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A guide to Christmas in Belgium

Saintly Sinterklaas, scrumptious smoutebollen & some of the best Christmas markets in Europe

bruge xmas
© Ricardo Samaniego - licence

Belgium is a particularly magical place to spend the festive season, with many unique traditions to learn about, plenty of delicious food and drink specialities to sample, and some amazing Christmas shopping to be done. During the month of December, lavish decorations are put up in the centre of Belgium’s towns and cities, helping to create a fairy tale atmosphere, especially in the older and more historic locations such as Brussels, Bruges, and Antwerp.

One of the main reasons that people travel to Belgium over the festive season is to visit one of the many Christmas markets that spring up in the town squares and parks of many cities. They range in size and attractions, but they all have one thing in common: their marvellous Christmas crafts and cuisine. People flock from all over the world to revel in the many delights of these markets, making them one of the main annual draws to the country.

If you are thinking of visiting Belgium, one of the best times to do so is over the Christmas period. It might be one of the busiest periods, but the hustle and bustle of people in the cobbled streets is part of what makes this time of year so magical. To help you plan your trip and to get to grips with Belgium at Christmastime, we’ve put together a guide to Belgian Christmas that will equip you with everything you need to know to enjoy your trip.

Christmas traditions in Belgium

733px-Belgium_provinces_regions_striped
 © Stevenfruitsmaask - licence

A map of Belgium’s three main language regions: the yellow represents Dutch, the red is French, and the blue is German speaking. The orange represents bilingual areas.

In Belgium, there are three official national languages, with Flemish-Dutch and French spoken by the majority of people and a tiny minority speaking German near the country’s eastern border. Each of these languages has its own unique Christmas traditions that are celebrated and followed by its speakers. 

What do Belgians call Santa Claus?

Sinterklaas-Capelle-DSC_0355
© Wouter Engler - licence

Sinterklaas riding his horse, Slecht Weer Vandaag

One thing that Flemish and French speakers have in common when it comes to Christmas is the folkloric figure who is behind their traditions. Known as Sinterklaas or St. Niklaas in Flemish, and Saint Nicholas in French, he is based on the religious figure in Christianity of Nikolaos of Myra, and fulfils the traditional role of Christmas gift-giver.

In the Christian religion, Nikolaos was a man who lived during Roman times and performed many miracles during his lifetime. Later, because of his deeds, he was venerated as a saint of the church, becoming widely known as Saint Nicholas. Due to his celebrated generous nature and habit of secret gift-giving, he has become the basis for many western Christmas traditions, including those of the Flemish and French speakers of Belgium.

Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas is portrayed as an elderly man who has flowing white hair and a full beard. He dresses like a bishop, with a red cape or chasuble draped over a white robe. He is often pictured wearing a red mitre, a ruby ring, and carrying a golden ceremonial staff. He rides a white horse, known as Slecht Weer Vandaag (Bad Weather Today) in Flemish.

Who is Zwarte Piet?

Zwarte PietSaint Nicholas is said to be accompanied by his loyal companion Zwarte Piet, who is traditionally portrayed as a man wearing black make-up and period costume to resemble a Moor from Spain — a historical name given to Muslim people of Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. He travels with Saint Nicholas as they make their annual journey from Spain to the Low Countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands. Originally seen as a more villainous companion, he has grown more into a figure who amuses children with tricks and sweets.

Today, Piet is considered to be a controversial figure due to the dated nature of his dress and role as assistant, which is often labelled as racist. While many consider the character as harmless tradition, he is often the subject of protest by people angered by the connotations of his costume and backstory.

The idea that Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet arrive from Spain is theorised to originate from the mandarin oranges that are handed out during their arrival ceremony, which takes place on the 11th November. The arrival ceremony is televised in Belgium, and involves Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arriving by steamboat and parading through the streets, handing out gifts.

Who are Père Noël and Père Fouettard?

pere fouttardSpeakers of French and Walloon in Belgium may also (or alternatively) celebrate the coming of Père Noël, a figure who shares many traits with Sinterklaas. He is accompanied by his associate, Père Fouettard, who fulfils a similar role to Zwarte Piet, though with a much more sinister backstory. 

The most popular tale of Père Noël and Père Fouettard’s meeting goes that Fouettard was once an innkeeper who captured and killed three rich children when robbing them. Père Noël discovered this crime, resurrected the children, and forced Fouettard to repent and become his partner. 

Père Fouettard is most often depicted as Père Noël’s direct opposite, wearing dark robes instead of red, and appearing dishevelled instead of well-dressed. He is armed with a stick or a whip to carry out punishments for misbehaving children, earning him his name which translates as ‘Father Whipper’. Père Fouettard is well known for distributing bundles of twigs and lumps of coal to bad children too.

© Frank Guy - licence

 

Saint Nicholas’s Eve and Day

saint nic toys
© Jean-Pol Grandmont - licence

Between the 4th and the 6th December, Belgium celebrates its gift-giving tradition. The 6th is the traditional Christian saint’s day for Nicholas, while the 5th is known as Saint Nicholas’s Eve and is also the day that the main presents are delivered. It is said that Sinterklaas visits homes on the evening of 4th December to check on children’s behaviour, leaving them a small festive gift if they have been good.

Before going to bed on the 4th December, children leave their shoes near the fireplace or central radiator and a small gift for Sinterklaas nearby or in the shoe, often a cookie or a drawing. A carrot for his horse is sometimes included, as well as something for Zwarte Piet. Popular gifts left for children include mandarin oranges, traditional baked treats like pepernoten or speculaas, and chocolate letters matching the child’s initials.

Older tales of the duo have them carrying a sack with them containing both treats for well-behaved children and a birch rod to spank those that have misbehaved. Some stories tell of Zwarte Piet putting particularly bothersome children in the sack and taking them away to Spain. These stories were probably told to suit the needs of parents who wanted to keep their children in line over the festive period.

In Belgium, children receive their main presents on either Saint Nicholas’s Eve or Saint Nicholas’s Day, though most families tend to wait until the morning of the 6th December before they open their presents. The evening before, it is common for a sack or bag of gifts to be left outside of the door, where a neighbour will knock and pretend to be either Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet leaving the presents for the children. For many families, St. Nicholas’s Day is also considered a religious occasion, so they may attend church services or enjoy a family meal together in celebration.

Christmas Eve and Day in Belgium

christmas-tree-with-fireplace

Although people in Belgium celebrate their gift-giving earlier in December, they still mark Christmas Eve and Day on the 24th and 25th December as a religious and family occasion. Belgians enjoy a traditional meal and gathering, as well as decorating their homes and a tree in the spirit of the season. Although it is not usually seen as an occasion for giving gifts to children, adults sometimes prefer to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on Saint Nicholas’s Day, which is viewed as more of a holiday for children. It isn’t uncommon for children who have outgrown the 6th December to prefer to receive their gifts on Christmas Eve too.

During the run-up to Christmas, many people will flock to the Christmas markets that open up in the centre of towns and cities to buy decorations, food, and drink. They are the perfect place to pick up gifts and supplies before the big day, as many of the stalls specialise only in festive products. Even if the children have received the majority of their presents earlier in the month, it isn’t uncommon for parents to give them a smaller present that might be Christmas-themed to mark Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve, most families will have a gathering around at their own or a relative’s home. The family meal of the period is eaten on Christmas Eve, with most people preparing a relative feast with multiple courses — you can find out much more about Belgian festive food later in this guide. After the meal, many families will open their presents to one another, which are stored beneath the branches of the Christmas tree. For any people that are marking the religious occasion, midnight masses are popularly attended at many local churches.

Christmas Day in Belgium is much the same as in many western countries, with a large breakfast before visiting many friends and relatives. The day is spent enjoying the company of family, and it is commonplace to relax watching the festive television schedule, where Christmas films and themed shows are shown. 

New Year’s Eve and Day in Belgium

Fireworks

New Year’s Eve in Belgium is the best excuse people have all year to let their hair down and party the night away. Many families enjoy a meal together in the evening before heading somewhere to greet the year to come. Young people will either go out to a party venue or attend a house gathering where the drinking and dancing will commence.

Belgium takes its New Year celebrations seriously, with many cities hosting outdoor parties and concerts in their parks and town squares — usually followed by a whole truckload of fireworks. It’s traditional at midnight to exchange greetings with friends with an absolute minimum of three kisses to the cheek.

Like Christmas Day, New Year’s Day is a time for family, so most people find themselves relaxing and sharing even more food and drink with their loved ones. If a Belgian has celebrated a little bit too much the night before, the peace and quiet that accompanies New Year’s Day is perfect. In the Flanders and Wallonia regions, children are encouraged to write and read a poem celebrating the day to their grandparents or godparents, who in turn reward them with some extra Christmas money.

Three Kings’ Day in Belgium

3 kings day

On the 6th January, Belgium’s festive season ends with a day called Three King’s Day, which is a Christian feast day that commemorates the visiting of the three wise men to Jesus. Children dress up as the kings and go from house to house singing the song We Three Kingsand in return receive small amounts of money or sweet treats. Bakeries make special cakes called king cake, also known as koningentaart in Dutch and galette des rois in French, which is a frangipane cake topped with a paper crown. A small trinket is baked inside the cake, and tradition has it that whoever finds it is the king or queen for the day.

Belgian Christmas food and drink

belgians

It is often said that Belgian cuisine is served in the quantity of German food, but with the quality of the French, so there is much to look forward to when eating and drinking in the country. The festive period is a particularly good time to visit, as the country is awash with delicious delicacies which celebrate its excellent reputation for fine dining. There are a number of specialities that you can only find at Christmas, so a festive visit is a must if you want to try them.

To help you out, we’ve listed some of the best Belgian food and drink that you should look out for on your trip. The list contains some things that are only really available over the festive period and also some trademark dishes that are so good that you should be trying them at any time of the year.

Boudin

Boudin
© Guillaume Richer - licence

Although boudin is not exclusively Belgian, as a nation they do it pretty well. It is a type of sausage that is usually made with pork, but can also be made with veal or chicken. Belgian boudin comes in two main varieties: blanc (white) and noir (black). The noir type has blood as an ingredient, which gives it a dark red, almost black colouring, while the blanc has no blood in it and sometimes has milk included, giving it a paler colour. The noir sausage is quite similar to the British dish of black pudding.

While this description might not sound immediately appealing, sausages made by someone with great talent can transcend their iffy ingredients and become a taste sensation. The best boudin for the first-time trier is one that is homemade and has been produced using fresh ingredients. You can find skilled charcuterie stalls at most markets, and they are quite popular at the Christmas markets that set up shop during December.

Belgian Chocolate

Belgian Chocolate
© Frank Wouters - licence

There is a very good chance that you will have heard the words ‘Belgian’ and ‘chocolate’ together before, and for good reason too. Along with Switzerland, Belgium is one of the most respected chocolate producers in Europe, which is a result of the care, skill, and premium ingredients that go into making it.

The Belgians are very proud of their chocolate industry, shown in the regulations that have been in place since 1894. These prevent any lowering of the high standard of chocolate production and try to define what makes their chocolate so special, such as the high-quality ingredients and expert craftsmanship. Today, there is a voluntary Belgian chocolate code which stipulates that anything labelled ‘Belgian chocolate’ must be made within Belgium.

There are quite a few firms who like to produce their chocolates by hand, which takes a lot of effort and is also the reason that smaller independent chocolatiers are so popular. If you are visiting a Christmas market, you won’t be able to miss the abundant confectionary stalls, where artisan chocolatiers sell their products. Even if you are buying gifts for someone else, there is sometimes the unmissable opportunity to try the chocolate for yourself before you buy. 

Cougnou

Cougnou
© Zinneke - licence

Cougnou is a speciality found across many of the southern Low Countries, but the renowned bakeries in Belgium really serve up a treat when it comes to this type of bread. It is also known as the ‘the bread of Jesus’ due to the resemblance the shape of the loaf has to a swaddled baby and its popularity during the Christmas period. Many Belgians also bake this type of bread at home with their own tried-and-tested family recipe that has been passed down through the generations.

Cougnou is a sweet yeast bread that originated from the Hainaut province of Belgium, and is usually made with eggs, flour, warm milk, soft butter, raisins, fruit pieces, granulated sugar, salt, cinnamon, and dry yeast. It is a popular treat for children over the Christmas period, and is traditionally enjoyed with a nice mug of hot chocolate.

You can try cougnou at almost any bakery or market in Belgium over the festive period, and you may be able to choose from a few varieties, such as chocolate-filled and raisin types. 

Glühwein

Glühwein

Roughly translated as ‘glow wine’, glühwein is a type of mulled wine popular during the Christmas season. Although glühwein is mainly associated with German-speaking countries, it has become a widely consumed festive drink across Europe, particularly at Christmas markets where it is probably the most popular beverage served. A visit to a Belgian Christmas market is no different, and you can indulge in a glass of wine that has become one of the true tastes of the season.

Traditionally, glühwein is made with red wine which has been flavoured with various mulling spices, such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, citrus, sugar, and sometimes vanilla pods. The warm and tasty drink is a great antidote to the cold temperatures that can grip the country in December.

Jenever

Jenever
© Paul Hermans - licence

Jenever is the national spirit of Belgium, and is closely related to gin, which evolved from it. The spirit is regulated by the European Union so that it can only be distilled in Belgium, the Netherlands, and areas of Germany and France to preserve its pure heritage.

There are two different types of jenever: oude (old) and jonge (young), which are not age dependent, but come from two different distilling techniques. The spirit is juniper-flavoured but each type has a different flavour. Jonge has a taste closer to the neutrality of vodka, while oude jenever has an aromatic taste with malty tones, sometimes akin to whisky.

You can taste the national drink of Belgium at one of its many Christmas markets, which are held in almost every city. Stalls will often be willing to give you a small taste of the spirit before you go ahead and purchase a bottle, so be sure to take advantage and have a taste of Belgium’s favourite tipple.

Pâté

Pâté
© David Monniaux - licence

There is a good chance that you have already come across pâté before. If you haven’t, it is a mix of cooked ground meat and fat minced into a spreadable paste that goes really well with fresh bread or as a side on a meal. It is a very popular food in many western nations, so what sets Belgian pâté apart?

Well, two of the world’s most famous spreads come from the country: Ardennes and Brussels, and no other country can really match up to the originals. Both pâtés are made with pretty much the same ingredients in pork liver and fat, but Ardennes is processed to give it a coarser texture, while Brussels has a much smoother spread.

In Belgium, pâté is most commonly served in two ways. Pâté en croute is when the pâté is baked into a crust as a loaf or a pie, while pâté en terrine is when it is baked in a terrine or moulded shape. At Christmas, this Belgian favourite is very popular as a course in family dinners. You can also purchase artisan pâtés from stalls at Christmas markets to enjoy at home.

Smoutebollen

Smoutebollen
© Teunie - licence

These fried dumplings are a delicacy in Belgium and the Netherlands, where they are known as oliebollen. At their most basic, they are from balls of dough that have been deep-fried and covered in powdered sugar. Because they are served piping hot, they are very popular in the winter, where they can be the perfect antidote to the freezing weather. The batter is traditionally made with eggs, flour, baking powder, sugar, butter, and blonde pils-type beer, which gives it a unique flavour.

Smoutebollen are a big favourite of visitors to Belgium’s Christmas markets, where a combination of their warming sensation and heavenly taste attracts shoppers by the bus-load. Market stalls selling these little dough balls often experiment with fillings, which can range from chocolate to apple to speculaas (explained below). These filled smoutebollen are very popular, though many people still prefer the classic unfilled version.

Speculaas

Speculaas
© Zerohund - licence

A tradition that goes back hundreds of years, baking speculaas (or speculoos in French) for Saint Nicholas’s Day in Belgium is a tradition that many families partake in. These ornate biscuits are thin, crunchy, and have a texture similar to shortbread, though sometimes they are slightly spiced. Each biscuit is usually stamped with a decorative pattern, often depicting a scene from a story involving Saint Nicholas.

Speculaas are usually baked around 6th December and tend to be a festive treat for the children in Belgian families, although adults have been known to eat their fair share too. They are a popular fixture at Christmas markets, where you can pick up biscuits ranging from the bite-size to the humungous. 

Trappist Beer

Trappist Beer
© Philip Rowlands - licence

 

Belgium is world famous for its beer, which it has been brewing since early medieval times. Probably the most well-known types of beer in the country are those that are brewed by Trappist monks in their monasteries.

Belgium is so proud of its Trappist beers that it has made it a protected term, so any beers wanting to use the label ‘Trappist beer’ must be brewed in a monastery by monks and the profits from its sale must go towards the monastery or its social programmes.

Chimay is one of the most famed Trappist breweries, and its Chimay Blue is considered to be its ‘classic’ ale and one of the world’s finest. It is a dark beer with a light head and a slightly bitter taste, and well worth a try. Another beer to look out for is Rochefort 10, which has a secret recipe and can be aged for up to five years.

If you plan on sampling some of these Trappist beers, take care, as some of them can be quite strong. You may want to pace yourself when drinking them, which is also the best way to truly appreciate their rich and unique flavours.

Waffles

Waffles
© Ralph Daily - licence

Although they are one of the USA’s favourite breakfast foods, waffles are originally from Belgium, so where better to taste the real deal? Known as Belgian waffles around the world, unsurprisingly the Belgian people don’t feel the need to refer to them by this name. Generally, waffles are flattened batter or dough, which is cooked between two plates to give it the signature grid pattern.

There are several kind of waffles in the country, including the light, crisp, and large pocketed Brussels waffle, and the denser, chewier, and sweeter Liège waffle. In total, there are over 12 regional varieties, so there is plenty of excuse for trying different styles. You can buy all kinds of Belgian waffles at the Christmas markets that are set up all over the country — a very sweet way to start your day or even for lunch.

What’s the weather like in Belgium at Christmas?

snow bruges canal
© Fdecomite - licence

The climate in Belgium is temperate, quite similar to southern England, with four distinct seasons. December has an average temperature of around 5°C, with average highs of 6°C and lows of 3°C. If you stay into January, the temperature can drop even further to an average of 3°C. The country’s temperate climate also means that it is subject to year-round rainfall — with an amount of 65–70mm usually falling in December. 

Will it snow in Belgium at Christmas?

While there is a chance it might snow at Christmas in Belgium, like the UK, the chances of a white Christmas are fairly low. The Belgian capital Brussels classifies a white Christmas as there being a layer of snow at least 3cm thick at Uccle climatological park at 8am on the 25th December. The last time there was an official white Christmas in the city was in 2010, when 16cm fell, the largest amount since 1964.

Although the odds of a white Christmas are not great, that isn’t to say you won’t experience snow when you visit earlier or later in December or January. Brussels has a 9% probability that snow will be reported at least once on the 1st December, rising to a peak of 14% probability on the 30th. The chances of snow actually lying on the ground is lower, with a high 9% chance on the 31st December.

What clothes should I pack for a trip to Belgium at Christmas?

Because of the strong chance of rain, it is wise to bring a waterproof jacket with some extra layers just in case the temperature drops a few degrees. Likewise, you can also reduce the amount of layers you are wearing if the weather is a bit warmer over the period. If the forecast looks like it will be extra cold, you should definitely pack a scarf and some gloves to make sure you won’t catch the chills. It is always best to wear walking shoes or boots when visiting in the winter months, as there are quite a few cobbled streets that can become slippery if they ice over. Not only that, but the extra level of comfort makes them the ideal choice for browsing Christmas markets or sightseeing, when you’ll be on your feet for extended periods of time.

Belgian Christmas markets

From late November to early January is Christmas market season in Belgium, where almost every city in the country adds beautiful decorations, appealing attractions, and intriguing stalls to their historic town squares and parks. The season is one of the busiest for the country’s tourism industry, with many people visiting for the sole purpose of taking in one or more of the fantastic Christmas markets available.

While this means that there will be crowds of people when you visit, this is all part of the atmosphere of visiting a festive market. The large numbers of revellers add to the feeling of togetherness and enjoyment — nobody would want to visit a quiet and empty Christmas market after all!

To help you decide which Christmas markets you want to visit in Belgium, we’ve put together a few suggestions below, with key information for each market, including: when and where it is held, what its best attractions are, whether there are any goods that the market is famous for, and some typical prices for shopping and services.

Antwerp Christmas market

antwerp xmas
© Raju Jasai - licence

When: 10th December 2016 until 8th January 2017. The opening ceremony, which includes a spectacular sound and light show, takes place on the 10th December and can attract over 100,000 people. There is a New Year’s Eve firework display over the scenic river Scheldt on the 31st December, and closing New Year’s drinks on the 8th January.

The market is open for business from 12.00 to 21.00 from Monday to Thursday, from 12.00 to 23.00 on Friday, from 11.00 to 23.00 on Saturday, and 11.00 to 21.00 on Sunday.

Where: The centre of Antwerp — the Grote Markt, Suikerrui, Handschoenmarket, and the Groenplaats are all transformed into a fantastic maze of shopping stalls, food and beverage stands, and various Christmas attractions.

Language: Flemish Dutch

Attractions: There are over 90 stalls offering a wide selection of excellent seasonal goods, including crafts, decorations, and delicacies. A Ferris wheel that stands over 90m tall provides the perfect vantage point for a romantic view over the city. There is a 1,200m² ice skating rink with a separate children’s rink that overlooks the river. More fun can also be had on the miniature golf course and tubing run that are open as well.

Specialities: Antwerp market has a great range of traditional Belgian specialities available from its many stalls. You can try some traditional Belgian jenever or beer, or partake in a cup of glühwein, while munching on some sweet treats like smoutebollen or beignets. There are plenty of handmade gifts available to take home for your loved ones.

Typical prices:  Single cakes and snacks can cost between €0.75 to €2. Look for multi-buy deals if there is more than one of you or you want to save some for later.

Expect to pay anywhere from €3.50 to €6 for a 500ml draught beer; 330ml bottles are available from around €3 to €5. A soft drink can cost between €1 to €2.50 depending on the size purchased, while a coffee can cost between €2 to €3.50 and a cappuccino €2.50 to €4, depending on where you go. Jenever will typically cost around €2.50 per shot, but can be more expensive if you go for a pricier spirit.

For more information about Antwerp, visit the city’s tourism website.

Bruges Christmas market

Bruges_Christmas_market_2013

When: 18th November 2016 until 1st January 2017. There is also a celebration of the Mid-Winter Festival on the 11th December, which is in its 15th year in 2016. The day is a chance to see traditional Belgian crafts being produced for sale, with events taking place at the Lace and Adornesmuseum and the Folklore Museum.

The market has business hours of 10.30 to 22.00 Monday to Thursday and on Sunday. Extended opening hours are available on Friday and Saturday, from 10.30 to 23.00.

Where: In the centre of Bruges, the Grote Markt and Simon Stevinplein provide the venue for wooden chalets and other stalls selling their Christmas wares.

Language: Flemish Dutch, with many English speakers.

Attractions: The Bruges market is relatively intimate, with around 30 or so stalls open for business, but the fantastically picturesque setting of the city makes it a must visit for anyone. There is a beautifully lit ice rink that is open in the Grote Markt, where you can skate beneath the iconic shadow of the city’s famed bell tower.

Also well worth visiting during the market dates is the Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival, also known as Ice Magic, where you can view marvellous sculpted art in this year’s theme of ‘The Land of the Hobbits’, inspired by the work of famed fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. The festival takes place at Stationsplein, near Bruges’s main railway station, and runs from late November to early January.

Specialities: One of the very first things you will be tempted by is the delicious braadworst sausages and the fragrant glühwein that is often drank to wash it down. There are also stalls that specialise in serving a humungous range of jenever, so if you feel like quaffing a few, make sure you have a late start the next morning. There is a hearty option for those who are looking for something more substantial, with tartiflette savoyarde served that is worthy of its Alpine origins.

Typical prices:  The ice skating rink in the Grote Markt costs €6 for entry and skate hire. Food and drink from the market varies in price, with typical amounts being between €4 and €7 for hot dishes, and between €3 and €5 for alcoholic beverages. If you want to dine in one of the restaurants on the city’s central square, be prepared to pay more for your meal —the magical view of the lights and the architecture come at a premium.

Brussels Christmas market

Brussels Christmas market
© Miguel Discart - licence

When: 25th November 2016 until 1st January 2017. The market is open for business 12.00 to 21.00 from Monday to Thursday, and 12.00 to 22.00 on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Where: The market is located in the heart of Brussels, where the majority of the stalls can be found at the Grand Place and Place Sainte-Catherine, though a few are located on the Bourse and Marché aux Poissons.

Language: Both French and Flemish Dutch. The capital is bilingual and also has a high amount of English speakers. Road signs are in both French and Dutch.

Attractions: The Christmas market in Brussels, officially known as the ‘Winter Wonders’, is one of the largest in Belgium, boasting around 250 stalls that sell a variety of trinkets, arts and crafts, beers, wine, and delicious treats. Each year, a guest country or city is selected to be represented with goods and cuisine from the region. In 2015, it was Tunisia who visited, while the guest for 2016 is yet to be announced.

The wooden chalets in the Grand Place sell their festive goods under the shadow of the Brussels Christmas tree, which usually stands at around 20m in height. The tree is traditionally selected from the Ardennes forest and transported to the city centre. The nearby Town Hall is the subject of a magical light show, with a rainbow of different colours bathing the historic building in a stunning glow.

The city is also host to two other major attractions: a 55m Ferris wheel and a 60m ice rink are both located at Marché aux Poissons. You can take a ride on the Ferris wheel to get unbelievable views of the cityscape and the Christmas market, while the ice rink offers the perfect escape if you are looking to take a break from shopping. There is also a carousel for the kids, so they can experience some good old-fashioned fairground fun.

Specialities: Brussels Christmas market is renowned for its fine array of food and drink. Many visitors soon become big fans of the Belgian waffles and gingerbread, which are sweet and extremely tasty. For those looking for something more substantial, the fresh seafood paella, while not traditionally Belgian, is said to be one of the culinary highlights for a lot of people.

On the crafts front, there are quite a few stalls that sell hand-knitted hats and scarves, which are perfect if you have left yours at home or just want to bring back a practical gift for a loved one. They are available in a variety of colours and patterns, from Christmassy reds and greens to brighter shades that really catch the eye.

Typical prices:  As Brussels is the capital city, expect goods and services to cost a little extra. A moderately priced meal in the evening can come to between €20 and €40 for two people, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant can cost around €60.

From the market, hot food can cost around €5 to €8. Alcoholic beverages typically cost a little more than other Belgian cities — expect to pay €4 or more for a 500ml beer or a glass of wine. If you feel like drinking a little less, try sampling the jenever from the market, which costs roughly €2.50 a measure.

You can find out more details about Winter Wonders on the city’s tourism website.

Ghent Christmas market

Ghent Christmas market
© Tom Chance - licence

When: 18th November 2016 until 3rd January 2017. The market is open from 13.00 to 21.00 from Monday to Friday, and 11.00 to 21.00 on Saturday and Sunday.

Where: The market stretches out across the city centre, including Sint-Baafsplein, Klein Turkije and the Korenmarkt.

Language: Flemish Dutch

Attractions: Against the backdrop of twinkling lights, the Ghent Christmas market has real international flavour, as well as a healthy dose of traditional Belgian. There are over 50 chalets, each selling festive goods including decorations, candles, cards, and other gifts. The great mixture of food and drink stalls serve up a real culinary treat, and a walk through them will greet you with many delicious smells as the food is prepared.

Under the architecturally striking city pavilion, an ice skating rink is installed during the winter, where you can enjoy skating with locals and other visitors alike. A Ferris wheel also comes to town for a residency in front of St. Bavo’s cathedral, which you can ride to enjoy the very best view of the city and its lights by night.

There are also regular musical performances by local artists, covering styles as diverse as jazz, folk, and rock. For a real festive atmosphere, there are also performances by choirs and brass bands, who perform traditional Christmas carols and songs.

Specialities: If there is one thing Ghent market is famous for, it’s the diverse street food that is on offer. You can browse the stalls to your stomach’s content, trying Italian sausages, hams, and cheeses, before munching on some classic Belgian smoutebollen. You can also sample the many homemade condiments on offer, like the Belgian mustard or the organic honey.

Typical prices: Ghent is a fairly affordable city, especially compared to the nearby capital, Brussels. Lunch for one in a decent restaurant can cost between €12 and €20, while a three-course meal for two in a nice eatery will set you back around €50.

If you want to stop for a drink somewhere, a draught 500ml Belgian beer or a glass of wine will cost approximately €3 to €4, and a 330ml bottle will cost between €2.50 and €3. At the market, you can buy cakes and snacks for €0.75 to €2 each, but it is worth buying in bulk as you can often save money with a deal — great if you want to enjoy some later.

Winterland Hasselt

Winterland Hasselt
© Paul Hermans - licence

When: 19th November to 8th January 2017. Winterland Hasselt is open each day of the week from 10.00 until 22.00, with reduced hours of 10.00 to 18.00 on Christmas Eve and 13.00 to 22.00 on Christmas Day. The New Year’s Eve party at the market is on until 2.00.

Where: Kolonel Dusartplein in Hasselt, a large square just north of the city centre.

Language: Flemish Dutch

Attractions: TheWinterland Hasselt is much more than a Christmas market; it is a whole festival that celebrates the season that has earned Hasselt the moniker ‘the most atmospheric Christmas town in Belgium’. The market itself is home to 80 stalls, selling artisan crafts from all over the world, including Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic, Peru, Russia, France, the Netherlands, and many made in Belgium. The market also has regular craft demonstrations where you can witness skills like candle-making and wood carving in action, and even have a go yourself.

The festive wonders don’t stop at the market, with many sights to be discovered. One of the most popular is the House of Santa Claus, which is a replica of the Lapland Home of Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, Finland. This log cabin is a great place to visit for adults and children alike, with guided tours and a chance to visit Santa himself.

Winterland Hasselt is also host to the largest mobile skating rink in Belgium at 1,000m², where you can skate around the giant Christmas tree that resides on the island in the middle of the ice. The thrills continue as you explore the rest of the festival, with a number of rides, such as an antique carousel, a Christmas funhouse and a ghost mansion, adding a healthy dose of fun for serious shoppers.

As well as the refreshments on offer from the market, you can indulge yourself in either the Grand Café or the nearby Aspen Lounge, which is decorated in the style of a traditional Aspen après ski lodge. The lounge offers upmarket food and drink, such as oysters and champagne, as well as a large collection of gins and jenever.

Typical prices: If you want to eat in the festive surroundings of the festival itself, there are a number of options, including sampling some smaller Belgian treats from the Christmas market, or you can sit down to a meal in Guus’ Thing, a pop-up restaurant. For a three-course meal, expect to pay between €30 and €45.

A draught beer in Hasselt will cost between €2.50 and €4, depending on where you stop for a drink. A glass of wine will be around the same price. If you want to try the jenever on offer in and around the market, it is worth asking for a sample, which is usually free. This way you can decide whether you really like it before splashing out on a bottle.

Visit Hasselt Winterland’s official website for more information.

Belgian Christmas phrases

market stall
© Andrew Stawarz - licence

Belgium is a country with three main languages, and which one you will hear will depend on whereabouts you are visiting, with Flemish Dutch spoken in the north, French in the south, and a tiny bit of German near the border in the east. Belgians are very friendly, but they will warm to you even quicker if you are able to share a few words of their language with them.

It should be noted that if you are planning on speaking some Flemish Dutch or French, it can often be considered rude to begin a conversation in the wrong language in the wrong area. So take care not to address someone from Flanders in French and someone from Wallonia in Flemish, or you may get a bemused look.

Nevertheless, using a few phrases in the right area can earn you a lot of respect from the locals. Take a look at some of the useful phrases we have listed for you below to brush up.

Greetings

English Phrase

Flemish Dutch

French

Hi

Hoi

Salut

Good day

Goeiedag

Bonjour

Good evening

Goeden avond

Bonsoir

Goodbye

Tot Ziens

Au revoir

 

Christmas Phrases

Christmas Day

Kerstdag

Le jour de Noël

Christmas Eve

Kerstavond

La veille de Noël

New Year’s Day

Nieuwjaarsdag

Le Jour de l’An

New Year’s Eve

Oudejaarsavond

La Saint-Sylvestre

Christmas present

Kerstcadeau

Un cadeau de Noël

Christmas tree

Kerstboom

L’arbre de Noël

Season’s greetings!

Groeten van het seizoen!

Meilleurs vœux!

Merry Christmas!

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

Joyeux Noël!

Happy New Year!

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

Bonne Année!

White Christmas

Witte kerst

Noël sous la neige

 

Etiquette

Thank You

Dank u wel

Merci

Please

Alstublieft

S'il vous plait

Excuse me

Excuseer mij

Excusez-moi

Yes/No

Ja/Nee

Oui/Non

Sorry! (for a mistake)

Sorry!

Pardon!

Where is the toilet, please?

Waar is het toilet, alstublieft?

Où sont les toilettes s’il vous plait?

 

Shopping

What time do you close?

Hoe laat gaat u open?

A quelle heure fermez-vous?

At what time do you open?

Hoe laat gaat u dicht?

A quelle heure ouvrez-vous?

How much is it?

Hoeveel kost dat?

C’est combien?

Do you take credit cards?

Kan ik met een kredietkaart betalen?

Prenez-vous des cartes de crédit?

Do you have this in my size?

Heeft u dit in mijn maat?

Avez-vous ceci dans ma taille?

 

Emergencies

I don’t speak Flemish/French

Ik spreek geen Vlaams

Je ne parle pas Français

Do you speak English

Spreek jij engels

Parlez-vous anglais

I’m lost

Ik ben verloren.

Je suis perdu

I don’t understand

Ik versta het niet

Je ne comprends pas

I'm looking for a pharmacy

Waar is het apotheker?

Je cherche une pharmacie

I feel sick

Ik voel me ziek!

Je me sens malade

I need a doctor

Ik heb een dokter nodig

J’ai besoin d’un docteur

Where is the hospital?

Waar is het ziekenhuis?

Où est l'hôpital?

Where is the police station?

Waar is het politiebureau?

Où est le commissariat de police?

Call an ambulance

Bel een ambulance

Appelle une ambulance

 

Numbers

One

Één

Un

Two

Twee

Der

Three

Drie

Trois

Four

Vier

Quatre

Five

Vijf

Cinq

Six

Zes

Six

Seven

Zeven

Sept

Eight

Acht

Huit

Nine

Negen

Neuf

Ten

Tien

Dix

 

Visiting Belgium at Christmas

bruges-1288281_640

With its location in northwest Europe, Belgium has been shaped by the numerous waterways that flow through the country. Many of these rivers and canals are interlinked, making them the perfect way to explore the towns, cities, and countryside — especially at Christmas, where you can access the festive heart of these places from the convenience of the water.

Here at The River Cruise Line, we specialise in festive cruises to some of Belgium’s best Christmas markets, where you can indulge yourself in the magical atmosphere, delicious cuisine, and intricate crafts of some of the country’s most beguiling historic towns and cities. We’ve handpicked each of the locations that we cruise to for the fantastic experiences that they offer our passengers.

To find out more about our range of Christmas market cruises through this wonderful country, head over to our Belgium cruises page.