Belgium is big on festivals. You could arrive in a town or village to find that the populace has turned out, some of them in costume, to honor with all due solemnity (followed by some fun and games) the local cheese. The country has a lively and colorful Carnival tradition, which includes, in the otherwise unremarkable town of Binche, one that’s among the most spectacular in Europe.
The Festival of Flanders is a program of cultural events that runs at venues throughout Flanders from September to June. Contact Festival van Vlaanderen (tel. 012/23-57-19; www.festival.be).
The Festival of Wallonia is a program of classical music that runs at venues throughout Wallonia from September to June. Contact Festival de Wallonie (tel. 081/73-37-81; www.festivaldewallonie.be).
For more information about what’s on and where, visit www.agenda.be.
Bommelsfeesten (Festival of Fools), Ronse. The main action of this traditional festival in the East Flanders town, with its masked characters called Bommels, has been moved from Zotte Maandag (Crazy Monday) to the preceding Saturday. Contact Dienst Toerisme Ronse (tel. 055/23-28-16; www.ronse.be). Weekend (Sat-Mon) closest to the Epiphany (Jan 6).
Antiques and Fine Arts Fair, Brussels. The top Belgian antiques dealers and selected dealers from abroad get together to show off their wares in the Tour & Taxis exhibition area at the city’s old port. Contact Foire des Antiquaires de Belgique (tel. 02/513-48-31; www.brafa.be). Last 10 days of January.
Carnival, Eupen. Five days of pre-Lenten revelry in the capital town of Belgium’s German-speaking district. Highlight is the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) Procession. Contact Verkehrsamt Eupen (tel. 087/55-34-50; www.eupen-info.be). Thursday to Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday).
Carnival, Malmédy. The pre-Lenten festival brings good-natured mayhem to the streets of this otherwise sober town. Sunday is the day of the big parade, when costumed characters called Banes Courants chase people through the streets and others called Haguètes snare passersby with long wooden pincers. Contact Maison du Tourisme de Malmédy (tel. 080/33-02-50; www.eastbelgium.com). Saturday to Shrove Tuesday.
Carnival, Aalst. Three days of pre-Lenten festivities, including the Giants’ Parade with the horse Bayard, onion throwing from the roofs of the Grote Markt, and the parade of Vuil Jeannetten — men dressed as women. Contact Dienst Toerisme Aalst (tel. 053/73-22-70; www.aalst.be). Sunday to Shrove Tuesday.
Carnival, Binche. One of Europe’s most colorful street carnivals, led on Shrove Tuesday by the sumptuously costumed Gilles de Binche, modeled, or so it is believed, on Inca nobles. Contact Office du Tourisme de Binche (tel. 064/33-67-27; www.binche.be). Sunday to Shrove Tuesday.
Bal du Rat Mort (Dead Rat’s Ball), Ostend. This outrageous fancy-dress event takes its grisly name from a chic Paris cafe. Proceeds go to charity. Contact Toerisme Oostende (tel. 059/70-11-99; www.toerisme-oostende.be). First Saturday in March.
Carnival, Stavelot. The Blancs Moussis, characters with long red noses and hooded white costumes, are the stars of the town’s Laetere procession. Contact Office du Tourisme de Stavelot (tel. 080/86-27-06; http://tourisme.stavelot.be). Sunday (3 weeks before Easter).
Carnival, Fosses-la-Ville. Costumed characters called Chinels parade through the streets. Contact Syndicat d’Initiative Fosses-la-Ville (tel. 071/71-46-24; www.fosses-la-ville.be). Saturday and Sunday (3 weeks before Easter).
Sablon Spring Baroque Music Festival, Brussels. Open-air concerts on place du Grand Sablon. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be). April/May.
Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival. Science fiction and fantasy films are screened at several movie theaters around the city. Contact Peymey Diffusion (tel. 02/201-17-13; www.bifff.org). April 9 to 21, 2009; similar dates in 2010.
Meieavondviering (May Day’s Eve Festival), Hasselt. Celebrants plant a May Tree on the Grote Markt and burn dummies representing winter, while participants costumed as witches dance on the square. Contact VVV Hasselt (tel. 011/23-95-40; www.hasselt.be). April 30.
Queen Elisabeth Contest, Brussels. For promising young musicians, featuring a different instrument each year. Generally at Bozar (Palais des Beaux-Arts), and a few other venues. Contact Concours Reine Elisabeth (tel. 02/213-40-50; www.concours-reine-elisabeth.be). Throughout May.
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Brussels. Arts festival famed across the cultural universe for its irritatingly scrunched-up name, which means — brilliantly original, this — Arts Festival, in both Dutch and French. It spotlights stage events, putting an emphasis on opera, theater, and dance, but finds space for cinema, music concerts, and fine-arts exhibits. Various auditoriums and venues around town. Contact Kunstenfestivaldesarts (tel. 02/219-07-07; www.kfda.be). Three weeks in May.
Kattenstoet (Cat Parade), Ypres (Ieper). During the traditional Festival of the Cats, toy cats (it used to be live ones!) are thrown from the town hall belfry. Contact Toerisme Ieper (tel. 057/23-92-20; www.ieper.be). Every third year on the second Sunday in May. May 10, 2009.
Heilig-Bloedprocessie (Procession of the Holy Blood), Bruges. The bishop of Bruges carries a relic of the Holy Blood through the streets, while costumed characters act out biblical scenes. Contact Toerisme Brugge (tel. 050/44-46-46; www.brugge.be). Ascension Day (fifth Thurs after Easter).
Ducasse de Mons (Chariot of Gold Procession). Religious procession of guilds and the reliquary of St. Waudru, followed by a folkloric performance on the streets of Mons, the “Lumeçon,” in which St. George slays the dragon. Contact Maison du Tourisme du Pays de Mons (tel. 065/33-55-80; www.monsregion.be). Holy Trinity Sunday (first Sun after Pentecost).
Brussels Jazz Marathon. Enjoy a long weekend of jazz, all kinds, at a slew of concerts on the Grand-Place, place du Grand Sablon, and place Ste-Catherine; at other open-air venues around town; and in jazz clubs, cafes, and hotel bars. Contact Jazztronaut (tel. 02/456-04-82; www.brusselsjazzmarathon.be). Third week in May.
Day of the Four Processions, Tournai. The annual parade features flower-decked floats, a military band, and the highlight, a procession of giants representing historical characters, including King Chílderic of the Franks and France’s King Louis XIV. Contact Office du Tourisme de Tournai (tel. 069/22-20-45; www.tournai.be). Second Sunday in June.
International Cartoon Festival, Knokke-Heist. Belgium is a big producer and consumer of cartoons and comic strips for both adults and children. Here it celebrates the national fascination with the “Ninth Art,” as comic-strip art is dubbed by its practitioners and aficionados. Contact Toerisme Knokke-Heist (tel. 050/63-08-30; www.knokke-heist.info). Mid-June to early September.
Carillon Concerts, Mechelen. Home to Belgium’s Royal Carillon School, Mechelen is one of the world’s centers of carillon music, in which a classically trained musician employs a keyboard to play music on clusters of bells hanging in belfries — in this case, the tower of St. Rombold’s Cathedral. Contact In&Uit Mechelen (tel. 070/22-28-00). Saturday to Monday evenings, mid-June to August.
Couleur Café Festival, Brussels. Three days of Afro, Caribbean, and Latin music and dance, ably supported by heaps of soul food, at the Tour & Taxis cultural complex, in a former warehouse zone next to the Willebroeck Canal dock. Contact Couleur Café (www.couleurcafe.be). June 26 to 28, 2009; similar dates (Fri-Sun) 2010.
Brussels Film Festival. A 9-day feast of European films, primarily of first or second features, and by independent directors, screened at the Flagey cultural center. Contact Festival du Film Européen de Bruxelles (tel. 050/63-08-30; www.fffb.be). June 27 to July 5, 2009; similar dates in 2010.
Entertainment, Grand-Place, Brussels. Concerts, theater, dance, exhibits, and other forms of entertainment “animate” the Grand-Place. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be). Entire month.
Ommegang, Brussels. A dramatic annual historical pageant that dates from the 13th century and represents the city guilds, magistrates, and nobles honoring the Virgin Mary. Participants wearing period costume from the time of the “joyous entry” of Emperor Charles V into Brussels in 1549, escorted by a mounted cavalcade and waving medieval banners, go in procession from place du Grand Sablon to the Grand-Place. Contact Ommegang-Brussels Events (tel. 02/512-19-61; www.ommegang.be). First Tuesday and Thursday in July.
Brosella Folk and Jazz Festival, Brussels. A small-scale specialized music fest that takes place over a weekend at the Théâtre de Verdure in Parc d’Osseghem. Contact Les Amis de Brosella (tel. 02/270-98-56; www.brosella.be). Mid-July.
Cactus Festival, Bruges. A prickly summer rock festival unfolds over 3 days and attracts big names to the city. Contact Cactus Muziekcentrum (tel. 050/33-20-14; www.cactusfestival.be). Mid-July.
Belgian National Day, Brussels. Marked throughout Belgium but celebrated most in Brussels, with a military procession and music at the Royal Palace. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be). July 21.
Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festivities). Free street entertainment of music, dance, theater, puppet shows, and general fun and games marks the annual Ghent Festivities. Contact Dienst Feestelijkheeden (tel. 09/269-46-00; www.gentsefeesten.be). July 18 to 27, 2009; similar dates in 2010.
Visiting the Royal Palace, Brussels. Exceptionally, the Royal Palace on place des Palais is open to free guided tours. King Albert and Queen Paola won’t be there, however. Contact Palais Royal (www.monarchie.be). Throughout August (dates vary year by year but generally include the last week or so of July and the first week or so of Sept).
Planting of the Meyboom (May Pole), Brussels. Despite the name, this does happen in August, on the eve of the Feast of St. Lawrence, at the corner of rue des Sables and rue du Marais, and celebrates Brussels’s victory over Leuven in 1311 (nowadays it’s more a celebration of summer). Contact Société Royale des Compagnons de Saint-Laurent (tel. 02/217-39-43). August 9.
Tapis des Fleurs (Carpet of Flowers), Grand-Place, Brussels. The historic square is carpeted with two-thirds of a million begonias arranged in a kind of tapestry. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be). Mid-August in even-numbered years.
Marktrock, Leuven. Three days of rock and jazz on the square in front of Leuven’s beautiful Stadhuis (Town Hall). Contact Dienst Toerisme Leuven (tel. 016/20-30-20; www.leuven.be) or visit www.marktrock.be. Mid-August.
Outremeuse Festival, Liège. Music, dance, and theater performances go along with appearances by the city’s two favorite folklore characters, Tchantchès and Nanesse. Contact Office du Tourisme de Liège (tel. 04/221-92-21; www.liege.be). August 15.
Liberation Parade, Brussels. The Manneken-Pis statue is dressed in a Welsh Guard’s uniform in honor of the city’s liberation in 1944. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be). September 3.
Grande Procession, Tournai. Commemorates a religious procession that first took place in 1092 to thank Our Lady for warding off the plague. Contact Office du Tourisme de Tournai (tel. 069/22-20-45; www.tournai.be). Second or third Sunday in September.
Brussels Heritage Days. Taking a different theme each year, this program allows you to visit some of the finest buildings in town that are usually closed to visitors. Contact or visit the Centre d’Information, Les Halles de St-Géry, place St-Géry (tel. 0800/40-400; Métro: Bourse), open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm. Third weekend of September.
Filmfestival Gent, Ghent. Belgium’s top international film festival, and an event that has grown in stature over the past 3 decades to become one of Europe’s movie showcases. As many as 150 full-length movies and 100 shorts are screened each year. Contact Filmfestival Gent (tel. 09/242-80-60; www.filmfestival.be). During 11 days, midmonth.
Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival, Bruges. Cool works of art with a too-short shelf life can be viewed on Stationsplein in front of the rail station. Contact Snow & Ice (tel. 050/20-04-62; www.ijssculptuur.be). For 2 weeks anytime from the third week of November to mid-January.
Christmas Market, Brussels. Stands selling seasonal trinkets, traditional craft items, and food and drink are set up on place Ste-Catherine. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be). Throughout the month, daily from 11am to 10pm.
Christmas Market, Bruges. Stands selling seasonal trinkets, craft items, and food and drink, alongside an ice-skating rink, are set up on the Markt. A second market is on Simon Stevinplein, daily from 11am to 7pm. Contact Toerisme Brugge (tel. 050/44-46-46; www.brugge.be). Throughout the month, daily from 11am to 10pm.
Christmas Market, Ghent. Stands selling seasonal trinkets, craft items, and food and drink are set up on Sint-Baafsplein. Contact Dienst Toerisme Gent (tel. 09/266-52-32; www.gent.be). Throughout the month, daily from 11am to 10pm.
Nativity Scene and Christmas Tree, Grand-Place, Brussels. The crib on display at this Christmas nativity scene has real animals. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be). Throughout the month.
Winter Fun, Brussels. An ice-skating rink and a big wheel are set up on Marché aux Poissons; on neighboring place Ste-Catherine there’s a baroque carousel. Contact Brussels International Tourism (tel. 02/513-89-40; www.brusselsinternational.be) or visit www.plaisirsdhiver.be. Throughout the month.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
Courtesy of Frommers