The thing about Christmas Markets is that it is always changing. This guide will give you a glimpse of what there is to offer, and what is available at those markets based off of research and my own experience for what to expect for the Brussels Christmas Market.
What to expect:
Christmas Markets in Europe are like Country Fairs in Texas. Instead of Cowboys, you have Saints and St Nicholas. Instead of Bulls and Pigs, you have reindeer and the Nativity.
The food is about the same with local culinary artisans exhibiting delicacies from around Belgium including the coveted Warm Apple Cider (spiked or unspiked). This pairs well with the famous Fritland Fries that are heart-stoppingly scrumptious.
Brussels Christmas Market takes place from 30 November 2018 to January 6th, 2019 on and around Grand-Place, Bourse, Place Sainte-Catherine and Marché aux Poissons. This particular Winter festival includes the magical son & lumière illuminations on the Grand-Place Christmas markets in the city center attractions including merry-go-rounds on Place Sainte-Catherine, the large wheel and ice rink at Place de la Monnaie, and stalls for stocking up on gifts and treats within a 1.2mile trail.
There are over 200 Chalets, which look like tiny log cabins adorning the streets complete with all sorts of gifts and gadgetry. You walk by each one and are wrapped in fresh leather smells, Christmas spices, organic lotions and soap bars, or my favorite….delicately balanced tea light oil diffusers and hummingbird candle mobiles. The last two were ones that I purchased for myself, as my Birthday was very close. The perfect place was waiting for these two items at home, right by my brand new giant tub with some lavender oil….doesn’t that sound absolutely divine!
I attempted to find the other areas that featured the singing choirs, the Ferris Wheel and ice rink as I wanted to experience the full European Christmas Market, but I was running out of phone battery (my GPS guide) and needed to save it for being able to get back to the train station. Twenty-four hours is not enough time to truly experience the European Christmas Market. The next Christmas Market I would love to visit is actually in London, I have heard this one is spectacular.
How to Experience the Brussels Christmas Market Properly:
If I had the chance to do this over again, I would start with my Self-Guided Tour of the Best of Brussels and end in the Grand Palace for the lighting of the tree and the Grand Palace. Stay overnight in a hotel near the Ferris Wheel or the Ice Rink, spend the day talking with locals and entreating myself to the local delicacies. Attend a free Christmas Concert that is part of the Brussels Christmas Market.
Take a side trip back to Amsterdam and walk along the Amsterdam Light Festival & experience Sinter Claus and Black Pete coming into town. Top it off with a Pancake and stay overnight in Amsterdam. Head back to Brussels the next day and finish off with visiting every one of the 200 Chalets that are apart of the Christmas Market (along with my lottery money 😉 and sip Cider in front of a fire and a good book in hand.
Where and What to Eat:
BookaLokal, where the concept is easy: food brings people together. With BookaLokal you can find yourself a guest at a dinner party in the home of a Brussels local. This is a way to try homemade, cultural fare while meeting people from all over the world gathered together at a single dinner table. Café du Sablon.
This welcoming café is a favorite hangout for ex-patriots and travelers, and you will almost always hear a constant hum of English being spoken here. Not to mention their specialty drinks menu puts Starbucks to shame. Café du Sablon: 1000, Rue de la Régence 26, 1000 Brussels, Belgium Train to Brussels: $48 Round Trip (1hr 51min)
The Christmas Market was a lot more chaotic than I expected, and I found myself getting a little overwhelmed with all the people. However, that being said, if I focused on one street at a time and interacted with the shopkeepers and asked about their products and how they made them, it helped with the anxiety a little. I was not able to visit all of the sites that encompass the Brussels Christmas Market, but I can confidently recommend this as a day trip from Amsterdam should you find yourself there in November or December.
As Always…..Happy Travels, Happy Tales, and See You on the Flip Side!
Traveling to Europe all the way from Utah can be quite expensive. I try to make the most of my time, but taking short trips to nearby cities. While visiting Amsterdam, I decided to take a day trip to Brussels. In trying to stick to my budget I opted for a self guided tour of Brussels. Here is what I consider to be the best of Brussels.
Place du Jeu de Balle
This Brussels neighborhood from 6 am to around noon plays host to the biggest flea market in central Brussels. It is a poorer area of town, and many of the vendors are immigrants who are selling a variety of knick-knacks from (what appears to be) estate sales.
I found it interesting to wander around and see what the people of Brussels actually keep in their homes. Imagining what would possess someone to buy the oddest pieces, but a common theme reigned true. There was loads of oriental plates and vases! This is likely from the Delftware pottery influence stemming back from when Amsterdam was heavily involved in the East Indian Trading company.
At the heart of the upscale Sablon neighborhood is the Grand Sablon and Petit Sablon squares. This is where many tourists go to start their quick tour of Brussels, but as I like to be involved in the local daily life, I found this to be quite interesting. Even if you don’t leave with anything, it is really fun to see locals just enjoying the busy atmosphere, a string quartet playing on the corner, and cute cafes nearby to just have an easy morning and wake your brain from the long train ride there. After your morning coffee in the Place du Jeu de Balle head to the Place Royale and all its museums with a stop in the Petit Sablon.
Palace Royale and The Museums
From the Petit Sablon, it’s a straight shot to the Palace Royale, the spacious square that sits atop the ruins of the Coudenberg Palace. The Coudenberg Palace was founded in the 12th century with subsequent successions it was transformed into quite the luxurious castle.
Sadly it burned down in 1731, after which the current royal district was built on top of its ruins. If you have the time, make sure to take an underground tour of the Coudenberg Palace ruins which I hear are quite impressive. Among the cream-colored neoclassical buildings are some of the more popular museums with tourists (the Magritte Museum, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts). Art Nouveau MIM (Musical Instruments Museum) and Art Deco precursor Bozar.
Royal Palace and Beetle Ceiling
As I was there in the Winter, and the Royal Palace is closed to visitors due to the Royal Family being in residence I was unable to see this famous Beetle ceiling. If you are going in the summer, be sure to pop in for a free glimpse at the monarch’s beetle ceiling. At the request of Queen, the ceiling was plastered, and the chandelier of the palace’s sumptuous Hall of Mirrors with 1.6 million scarab shields was installed.
The odd name for such a ceiling being: Heaven of Delight. There is a rumor that the artist who installed this hid tiny skull figures in the work as a reference to Belgium’s not too gentle colonial past in the Congo. Morbid, yes…..but we cannot run from history lest it repeats itself.
Mont Des Arts Garden
These geometric gardens designed by René Pechère’s geometric gardens and the medieval city residing below the gardens is one of the most photographed spots in all of Brussels. Originally designed by King Leopold II as a place to have the Arts magnified and put on a show after he bought and demolished the buildings that once stood here….the financing failed and was left in a dilapidated condition.
When the Expo in Brussels was approaching the King, fearing to appear destitute, ordered a temporary garden to be designed. It has undergone several renovations and upgrades, but for the most part remains what it was during that time period with the current geometric garden design being implemented between 1956 to 1958. It was nice to sit and enjoy the gardens for a bit. As a solo female traveler, it is difficult to get photos of yourself at times. But I can imagine a big flowy red dress on the stairs leading up to the Brussels City hall as a perfect spot to take a photo.
Manneken de Pis
Brussels’s pride and joy is a small statue of a small boy peeing into a water fountain. Apparently, this is a very characteristic of the humor of the people of Brussels. This Manneken has more outfits than I do, of all his hundreds of outfits….I’m sure there is one that you will find equally entertaining and offensive. The statue itself is quite crowded, even in the morning, with people trying to take a photo of the statue.
The statue itself is only about 15 inches tall, resides 10 feet off the ground and is behind a cast iron gate with monitors watching the area carefully. After you have taken some comical photos for your own viewing pleasure. Take a moment and look around at the place you are standing. You are currently in the Îlot Sacré or “Holy Island,” this block makes up the most historic (and most jam-packed with tourists). Indicating you have arrived in the best of the best of Brussels.
Right near the Mannekin de Pis, there is a beer bar with authentic Brussels Beers. I am not much of a Beer connoisseur or drinker myself, but if you fancy a dram of their golden liquid then be sure to visit the Moeder Lambic. I hear the waiting staff is quite knowledgeable and will be sure to wet your thrapple should you find your self-hankering for a delicious beer.
All roads in this Holy Island eventually lead to the Grand-Place. Even for those of us who have severe directional challenges (raise your hand if you feel me) it is hard to miss the towering medieval architecture. As you enter the Grand-Place Square, you will realize why this particular setting so inspired Victor Hugo to describe it as “a miracle”.
Be sure to pop into the King’s House, what is now the City Museum, for a look at the history of this place and other areas around Brussels. As I was visiting Brussels at the time of Christmas, we were greeted by the Royal Family for the opening day of the Christmas Market and the lighting of the Christmas Tree for the first time in the 2018 season. I didn’t actually know who they were until I got home, but when the crowds below the terrace suddenly started to cheer and wave at the elegantly dressed family above…..I assumed they were quite important and snapped a few photos. Moral of the story: always have your camera ready, and maybe find out who rules the country before you visit, lol.
Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert and the Taverne du Passage
If you walk about 3 blocks from the Grand-Palace, into a nearby alcove. You will find what looks like an indoor mall. This is, in fact, the Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert and the Taverne du Passage. If it hadn’t of been for the opening day of the Brussels Christmas Market, this is the place I would have done all my shopping. It is a little off the beaten path track of small shops that looks like many locals frequent for their shopping as well as is far less crowded than the streets around the Royal Palace.
The Galeries Royales was built around 1847, inspired by the Italian Renaissance which is evident by the statues adorning the ceiling walls. This place was the first of its kind, and really the beginning of strip malls everywhere (well at least in my opinion).
La Bourse and Fritland
La Bourse is a haunted place, and in more of a modern way, it was the site of the terrorist attacks in March 2016. In the shadow of the former stock exchange, that was anticipated to become the ultimate Belgian Beer Museum in 2018….people gathered in solidarity perusing peace after the deadly attacks. It was surreal to walk in this place and imagine what that horrific day must have felt like. To be excited about a new country visiting, and then suddenly chaos erupts. The streets are bustling again since then, but it makes me wonder, with all the traveling I am doing….will I one day be a witness to a massacre like the one they experienced?
It is a sobering thought, but after several minutes of haunting contemplation, I decided that I would not let the terrorists succeed in instilling fear of something that brings me so much joy. So I said a little prayer to those who were affected that day and decided to live out my life in joy as a way of protest against terrorism. Comfort food is always a good thing, maybe not for the waist, but you have to at least try the Fritland Fries! Despite being called French Fries, Brussels boasts that they were the real inventors of this savory treat.
These golden sticks are a source of pride, evident in Fritland’s decorations consisting of mostly the national flags. When you first approach Fritland, you will think something along the lines of, “UM! Hell to the no! I’m not waiting in that line for some fries”. I was so hungry I was glad to slow down for a minute and wait, and after observing the line… it moves quite rapidly. Be prepared to order your fries or meal quickly, once you get near the counter it is like trying to buy stocks on Wall Street in New York. A cacophony of grease splattering, garbled languages attempting to communicate, laughter, beer and loads of the goldenrod goodness. I personally tried the mitraillette, a sandwich jam-packed with fries, meat, veggies, and a sauce of your choosing.
A Successful Self-Guided Tour of Brussels
With a belly full of golden goodness from Fritland I headed back to the Grand Palace for the lighting of the tree and the famous Lumineres of the buildings of that square. I sipped on my Hot Chocolate and savored the delicious warm sweetness warming me from the inside out. Surrounded by the twinkling lights of the buildings and the tree, it was hard for me to leave. A certain calmness settled over me after the rushed events of the day.
I was proud of myself for doing this self-guided tour in such a short amount of time & grateful I made the decision to come to my first European Christmas Market. While this guide may not be the most glamorous of the guides you may find online, this was the perfect taste of Brussels for me & saved me quite a bit of money doing it this way. My wallet remained full and now that my belly was full, I headed back to Amsterdam to celebrate the rest of my Birthday in the home of my ancestors.
As Always….Happy Travels, Happy Tales, and See You on the Flip Side!
The first time I backpacked through Europe as a US Citizen, I was entirely overwhelmed and confused. I wasn’t the only foreign visitor who was confused, there were so many people who had questions about how this complex interconnecting system worked. So for those first timers out there, here are my Top 15 Tips for Travel by Train in Europe.
Just because you have a Eurail pass, doesn’t mean you have a reserved seat. So be sure to buy that extra ticket in order to reserve a seat. Also, make sure you are there at least 30 minutes early so you don’t miss your train. Especially if you are traveling across country lines. Only buy tickets from reputable places, there are a lot of scams in Europe around travel. Educate yourself on how to avoid scams in Europe.
2- Check Your Platform And Car Number
Get on the right train from the right platform. Look at the train names above the numbered platforms. Then make sure that the car you enter is the exact car you need to take. The cars separate at different stops and you don’t want to be left behind unknowingly.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, ASK!!!! Ask someone after you get on the train if you must. They will close the doors when the conductor blows the whistle. The trains in Europe wait for no one.
3- Anticipate The Need To Run
Once seated, look at your ticket……look at the next platform you need to go to. Look at when your train arrives and when the next departs. You may need to run across the station to platform 12b from platform 1a in 15 minutes. There is always going to be someone slow in front of you, so take the stairs.
4- Scan Your Ticket To Get In And Out
Keep your ticket in hand! You need it to scan in and scan out of each of the train stations. The ticket must be current, or you can get a fine. If you have a Eurail Pass, you can just scan the code on the outside of the ticket to get through the gates. The Eurail tickets sometimes have their own gates. Try to go with the gate not everyone is going through (if you can’t understand the Language).
5- Check The Type Of Train You Get On
Make sure you are getting on the right type of train. If you get on the wrong train you can still get fined. It may be going to the right place, but if you get on the faster train or get on an inter-city train instead, you can get fined. B
6- Bring Your Own Supplies
Bring your own water, your phone charger, and a Travel Pillow— especially if you have a sleeper train — small backpacks are the best…..just minimize by packing like the news told you the city was going to be bombed and you had 15 minutes before you had to be evacuated. That will get you everything you need in one bag. Yes, you will probably smell……bring Febreeze…..trust me…..there are people who smell worse on the trains.7 – Take Your Trash With You
7- Take Your Trash With You
Take your trash with you when you exit the train. There are small little garbage cans underneath the tables or right under the window on most trains. These fill up very quickly, as well as the ones in the bathrooms, so take your rubbish with you when you get off.
8- Sit In Seats With No Reservations
Don’t sit in a seat with a paper at the top or an electronic name above the seat…..You will lose your seat. I had this experience once, and that is all it took for me to learn to not do this. Was very unpleasant to be laughed out of your seat by a group of teenage boys. Then I stood in the café car for two hours till the next stop, the train was so full you couldn’t find a seat even between the cars.
9- Treat The Train Like You Would Your Living Room
Don’t put your feet up on the seats, or let your luggage take a seat near you. Put your bags on top and your coat on the hooks. MOVE if there are people looking for a place to sit. You wouldn’t want to sit on a spot where someone’s muddy shoes have just been, ruining your outfit. Take your shoes off first at least before you do this. They don’t exactly clean these seats regularly.
10 – Be The First In Line, In the Right Spot On The Platform
Be the first in line to get on the train…..the seats run out very quickly. Don’t be rude and shove people aside, but if you have the chance, stay close to the train. I also would gauge where the train door would stop ultimately by the train next to us. You stand right where the train opposite would stop, and you get to be the first one onto the train! Worked like a charm every time. Most people just stand at the platform thinking if they are near the front they will get a seat, this is not true. If you are at the front of the platform, right where the doors are going to stop, THEN you will get a seat.
11- Pack Light
Please don’t bring 500 pieces of luggage that require you to ask for help onto and off the train. If you cannot easily get up and down 4 very tall 18-inch steps with both luggage pieces in hand…..people will get mad. The longer you take to board the train the less likely the people behind you will be able to find a seat.
12- Sitting In Between Cars Is Uncomfortable
If you are just going one stop, you can sit in-between the cars. If you try and do this for the entire trip….you will have to get up and move every time someone opens the car doors……very annoying.
13- Sit In The Cafe If All Else Fails
There are seats in the back at the café car that you can order food and sit or stand there. I wouldn’t recommend this, as it gets crowded very very quick. No one can eat for 6 hours straight…..you would go broke.
14 – Limit Your Bathroom Use When Possible
Don’t try to use the bathrooms unless it is an emergency. If you do try and use them— bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper in your purse. The few I did have to use were so gross I was gagging. One had a floor so sticky and stinky that I had to breathe through my mouth. A coin-operated train station in Amsterdam was another bad experience. This particular bathroom had no toilet paper (luckily I had Kleenex in my bag), the sink had a powerful water flow and you could literally see the poop near the walls of the sink.
I am a pretty laid back person when it comes to expecting things to always be perfect (if you do expect it, your trip will be horrible); but this particular restroom was the most disgusting one I have used in the ENTIRE world. Who would have thought that a train station in the Netherlands would be that gross…..they are usually a very clean people.
I will say this though, there are some trains (typically the newer ones) that have decent bathrooms with air-fresheners and everything. They give hefty fines to people who are caught using first class bathrooms without a ticket.
15 – Getting A First Class Ticket Can Be Worth It
If you get a sleeper car for an overnight train trip, get one in first class with one other person if you must. I’m telling you….. it is amazing, and I actually slept…..everything is so clean and really just like a hotel room. You even get breakfast. Second class sleeper trains are adequate but don’t expect to have it be perfect.
My experience with the Second class sleeper was with 4 people in it, and nowhere to put your things because the ladies on the bottom bunks took up all the space. On top of that, you are usually at the end of the train which is a lot more bouncy and less restful. The Air conditioner broke and it was so incredibly hot woke up drenched in sweat. The gentleman in charge of our car and cabin just apologized, said they tried to fix it, and there were no other rooms for us to go
Make Train Travel in Europe Easier
Now all these things may make you not want to take the train at all. These 15 tips, were constructed from the worst parts of my experience. These tips and tricks will help your experience better. There are many many more wonderful parts of train travel, that can end up being a really great experience. My luck on trains is not the greatest. Apart from the one time I got a first class cabin all to myself. Being in first class was sooooo worth the money! To be in a cool, quiet, restful place with an attendant who really cared.
So don’t let this article deter you from train travel, it really is a great way to get around. I hope these things have helped and will allow at least those in the Culture Trekking Community to travel with ease, by learning from my mistakes.
As always, Happy Travels, Happy Tales and See You on the Flip Side.