1. Watch the Amazing Aalst Carnival Parade
The Aalst Carnival Parade is considered one of the greatest spectacles in Europe. Over 150,000 spectators from all over Belgium come out to watch the parade, which features over 100 carnival groups and floats, marching through the streets of Aalst.
Humour, Satire and Self-Mockery are key themes in the parades and nothing is sacred. Everything is subject to ridicule. The parade features Giant Puppets which are satirical representations designed to insult local or even international politicians.
The parade is a colourful masterpiece and the costumes and floats are considered works of art. Carnival groups will spend an entire year creating these masterpieces.
While the same parade occurs on both the Sunday and Monday of Carnival, only Sunday’s parade is judged. The Monday parade has a more relaxed atmosphere as things are not running on a tight schedule.
2. See the Gilles Perform an Ancient Broom Dance that Chases Away Evil Spirits Chase Away Evil Spirits
The Gillies Broom Dance takes place on Carnival Sunday at 2pm in Grote Marketplace. Gilles are local carnival characters found only in Belgium. They are surreal comedy figures that have wax masks, dazzling ostrich feathered headdresses and vibrant straw padded costumes.
The Gillies are played by local Aalst men and boys, who consider it a great honour because it is a tradition which goes back centuries to their pagan roots. Weeks are spent rehearsing, and many painstaking hours go into sewing and restoring the costumes by hand.
Aalst Gillies are tasked to drive out the evil spirits that roam during winter by performing a Broom Dance. They parade throughout the city, swinging their brooms around stomping the ground to rid the city of evil spirits, whilst also begging the gods for a good harvest. This carries on until evening.
3. Try to Catch the Lucky Golden Onion
A rather unique event is the famous “Onion Throw” that is conducted by the Carnival Prince and Carnival Committee Members, who throw 1000 onion sized candies from the Aalst City Hall Balcony to a large enthusiastic crowd below.
Around 100 onions have numbers on them that match up with prizes, and there is one special onion called the golden onion that has been specially designed for that year’s carnival and embedded with jewels.
The 18-carat Golden Onion is worth a lot of money and catching it is meant to bring you lots of good luck. It is designed each year by a different designer, making each onion unique.
4. Watch a Cross Dressing Parade
On Tuesday the Parade of the Dirty Sissies is a hilarious carnival parade that sees the local men cross dress in women’s clothing. The most traditional cross-dressing outfit is the voil Jeanette which translates as female prostitute and generally sees the mean wearing dresses, whilst pushing a pram full of beer, with large fake boobies.
5. Drink Lots of Delicious Local Beer
During Carnival lots and lots of beer is consumed, and one simply must try the local beer. Noteworthy beers come from the local Glazen Toren brewery and can be sampled in bars and restaurants all over Aalst.
6. Visit Some Local Sights
Aalst City is full of art galleries, museums and amazing gothic architecture. Visit some of the amazing local sights while you’re in the city including the famous Church of Saint Martinus, or the incredible Bezoek het Museum.
7. Party the Night Away
When the day turns to night and the parades finish for the day, join the trucks and floats that fill Aalst pumping out music, so that people can party the night away. The public street parties last all night with large crowds drinking, dancing, singing and flirting the night away
8. See the Carnival Prince be Crowned
Aalst Carnival starts with the Carnival Prince being given the keys to the city, by the Mayor of the city, which assigns him leadership over the carnival for the duration of the carnival. The Carnival Prince will then give a speech ridiculing local politicians.
9. Join in the Carnival Parade
There are many informal groups that perform during the parade and if you pre-organise it you will be able to join in the fun and festivities, marching during the Aalst Carnival Parade.
10. Watch A Giant Puppet Be Burned
The final event of the Aalst Carnival is the burning of an effigy. All the blame for any sins that were committed during carnival are blamed on the effigy and he is burnt as punishment. This symbolically closes the carnival and is performed by the carnival prince.
It takes place on Shrove Tuesday, which is the Final night of the carnival and thousands attend to scream, cheer, cry and sing songs, and then continue to drink the night away, marking the end of Aalst Carnival and the start of Lent.
Where to stay in Aalst for carnival?
Aalst is a small city so there are only a few options for accommodation. So, if you are planning on attending Aalst Carnival we recommend you book your accommodation asap.
Check out Booking.com for some accommodation deals in Aalst here.
Of course, if you are not able to find availability you can also stay in villages nearby. You can also stay in Brussels which is only 31km away which has a much larger selection of accommodation options.
Check out Booking.com for some accommodation deals in Brussels here.
How to get to Aalst?
- By Plane: Aalst does not have an airport so if you are coming here from overseas we recommend flying to Brussels Airport (BRU) which is one of the busiest airports in Europe, so you will have no problem finding a flight there.
- By Train: The Aalst Railway Station is located in the city centre. There are direct connections to both Brussels (33 minutes) and Ghent (30 minutes).
- By Bus: The Flemish national bus company De Lijin has plenty of buses running to Aalst from Geraardsbergen, Dendermonde, Berlare, and several other neighbouring towns. You can check out the timetables here https://www.delijn.be/
What to do and see in Aalst?
Aalst is renowned for its Gothic architecture! One of the main attractions is the Aalst town square which actually boasts the oldest town hall built in the 13th century, in the Low Counties. Adjacent to this is the belfry which is has a carillion with 52 bells, and is one of the most handsome in Belgium.
Other notable buildings are the Gothic-style St Martins Collegiate Church which was built in 1480 and has a painting by Rubens. Or the Old Hospital which was built in the 15th century. The Municipal Museum has many great displays about local folklore and history, including one on carnival masks. There is also great restaurants and many major breweries.