This was, happily, my year for visiting Christmas markets. Although a four-hour drive down to the famous Nuremberg market was too ambitious for me, I did get to the Koln market in early December and, at New Year's, made the two-hour trip down to the Brussels market.
The Brussels Market is an annual event, running from Dec 1 through Jan 1. It contains the classic elements of craft booths, food, and drink, along with rides and events that seem more characteristic of Belgium. I'd love to see it in snow, but the colored lights and excited crowds made it fun even in the temperate evenings.
The Market begins in the west-central portion of Brussels: a quick metro ride dropped me directly into it at St. Catherine's Church. This is the main portion of the festival, extending across four wide blocks from the church (bathed pink) to the Grande Roue (the brilliantly white Big Wheel: 5 euro per ride). It reminds me of a carnival midway: I enjoyed simply strolling the twin rows of chalets (Marche de Noel) with food, gifts, and street performers. Half-way along is the Manege Magique (Magic Roundabout: 2 euro), a large Victorian-style carousel, and the Patinoire (Skating Rink: 6 euro) is found beneath the Wheel. While the Market attracts masses of people, it felt much less crowded than the Cologne market because it is so much larger.
Behind the Church, there is a huge inflated dragon that people can walk through (4 euro) and a second Victorian carousel. I thought the carousels were fascinating: a Jules-Verne fantasy with metal rockets, fanciful flying machines, and fantastic vehicles that children ride far above the crowds. (No way that would be permitted in litigious Midwestern fairs!) Lines were long for all of the rides, so I focused on the Gluhwein and Sausage chalets (both a shade less potent than their German counterparts).
Beyond the church, the festival winds through the center of the city along a series of closed streets lined with restaurants and more booths. I enjoyed walking along the busy boulevards, window shopping all the way, rather than navigating across town between island market areas. The next major way-station is the Bourse: unfortunately, crowds get thick as they wedge along the narrow street beside the huge building. I gave up and went around to rejoin the parade on the far side.
The way terminates at the Grand-Place, where the narrow market streets all empty into the huge square facing the Town Hall. Spotlights and endless strings of icicle lights are synchronized with piped-in opera music, creating a wonderful light show across the whole face of the building. The biggest crowd-pleaser was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", accompanied by a rapid choreography of light perfectly synchronized with the music. When the chorus drops sequentially down the scale, for example, the lights sequentially drop down the tower: lots of applause from everyone.
The restaurants along the Market streets run late and have an amazing amount of seafood on display. Most have specials where you can get a three course meal (and ample moules) for about 15 euro. The Belgian Christmas chocolate was also great especially with a hot waffle or as a mug of cocoa.
I thought both the Cologne and Brussels markets were great, each in it's own way. The web sites and hotels all have good deals, and I thought that both were pretty approachable even for a first-time visitor like me (more pictures up at Flickr).