Antwerp is not chocolate box beautiful like Bruges, nor does it have that busy pick and mix’ selection combination of transient Eurocrats and tourists you taste in Brussels. Belgium’s second city is more ‘urban praline’ so in Isabel’s Insider Guide to Antwerp, you can look forward to savouring a luscious centre wrapped up in delicious outer coatings.
Cool and classic, trendy yet traditional, hip and historic, internationally minded but fiercely Flemish , Antwerp remains at the heart of thriving Flanders while politicians argue about the country’s future amid the Dutch and French speaking divide.
Diamonds and port trade have served this historic city long and well leaving a legacy of flamboyant medieval and baroque architecture among its treasures. Still the centre of the diamond Trade – it is said that four out of five diamonds in the world once passed through Antwerp – and still one of Europe’s busiest ports, modern Antwerp is a fascinating mix of contradictions.
After numerous visits from the Netherlands where we then lived we decided to make Antwerp our second home and in recent years we lived here full time. Why? The eclectic and exuberant character of Antwerp worked her charm “like an exotic woman with baroque hips” as one guide book gushes in a OTT description of the place. “She flaunts her titillating mix of modern and traditional, cool and monumental, trendy and bohemian…how’s that for a complex personality”. The world’s finest beers, mussels, frites (fries) and chocolate were just some of the iconic oral pleasures that drew us here.
Once the greatest city in northern Europe Antwerp’s glorious past is everywhere from richly ornate churches and mansions to hidden cobbled squares of ancient buildings. Meander down Pelgrims traat , emerge blinking into the Vrijdagmarkt , after negotiating the Vlaeylkensgang, a medieval cobbled alleyway and you pass the routes where Royalty, poets and painters once mingled. Exploring hidden squares, like bohemian St Andries, off Antwerp’s version of Portobello Road known as Koosterstraat , open spaces flanked with immense comic strip murals you find yourself in Zuid (South) full of funky fashion and cutting edge restaurants, cosy cafes and nice views above the Schelde river.
Living a stone’s throw from Antwerp’s celebrated Grote Markt , standing seven stories high with multitudes of stone framed baroque buildings, we hired a first floor apartment balcony facing an archway dating back to the 1500’s in an area where the harbour flourished back in days of yore.
I would emerge from my home two minutes stroll from the iconic town hall on Grote Markt to find hordes of visitors plodding through Antwerp’s old centre aiming their i phones and cameras at neighbourhood attractions. That experience of being at the heart of this living monument of a place cheers the spirit even on the greyest of drizzly Flemish mornings, we found.
Your introduction to Antwerp will be a good one if you arrive at one of the world’s most splendid railway stations, refurbished at vast expense whose ornate turn of the century architecture showcased the city for a world fair in the late 1800s.. By far the most important landmark, the grand Gothic cathedral of Our Lady, towering between favourite squares, Groenplaats and the Grote Markt is another lofty location, housing major paintings from Peter Paul Rubens. In no other city in the world will you find as many reminders of Rubens as in Antwerp where he spent most of his life
A superb exhibition highlighting his legacy “Sensation and Sensuality” running at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts , Brussels is moving to London’s Royal Academy in early 2015 while Rubens in Private, one of the most important exhibitions of his work to be shown in his native city in years opens in Antwerp’s Rubenshuis in March 2015.
The Quentin Tarantino of his era, creating scenes that exuded lust, passion, violence and also elegance and compassion, Rubens made Flanders one of the world’s foremost regions for painting. The city of Antwerp has produced a fascinating walking guide that takes you through Rubens parts of town, professionally and privately. My local church Saint Pauls around the corner from our apartment on Veemarkt is on the Rubens walking trail housing some of his best religious paintings while the Rubenshuis where he lived and Rockox House museum where more intimate and lesser well known among his works hang are top of the list.
A visit to Antwerp should last a minimum of three days if you want to see the city properly and taste all those interesting outer layers of the’ urban praline’. A few minutes stroll from the rather soul less factory style terraced restaurants that line the Groenplaats and Grote Markt catering to less adventurous travellers takes you into Zirk street. A world of authentic French cuisine awaits at unpretentious A La Ville. Here owner chef patron Laurent Olives offers a genuine brasserie experience enjoyed by regulars ‘ in the know’ with a great value daily changing lunch menu (€17)plus a extensive a la carte choice for lunch and dinner.
After exploring the National Straat whose designer boutiques and retro second hand outlets and galleries make it one of the city’s most exciting places to shop these days (not forgetting MoMu,the renowned fashion museum) take a right turn into the Kronenburgstraat. At no 35 you will find Bianconero, one of Antwerp’s hidden culinary gems. This high end Italian restaurant serves a daily lunch menu of two courses with coffee for E31,50. Regional specialities of Sardinia and Sicily with accompanying wines and among the best vitello Tonnato and bruschetta out of Italy.
Antwerp is renowned for chocolate and beer, not to mention the best French fries on the planet. Carolien Krijnen from Antwerp Connection Tours , an Antwerp insider took us on a memorable chocolate tour of her town on a freezing winter morning, stopping to let us taste some warming chocolate liquors on route,visiting famous city chocolate ‘heavens’ including one in a former Royal palace on the Meir (Antwerp’s answer to Oxford Street) She also leads fashion, diamonds, history and culinary walks and “everything that’s fun” and is introducing a new tour dedicated to the humble biscuit. “ Antwerp used to have thirty different biscuit factories” she says “we were copying a lot of the famous English biscuits between world wars when biscuits had their heyday”.
1. Start your visit by calling into the Tourist Office on Grote Markt to pick up armfuls of invaluable free city brochures, highlighting everything from architecture to gastronomy, maritime Antwerp to Museum visits and walks. No city I have ever visited as a better selection of visitor information.
2. Beware of the bicycles….Cyclists (especially around the Melkmarkt quarter and narrow Hoogstraat one of the busiest streets especially on Sundays come at you from all directions, whizzing past within a hare’s breath of colliding with pedestrians all the time.
3. Armed with the Tourist Board’s city map lose yourself in the little streets that lead off from de Meir’s bustling boulevards . All the famous fashion names are represented, from Karl Lagerfeld to Gucci- You will be enthralled by the gorgeous little urban botanic gardens hidden away on Wilde Zee close to Rubenshuis – Antwerp’s top tourist attraction.
4. If the weather is nice wander over to Sint- Jans Vliet close in the St Andries quarter and take the art deco era escalator (one of the first in the world) into the bowels of the earth to the pedestrians (and cyclists)tunnel underneath the river Scheldt. You emerge on the Linkeroever (left bank) where marvelous views of the cityscape await plus some pleasant walks through parks and along towpaths whose cafes serve renowned Belgian waffles and various beers.
5. Don’t miss a visit to Antwerp’s latest museum the Red Star Line Museum in the former control station for steerage passengers taking the red Star line to North America, many driven by fears of war on the horizon, others escaping poverty and persecution. Nearby here at Eilandje (Little island) the trendy place to live these days with expensive penthouses and non stop building overlooking a smart yacht marina is the impressive relatively new MAS (museum aan de Stroom) Take the escalators to the panoramic roof terrace for the best views of the river and this great city.
I love your Inside Guide to Antwerp. How do I find out more?
For all the latest news on Antwerp and Flanders including trip ideas, year round festivals, latest events surrounding ongoing World War 1 commemorations, upcoming exhibitions on Rubens and others, accommodation, main attractions etc., go to www.visitflanders.co.uk.
Visit Antwerp www.visitantwerpen.be
Antwerp Tours www.antwerpconnection.com
A La Ville www.alaville.be
Rockox House museum www.rockoxhuis.be