A weekend at the Brussels Winter Wonders Festival is something I would highly recommend. What else would you want to do in Belgium in Winter?
Mid-November I was starting to get that itch again, and wanted to get out there and experience a new country. Belgium in winter was always high on my list, so when I found really cheap flights to Brussels I couldn’t resist and booked up to experience the Capital’s Winter Wonders and Christmas Markets at the start of December.
Brussels and Bruges are two amazing cities that hold a lot of culture and history to occupy tourists for days, however, very rarely have these two places been recommended during the winter. Everyone imagines their summers in Europe as sitting sipping fine wine and local craft beer or nibbling on authentic foods al-fresco style. However, Belgium in winter is an experience in itself. Spending a few December days at the Brussels Winter Wonders (Plaisirs d’hiver) is one of the most magical things you can do in the lead up to Christmas. It also gave us a chance to experience a something other than the Glasgow Christmas Markets.
At the end of November to the start of January, the city is transformed into a winter wonderland for the Winder Wonders Festival. It plays host to plenty of Christmas Markets, parades, shows and events around the city centre. As we had booked up for a European Christmas Market trip, this is exactly s where we spent most of our three days in Brussels.
Brussels Winter Wonders: The Christmas Markets
As the Winter Wonder Event comes into town, Brussels has quite a few Christmas Markets dotted around their city centre in December; and during our 3 days in the capital, we had plenty to explore. The event brings with it over 250 chalets filled with food, drink and gifts, as well as a big wheel, light and sound shows and festive parades. A magical 2.5km route is laid out for locals and visitors of all ages to enjoy.
If you are spending your nights at the Christmas Markets like us, there are plenty of sheltered seating around the Winter Wonder event. As well as this, food options at the markets are in abundance so you could easily try different dishes at the chalets without actually having a sit-down meal in Brussels!
Below is an outline of the main ones we came across, but there are a few more peppered around the city.
Marché aux Poissons
The Christmas Market around Marché aux Poissons is one of the biggest in the city and one where we spent a lot of our weekend. The area is lined with over 200 wooden chalets covered in snowy roofs and festive twinkly lights but still manages to have a more up-beat lively vibe to it. The chalets are filled with unusual gifts, delicious food and an array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Our favourite food was of course the waffles and churros! And our alcoholic drink of choice was either mulled wine or hot chocolate with a shot of Amaretto. Just the perfect tipple to heat you up on a freezing Belgian Saturday night!
Although this market is huge, we felt this was the busiest but was never overbearing or overcrowded. And that was us visiting Friday through to Sunday.
One of the main attractions at Marché aux Poissons is the huge ferris wheel at the end of the square. The wheel takes out a slow ride up to 55m tall so you can see the market from above, before bringing you back down again. I highly recommend it for the views alone, they are just stunning. It also makes you realise just how big the Christmas Market and Winter Wonderland event is! The Big Wheel cost us 8 Euros per person when we visited in December 2019.
Another huge attraction at Marché aux Poissons is the Ice Monster. Located just under the big wheel, the Ice Monster is a Christmas attraction that takes adults and children on a “journey featuring terrifying special effects”. We never had time to visit unfortunately, but it did say there was only one of its kind in Europe and only seven in the world! Must be worth a visit next time, surely?
If you want something even more unusal for your trip to the Brussels Winter Wonders, why not try out the Dream Space. This is a virtual reality experience that immerses you in a variety of wacky and crazy experiences. You even get a comfy seat for your troubles!
As we were travelling as an adult couple, we also stopped off at the tent for a classic Belgian beer. It seemed the most lively with indoor(ish) seating, a live act singing and a more ‘bar’ feel to it.
Overall, this was one of our favourite Christmas Markets at the Brussels Winter Wonders event.
Place de Brouckère
The Christmas Market located at Place de Brouckère is another huge market, and probably second to the one at Marché aux Poissons. It’s very similar in terms of food, drink and ornamets/gifts on offer at the chalets. However, it has one main attraction that draws in the crowds – the ice rink.
The ice rink was previously housed at Place de la Monnaie, but has since moved to Place de Brouckère. Stupidly, we visited the ice rink on a Saturday night and it was so busy that we decided to just leave it. The rink is covered with a transparent roof so it is functional in all weathers and allows you to still experience the surrounding lights and festivities. We saw plenty of children, adults and families enjoying the rink. The cost when we visited in December 2019 was 9 Euros per person.
Tour Noire & Sainte Catherines
Around the Sainte Catherine Church were a couple of small quaint Christmas Markets. They had all the major hitters, including mulled wine, hot chocolate and waffles – what more could you want? Well these little markets are just as important as the others with their own take on the Brussels Winder Wonders theme.
At the Tour Noire, we found a small market dedicated to Québec – the french-speaking providence of Canada. Something that we thought quite unusual, but with French-speaking locals in Brussels it made sense. Stalls were set up selling authentic Canadian goods, from food and drink to spreads, clothing, books and ornaments. Our favourite was of course the food, more specifically, the amazing poutine. We waiting around 20 minutes for our order to be freshly made but it was well worth it. We weren’t that hungry so ordered one to share but after eating it, we were sure we could have easily demolished one each.
At another small market facing Sainte Catherine Church, we were lucky enough to experience one of their light shows on the front of the church. Accompanied with soothing music, the light show was stunning to watch with our hot mulled wine in hand.
If you manage to get around to experience the Sainte Catherine market, you can find the amazing Le Manège d’Andrea (Andrea’s Merry-go-round). This merry-go-round was created by Andréa in Toulouse in 1999 and features different structured made out of wood, copper and steel.
The Grand Place
The Grand Place is the centre of the Winter Wonders. It houses the Capital’s huge Christmas tree right in the middle of the square, along with a life size nativity scene.
As well as this, the square has plenty of bars and restaurants that you can enjoy while taking a break from all the festive fun immersing the city.
Brussels Winter Wonders: What to Eat
Brussels is known for its good food and drink, so with the arrival of the Winder Wonder Festival, you can sample lots of different dishes without having to find a restaurant or spending time with a sit-down meal.
Some of the main foods I would recommend to try are:
- Moules (mussels)
- Frites (French Fries)
- Hot Dogs
Frites, chips or french fries, whatever you call them, are my absolute favourite. Brussels did not disappoint with their frites. Some chalets at the Christmas Market sell frites, however, I would recommend going to the famous Fritland.
Brussels Winter Wonders: What to Drink
Much like the food in Brussels, Belgians know their way around a good drink! They are famous for their beers but at the Christmas Markets, we found some amazing drinks that weren’t beer.
Here are some of our favourites that we recommend from the Winter Wonder:
- Beer (especially wheat beer)
- Mulled Wine
- Hot Cider
- Hot Chocolate
- Hot Chocolate with Amaretto
- Tea & Artisan Coffee
The Christmas Markets have a great initiative going with their drinks cups. If you buy a drink from one of the many stalls, you get a sturdy plastic cup to re-use over and over again. And when you are finished with it, you can return it in exchange for 1 Euro. What a great idea. We did this on several occasions. We also bought a couple of the festive, authentic mugs that were on sale at the drinks stalls. Nothing says a Winter Wonder getaway like a cliché mug!
Sights Outside the Winter Wonders
If you find yourself in Brussels in winter and want to take an afternoon away from the Christmas festivities, the city has loads to offer visitors:
- Manneken Pis
- Chocolate Museum
- Grand Place
- Visit a Chocolatier
- Mini Europe
- Royal Palace of Brussels
- Belgian Comic Strip Centre
- Parc du Cinquantenaire
- Botanical Gardens
We only managed a couple of the main tourist sites and attractions in Brussels because we spent most of our time in the Christmas Markets. Yes, they are that good! However, our favourite has to be the unusual Mannekin Pis and his ever-changing outfits. Although we did love the Chocolate Museum and the samples that came with the visit!
Our next visit to Belgium in winter will have to include a trip to Brussels to experience more of these amazing sites, as well as a trip to Bruges!
Where to Stay in Brussels
As we booked this Brussels trip on a whim in November, I didn’t have a lot of time to research the city to find the best location.
We wanted to find somewhere that was close the Christmas Markets but also close enough to the train station as we were arriving from Brussels Charleroi Airport. The area surrounding Sainte Catherine seemed perfect.
I was recommended the Hotel ibis Brussels City Centre facing directly on to Sainte Catherine Church. We couldn’t have been any more happy with our accommodation. The location was perfect – within walking distance to all the Christmas Markets as well as the Grand Place and surrounding attractions.
We booked into a standard double and were treated to a view of Sainte Catherine itself! Reception staff were ind enough to offer us the choice of three different rooms, but we couldn’t turn down a church view! We also had a glimpse of the Tour Noire market.
A visit to the Brussels Winter Wonders event is something I would highly recommend. We were only there for 3 days, 2 nights but it was enough time to see everything the festival has to offer. From Christmas Markets to the unusual attractions like the Ice Monster and the Canadian chalets, you will not be bored in Brussels in December. When we Belgium in Winter next time, I will definitely take time to visit more tourist sites and other cities like Bruges.
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