If you’ve already visited Belgium, you may have been seduced by the wonders of the capital Brussels, or the UNESCO World Heritage Site beauty of Bruges. But if you’ve not visited Antwerp before, you’ve got delights aplenty in store here. Packed with Flemish charm, there are many awesome things to do in Antwerp, in fact more than I can possibly introduce to you here.
- 1 Is Antwerp Worth Visiting?
- 2 How To Get To Antwerp
- 3 A Most Splendid Arrival In Antwerp
- 4 Arriving In Antwerp By Sea and River
- 5 Antwerp’s Grote Markt And Stadhuis
- 6 Brabo Statue and the Giant’s Hand
- 7 Places of Worship
- 8 Plantin-Moretus Museum UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 9 Design, Style and Fashion In Antwerp
- 10 Antwerp’s Underground Extravaganze: De Ruien
- 11 Antwerp’s Fairytale Castle: Het Steen
- 12 More Cultural Pleasures of Antwerp
- 13 Eat, Drink And Be Merry: You’re In Antwerp
- 14 Antwerp’s Kerstmarkt
- 15 More Awesomeness Around Antwerp
Is Antwerp Worth Visiting?
I had to shake my head slightly in disbelief when a well known search engine came up with this question. The answer is yes absolutely, and absolutely yes many times over. Whether your tastes run to fashion, diamonds, chocolate, art, maritime history and shipping, architecture or food and Belgian beer, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy.
How To Get To Antwerp
Although Antwerp has a small airport of its own, you’re best arriving into Brussels Zavantem, from which Antwerp is a mere half hour on the train. It’s also possible to arrive directly by train from a number of European destinations, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Lille and Avignon. You can connect via the Eurostar from London. Despite being a large city of half a million people, the centre of Antwerp is wonderfully compact and walkable. A network of trams and buses will take you from the centre to the wider metropolitan area of Antwerp.
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A Most Splendid Arrival In Antwerp
Take a look at the beautiful building above. Isn’t it just spectacular? Then consider the equally gorgeous edifice below.
This, you may be both surprised and delighted to hear, is Antwerp’s train station. It’s a wonder in its own right. Regarded as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium (which is quite something, considering that Brussels Central was designed by no less than UNESCO-favoured Victor Horta), both the station and its viaduct are noteworthy.
Arriving In Antwerp By Sea and River
The Port of Antwerp is a big deal as ports go. It ranks in the twenty busiest ports internationally, and is the second busiest in Europe after Rotterdam. We’ve had the pleasure of arriving by ship up the River Scheldt, a river so deep and broad that it is navigable for 80km by large ships. More than 800 maritime destinations are served by the port. Sail into Antwerp on a passenger vessel, and you’ll berth right in the heart of the city, a mere five minutes walk from Grote Markt.
Antwerp’s Grote Markt And Stadhuis
As in many Belgian cities, Grote Markt is effectively the centrepiece of the city. If you’re used to the charms of Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Leuven, you won’t be surprised to find a magnificent Stadhuis (town hall) here, resplendent with flags and fine Flemish architecture. The Stadhuis was built between 1561-1565 in a Renaissance style. It is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list. You’ll find it open to the public on just a couple of days a year; I was fascinated to learn that it has five murals illustrating weddings in different periods, including the marriages of the ancient Belgians and the Romans.
Brabo Statue and the Giant’s Hand
Grote Markt is also notable for the enormous fountain and statue here. Unusually, it has no bowl for its waters, nor stone barriers around it; you can walk right up to the fountain itself. The statue is of Silvius Brabo, a mythical Roman soldier said to have killed a giant. Legend states that the giant guarded the crossing of the River Scheldt, demanding money from people who wanted to cross. If they refused, he cut off their hand and threw it in the river. Brabo removed the hand of the giant himself and threw it in the river.
The name Antwerp refers to the hand throwing of the giant, from the Dutch hand wearpen (hand throwing). The hand is the symbol of the city, and you’ll find it used in chocolates and other treats.
Places of Worship
Antwerp is full of noteworthy places of worship.
Cathedral of Our Lady
This is a Roman-Catholic cathedral, with a first phase of construction that paused in 1521 but has never been completed. Its belfry is included in the UNESCO World Heritage listing for the Belfries of Belgium and France. Here you’ll find paintings by Otto van Veen, Jacob de Backer and Marten de Vos. These accompany a number of significant works from Baroque painter Peter Paul Reubens. The spire of the cathedral is the highest church tower in Benelux. Napoleon reckoned it looked like lace.
St James’ Church
Built on the site of a hostel for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, this church is built in Brabantine Gothic style. It contains the grave of Rubens in the eastern chapel; he was also married here. The Stations of the Cross contain statues gifted by nobles.
St Paul’s Church
Located in the Veemarkt, this Roman Catholic church is near the Grote Markt. It is Gothic with a baroque tower and baroque interior.
Plantin-Moretus Museum UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you love the written word and learning, this is more than just a museum. It is housed in the sixteenth century home and printing workshop of Christophe Plantin and his son-in-law Jan Moretus at the Vrijdagmarkt. Plantin was a major figure in contemporary printing, and had interests in humanism.
The museum houses an important collection of typographical material, including the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world. There is also an extensive library which includes a Bible in five languages, a geographical book, a herbal, an anatomical book and paintings and drawings by Rubens. To visit this museum is to breathe deep of all the pleasures we take in the written word, conveyed to us as it once was.
Design, Style and Fashion In Antwerp
Don’t be fooled by Antwerp’s historic treasures. It’s got many more contemporary charms for its visitor. The city is renowned for fashion design, with the Antwerp Six including Dries Van Noten working there. Cate Blanchett and Maggie Gyllenhaal are fans, along with Queen Mathilde of Belgium.
The city is also home to the Diamond Quarter – Diamantkwartier. Eight in ten of the world’s rough diamonds once passed through here with over $16 billion of polished diamonds working their way through the exchanges here each year. It’s the largest diamond district in the world, located next to Central Station.
Antwerp’s Underground Extravaganze: De Ruien
Deep below the beating heart of Antwerp lies an experience that lays bare all its secrets. Traveling through the city’s former canals and sewers, you’ll get a unique view of its history and its recent past. This is the city’s underbelly exposed to the visitor.
There are a variety of experiences available, including group tours, exploring some areas by boat, and even going it alone with a tablet to guide your walk. The experience is managed by a social employment project, so you know that your subterranean adventure is doing good too. The price of your ticket includes welly hire and a protective suit.
Antwerp’s Fairytale Castle: Het Steen
Het Steen, the stone castle, was built on the banks of the Scheldt in the early Middle Ages. It was used to control access to the river, and served as a prison for many centuries. Other roles include its years as an archaeological museum and a maritime museum.
The entrance bridge to the castle has a statue of another legendary Antwerp giant Lange Wapper – there seem to have been a lot of tall people in medieval Antwerp – terrorising humans. As you can see above, the castle looks particularly beautiful all lit up for the Kerstmarkt, which lines the river banks.
More Cultural Pleasures of Antwerp
Rubenshuis: Home of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens
Rubens has a big spot at the heart of Belgian art and culture, and it’s not surprising that his home and workplace in Antwerp has been turned into a museum. An extra delight of the museum here is a Baroque garden courtyard opening out from the house.
Museum aan de Stroom
This building of boxy delights holds all you’d ever want to know about Antwerp and its long history as a major international port.
Eat, Drink And Be Merry: You’re In Antwerp
If you’ve yet to be introduced to Belgian beer, then a fine place to enjoy its many variations is in Elfte Gebod, pictured above. Crammed with religious artefacts, and with a warm stove on a chilly day, even if it’s a coffee you want, I can think of no better place to enjoy it.
The delights of the Belgian waffle, frites and chocolate are also copious here. Antwerp is big on coffee culture too, with its coffee houses even offering world peace on the menu.
Visiting Antwerp during the Kerstmarkt is a particularly fine decision. The streets are packed with excited crowds enjoying all the stalls set out along the river bank. There’s a fun fair on the quay, a mistletoe sculpture said to bring good luck if you kiss beneath it, and an ice rink with small sledges for your smallest skaters.
When we visited during the Kerstmarkt, there was a band playing the Bear Necessities, which seemed to sum up the feel-good vibe of the city. A bag of frites clutched in our rapidly warming hands, and we were wandering for hours, entranced by the lights, and the spectacle and the general happiness around us.
More Awesomeness Around Antwerp
If you’ve enjoyed Antwerp, we’ve got lots more of Belgium for you, including this Best of Belgium collection, as chosen by travel writers. We’ve also taken you to gorgeous Ghent, lovely Leuven, and to the magnificence of Grand Place in Brussels.
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