A Guide to Belgium’s Wonderful Christmas Markets

Belgium has lots to offer when it comes to Christmas markets
Belgium has lots to offer when it comes to Christmas markets | © Skyfish / Alamy Stock Photo
Lilly Graves

Belgium is tailor-made for Christmas celebrations, with its chocolate-box, medieval towns and historic city centres hosting some of the world’s most photogenic Christmas markets. Here are some not to miss on a festive break.

Belgium crams many identities into its small landmass, with two distinct regions and three (official) languages. So, the country has a lot to offer when it comes to representing various Christmas cultures. Each season, Belgium hosts Christmas markets presenting all sorts of French, Dutch and German artisan goods, plus delicious snacks and drinks, live entertainment and child-friendly activities. From big city markets in Brussels and Antwerp, to smaller ones such as the Ypres Christmas Market, Namur Christmas Market and Mechelen Christmas Market, Belgium has plenty going on each December.

1. Bruges Christmas Market

Market

Bruges Market Square Belgium taken in 2015
© lukas bischoff / Alamy Stock Photo

For six weeks from mid-November until early January, this romantic, medieval city throws itself into the Christmas spirit. Though the market is split into a few key areas, to help dissipate the crowds, the heart of the action is at the city’s main square, Grote Markt – with charming wooden chalets selling original gifts and hand-blown ornaments. Sip on hot chocolate, mulled wine, Belgian beers or even the local jenever gin, while indulging your sweet tooth on yule logs, crepes and waffles. Burn it all off on the 350 or so steps to the top of the 15th-century belfry, and take in a bird’s-eye view of one of the prettiest squares in Europe. Round off the romance with a carriage ride to the sustainable ice skating rink on the Lake of Love, or watch the skaters from the outdoor winter bar. Kids have plenty of rides, toys and occasional visits from St. Nicholas, who makes his first appearance on the last Sunday of November.

2. Brussels Christmas Market

Market

Belgium, Brussels Christmas Market or Winter Wonders, Marche aux Poissons, Fish Market next to St Catherine Church.
@ Wim Wiskerke / Alamy Stock Photo

The Brussels Christmas market makes up a large area of the cobbled city centre and is one of the largest Christmas markets in the world. The action starts at the Grand Palace, where there is a Christmas tree and a traditional, life-size nativity scene with a regular sound and light show. From here, follow the crowds (or signs) to other areas of the market that include hundreds of vendors selling gifts and handmade souvenirs. Keep walking to find a ferris wheel, merry-go-ride and covered ice skating rink, with an impressive array of pop-up eateries and bars selling to keep you satiated along the way. Weekends during this five-week festival, from late November to early January, see special concerts and parades.

3. Winterland Hasselt

Market

Hasselt city hall at night. Liege, Flemish Region, Belgium.
© Henryk Sadura / Alamy Stock Photo

Hasselt has been called the most sociable city in Flanders, so you can expect extra fun at this Christmas market that’s part of a larger Winterland Festival (from late November to early January). Pedestrians reign in this car-free part of town, and there are a number of activities for a small fee including ice skating, a Christmas train, Santa’s labyrinth and a haunted house. Shop for Christmas gifts among the many international vendors, while snapping up Spanish churros, German bratwurst and Belgian fries. Check out the charming Grand Cafe chalet and adjoining Aspen Lounge, while on New Year’s Eve the party goes on until 2am.

4. Ghent Christmas Market

Market

Illuminated helter skelter and people shopping at evening Christmas market in winter, Korenmarkt / Corn Market, Ghent, Belgium
© Arterra Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

As the capital of East Flanders and one of the oldest cities in Belgium, Ghent is known for its enchanting squares and medieval architecture, making it an extra-magical place to soak up the holiday spirit. The authentic Christmas market is spread out in the historic centre for about three weeks from early December until the last day of the year. You’ll browse more than 150 wooden stalls selling gifts and food specialties like cured meats, cheeses, waffles, chocolate and Belgian beer (including a warm beer especially for Christmas). There’s also a giant ferris wheel and an elegant ice skating rink. Parents can stay entertained at the Moose Bar while their kids stay busy with rides, including a vintage merry-go-round.

5. Antwerp Christmas Market

Market

Christmas Market Grote Markt Antwerp Belgium
© Simon Reddy / Alamy Stock Photo

From early December to early January, the historic port city of Antwerp holds an annual Christmas market that’s integral to the bigger Winter in Antwerp festival, which puts on gospel choir and classical concerts. This is the place to do your Christmas shopping, from 100 stalls adorned with festive Christmas lights and music, stretching from Groenplaats to the Market Square. Local designers and traders sell unique gift items, arts and crafts, knitted accessories, toys and Christmas snacks. Grab a mulled wine or hot chocolate and sign up for the ice skating rink and miniature golf course. If you’re feeling more sedentary (or smoochy), pitch up at the winter-themed bar, with a fireplace and a giant mistletoe.

6. Leuven Christmas Market

Market

Magnificent City Hall of Leuven in Belgium during Christmas
© Magdalena Dral / Alamy Stock Photo

Leuven was one of the largest cities in Europe in the 14th century thanks to its cloth-weaving industry. It’s now better known for beer brewing and having the oldest university in Flanders, giving the city a youthful vibe – especially in its photogenic core, where each year there’s a Christmas market. For a few weeks each December, you can stroll among 170 stalls selling ornaments, decorations and crafts (look for the special guest nation chosen each year), as well as snacks and hot drinks. The market also offers free concerts on a stage, a giant winter garden and a candlelight parade. Look for the local charity that is featured each year and help keep up the spirit of giving.

7. Liege Christmas Market

Market

Christmas market, old town, Liege, Belgium.
© Jochen Tack / Alamy Stock Photo

Time your visit to the heart of Liege, a friendly French-speaking city in the southern region of Wallonia, during the winter holidays, when you’ll experience what’s considered to be the oldest Christmas market in Belgium. More than 200 stalls take up space on a series of streets and alleys, ending at Liege’s central square. Look for the special artisans who feature Walloon folkloric characters, plus a vast selection of grown-up drinks and eats like oysters, foie gras, blood sausages and marzipan. More activities have been added over the years including photo booths, a ferris wheel, sledge run, ice rink and even the European Circus Festival. The market lasts about a month, from late November until late December.

8. Charleroi Christmas market

Market

Winter ice rink, «Patinoire» in Charleroi for the end of year celebrations
© SophieOst / Alamy Stock Photo

The largest city in Wallonia doesn’t get the tourist crowds of other Belgian cities, but Charleroi offers great museums and a Unesco-listed belfry that regularly chimes in a famous folk song. From late November to early January there’s a Christmas market with stalls selling mulled wine, champagne, waffles, crepes and oysters (there’s a covered terrace if the weather is unruly). Shoppers can browse between pop-ups that feature a different artisan each week. Kids love the ice rink, and young adults don their neon for the disco party every Friday.

9. Bassenge Christmas Craft Market

Market

This is the most unique experience on this list: an annual Christmas market that takes place in a network of 2,000-year-old limestone caves. Once a bomb shelter from WWII, the caves are now mainly used to cultivate mushrooms, except during one weekend in December when it’s transformed into a Christmas market. The event features 70 quality artisans who squeeze together to make up a series of underground galleries, selling distinct gifts and souvenirs – think original paintings, handicrafts and jewellery. In terms of produce, there’s wine, cheese, sweets and cured meats to take away, or you can dine at the underground restaurant that showcases the mushrooms grown on site. There’s free parking nearby and a free shuttle to the caves, which conveniently drops you off next to the big tent serving hot wine.

10. Winter in the Park Ostend

Market

Ostend, Belgium. 4th Jan, 2020. Crowds of people run into the sea during the annual New Years Dive in Ostend, Belgium, Jan. 4, 2020. Nearly 1,000 people braved the cold North Sea on Saturday with a wish to have a new healthy year. Credit: Zheng Huansong/
© Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

The beachside city along the North Sea transforms into a Christmas wonderland during the annual Winter in Ostend. Some 50 wooden stalls are set up around a pretty pond in Leopold Park, offering crafts and decorations, snacks and drinks, and a skating rink. While you’re there, head over to the Adolf Buylstraat shopping street which displays more than 200,000 Christmas lights in a breathtaking, illuminated tunnel. Ostend’s festivities take place from late November to early January, culminating with the New Year’s Dive when thousands of brave locals take a bracing, celebratory dip in the North Sea.

If you’re looking for somewhere to stay while in Belgium, book into one of the best hotels in Brussels or Ghent. Make the most of your time in Belgium with one of these day trips from Brussels. If Bruges is more your pace, don’t miss these top must-see attractions in the capital of East Flanders.

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