor everywhere turned out to be just the Christmas cheer I needed to get excited about the holiday season.
The market, and by extension entire Christmas experience was one of the best I’d ever been to, without question top three. In the end, I was glad travel delays meant I had to forfeit my original plans and go with the flow, spending a day in Belgium’s capital instead.
Have you ever visited Brussels during the holiday season? Or had a ‘travel mishap’ turn into an adventure even better than what you could have ever imagined?
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