Brussels smells like sweet dough just before it’s cooked to a golden crisp. The intoxicating aroma of street vendors frying thousands of waffles for locals and tourists alike is always a fixture in the Belgian capital, but the culinary delights are only magnified during the Winter Wonders Festival, Brussels’ Christmas Market.
Held every year starting the last week in November until New Year’s Day, the Plaisirs d’Hiver or Winter Wonders Festival is a two kilometer long Christmas Market featuring an ice skating rink, scores of food vendors, crafts, a gigantic Ferris wheel and enough Glühwein to float the city gently downhill.
The festival can be a challenge to locate for the first time guest however. The main square, the Flemish Renaissance Grand Place seems like the logical starting place, but I think it’s the perfect place to end the adventure. Instead begin your wintertime experience by taking the metro to the St. Catherine stop, immediately in front of the Church of St. Catherine.
As soon as I entered the square, my senses launched into hyper speed. More than 200 booths selling everything from Russian dolls to freshly roasted nuts lined the open space, a jazz trio was playing to the side and a massive Ferris wheel towered over the market. Then the smells hit my nostrils, chestnuts, waffles, crepes, sausages and of course the wintertime staple in this part of the world, Glühwein, a spiced mulled wine, all combined to send me into a tizzy of olfactory gratitude.
It was my first time in a European Christmas market and I was surprised at how innocent it was. There wasn’t rampant corporate sponsorship, no giant screen TVs or anything else mildly annoying. It was just couples and families, parents and children enjoying the season, the food, the fun and each other. Watching the ice skaters and eating a Nutella crepe as Nat King Cole’s version of the Christmas Song bellowed from an unseen speaker will forever be one of the best moments of my life.
The markets continue through a winding and somewhat confusing route around the Place de la Bourse until you finally reach the cobblestone streets leading to the Grand Place, the great city square of Brussels lined with 17th century guild houses. In the center of this massive space sits the annual Christmas tree, modestly decorated in blue lights. Lest you think Brussels ignored the most frequented part of the city during the holidays, wait until nighttime when the real festivities begin.
Every night starting at 4:30 pm until 10:00 pm, a 15-minute light show runs continuously, using the majestic Hôtel de Ville, City Hall, as the backdrop. Timed with classical music, lights, lasers and shadows form images and dazzling displays on the buildings to create a light show that can hold the interest of a five year old just as easily as an 85 year old.
After the show, find any one of the dozens of restaurants in the area and enjoy a hearty Flemish stew and a rich Belgian beer to finish out the market experience. There are Christmas markets throughout Europe, each with its own personality and character. Nothing will ever seem as both grand and comfortable to me though as the Winter Wonders Festival in Brussels.