First sensation in Antwerp: breathless. The city knocked it out of me upon arrival with it’s fantastic train station. Built in 1900, it is impressive, intimidating, and majestic. You leave the ultra-modern train platforms and rise up to ground level on escalators that force you to encounter the massive domes, marble and decorated arches of the station. From outside the station it’s just as impressive, especially the intricate tile work that covers the exteriors of the domes. The neighborhood around it is not so pretty. Move forward and onward as quickly as you can.
Antwerp likes to bill itself as the “newest capital city in Europe.” Which is true, considering that Belgium was not formed until the post-Napoleonic reshaping of the European map in 1831. But Antwerp itself has been a city of wealth and importance for many centuries, and so, for a ‘new’ capital city, has lots of great architecture and history.
Definitely not to miss and a good first stop – Antwerp Cathedral. The largest in Belgium, it’s a Gothic masterpiece heavily aided in decoration by Antwerp’s master artist, Peter Paul Rubens.
Close to the Cathedral is the Grote Markt (Market Square). Take the chance to stop for a
coffee break next to the Stadshuis (City Hall), at Café Den Engel. A local tradition for snacks and coffee, it’s also a great place to sit and get a full view of the colorful decorative flags on the city hall, the sounds of the fountain in the center, the beautiful guild hall houses flanking the city hall, and the Cathedral towering over it all. Sit on the Den Engel terrace, drink a coffee, and listen to the bells of the cathedral. At noon, it’s a special treat!
On Saturdays there is a small but well-stocked antique market literally in the shadows of the Cathedral – when facing the Cathedral, explore the little alleyway to the left of the entrance. In this charming little street is the antique market with silver, crystal, art, and knick-knacks. There’s also charming cafes and quiet corners for taking a break with a beer and a waffle.
The newest draw in Antwerp is the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom). Opened in May 2011, this new museum is an architectural as well as cultural addition to Antwerp’s older dock area.
The red brick building rises on the docks and is softened by wavy glass used to echo the water of the Schelde River. The design places the infrastructure of the building at the center, with light and glass on the outsides – giving each floor great views and lots of light. Eight of the ten floors will house art exhibits, with a café on the ground floor, a restaurant on the ninth floor, and a deck on the top floor that gives an unparalleled 360-degree view of Antwerp. Tip to know: the entrance area is small and crowded, but keep moving past the lines to the first escalator. Access to each floor, the restaurant and the view deck are free – only the exhibits have a cost. A good low-budget option is to travel the building and enjoy the view for free!
Watch where you walk when heading back from
the MAS into the center – you were after all, visiting a museum built on docks so old that Napoleon Bonaparte had excavated them to rebuild them! I took that wrong turn and suddenly I was facing gals behind their glass windows and bathed in the tell-tale red glow of lights. It’s then that I noticed that – ironically – I was the only woman walking the street amidst an array of guys alone and with their heads down. Conveniently enough, this neighborhood has public urinals on pretty much every corner. Keep your city clean, I guess…
If you can make it back to the Centrum, a lovely gem to discover and enjoy is Hendrik Conscience Plein. Close to the Grote Markt, this square houses the St. Carolus Borromeus Church. The church was considered an artistic masterpiece in Rubens’ day, but has since been stripped clean by history and artistic and religious reformations. The square itself, is one of the best spots in Antwerp for a romantic lunch. Try “t’Brantyser” for an excellent take on the traditional Tournedos of beef, or a unique spin on a salmon stir fry. The huge tree on the square, not only gives great shade on a warm day, but protection from raindrops for singers and guitarists. If you’re lucky you will be serenaded, like I was, by a character dressed in a Hawaiian shirt funky hat, and American sneakers singing Flemish translations of songs by Leonard Cohen. I bet he works as a stuffy and serious accountant during the week.
No visit to Antwerp is complete without a stop at the Rubenshuis museum. The former home and studio of Peter Paul Rubens was remodeled to display works of the master and his most famous students, including Van Dyck. Even for art neophytes, this is a great spot to experience art in a beautiful setting. The building has been restored to Rubens’ time period, decorated to give a sense of the painter’s wealth and lifestyle, and is, more importantly, the perfect size for a museum. Just as you reach saturation level with gilded leather and crucifixion scenes, you exit out into the magnificent garden. There you find tranquility in the midst of the city – peaceful, charming, and lovely.
For the shoppers, there’s Meir Street – a consumption culture paradise. You can find all sorts of shops mixed together along this winding pedestrian street. Off the side streets are more boutique and expensive spots. Shop till you drop then have coffee and a slice of pie at the Café Imperial in the newly opened Stads Paleis (City Palace); or eat a waffle from a street café while you watch street performers. For the romantically inclined couple, take a stroll down Meir street after shopping hours to window shop, people watch, and admire the beautiful architecture of the old buildings. If you are lucky, a saxophonist will play and amaze you at the acoustics of the marble floors and buildings – you’ll hear the haunting sound for what seems to be forever.
Other things to consider in Antwerp:
– On weekends there’s a huge market under the massive modern covering of the Theater Square. The covering is hideous, but it does provide a rain free environment to browse clothing, buy fresh flowers, nibble cheese, eat waffles, and sample the biggest and most flavorful olives I’ve ever seen. You can find the olives in huge bins throughout the market – green or black, marinated or plain. But all the size of golf balls!
– Antwerp’s Diamond Museum… no sparkle there. Although it has a very detailed display spread over three floors of the process of cutting diamonds, most of the shiny items on display are reproductions, and the audio-guide is too long.