Top Belgian festivals 2016
From bears to pig bladders, Belgium's bizarre festivals have long been a major part of Belgian culture and Belgian festivals attract huge crowds every year.
Like many other European countries, Belgium is noted for the number of top festivals and carnivals that take place all year round. Belgium celebrates many important dates in the calendar, from welcoming in the New Year, through to Easter celebrations, the public holidays of Labour Day and Armistice Day and onto the popular Christmas period when two celebrations are conducted in December.
Aside from the public holidays, there is something for everyone each calendar year with festivals covering the fields of arts, music, film, history, and even beer. History is played out on Independence Day and in the Battle of Waterloo Re-enactment, Festival of Wallonia, Ommegang Festival and the Procession of the Holy Blood, while entertainment is the centrepiece of the Anima Festival, Zinneke Parade, Brussels Summer Festival, the Gentse Feesten and Reiefeest.
How many top Belgian festivals have you crossed off your list?
Top Belgian festivals
January 1: New Year's Day
Along with the rest of the world, Belgium ushers in the New Year on January 1, which is a public holiday.
February: Carnival de Binche
The famous three-day Carnaval de Binche sees the town of Binche return to the 16th century. It features music parades through the town and the big climax sees the Gilles appear on the Grand Place before throwing oranges at spectators – to be hit is considered good luck. The next carnival programme runs 7 to 9 February 2016.
Late February–March: Anima Festival, Brussels
The International Animation Film Festival is for all of the family, with more than 300 different animation movies from around the world screened at the Flagey Centre in Brussels during Anima. In 2016, the festival takes place 5 to 14 February.
Stavelot is the mid-lent carnival and the biggest festivities begin on the Sunday with the Blancs Moussis, which translates as ‘clad in white’, putting up posters on the streets. During the afternoon a procession of floats travel through the streets showering crowds with confetti and flogging them with pig bladders. The 514th Laetare Stavelot runs 5 to 7 March 2016.
March: Carnival of the Bears, Andenne
After a nine-year-old boy killed a bear that was terrifying his grandmother the animal became the symbolic animal of the town and the inspiration for the Andenne Carnaval des Ours. Dozens of bears prance along, parading among the floats and the Giant Martin II. At the end of the parade, to the children's delight, the King and Queen of the Carnival throw hundreds of little bears into the crowd from the balcony of the town hall. Check their website for an announcement of the 2016 date.
April: Zythos Beer Festival, Leuven
You can taste more than 500 different types of beer from 100 brewers in just one weekend at this giant beer festival held in the city of Leuven, home to Stella Artois and also the longest bar in the world. Around the city you’ll also find restaurants offering dishes cooked with beer, beer walks and beer workshops. The festival is on 23 to 24 April 2016.
April: Cavalcade of Herve
More than 50,000 people line the streets of Herve each year to witness the Calvalcade de Herve. The centrepiece of the festival is a procession of colourful horse-drawn carriages and it all ends with a fireworks spectacular. Check for the 2016 date.
May: Procession of the Holy Blood, Bruges
The largest religious procession, the Procession of the Holy Blood takes place in Bruges on Ascension Day each year. In 2016 Ascension Day falls on 5 May. Up to 100,000 people witness the procession and its biblical stories. It is an event now included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
May: Belgian Pride
The Belgian arm of the now worldwide Pride Festival takes place in Brussels each May – and in 2016 this will be on 14 May. A political statement for many minority sexualities and genders first and a festival second, Belgian Pride is a celebration of street parties, music and entertainment.
The city's association with cats stems from a gruesome tale of cat-throwing from towers to control the city's cat population, which was first introduced to catch the mice that hid and ate the textile of the city's main trade, several hundred years ago. Today Ypres is know as a cats' city not because of this history but due to Cat Parade started by locals in 1938. It is now held on the second Sunday of May every third year, and to kids' delight ends with a 'fool' throwing toy cats from the city hall tower. The 44th edition will be 13 May 2018.
May: Zinneke Parade
The Zinneke Parade is a biennial festival that takes place in Brussels every other year (on the even years) in May. Zinneke is the nickname for the people of Brussels, who get together to devise the theme of each festival. It is a colourful carnival with music performed without amplification. Check the 2016 festival date.
June: Battle of Waterloo Re-enactments
Each June, the historic Battle of Waterloo is re-enacted on the field of Waterloo where the original conflict took place in 1815. Visitors from across the world head for the iconic battlefield to witness unforgettable reprisals of the battle. The programme runs on the weekend nearest to 18 June, the historic date of the Battle of Waterloo.
July: 10 Days Off, Ghent
This 10-day music festival sees the best of the electronic music scene descend on Ghent. First held in 1995, the festival is staged indoors the Vooruit Arts Centre and coincides with the city's festivities, the Gentse Feesten. Check the website 2016 dates.
July: Gentse Feesten, Ghent
A music and theatre festival which lasts for 10 days every July, the Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festivities) is said to be one of the biggest city carnivals in the world with approximately two million visitors. Check the website for 2016 dates.
July: Ommegang Festival, Brussels
This pageant of colour and grandness dates back to 1549, when first held for Emperor Charles V and his honoured guests. Tiered stands are set up in and around the Grand Place to witness a historic festival that includes horses, jousting and flag processions. Check for 2016 dates
July 21: Independence Day
Belgium celebrates Independence Day on 21 July each year, the date the country gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830. The occasion is marked with parades and fireworks across Belgium.
July 26: Beselare Witch Parade
Inspired by a witches’ trial that apparently took place in the town, the local people commemorate the Heksenstoet or Witch Parade, featuring more than 1,000 costumed participants showcasing witches from well-known fairy tales, as well as local legendary characters like Sefa Bubbels, Meele Crotte and Leeme Caduul. Music and dancing goes on all night, culminating with the nail-biting recreation of a witch trial. Held every two years on the last Sunday of July, the next one is on 30 July 2017.
Tomorrowland, the largest and most outrageous electronic music festival in the world, is held in a small Belgian town called — very appropriately — Boom. On the festival’s 10th anniversary in 2014 more than 400,000 people attended over two weekends. In 2016, the festival runs 22 to 24 July.
August: Brussels Summer Festival
First held in 2002, the Brussels Summer Festival is a music festival held in the city during August. More than 250 concerts are held during the carnival with music covering an array of sectors. Theatre performances and street entertainers provide more attractions during the festival. The dates for 2016 are 5 to 14 August.
August 12–15: Brussels Flower Carpet
Every two years (on the even years) on the weekend of 15 August, the Grand Palace in Brussels comes alive with the colour of more than half a million begonias, set up in just four hours by some 100 volunteers. Since 1971, Brussels has created this intricate Flower Carpet, measuring 74m long and 24m wide. A concert is also held each evening, with a spectacular light and sound show.
August: Dinant International Bathtub Regatta
The long weekend around 15 August marks the annual Régate Internationale de Baignoires or International Bathtub Regatta, a wacky event taking place over six days. The regatta is made up of a fleet of floating bathtubs with unusual and original decorations. These remarkable vessels sailing down 1km of the Meuse make an interesting contest for the 25,000 souls who turn up to watch. A prize fund of over EUR 10,000 keeps it interesting.
August: Reiefeest, Bruges
An open-air spectacle held every five years (the last one was in 2013, the next in 2018), Reiefeesten is the ‘festival of the canals’. More than 600 musicians, dancers and actors provide the entertainment.
August: Ath Parade of the Giants
Always held on the fourth weekend of August, this medieval pageant celebrates the wedding of Monsieur and Madame Gouyasse (Goliath). The festival includes a ceremony at Saint Julian's church, after which Goliath fights the shepherd David in front of the town hall. During the Sunday parade, onlookers throw coins at the dancing giants for good luck. Don't leave without buying a traditional Masteilles tart.
September: Festival Kanal
This relatively new festival was created to provide an exploration into the Brussels canal zone through art and cultural projects. Held over five days in the area between Sainctelette Square and the Anderlecht Abattoirs, visitors are invited to a range of activities and entertainment. Check for 2016 dates.
September: Festival of Wallonia
Although the Festival of Wallonia or Fêtes de Wallonie celebrates the entire region, it actually centres in Namur, which welcomes around 250,000 people during the festival. It was introduced in 1923 to celebrate the revolutionary days of the 1800s and among the attractions are a stilt-walking contest and a moving and funny mass. Check the website for 2016 dates.
November 1: All Saints' Day
A public holiday for the whole of Belgium to celebrate all Christian saints. In Belgium, many people place flowers on the graves of dead relatives on this day.
November 11: Armistice Day
Armistice Day is a public holiday in Belgium and a solemn day when the armistice was signed between the Allies and Germany bringing World War I to an end.
Late November–early January: Christmas Market, Brussels
Christmas markets are popular all over Belgium but the popular Christmas Market in Brussels, best known as Winter Wonders, is regarded as one the most original in Europe. Over 2km of stalls, attractions and activities await the visitor in the heart of the city at the Grand Place and around the Bourse. It is open seven days a week throughout the period.
December 5: St. Nicholas' Eve
The first of the two celebrated Christmas days in Belgium, St Nicholas’ Eve is known as Sinterklass. It is the day when children receive their presents and is sometimes celebrated on 6 December, which is St Nicholas’ Day.
December 25: Christmas, Belgium
All of Belgium celebrates Christmas, the day being a public holiday.
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