Up until now I haven’t been one to venture much farther than the local shopping centre on the lead up to Christmas. However, as the years go on, and the travel bug eats away at me more and more, I couldn’t resist the calling from the stunning pictures of the European Christmas Markets I kept seeing any longer.
Whilst we have our own Christmas Market in Belfast, I knew it would be an interesting experience to have somewhere to compare it to. After some consideration, Belgium won the vote.
Our flights and accommodation were booked in July/August and as such were far enough in advance to get a pretty good deal with RyanAir, departing from Dublin.
We were travelling with another couple and opted for a self-catering apartment at B-aparthotel Grand Place. Location wise we couldn’t have asked for better! Less than 5minutes walk to Grand Place and less than 10minutes walk to Central Station. It made for a great base to explore the Belgian festivities. Overall I was delighted with our stay here.
The apartment was of a modern décor and featured two bedrooms, one with an en-suite, a main bathroom, and an open-planned kitchen, dining and living room.
My only complaint, and my most common complaint with accommodation, was the pillows! That being said, I am aware this is a personal preference and you simply cannot please everyone.
It was early evening when we touched down in Brussels. We hopped in a taxi to take us to our hotel and after a quick freshen up we were ready to brace the bitter cold and explore the city.
My highlights were…
Given what I am used to in Belfast…I couldn’t quite have prepared myself for the magnitude of “Christmas” that Brussels had to offer! It felt as though the whole city had gone into Christmas mode and not a single fairy light was spared. From merry-go-rounds (all-be-them quite Tim Burton-esque), ferris wheels, ice rinks, to endless chalet styled Christmas stalls………..the 2km trail of Christmas Market in Brussels certainly is a spectacle.
Belgium 1 – 0 Belfast
My first purchase…mulled wine! With a number of mulled wine chalets dotted around the map you can easily top-up and keep yourself warm (any heat-hogger like myself will need it!).
Aside from that you will find all sorts of treats, from classic trinkets, to hand painted Christmas baubles, to Belgian chocolates, weird and wonderful cheeses and of course no visit to a Christmas Market would be complete without some kind of dough meets chocolate delight, in this case Churros.
Sound and Light Show
It just so happened we walked into Grand Place just as the sound and light show was underway. I shamefully admit I hadn’t done my research; I had no idea that there were actual scheduled events in the markets!
Belgium 2 – 0 Belfast
This UNESCO heritage site is the central square of Brussels and the most memorable landmark of the city. This year’s sound and light show featured songs from the artist SIA. Her Christmas album, “Everyday is Christmas” was released in November 2017 and I hadn’t heard a single song from it until that moment. I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect soundtrack to the light show! It was honestly the most magical, enchanting and mesmerising thing I have ever witnessed. That warm, tingly feeling I felt as I watched, in awe, the colour changing lights illuminating the beautiful gothic architecture of the square is something I will never forget.
Brussels Chamber Choir
Another delight we happened to stumble upon was entering the stunning Sainte Catherine’s Church only to hear the Brussels Chamber Choir in full flow, singing pitch perfect Christmas Carols by candlelight. I was happy to see the wonderfully grand, gothic architecture of Brussels extending past Grand Place to Sainte Catherine’s Church, albeit just a stone throw away.
Belgium 3 – 0 Belfast
As we were in Belgium for 3nights, and the train from Brussels took just over 1-hour, it would have been a sin not to visit the fairy-tale location that is Bruges!
We caught the 9am train from Brussels Central and arrived in Bruges shortly after 11am.
First stop…breakfast! As I, am gluten-free it took a bit of research to find somewhere that could accommodate us. We opted for “That’s Toast”. I had the all day breakfast plate, which came with gluten free toast and was absolutely delicious! I would recommend booking a table if I were to return, as we saw a lot of people being turned away.
We then took a boat-trip to explore the quaint, medieval canals which lasted approximately 30minutes and was 100% worth the €8pp.
NB: During the Winter season the boat-trips only run at weekends, and are weather permitting. They also only accept cash.
Our next stop, in the heart of ancient Bruges, was the Market Square. Lined with pavement cafes, Christmas stalls, horses and carriages and an ice rink. Of course you have the Belfry of Bruges also, the iconic medieval bell tower, featuring a narrow, steep staircase of 366 steps, which you can climb for a small entry fee. The general consensus is that the view is well worth the exertion!
Whilst I loved having the opportunity to visit and explore Bruges, and it would be a beautiful location to visit at any time of year, I really didn’t rate their Christmas Market scene. Brussels by far blew Bruges out of the water in that respect. In-fact, even Belfast’s pretty standard Christmas Market is better. Which was disappointing, as I had expected more from such an authentic location.
Belgium 3 – 1 Belfast
To the train station we went to catch the 9pm train back to Brussels, and although I wouldn’t recommend visiting Bruges just for their Christmas Market, I would definitely recommend taking a day-trip there from a base in Brussels.
It is safe to say I fell in love with the beauty of Bruges. Now I know what all the fuss is about.
We had another full day to kill, and after one last stroll around the Brussels markets we thought we’d do something a little different.
Brussels is coming down with Escape Rooms, where the idea is that you are locked in a room with your teammates and you search for clues and solve puzzles which piece together and eventually lead to your escape. Most of them have a time limit of 60minutes.
We booked ourselves into the “Manneken Pis” game with “60 minutes to Escape” .
For our four-player team we paid €22pp. Which was reasonable given how much we all enjoyed it. Challenging, exciting and very fun!
Belgium 4 – 1 Belfast
And so our Belgian adventure had come to an end, it was time to pack up and fly home to Belfast.
Based at Belfast’s City Hall, I had mentioned that the Christmas Market is pretty standard, and I’ll be brutally honest…nothing special! Yes it is worth a visit if you are in the area, but I would never recommend anyone to come specifically for the market.
Whilst you can still indulge in all the typical Christmas Market delights such as candied roasted nuts, mulled wine, nougat and handcrafted trinkets of all shapes and sizes (the list goes on)……….it just doesn’t scale up to the authentic European Markets like Brussels.
Here are some pictures of what to expect when visiting Belfast’s Christmas Market.
I would love to hear about the Christmas Markets you have visited so I can begin to plan my Christmas adventure for next year. Get in touch!