Christmastime Magic Lives in Brussels

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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A Half-Day in Brussels

On a trip throughout Europe last fall, we planned on taking the train from Paris to Amsterdam. While trip planning, I read a few recommendations to stop in Brussels, if only for a few hours to see some of the city’s charms. Not quite knowing what to expect, we decided to book a six hour layover in Brussels, figuring it’d be cool to try and see as much as possible on our trip.

Pro Tip: If you’re coming in via train at Gare de Bruxelles-Midi, stow your luggage at the station for less than €5 so you don’t have to lug it around as you explore.

What we didn’t expect to find in Brussels was such an exciting cultural scene and so much historical beauty. Besides being the center of Belgium, Brussels is also the capital of Europe, home to the European Commission, the European Parliament, the headquarters of NATO, and a few other EU institutions.

When we arrived in Brussels, we hopped on the subway to city center- it’s a quick ~10-15 minute ride. Once downtown, we started wandering the streets and began to truly appreciate the city’s architecture and street art.

Art and history aren’t all Brussels has to offer though. In our short time visiting the city, we also munched on waffles from Maison Dandy, tried local beers, and indulged in fine chocolates and fries (Fritland is a city-center local favorite).

 

5 Things to Do in Brussels (if you’re short on time)

Visit the Grand Place (Grote Markt)

The Grand Palace is known as one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, and for good reason- it’s stunning. With ornately decorated buildings, you can stand in the middle of the square and be surrounded by architecture from three different eras.

The square used to be the city’s central market until 1959, which you can still see evidence of in neighboring streets since they’re named after food sellers.

We spent a bit of time sitting at an outside table at Le Roy d’Espagne, enjoying a beer and people watching in the late morning sunshine.

Window-shop at Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

 

I’m a sucker for vaulted ceilings and fell in love with the beautiful glass ones in this shopping plaza. Housing over 54 luxury shops, this gallery has two major sections — the Galerie du Roi (King’s Gallery) and the Galerie de la Reine (Queen’s Gallery) — with a smaller side gallery called as the Galerie des Princes (Gallery of the Princes). If you have the time, it’s definitely worth a stroll through.

 

Visit one of the city’s chocolatiers

Chocolate has a long history in Beligum, dating back to the 17th century. Production standards for this treat are high in the country- all chocolate must meet a minimum level of 35% pure cocoa. Additionally, any chocolates labelled as Belgian must be produced within the country. Given these guidelines, it’s no surprise a lot of Belgian chocolate is still handmade.

A few of my favorite chocolate shops:

  • Pierre Marcolini Known for their single-origin Grand Cru chocolate bars, but they have other delicious treats to choose from, including amazing macarons
  • Leonidas: One of the world’s biggest chocolate companies, this place was my personal favorite because of the variety offered for a good price
  • Godiva: Even though Godiva is now Turkish-owned, we still stopped by their location in the Grand Palace for a chocolate covered strawberry
  • Mary Chocolaterie:  Nearly a hundred years old, this chocolate shop is rumored to be a favorite of the royal family. We didn’t get a chance to stop here, but it’s on my list to try next time

 

Kick back with a local beer

Delirium is only minutes from the Grand Palace, and has thousands of beers on tap- ranging from expected brews to ones flavored like strawberry, banana, chili and cherry.

 

Go on the comic book tour

We didn’t have time for this because we spent a bit too much time drinking beer, but I wish we had. Comics are considered to be an integral part of Belgian culture. The Comic Book Route takes visitors past more than 50 oversized comic strip murals, featuring famous Tintin and Broussaille. Following the route is a good way to explore Brussels, both its historic center and some of its less-frequented neighborhoods.

 

The one thing everyone told us to see that we skipped?  Manneken Pis.

It’s just a statue of a tiny man peeing in a fountain. Sometimes, locals dress it up, but it seemed overrated to us and we couldn’t justify using some of our precious time to go find it.

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