Christmas markets across Belgium: Lights dimmed, but no muting the festive spirit
After disruption during the pandemic, organisers of Christmas markets and other seasonal gatherings around the country are facing the new challenge presented by the energy crisis.
Upping their green credentials, towns and cities are dimming their festive lights, some are swapping ice rinks for roller skating and many are opting for eco-friendly activities.
Underlying all this, though, is a serious desire to maintain the festive vibe and offer crowds some welcome Christmas cheer.
With the Belgian capital’s Winter Wonders seasonal festivities named the world’s best Christmas market by Big 7 Travel, more visitors than ever are expected to flock to this year’s spectacular edition. It offers a raft of new attractions: a Secret Garden in the Grand Hospice that’s a green festive oasis with sparkling lights, concerts and wood-burning saunas; a digital snowflake show on the facade of Sainte-Catherine, magical swings composing original tunes at Mont des Arts, while in Place de la Monnaie, visitors can test their curling skills in a winter après ski village atmosphere. The Galerie Horta stages the immersive experience Spirit of the North, an interactive winter scene. Guest country Quebec pays tribute to the First Nations of Canada with shows displaying their unique ancestral heritage. The city of Brussels honours Ukraine; the Black Tower hosts concerts every Friday, and two chalets, dedicated to Ukraine and Kyiv, can be found at La Monnaie.
In addition to the habitual goblets of spiced mulled wine and variety of savoury and sweet snacks, all the traditional favourites are maintained: more than 200 wooden chalets, a ferris wheel, an ice rink (covered, to reduce energy), glittering parades and a Christmas tree and nativity scene in the Grand Place, which comes alive with a sound and light show every evening. Outside the centre, Bois de la Cambre is transformed into a winter wonderland, complete with an ice rink, illuminations and enticing refreshment stands. Events are also staged in Neder-Over-Heembeek, Ambiorix square and Laeken as part of the Winter Pop programme (pictured). Until 8 January Place de Brouckère and Place de la Monnaie); Bois de la Cambre, until 8 January
The 10th edition of Brussels by Lights will surprise and delight with illuminations in some 160 streets in the capital. The Chartreux quarter is being honoured with a Geometrix parade; a 45-minute walk around the hip Saint-Géry and Dansaert area. As well as six light installations, other geometric forms are suspended above streets and phosphorescent frescoes brighten up 12 empty show windows. Children will love an illuminated polar village in Place de Fontainas, filled with animals from the north. The focus of the annual sparkler is on boosting local businesses, including those in the suburbs of Haren and Laeken. In a nod to the energy situation, the lights (majority LED) are switched on at 17.00 each day (instead of 13.00), and turned off at 1.00. Until 8 January, across the city centre, Laeken, Haren
Highlighting ethical consumption while providing independent vendors with an opportunity to sell products with a social-environmental slant, The Creators Factory runs over five weekends in Halles Saint-Géry. Carefully selected designers were chosen to offer responsibly-produced jewellery, clothing, candles, make-up, accessories and many other gift ideas in their own little mini-shops. It’s a collaboration with three operators: Christmas designers Market, The Wild Pop-Up and Fais-le toi-même (see below). Until 24 December, Halles Saint-Géry
Feeling the need for a little bling-bling in your holiday celebrations? Look no further than Lightopia, the over-the-top festival of light installations in the extensive grounds of Groot-Bijgaarden Castle. Prepare to be blinded by monstrous dragons, panda, flowers, fairies, hallucinogenic mushrooms and butterflies with moving wings. A water show offers additional entertainment, and the Twinkling Café will provide you with the necessary nourishment. Until 8 January, Isidoor van Beverenstraat 5, Groot-Bijgaarden
Bruges launched the light festival Winter Glow a few years ago, and it proved so popular, it’s become an annual event. All of the city’s holiday activities now fall under the moniker, and include not one but two Christmas markets. The first and biggest, in Grote Markt, is where you’ll find traditional chalets selling all sorts of products and edibles. A few minutes’ walk away on Simon Stevinplein are handmade crafts and artisanal delicacies. Throw in an ice skating rink flanked by a winter bar and lighting worthy of a medieval city, and you’ve got holiday cheer in your pocket. Until 8 January, across Bruges
Knokke’s Ice Bar is just steps away from the beach. Don’t let the name scare you off: The Ice Bar is in fact very cosy, with a warm winter chalet feel during the day and party ski lodge atmosphere in the evening. A few blocks away, the festively decorated skating rink is covered, and surrounded by a funfair. Bar: Until 8 January; skating: until 8 January, Knokke-Heist
Hasselt puts on quite a do with Winterland, so it’s well worth making a trip to Limburg’s capital city. Theree’s naturally a Christmas market and ice skating rink, and one of the largest holiday-themed funfairs in the country. Santa’s Ghost House turns a visit from the jolly old elf into a thriller, while Christmas Flight gives visitors an aerial view of a brightly lit Hasselt. Don’t miss Santa’s Labyrinth or Santa’s House, with Santa himself arriving with much pomp and circumstance on 7 December. Winterland hosts a total of five bars and bistros, each with its own special theme, like the Aspen Lounge and the authentic Almhütte, a recreation of an Austrian alpine cottage. DJs, performances and other activities fill the programme. Until 8 January, across central Hasselt
Brisk walks along a stormy sea are not the only entertainment in Ostend, as Winter in het Park is a lovely little Christmas market and ice skating rink in Leopold Park. The skating is on an actual pond, which is covered in case of inclement weather. Some 200 Christmas trees and 170,000 lights provide an unforgettable atmosphere. Until 8 January, Leopold Park, Leopold II-laan
Is it Halloween or Christmas at Planckendael animal park? Either holiday would have been a good time to stage Giant Bugs and Those That Eat Them, a trail of light installations in the form of giant insects – a praying mantis, say – and nearby a predator, like an iguana or a tarantula. Happy holidays! Until 15 January, Leuvensesteenweg 582, Mechelen
The beautiful historical city of Leuven really comes into its own this time of year. Aside from a Christmas market with more than 100 chalets and a terribly cheery Santa Claus, there is a Winter Garden on the Grote Markt, with a nativity scene, giant Christmas tree and special lighting on one of Belgium’s most beautiful city halls. On 10 December, the city’s famed beguinage is bathed in candlelight, and from 10-18 December visitors can explore the (un)Holy Light art trail. Park Abbey has not been left out of Wintertijd in Leuven; it hosts its own Christmas market and carillon concerts. Until 7 January, across Leuven
Ghent turns its downtown castle into a holiday fantasy during Winterfeesten, with music, a fun audio tour and a winter bar. It’s not far from the big Christmas market, complete with a fun fair and the largest mobile ice skating rink in the country. Duck into a winter pop-up bar to warm up following your tour of magical holiday lighting. Different attractions start and end on different dates, so check ahead. Market until 31 December, across Ghent
After cancelling the market part of Winter in Antwerp last year, the port city is back in full swing. It’s one of the biggest Christmas markets in the country, peppered with spectacular light decorations, surprise performances and an ice skating rink. Joe Christmas House hosts live bands and DJs on Grote Markt, where you’ll also find one of two winter bars, both of which are home to all kinds of performances. Handschoenmarkt in front of the cathedral is a fairy-tale of lighting, open-air choral concerts and a traditional nativity. All of this is easy to find: Just follow the string of lights from Central Station. Until 8 January, across Antwerp
The Meise Botanical Garden is beautiful in every season, but it has an especially enchanting look in the weeks bridging the new year. Winter Floridylle is a trail of glowing light installations of flowers and other plants, inspired by the garden’s collections. There is also a convivial winter village with food and drinks. Until 8 January, Nieuwelaan 38, Meise
The Bokrijk open-air museum in Limburg is getting its light from fire during the first week of the school holiday. Winterlicht features fire performers and installations, as well as a traditional holiday village with craftspeople and historical attractions. 26-30 December, Bokrijklaan 1, Genk
As the oldest winter market in Belgium, Liège’s Christmas Village is a convivial feast of attractions modelled on German and Alsatian markets. It’s also the biggest with around 200 chalets spread around five zones in the city. Place Cathédrale hosts the popular light-festooned skating rink (open until 8 January) and the big wheel is conveniently located in Place Saint-Lambert for a glittering panoramic view of all this Christmas cheer. As well as local and gourmet edible delights, Liège folk have an endless appetite for cold-busting dishes such as raclette, tartiflette and fondue, served in cosy wooden chalet as well as individual stands. Naturally, local alcohol pekèt will be flowing along with other winter-warming liquid refreshments. The extensive programme includes a DJ set with dancing in Place Saint-Lambert every Thursday evening, while adjacent stands offer a welcome happy hour. Until 30 December, across Liège
The Walloon capital’s Christmas market and end-of-year festivities bring a welcome sparkle to Place d’Armes and other pockets of the city centre. Among energy-saving measures, the seasonal ice rink in Place de l’Ange has been replaced by a roller skating track, and there’s fewer illuminations than previous years. Wax statues replace some light installations. Otherwise, you can expect the usual visit from Santa, folklore parades and fairground rides. Some 70 wooden chalets offer a colourful array of gifts and crafts, plus a mouth-watering selection of warming food and drink options. A New Year’s Eve firework display is set to light up the sky above the Meuse valley on 31 December. Take advantage of free shuttle buses in and out of the city. Until 31 December (market); until 8 January (roller rink)
More than 50 chalets fill the Christmas Village in Place de la Digue. The square is also the stage for nuggets of festive entertainment, including a wish tree, seasonal parades, an evening dedicated to the 90s and choir performances. A series of Pop Up Chalets invites new artisans weekly to ply gifts and delicious fare, from Christmas cookies and home-made chocolate to pastries and charcuterie. An ice rink graces Place Verte (skating lessons on Tuesday evening and Sunday mornings), plus initiations into artistic skating. It’s time to get your skates on! Until 31 December 12.00-22.00, Place de la Digue & Place Verte, Charleroi
Hainaut capital Mons hosts Cœur en Neige in five designated zones spread around the city: the medieval Grand-Place, Place du Marché, Croix-Place, Carré des Arts, the Anciens Abattoirs and Place Louise. The surrounding cobbled shopping streets also get a look in with illuminations and activities brightening their way. In the main square, find giant nutcrackers, ski cabins and real fir trees. A two-storey Alsatian wood-clad chalet is an atmospheric hub for eating and drinking, while guest country Germany fills some 12 wooden huts serving delicious regional fare, and provides music and storytelling activities. Until 31 December, across Mons
One of Wallonia’s most popular holiday attractions is Durbuy Christmas Village and Market. After its closure last year, crowds are tipped to descend on the tourist village specialising in artisan goodies and decorative crib scenes. One of the prettiest spots in the Ardennes, it’s narrow cobbled streets, peppered with restaurants, are a perfect backdrop for festive scenes. Among the popular gourmet treats, and not for the faint-hearted, are hot potatoes served with melting foie gras. For the holiday season there’s also an ice skating rink in Roi Baudouin park, which is apparently less energy-guzzling than usual. Until 8 January, Parc Roi Baudouin, Durbuy (Luxembourg province)
Noël au Château promises a warm welcome and romantic atmosphere in a sumptuous castle setting. Fairylights, flaming torches and braziers light up the seasonal market. Among the artisans occupying wooden chalets are an iron forger, wool spinner and wood turner to name a few. Gourmet delights - savoury and sweet - include regional specialities and craft brews. Every Thursday and Friday evening, from 2 to 23 December, enjoy a tipple at the Apéros du Château. Actors and dancers features in the video-mapping show that recounts the history of the heritage site and how it has long been protected by forest spirits. Until 18 December, Château de Rixensart, Drève du Château
Photos: (main image) © Belga/Nicolas Maeterlinck
Ixelles? Before Covid there was always a Christmas market. Nothing in 2022 apparently. On the website of the commune no info at all.