The Many Lights of Christmas
Updated for 2019!
On Friday, 6th December 2019, the most wonderful time of the year starts in Ghent officially: the time of the year when twinkling decorative lights bring some respite from the incessant darkness and the sound of Jingle Bells on loop in shops threatens to drive us all insane. Or at least reach for the nearest mug of glühwein.
Amidst the crazy shopping marathon we submit ourselves to in order to buy all those Christmas presents just in time to catch our flight home for the holiday break, it is good to take a breath and enjoy the nicer things in life.
While Christmas markets in Belgium are not exactly the traditional, romantic affair that we know and love from Germany and Austria, Ghent has been doing its best to catch up with the best over the past few years. So put on your warmest boots, hat and mittens and head out to town to explore the Christmas magic of Ghent!
Winter in Ghent
While Ghent seems to fall asleep in November, in December things really get going. Besides the Gentse Winterfeesten (6th December 2019 to 5th January 2020) which combine the Christmas Market and other seasonal events, there are also other activities going on. For those who like to shop in crowds, the shops in the city centre are open on all Sundays in December, including Christmas Eve. Plus, you can ride the tram or bus for free on Sunday shopping days.
If you want to get ahead of the game, pick up some handmade presents at one of the small crafts markets happening around Ghent: check Uit in Gent for exact times and locations.
If you don’t feel like joining in the consumerism, the mid-winter night run on the 7th December and the charity run Warmathon on a Saturday before Christmas are a good way to explore the edges of the city centre while doing something for your health and the society. Warmathon is part of De Warmste Week (The Warmest Week), run by the Stubru radio station, which encourages people to organise events in support of recognised charities. Or warm up your vocal chords for one of the Allez Chantez sing-a-long events around the town in December.
A slightly lower-key way of enjoying the night-time lights is the historical light walk around the city centre. Pick up your map at the city tourist office or online. Or join the annual Ghent by Night walking trail by the local hiking club Florastappers. Choose between 6, 9 or 12 km long walks through the magical streets of the city centre.
The Ghent Christmas market has been growing steadily in recent years and this year more than 140 wooden stalls will be scattered around the historical city centre between Sint-Baafsplein and Sint-Veerleplein. Many of them offer little trinkets that can help you out as a decent last-minute present, while you can also enjoy a variety of food from all over Europe and a healthy supply of fast food and mulled wine.
This year Sint-Veerleplein, in front of the Gravensteen castle, has a 1920’s theme including a covered terrace where you can have a drink. There are also food trucks during the middle two weeks of the festival.
Korenmarkt has always been the place to go for funfair-type of fun rides. Think candy floss, merry-go-rounds and a Ferris wheel that whisks you up in one of its pods to high above the ground. It is a predictable favourite with couples and families.
The Christmas market is open on most days between 11am and midnight, and until 5pm on 24th and 31st December.
If you are looking for a perfect spot to get some exercise and have a break from eating and drinking too much, the ice rink under the Stadshal has definitely become a favourite. It is divided into two zones, the larger one (600m2) for those who are comfortable with narrow slits of steel instead of shoes on their feet, and one for beginners who are only getting acquainted with the slippery wonders of ice skating.
The ice rink will be surrounded by trees this year to prevent the ice from melting too fast. You can rent skates at the entrance to the rink, or use your own. De Lijn usually offers a special deal for pass-holders, so keep an eye on their website as the offer is limited to the first 3,000 participants.
The transformation of this usually foreboding looking, stone castle at Christmas is incredible: expect fluffy pillows in warm colours, Christmas decorations and lights. Candles, a fire in the grate and some cleverly set up rooms make this normally cold place look positively homely. This year the theme of the Winterwonderkasteel will be the the historical House of Burgundy.
You can enjoy the festive attire of the Castle of the Counts from 14th December until 5th January, for a price of a simple entry ticket. The opening night of the season usually has free entrance.
During the Winterwonderkasteel festival, the castle stays open until 10pm on Fridays, Saturdays and during the Christmas school holidays. You should definitely go and climb up to the top of the castle tower for an amazing view over the sparkling lights of the winter Ghent festivities.
If Christmas markets and boisterous holiday cheer are not your thing, head over to the Zebrastraat for the Zebrawoods winter festival (26th December to 5th January). The 10-day pop-up event brings a winter forest to the courtyard of the venue close by Kinepolis and promises to showcase an interesting mix of local music talent. While enjoying the concerts, you can have “steamy drinks” and hearty winter food.
New Year’s Fireworks
At precisely midnight on 31st December the annual New Year’s fireworks light up the city centre from Portus Ganda. To be honest, you need to love extremely crowded places and not mind poor visibility to enjoy this, but if you or someone you know lives in a place with a good view towards that side of Ghent, the spectacle will be worth watching.