I’m one of those people who has mixed feelings about the whole Christmas thing. Although I’m no candidate for Scrooge’s title, I can’t always get into the full-on festivities. But one place has made my snowy, sparkly, spruce-smelling soul happy, and that’s Antwerp at Christmas. So, in plenty of time for your 2017 festivities, I’m setting out what the beautiful city has to offer. My pictures are all from visits in 2016.
I make no apology for being an avid Belgophile, and Antwerp is a city that rewards repeated visits. Its centre is beautifully compact, meaning that everything you might want to see is in easy reach. Antwerpen (in Flanders, therefore with its Flemish spelling) is a city of just over half a million people, with a metropolitan area of 1.2 million. This makes it the second most populous city in Belgium and roughly the size of Birmingham in the UK.
Antwerp hosts the world’s oldest stock exchange, sadly derelict for a number of years now. Known as the diamond capital of the world, Antwerp also has a strong presence in fashion – think Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten – and is a major trade and cultural centre. Antwerp Book Fair is also a big deal on the literary scene.
Don’t forget to look up in Antwerp: there are spires and gables aplenty making a glorious skyline
Antwerp: City Centre
Like so many Belgian cities, the hub of the city is Grote Markt/Grande Place. Resplendent with statuary and stunning architecture, this part of the city demands exploration on foot. Work your way through its cobbled streets (flat boots are decidedly a bonus in winter) to the Plantin-Moretus Museum.
This UNESCO world heritage site – and the only museum in the world to have received this status – takes you through the history of the book, printing, and entrepreneurship. Don’t forget to see the portraits of the family commissioned from Rubens. You can visit the oldest printing presses in the world. Are you getting the sense that I’m a bit of a reading addict? You can also visit the Rubens House, where he created most of his work.
If you can spy something magnificent on the skyline, that’s the Cathedral of Our Lady. It took a stunning 169 years of construction to reach its height of 123 metres, and it is the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries. You’ll find a whole collection of major art works here too.
Antwerp gives good fairytale castle: Het Steen lit up for Christmas behind the Kerstmarkt stalls along the river
The massive castle, formerly used as a prison and later as a maritime museum, is currently under renovation. You should be able to visit Het Steen in its new incarnation as a cruise terminal sometime after 2020. In the meantime, you can enjoy it as a landmark on a river walk.
Even the buildings have something profound to say in Antwerp
For an unusual experience you can try out Antwerp’s underground city at de Ruien. Here you can walk the underbelly of the city through its canals and sewers with a guide, with a tablet-guided tour (plus chaperone) or by boat.
Antwerp from the River
Antwerp’s port is one of the twenty largest in the world, and the second biggest in Europe. The city is built on the River Scheldt, which is linked to the North Sea by the Westerschelde estuary.
Funfair to the left, stalls to the right, there’s plenty to do riverside
Situated at the mouth of the river, Antwerp’s port can take some large maritime traffic, including smaller cruise ships carrying up to 800 or so passengers. So maritime life is an important part of city life. On our first visit, we took a boat trip on the river, and found ourselves the only visitors amongst many parties of locals. We were wondering if something was going to happen, but really the point of the trip is that it doesn’t. You just chill, enjoy seeing the city landmarks from a different perspective, talk to old friends and make new ones, and enjoy a Belgian beer or two.
Antwerp: Gorgeous Grub
It’s Belgium, so you’d better believe that the grub is gorgeous. Being a port city, Antwerp is hot on seafood, including the legendary moules/mosselen that typify Belgian cuisine. You’ll also find suitable homage to the Friet, to my mind best served crispy, crunchy and molten hot from a variety of stalls across the city. Choose a topping of your liking and savour these treats, which also function well as a hand warmer for winter visits.
I’d recommend trying vispanneje, a fish stew. There’s also the warming stoofvlees, a beef stew made with beer, and best served with plenty of friets to soak up the sauce. Another favourite is waterzooi, a creamy chicken stew, which comes in as many varieties as there are restaurants to serve it.
From the deliciousness that is Belgian chocolate to the local biscuits and a gingerbread house or two, you won’t be short of a sugar rush
For the sweet of tooth, Antwerp does those famous Belgian indulgences – waffles, pancakes and chocolate – notably well. The local speciality is a biscuit in the shape of a hand, and you’ll find this mirrored in chocolate offerings across the city. Cafe culture is alive and well in Antwerp, and you’ll find plenty of places to stop off for a coffee and a snack.
World peace and, when we visited, gluten free grub
No visit to Belgium would be complete without trying Belgian beer – or even a coffee – in a snug and intimate bar. Most have a roaring stove in winter, so snuggle up from the cold for a few luxurious minutes and enjoy some local brews. Try Elfde Gebod for an incredible space full of religious artefacts, angels and saints and some rather good beer and food.
Saints, angels, pulpits, statues: it’s all here at Elfde Gebod
Antwerp: The Kerstmarkt
You won’t have difficulty finding the Kerstmarkt, as it spreads across many streets and squares in the centre of Antwerp. In fact, you’ll hear the music and the buzz of excited crowds,. You’ll also probably smell the scent of something that reminds you just how hungry you’ve instantly become. The Kerstmarkt is situated on Steenplein, where you’ll also find the station, Suikerrui and Grote Market.
The market is packed with things to do, eat, drink, see and buy
The market is made up of a variety of stalls selling Christmas gifts, street food and drink, winter activities such as an ice rink and a fair with more stalls, rides and big wheels. You can also see at least four large outdoor Christmas trees, including, last year, one that sang.
The Big Wheel at dusk
Things to do at Antwerp Kerstmarkt
If you want a really festive activity, you’ll find the ice skating rink in De Groenplaats. I’d not long recovered from breaking my arm in three places last year, so I thought I’d best miss that one out, but we still spent a while happily watching everyone in action on the ice. I loved that there are little sleighs to take small children out to enjoy the fun as well.
People were having an amazingly good time on the ice rink
Down by the port, you’ll find the fairground attractions of the Kerstmarkt. Here there’s a big wheel, with stunning views across the city skyline; try that at sunset for some spectacular pictures too. The wheel itself is mightily photogenic, changing colours regularly after dark and creating beautiful silhouettes across the city.
You can also at some stage see the traditional Christmas tree burning, but we’ve not yet been in town for that. It takes place in January.
When we last visited, there was a brass band playing a great selection of interesting tunes on the quayside, which really added to the evening. I’m pretty sure their repertoire included The Bear Necessities, and there were definitely neither worries nor strife in the air.
There’s a tradition that if you kiss under the mistletoe sculpture you can make a wish.
You can arrive in Antwerp for the Kerstmarkt by ship from England
Visiting Antwerp and the Kerstmarkt
You’ll find the local guide to the Kerstmarkt here. It opens on Saturday 9 December (reassuringly late as Christmas markets go) and closes on Sunday 7 January if you fancy celebrating in January instead. Antwerp’s online visitor guide is here, and is available in Dutch, English, French and German.
You can reach Antwerp by flying into Brussels Zavantem Airport, or by taking the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi. From either, it’s a short train journey across to Antwerp. A variety of ships also visit the port at Antwerp. A regular caller is Cruise and Maritime’s Magellan, sailing from London Tilbury.
Antwerp: Bring Backs
Chocolate. Well, it had to be said. Belgian beer, for which there are plenty of shops stocking specialist varieties, plus genever and avocaat. Diamonds, if that is your thing, and fashion.
And lists of your favourite places. Because you’re going to be heading back.
If we’ve made your pulse beat faster for beautiful Belgium, check out lovely Ghent here.