a circular light fixture with lights

Ornate lights dazzle in the city center, making the most popular shopping areas extra festive at holiday time.

Let There Be Lights

When I was young, traveling around to see the best Christmas light displays was an annual pilgrimage. For travellers who are forever young, Brussels brings that memory back to life. The city, which has a reputation of being gray, lights up with color during the holidays. Brussels bursts to life with ornate lights strung across streets and entire buildings illuminate the skies.

If your travels take you to Belgium this season, don’t miss the city’s crown jewel and prime tourist attraction: Grand-Place (or Grote Markt in Dutch). The UNESCO World Heritage site features an opulent Town Hall, guildhalls and the Maison du Roi (Broodhuis), which houses the Museum of the City of Brussels.

a group of people walking in a city

Grand Place lights up at night.

Grand Place is designed to impress whatever the season, but during Christmastime, it ascends to an entirely new level of beauty with hourly music and light shows. It’s the ideal place to start your Plaisirs d’hiver (French) and Winterpret (Dutch) adventure. From there, you can easily walk to Place de la Monnaie, Place Sainte-Catherine, the Marché aux Poissons and the Bourse, where the holiday spirit continues.  

So Many Lights, So Little Time

We chose a rainy Thursday evening to capture the hourly show at Grand-Place, which features colorful lights timed to music. Can you say magical? Thursday was a wise choice. There were fewer visitors than on weekends. That meant an unencumbered view from stairs across from the magical, 72-foot fir tree. The 67-year-old tree, dressed in blue and white to honor the Northern Lights, was donated by Wallonia, a French-speaking part of Belgium in the southern half of the country. Get a sneak peek at the tree, with the Brussels webcam.

Let’s Go Shopping

Ladies, leave those heels at home! Trek along the cobblestone streets around Grand Place to visit the more than 200 wooden Christmas chalets. You’ll find food, drink and novelty gift items through January 6, 2019. The hot Glühwein — spiced up with cinnamon, cloves, star aniseed and citrus — is a favourite. Yum! There are also homemade soups to keep you warm, and regional and ethnic delicacies. One vendor even offers a plank of shot glasses, each filled with a different alcoholic beverage. Don’t tackle it alone; share it with friends!

a woman holding a tray of shot glasses

Sample a variety of liqueurs at the chalets in front of the skating rink.

The friendly vendors, who generally speak English — in varying degrees of competence — are happy to display their goods. There are beautiful illuminated candles, cut glass, jewellery, hats and gloves, and my personal favorite, silicone baking molds that will make you look like a master baker.

a man on ice skating with a bear

Even non-skaters can enjoy the skating rink in front of the Brussels Opera House.

Hit the Rink

No trip to Winter Wonders is complete without a stop at the ice skating rink adjacent to Place de la Monnaie. Grab some skates and enjoy a quick run under the colorful lights. For children or less agile skaters, there are even small, white, bear chairs that let you enjoy the experience without fear of falling. Be advised, though, there is one thing you will fall for — the magic of Brussels in the winter.