From December 9th 2017 The City of Antwerp’s old town (aka The Historic Centre) is in full festive mode. This is a Christmas experience which goes above and beyond the familiar wooden huts selling the usual festive gifts, to provide entertainment, seasonal food and drink, and activities for locals and visitors of all ages.
Until 2009 it was simply a Christmas market on Groenplaats, but since then it has expanded to offer many more attractions on Steenplein, Grote Markt and Suikerrui, all within site of Antwerp’s famous cathedral which is also illuminated for the Christmas season.
Having been here since 2006, my family and I all look forward to this time of year. For us- along with the Zomer van Antwerpen- it marks the turning of the seasons in a way which has now become familiar to us.
I have three children of various ages, who all expect to be entertained when we go to the Historic Centre during their winter holidays, and I am also a teacher who this year accompanied a group of students from Antwerp International School to the Christmas Market for their annual winter outing. These different perspectives have contributed to this informal user guide on how best to enjoy the Christmas spirit in Antwerp this season - enjoy!
The Christmas market and ice-rink are widely visited by local schools as the winter holidays approach. Antwerp International School middle school students look forward to the annual trip into town, and this year it was a snowy one. However, the students (who come from all different cultures and backgrounds) enjoy the trip -even those used to warmer climes, who find the ice and snow a bit of a challenge!
For small children (or larger ones unused to skating) the ice rink provides cute penguin supports, with handles to hold on to, so as to reduce the number of falls. Remember to bring your gloves, as it is compulsory to have them on the ice rink, although if you forget, there are plenty of markets stalls where you can buy some.
The wheel is a little more expensive, but it is worth doing, especially if you want to take aerial pictures of the market, The River Scheldt and the Antwerp skyline. Take your camera on a clear day as evening falls.
Gluhwein (warm, spiced wine) and special coffees or hot chocolates (with added warmth in the form of a shot of Jenever -a Belgian gin-like spirit; Baileys or rum) help to keep the cold at bay for adults. The food stands offer treats containing the food groups essential for winter survival: sugar, fried things, carbs. There’s plenty of tartiflette (a warming cheese, potato and bacon dish) waffles, and smoutebollen (warm, fried dough-balls dusted with icing sugar and made either plain or with raisins).
The best place to meet friends is probably the Grote Markt or Suikerrui, so that once you have had a look round the market, you have easy access to local bars and restaurants.
Being in Belgium, the one thing that cannot be guaranteed is the weather. It can cause a visit to take a bit of a down turn if you are caught in the rain, especially if you have the kids with you. Luckily, there are a few places around the area which are covered, meaning that your winter visit won’t be a wash-out, even if the heavens open.
Close by, there are two handy options for families with kids who need to be entertained, and whose parents need to sit and relax. The first is the indoor play at Mercado Food Hall on Groenplaats (where the ice-rink is). Go through the food hall and take the stairs at the back of the building. There’s a large indoor play area, including a bouncy castle, a ball pit, slides and a craft area. For accompanying grown-ups there is space to sit and a bar, service both beers and soft drinks. There’s also food available. This option is not that cheap -adults are also charged entry, and the bar operates a tokens system, but my two youngest children aged five and eight love this playground and it does a pretty good job of wearing them out. There is no time limit to how long you can stay -my two youngest (aged nine and five) would happily spend at least a whole afternoon here. If you don’t have kids, then the food hall itself is a fairly recent addition to the Antwerp scene and is a great place to hang out for a snack, or just a drink.
A cheaper option is Cafe Het Steen -go up past the statue of Wapper on Steenplein and follow the signs. Het Steen is lit up in lilac this year. This is a kid-friendly cafe providing an airy space, a view of The River Scheldt, and a play area with toys. Popular with locals as well as visitors, the food and drinks are extremely reasonably priced. The staff are very nice and, naturally, very good with kids. On Sundays, they run activity workshops for children aged six and over. Admission to Het Steen is free, as are the workshops.
If you are sans enfants and want to find a decent bar, head along Nationalestraat where there are several (An Sibhin is a personal favourite of mine -warm, friendly, unpretentious). Alternatively explore the bars on the olde worlde Vrijdagmarkt (take a right off Nationalestraat after the fashion museum).
Similarly, if you want to get your Christmas shopping, but the weather is not favourable there is The Grand Bazar shopping centre (also by Groenplaats -you can enter by the Mango store). On Saturdays and Sundays Antwerp has an excellent market in front of the theatre which is also covered (Theaterplein). On Saturdays in particular, there is a wide variety of food from different countries. Stop for a glass of cava, oysters or a delicious Moroccan filled flatbread.
Winter In Antwerp is on every day until 7th January at the following times:
Mon -Thurs: 12 - 21h
Fri: 12 - 23h
Sat : 11 - 23h
Sun : 11 - 21h
24 & 31 December: 11 - 18h
Antwerp Old Town is at its best during the Christmas season. What makes it so pleasant is the mix of locals and visitors from all different backgrounds. Winter in Antwerp is neither exclusively for locals, or tourists -it’s for everyone. Enjoy #WinterinA
I’m Vanessa, and I’ve been living and working in Antwerp since 2006. Two of my three children were born here, and last year we officially became Belgian. I blog weekly in English about local events in and around the city in a blog called Nessascityblog which I hope will enable locals and visitors to find authentic local events that they can enjoy with friends and family.
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