Years ago, Antwerp established itself as a hot bed for diamonds and avant garde fashion, but it isn’t just a place to buy your engagement ring and shop for trousseau. The city is blooming in a million forms – from cuisine to culture, art to architecture and ideas to innovation. The infrastructure here makes it easy to reach most places on foot or bike around. To uncover its true essence, saunter the streets near the port or sit quietly at the riverfront for some people watching.
If you just have a day to go around this Flemish city, here’s a map to help you make the most of it:
CENTRAL STATION: AN ARCHITECTURAL GEM
For a gorgeous start to your day in Antwerp and a grand first impression, arrive in the city by train. With its soaring glass ceiling, massive stone walls, elegant hall, palatial stairway and ornate turn-of-the-century architecture, the dimly-lit central station looks more like a palace or church than a train terminal. Dubbed as the ‘Railway Cathedral’, it is the fourth most beautiful railway station in the world. And once you’re out, it’s hard to wander amiss. To the immediate right is the animal kingdom – a zoo that boasts of trimmed green grass and tailored gardens and shelters some exotic creatures. Just to the left is the diamond quarter consisting of shop windows packed with glittering gems and precious metals.
CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY
A two-minute walk south will take you to one of the city’s most celebrated landmarks, the Cathedral of Our Lady (entry: 6 euros), which stands tall, gleaming golden in the night lights. It took 169 long years (1352-1521) of labour to raise this 123 metre heavenward-reaching steeple of grace, the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries. Feast your eyes on its art and architecture, which includes models by the greatest 17th-century Flemish masters.
Monday to Friday – 10 am to 5 pm, Saturdays – 10 am to 3 pm and Sundays and public holidays – 1 pm to 4 pm
Near the cathedral is Grote Market, the heart of the old city rich with twisted cobblestone streets, immaculately restored guildhalls dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries and pretty art galleries and antiques shops. Beer lovers would absolutely love this area as it houses many quiet as well as friendly terrace cafes and bars and some of them pour around 1,000 different kinds of beers. Order a mug, bask in the wafting aroma of baking strudel in the fresh air and let the splendid surroundings work their magic on you!
A TASTE OF HISTORY
What dominates the west side of the Grote Markt is the City Hall. In the middle of the Groenplaats square, you’ll see a 1887 statue of young and brave Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo. The story has it that a mean giant controlled the river traffic, demanding exorbitant tolls. Those who refused to pay had one of their hand cut off. But one day Brabo managed to kill the giant, slash his hand and throw it in the Scheldt river. Thus the city got its name – Antwerp – that comes from the Dutch “hand werpen” meaning “hand thrown”.
WHERE ART MEETS SHOPPING
Treat yourself to culture and shopping at the Meir, the wide traffic-free shopping boulevard that links the Central Station to the historic city centre. At street level, you have some enticing window displays of famous brands and designer boutiques that tempt you to indulge in a bit of retail therapy. Look up to see the Art-Deco Torengebouw – Europe’s first skyscraper built in 1932, the New Stock Exchange reconstructed in an intricate Neo-Gothic style and some handsome Rococo-style buildings. Don’t miss the Osterrieth House, Napoleon Bonaparte’s Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) and the former Royal Residence of the Belgian Kings!
Walk a little more and you reach a square known as Wapper that connects the two shopping. This was where Antwerp’s greatest painter Peter Paul Rubens spent most of his life, philosophised with his friends and died in 1640. Travel back in time by visiting his former mansion and studio, now called Rubenshuis (entry: 8 euros), which today functions as a museum filled with brilliant pieces by the artist and his pupils. Enter the Rubens House through the main gate, which leads to the elegant courtyard. The portico connects the house and studio and forms an impressive way into the renaissance garden – the ideal relaxing spot if you’re tired after all the wandering.
SOME BEER CHEER AT DE KONINCK
When you’re at a place where beer is cheaper than water, you can’t miss visiting the specialty brewery that makes this frothy drink. Explore 10 interactive rooms and discover the history De Koninck Brewery. Learn what happens behind the scenes and sample “bolleke,” local slang for a glass of ambre-coloured ale served in goblet-shaped glasses. What’s more? You can register for a private tasting session and learn the art of pairing beer with some amazing artisanal foods, such as cheese, meat and chocolate. Deliciously educational! And indeed a great way to end the day.
MOMU: A HEFTY HELPING OF FASHION
There is a reason why Antwerp is known as the humble fashion capital. Enter the fashion museum MoMu (entry: up to 8 euros) at Nationalestraat and be amazed by the 25,000 exhibits including everything from historic costumes to contemporary clothing, shoes and accessories. While there is no permanent display, there are thematic exhibitions each year.