With plenty of cozy old-world charm—as well as some unexpected modern marvels—Belgium’s holiday markets offer a fresh spin on this festive shopping tradition.
In Europe, holiday markets are the original pop-up shopping experience—some date all the way back to the Middle Ages. Some of the best are in Belgium, where markets take over historic squares and cobblestoned streets for several weeks bookending the New Year in order to inspire locals and visitors alike with the best of the season’s treats, handcrafted gifts, and entertainment.
Whether you’re looking for a fun way to bring back the joy of holiday shopping or a smart way to maximize a trip overseas, Brussels Airlines offers convenient one- to five-day stopovers. With flights arriving into Brussels Airport, it’s easy to explore the capital’s holiday splendor or venture to nearby cities and towns—all located less than two hours away by train.
Brussels: A Historic Capital
Centered in the area around the Grand-Place and the Bourse, or Brussels Stock Exchange, the Winter Wonders and Christmas Market 2018 (November 30, 2018—January 6, 2019) features more than 200 chalets, as well as an ice rink, Ferris wheel, and merry-go-rounds. Among new additions, The Dome space will host film screenings, concerts, and other events, and a multimedia installation projecting a Northern Lights-inspired experience. The market will also spotlight Finland as this year’s celebrated country, with the Kainuu region hosting its own showcase including fire pits, tents from Lapland, immersive VR experiences, and more.
Antwerp: A Winter Wonderland
Get a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling city skyline and the River Scheldt from atop the giant Ferris wheel at Winter in Antwerp (December 8, 2018—January 6, 2019). Located about 40 minutes from Brussels by train, this Flemish city has upped the ante on winter fun with a full-on tubing hill. Glide down the slope on an inflated tube, go ice-skating, and enjoy the sugar rush of delightfully doughy smoutenbollen, a local donut fritter with candied fruit or currants. It’s a great stopover to shop for last-minute gifts or catch the New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
Ghent: A Taste of Arty Cool
This creative city is only 38 minutes by train from Brussels and is one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets. Ghent’s backdrop of medieval architecture, including the Gravensteen castle, is balanced by cutting-edge food and culture. Radiating out from the Sint-Baafsplein central square, Gentse Winterfeesten (December 7, 2018—January 6, 2019) has more than 150 wood huts selling authentic food and crafts. Enjoy the scents of pine resin and mulled wine while you browse the outdoor stalls, or grab a low table and stools at the pop-up Moose Bar, aptly named for its wood panels and lodge-inspired décor.
Bruges: A Real-World Fairy Tale
It’s hard to describe Bruges without using the adjective “fairy-tale” at least once—especially when it’s decked out in glittering holiday lights. Located about 65 minutes from Brussels by train, it’s one of the best-preserved, medieval cities in Europe, known for its network of canals, gingerbread-house-like façades, and cobblestone lanes. Right in the flurry of this storybook setting, the Winter Market (November 23, 2018—January 1, 2019) takes over the historic city center with a maze of stalls and an ice-skating rink. Stay warm with classic treats like Belgian fries and waffles.
Tournai: A Small-Town Charmer
Situated 53 miles southwest of Brussels toward the French border, or roughly 70 minutes by train, Tournai is a charmingly under-the-radar small city. For its Francophone residents, the Notre-Dame Cathedral holds pride of place with its five bell towers and UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Once winter hits though, the small-city appeal is on full display for the Tournai d'Hiver (December 13, 2018 to January 6, 2019) with family-friendly attractions like a Santa train ride, an ice rink, and quirky finds like the "Santa Is a Jedi" animation clip at the tourist office.
To book a free stopover through Brussels Airlines’ site, go to the “Stop Over” homepage and select whether you’d like your stopover on the departure or return from your “beyond Belgium” destination, along with the number of days you would like to stay in Belgium (one to five days) and your travel dates. The airline has also partnered with tourism boards and 14 cities to offer free or discounted cultural attractions like free bike tours around Mons and chocolate shop visits in Brussels. Visit the Brussels Airlines’ site for help planning your trip, where you’ll find practical info, including a chart with approximate train travel times from Brussels to other destinations, and tips for what to see and do around the country.