Brussels Christmas Market

Christmas time for me evokes many warm childhood memories. Decorating our family tree, shopping with mom in the big department stores all decked out with lights and displays, and of course, Santa Claus. I remember how excited we would get as Christmas day approach; the anticipation was palpable.

Many if not most of our Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in European culture. From the Christmas stories we read, Christmas TV shows and movies, Christmas music and Hallmark cards, all seem to depict those Dickensian or Currier & Ives themed scenes of a simpler time. What’s more traditional than the Christmas Market? These Christmas Markets date back to the Middle Ages celebrating the Advent season leading up to Christmas day.

What is it about European Christmas Markets that keeps drawing us back? When you walk the cobblestone streets of a European Christmas Market, usually located at the main Cathedral square or at centuries old town hall plazas, the past seems to come alive. Vendor chalets selling hand crafted ornaments, decorations or toys, plenty of local street food and the famous hot mulled wine (German Gluhwein or French Vin Chaud). For me this is magical, reinforcing the Christmas Spirit.

This years Christmas Market visit was to Brussels. Flying on the day after Thanksgiving, arriving for the opening weekend of Brussels’ Plaisirs D’hiver or Winter Wonders celebrations. The festivities are spread throughout the city and my hotel was in front of the main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis.

The crowds were huge for the opening weekend with all ages; families with kids, young and older adults, lots of locals and tourists. Obviously a very popular place at Christmas time.

The Sights & Sounds of Brussels’ Christmas Markets

The main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis with over 200 vendor chalets was located right across the street from my hotel, the Brussels Welcome Hotel. The hotel was quaint and quirky, with each room decorated in a different country decor. My room, the Cuba Room had a model of a ’57 Chevy convertible on the door (instead of a number), and the interior had cigar themed pictures and decorations plus a large wall mural of an old Havana building facade. The owners, Michel & Sophie and their staff were very friendly and helpful. They had their own chalet at the Christmas Market that featured oysters and champagne, that’s classy!

Speaking of the food, this Christmas Market had most of the typical fare; German bratwurst, pretzels, other comfort food, and of course, the Gluhwein. But there were some upscale selections as well, such as escargot, Russian caviar and vodka, along with the local favorites, fresh Mussels, Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles. Fortunately there is a lot of walking at these Christmas Markets, so you can burn off those excess calories.

Food

There were several other Christmas Markets within walking distance. Grand Place, the main city square, with its towering 17th Century city hall surrounded by the gold trimmed Guild Halls, featured a large Christmas Tree in the center of the square. Grand Place was the site of an amazing light and sound show, presented every evening (several showings each night), with colorful lights projected against the facades of the old buildings.

Grand Place Light & Sound Show video

After a week in Brussels it was time to go home. This was the last trip for our 2019 travel season. Another Christmas Market completed and awaiting the New Year for new and exciting travel adventures.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Everyone!

Christmas Markets….Vienna, Bratislava & Zagreb

Zagreb

When we started planning this year’s Christmas Market trip back in October, we were looking to visit somewhere new. Our daughter suggested that Vienna is a must-see Christmas Market, so we decided that would be a good choice. We didn’t want to limit the trip to Vienna, so with the help of our good friend Google, we saw that Zagreb’s Christmas Market was voted Europe’s best for three years running (that according to Croatia tourist website, anyway). We also viewed an number of VLOG’s from folks who visited Zagreb Christmas Market in recent years and these VLOG’s seemed to endorse Zagreb as a good choice. So we added Zagreb to the itinerary and what also helped with that choice is the fact that Zagreb is less than an hour plane trip from Vienna.

When we did our advanced planning, we booked round-trip air with Austrian Airlines and found a conveniently located hotel using Booking.com. Our hotel, the Palace Hotel,  was about $300 for 3 nights, which seemed quite reasonable for a mid-city hotel. More about prices below.

After spending 5 days in Vienna, we flew to Zagreb on Monday December 3rd. Flight was on time, Zagreb airport was easy to navigate and we used Uber for the ride to the hotel. Our driver Boris spoke perfect English and he gave us lots of tips about foods to eat and things to do and see. The ride from the airport to downtown is about 16km (10 mi) and it took almost 30 min because of traffic. The Uber fare was $16, pretty cheap! By the way, Croatia does not use Euro’s, the local currency is the Kuna (HRK) and the exchange is about 6.5HRK to the dollar.

IMG_20181203_144623-01Welcome to  Franjo Tuđman Airport Zagreb

Our Hotel

I can’t say enough about our hotel choice. The Palace Hotel is a classic hotel in a Art Nouveau palace dating from 1891. The location is perfect, right across the street from Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera and Park Zrinjevac, two of the Christmas Market venues and a 4-block walk to Ban Josip Jelačić square, the main Christmas Market and shopping area.

Our hotel room was ideal, large and roomy (for European standards) and my biggest measure of a hotel room is the size of the bathroom and shower, this one was spot on. Plenty of room in the shower and strong water pressure. Our room rate included breakfast and the breakfast buffet was huge. Plenty of hot and cold selections, fresh fruits, bread and pastries, it was an excellent spread.

The hotel Cafe/bar was a very comfortable space with elegant woodwork, high ceilings and cozy Christmas decorations. It was on the ground floor with large windows facing the park with stunning views of the Christmas Market lights and activities. We would have a glass of wine or cognac and the cost was less than $5.00 per glass!

The hotel had a health and wellness spa and I made an appointment for a one hour massage. That was very relaxing and the cost was equivalent to $38, quite a bit less than what we pay at home.

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Palace Hotel

Getting Around Zagreb

The convenient location of our hotel made it easy to explore the city and Christmas Markets. Everything was within walking distance. Our first morning in Zagreb, we decided to take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus service. This gave us a good overview of the city, plus the audio narration provided some history and context.

We walked to the upper city, some steep roads and stairs to overcome, but we made it. We ended up taking the funicular back down to the lower city, didn’t plan that very well, would have been better going up on the funicular and walking down, let gravity be our friend!

Zagreb has an extensive street tram system, but we didn’t use the trams. There was also a Christmas tram that toured the sights and Santa was the conductor.

010501db3b6ddf1f95d2dfdfd58515f9c60796a5ff The Funicular

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Ban Josip Jelačić Square

Zagreb Christmas Markets

The Zagreb Christmas Market is a bit different than what we saw in Vienna or from our previous trips to Germany, France and Switzerland. The vendor booths or stalls are different, all were white, in contrast to the German style which are chalet-like, dark wood. Another big difference is that the vast majority of vendor stalls were selling food and drinks. Not many crafts, clothing or other seasonal items like in Germany or Austria.

It seems that Zagreb is a party city, lots of people, many young adults, out for drinks and food. But there are also families, young and old. Everywhere you went, there was music playing, some Christmas music, as well as pop and rock. The main venues like Ban Josip Jelačić square had stages and bandstands set up where there was always some live entertainment, like local youth choirs, folk groups, traditional and contemporary musicians and artists. The Christmas Market scene in Zagreb is very lively, lots of energy.

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General Impressions

Some general impressions and observations about Zagreb and Croatia.

Croatia is very affordable, the US dollar goes a long way. When dining out, even at a more upscale restaurant, we never paid more than $50 for the two of us, that incudes the drinks.

The people are very friendly, most speak good English.

Zagreb seems very safe, we did not feel uncomfortable or threatened even when walking around at night.

There are many smokers in Zagreb. It seems that smoking is very popular with younger people.

Overall, we really liked Zagreb and we look forward to visiting other parts of Croatia in 2020 when we do a Mediterranean cruise.

More mages from Zagreb

Zagreb Croatia