If there is one thing certain about the people in Brussels, they know how to keep Christmas well. And that is exactly what my wife and I were looking for in a holiday getaway, a true European Christmas. From the moment we stepped off our train, the twinkling of lights and faint echo of jingle bells assured us that our nostalgic desire was not to be denied.
The de-facto capital of the European Union, Brussels is tucked just inside the country of Belgium that abuts the northeastern edge of France, offering a combination of cultural immersions– French, German and Dutch—although in Brussels almost everyone speaks English. While we love to dabble in the language du jour when jetting across the pond, sometimes there is something to be said about traveling internationally without a language barrier.
Due diligence led us to this Christmas land. Our first thought was to visit the town of Strasbourg in France on the German border, renowned for its Christmas spectacles. But oddly enough, that required a train trip, followed by a long bus ride. Our itinerary, which we booked through Trainline-Euro, took us from Charles De Gaulle Airport aboard a high-speed TGV train to Bruxelles-Midi (the closest station to our hotel) in about an hour and a half. (We flew Delta via Atlanta; you can also fly straight in and out of Brussels, but we were heading back to Paris on Christmas Eve.)
It was December 21, and the air was crisp, perfect for a holiday setting. Traversing through the old cobblestone streets with our luggage, we overheard Christmas carols emitting from a nearby square. Upon close inspection, we discovered a pop-up Christmas festival featuring stands with trinkets, libations and food from all ethnicities. Here we would casually dine on fresh pizza, red wine and Mongolian beef, conveniently located up the street from our boutique accommodations at the hip Hotel Saint Géry.
Brussels owes its beginnings to Saint Géry, who built a chapel along the Senne River in the year 695.
We chose our hotel due to its close proximity to Grand-Place, undeniably one of the most celebrated public squares in the world and home to a Christmas display and celebration renowned throughout Europe.
Colossal Christmas trees in full décor spiraling toward the heavens met us when we entered the square, surrounded by festive wreaths, lights and holiday displays featured on some of the city’s outstanding architectural gems, including centuries-old guild houses, City Hall and the Maison du Roi, a neo-gothic masterpiece, now the City of Brussels Museum.
Then, the music began. Christmas classics sung by American music star Sia filled the night air accompanied by a spectacular light show that danced from building to building, from tree to tree, all in tight synchronization, generating frozen faces of awe on young and old alike. Nearby, more pop-up booths offered mull wine, local beer, trinkets, cookies and candy. Snow magically began to fall. The spirit of Christmas was certainly alive.
Four Christmas Markets—Grand-Place, Place de la Monnaie, Marché aux Poissons and Place Sainte-Catherine—collectively dubbed as Winter Wonders (Plaisirs d’’Hiver) occur simultaneously, the latter of which fully capturing our spirit. The festivities at Grand-Place were spell-binding, but the celebration at Place Sainte-Catherine, is one to behold. Bordered by the church that lends its name to the outdoor gathering space and an enormous Ferris wheel rising from the frozen ground beckoning revelers to take a ride in the winter air, Christmas was present as far as the eye could see. We found this merry slice of life purely by accident by getting off at the wrong train stop after an outing to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Cinquantenaire Park, located outside of the city proper. A fascinating stop if you have the time.
Children’s rides, an ice skating rink, champagne bar, a tent serving Leffe beer and a couple hundred pop-up wooden chalets one after another filled the strand. Rogue musicians crisscrossed the crowds. Vendors hawking imaginative Christmas ornaments and gifts for under the tree rubbed their hands to fend off the cold. Drinks for all ages were ever-present, especially beer, which is the country’s beverage of choice. The dueling scents of warm wine and hot rum drenched the night air drawing hoards to experience the flavors and warm their cockles.
In between sipping our libations, people-watching and humming along to carols, we feasted on Belgian waffles coated with powdered sugar, sausage sandwiches with mustard and onions, mushrooms with garlic sauce and a sack of homemade Belgium chocolates that lasted into the night.
Be on your toes at Place Sainte-Catherine as there can be substantial crowds celebrating, although everyone appeared to be good-natured and in the spirit.
For those seeking an authentic European Christmas holiday, Brussels should be high on your list of destinations. I can’t think of a finer bunch of people with which to spend the holidays, people who surely know how to keep Christmas well.
Guest Author: Kevin Fritz
My specialties lie in travel and feature writing with an innate ambition to experience the world first-hand. This year, I traveled to Saudi Arabia for research and last year spent Christmas with my wife, Christi, in Brussels and Paris. We love to travel and have explored Germany, Italy, France Poland, Costa Rica, Canada and most of the United States. A journalist for 30 years, I authored the fiction novel Crossover and received my BS in Journalism from Ohio University. Check out Kevin’s portfolio.