Tuesday 12 February 2019


Atypical Antwerp: A Visitor's Guide to Belgium's Jewel of the North

When you think of Belgium, the first things that come to mind are most likely of the food related variety; beer aplenty, scrumptious chocolate and the iconic 'French' fries to be exact. But what about a shopping centre in a century old dance hall, a giant severing hands, or the only museum in the world to make the UNESCO world heritage list? Antwerp, a city in the north of Belgium on the bank of the river Scheldt (or Schelde in Dutch) and just a 45-minute journey away by train from international travel hub Brussels, has all that and more to offer visitors.

Before we dive into the highlights of Antwerp today, let's take a step back and look at the history of this city. Legend has it that the giant Druon Antigoon collected toll on a bridge over the river running through the city and he cut off the hands of anyone who refused to pay his price. He was eventually defeated by Bravo, a Roman soldier who severed the giant's hand in turn and threw it in the river. You could say Bravo was practicing his 'handwerpen' (a Dutch word that literally translates to hand throwing), and that's where the city's name Antwerpen, or Antwerp in English, derives from. The story is commemorated with a statue in the centre of the Grote Markt, which sees Bravo in action, just before he throws the giant's hand into the river.

Aside from this statue and the stunning architecture surrounding it on the Grote Markt, what are some of the city's highlights for visitors today? Following my weekend break to Antwerp earlier this month, I've listed the things you cannot miss out on during a visit.

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Go on an awe-inspiring architectural journey

One of the best things to do when exploring a new city is to walk around without a map as you'll often come across the most unexpected and delightful places by having an unplanned wander. Especially in a city as rich in history and featuring ornate, centuries-old buildings like Antwerp.

The first grand sight we experienced was when arriving in the impressive Central Station; the most beautiful railway station in Belgium, I've been told. Dating back to the turn of the 20th Century, walking around in this vast building with its immensely high ceilings, striking dome, and intricate designs, gives a great first impression of some of the historical delights the city has to offer.

Other areas of Antwerp that are a particular feast for the eyes include its many squares (such as the aforementioned Grote Markt as well as Groenplaats), the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady, the biggest Gothic church of the low lands) peeking out above the buildings, and just around the corner from it Vlaaikensgang (also called Vlaeykensgang), a small medieval alleyway that brings you back to the late 1500s.

You can also do some retail therapy in a beautiful dance hall from the turn of the 20th century. Located on high street Meir, the ‘Stadsfeestzaal’ has been returned to all its ornate glory after it was hit by a fire nearly one hundred years after construction. The shops aren't much different from others on the high street, but by being surrounded by the vibrant, golden interior of the former dance hall, the shopping experience becomes something else entirely.

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Follow in the footsteps of Peter Paul Rubens

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Antwerp, and rightfully so, is Rubens House, the former home of Peter Paul Rubens, arguable the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition. Here you can step back in time to not only admire some of the works of the great artist himself, but also explore the house and see some of his furniture collections, or pieces from the same time period that have been donated throughout the years. Comprising several floors of artwork, this isn't an accessibility-friendly museum, but if you are able it's highly worth the visit.

Rubens being such a prominent figure in Antwerp history, can also be found in other places around the city, most notably in Groenplaats, where a statue of the man himself graces the heart of the square.

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Experience a bird's eye view of Antwerp

About a 15-minute walk from the city centre there is a little man-made harbour, and at the centre is an island with the Museum aan de Stroom (‘museum on the stream’). An impressive 10-story eye-catching building, which does not only feature a museum with a wealth of different exhibitions and a restaurant by an award-winning chef, but also a 'panorama walk’.

When you're inside, the building seems to be made almost entirely of glass, the view over Antwerp becoming more impressive every time you go a level up. While the museum closes at 5/6pm (depending on the day of the week), the panorama walk is open until midnight Tuesday-Sunday, and completely free to access at that, making it a great location to watch the sun set over the city. The rooftop view is particularly striking, and there are helpful ‘holes’ in the safety wall to be able to take great photos of the city without the hindrance of a reflection of the glass.

While we visited Museum aan de Stroom for the sunset view, if you have time I highly recommend checking out some of the exhibits too (not free but worth it for the ticket price of 10 euros). Our favourite this time was ‘Celebration’, which showcases costumes and customs from celebrations from around the world.

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Adventure away from shopping high street Meir

Meir is the long high street cutting through the heart of Antwerp. It's a great place to shop for well-known brands and the fact that it's in a fairly straight line, makes it very easy to find your way if you're new in the city. It's a great street and there is absolutely nothing wrong with visiting it. However, if you want to be a little bit more adventurous venture out into the surrounding areas.

The side streets surrounding Meir boost a wealth of independent shops, chocolatiers (we are in Belgium after all), and restaurants. Here you can get lost in the alleyways of yesteryear (figuratively, not physically as Antwerp isn't very big) and find unexpected delights. For lunch we randomly came upon Frites Atelier, a very affordable but unique restaurant to sit down for the famous Belgian snack, where we devoured a delicious portion of 'Indo Peanut'; fries topped with Indonesian peanut sauce, kafir lime, fried onions, roasted peanuts, and Rempejek. Yum.

Another delightful feature in the areas behind the high street are the Stripmuren (comic book walls). Belgium boosts a rich history in comics and I grew up reading the likes of Suske & Wiske and Robert & Bertrand (though Tin Tin, Lucky Luke, and The Smurfs are more widely recognised for those outside the Benelux). And seeing some favourite characters from my childhood featured on a city wall was very cool indeed.

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Visit the only museum in the world to make the UNESCO World Heritage list

I wanted to visit the Museum Plantin-Moretus purely for it' literary links. The Plantin-Moretus family were the first printers on industrial scale and the former printing office still houses many old printing presses (some of the oldest in the world!) and accessories in incredible condition. Super fascinating stuff for a literary geek like myself. I especially loved the video showing how printing worked back in the 1500s. All of the items surrounding me suddenly came alive, as I was able to imagine how they had been used back in the day. With over three hundred years of printing history in the house, there is plenty to explore for literary lovers.

What I didn't expect however, and what was a very pleasant surprise, were the many other fascinating collections stored in the house. Things collected by the family over the years, artwork featuring the men of the house, and a stunning courtyard that on a grey winter's day was already beautiful and serene, and I can imagine would be even more delightful to visit during spring or summer when in full bloom. This museum is a really wonderful gem in the heart of Antwerp, and it's clear to see why out of all the museums in the world, this unique collection of history housed in a gorgeous building made the UNESCO World Heritage list.

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These are just some of the most memorable things we discovered and explored during our short visit to Antwerp, and I'm planning to highlight others in future posts, including literary locations and instagrammanble places. If you've visited Belgium's jewel of the north (a nickname I gave the city based on its reputation as a diamond hub), share your recommendation for things to see and do in the comments below! For other great tips and itineraries, do make sure to have a browse of the very helpful resources on the official Visit Antwerpen website.

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1 comment:

  1. Antwerp looks like a great city for walking around and exploring! Thanks for your posts and tips!


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