Antwerp is a city of almost 500,000 people located on the River Schelde which links to the North Sea via the Westerschelde Estuary. This deep and wide river opening has led to Antwerp developing one of the busiest and largest ports on Earth. The name comes from a myth about a giant who charged a toll to people crossing the river, those who refused to pay would have their hands cut off and thrown into the Schelde. A young hero called Brabo came along and cut the giant’s hand off leading to the name Antwerp (or throwing a hand in Dutch). You will notice the statue in the Grote Markt.
Antwerp’s growth through the middle ages was strongly related to the “Age of Exploration” and from the 16th century entered a “Golden Age” when it became the largest and most cosmopolitan city in northern Europe. By the 18th century the city was in decline, but Napoleon recognised its strategic importance and was set upon developing it fully before he was defeated at Waterloo. The Nazis did their best to demolish the whole port with V2 rockets before it was re-captured by the Allies in 1944, but not without severe setbacks.
Visiting Antwerp allows you to re-live the glories of the Renaissance years through the work of Rubens, who lived in Antwerp. You can visit his house where there’s a extensive collection of his work.
Getting to Antwerp
When you buy an Eurostar ticket to Brussels, you are actually buying a ticket to anywhere in Belgium, so you needn’t buy another fare to get to Antwerp, you simply change trains at Brussels Midi Station and continue on to Antwerp which takes about 20 minutes. You can also access Antwerp by ferry from the Port of Ostend (about 1 hour and 15 minutes) or if you feel like a drive, from Calais or Dunkirk.
Getting around Antwerp
All the main hotels are located in the city centre so it’s best to walk. You can get a Antwerp Museum pass for 20 Euro’s which allows you unlimited access to all the sights, plus unlimited public transport. Buy one at Antwerp Centraal Station on arrival.
Article: Things to do In Antwerp
City of Rubens, diamonds and high fashion, Belgium’s second city has a rich heritage, a welcoming atmosphere and terrific food says Sue Dobson.
Mixing history and hip, great art, architecture and a buzzy street life, Antwerp never ceases to surprise. Did you know, for instance, that it’s the most important diamond trading city in the world, that one of Europe’s oldest zoos is set in beautiful gardens just moments from the palatial Central railway station – or that chic Belgian designer clothes are turning Antwerp into a fashion capital? There’s even a fashion museum (MoMu) and a ‘fashion walk’.
In the historic centre, tall houses of terracotta brick and Dutch-style stepped gables line narrow, cobbled streets. Hidden courtyards and secret alleyways hark back to industrious days – in the 16th century, its ‘Golden Age’, Antwerp was bigger than Paris or London. The city owes its existence – and its chequered history – to the River Scheldt. There are great views from riverside walks and summer boat trips, and the massive Port stretches for miles.
Some of the world’s greatest painters lived and worked in Antwerp – Rubens, Van Dyck, Breughel, Jordaens – and art meets antiques in a host of small, intimate and quite wonderful museums. Churches, too, are filled with art treasures.
Candles flicker behind the wood-framed windows of cosy, character-full restaurants; café tables and wicker chairs spill out onto leafy squares. Eating is a pleasure here, and very good value. In Antwerp, the presentation of food, even if it’s just a cup of coffee, is a matter of pride. Then there’s the Belgian beer (one pub boasts over 280 varieties), the fabulous chocolate, and the people. The Dutch-speaking locals are as friendly as their city – always ready to help, and with an impressive command of English.
Cathedral of Our Lady. At the heart of the historic centre of Antwerp, cobbled lanes and squares, restaurants, cafés and little shops surround the cathedral, which is long, tall and gloriously light, Gothic in style but spanning many centuries. The highlights are Rubens’ huge, immensely powerful paintings, Raising of the Cross and Jesus’s Descent from the Cross.
Paul Rubens House. Peter Paul Rubens built, lived, worked, entertained and died in this palazzo-style house, furnished to show his 17th-century lifestyle, including an extensive art collection, his studio, and a garden with plants of the period. Rubens’ portrait of Anthony Van Dyck as a boy is among the gems.
Rockox House. The 17th-century Flemish home of Mayor Nicholas Rockox, art collector and close friend of Rubens. Wonderfully atmospheric, it is richly furnished with antiques and works of art, including paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and Brueghel. Essential viewing.
Grote Markt. Everyone gravitates to the Grote Markt, the city’s main square, where tall, step-gabled guildhalls, their golden symbols and pennants glittering in the sunlight, form a theatrical backdrop. The Renaissance architecture of the Town Hall (ask to see the interior wall murals) captures the eye, the flamboyant fountain has a story to tell and outdoor cafés are great for people-watching.
St. Carolus Borromeus Church. Known as Rubens’ church, this masterpiece of Baroque is today famed for its music. Most of Rubens’ paintings were destroyed by fire in 1718, but the Maria Chapel, for which he designed the ceiling, survives in a still-lavish interior. Note: Rubens’ tomb is in the sumptuously decorated St James’ church. It lies behind the main altar in the Chapel of Our Lady there, beneath one of his own paintings.
Plantin Moretus Museum. The only preserved, completely equipped printing office from the 16th/17th centuries, in a superb patrician residence furnished with antiques, tapestries, old master paintings, sculptures, pottery, porcelain and marvellous libraries. If you love books, you’ll spend hours here.
The Diamond District. A multi-cultural square kilometre, close to the sweepingly grand Central Station, is the centre of the world’s diamond cutting, trading and polishing. Meander among the shops – if you’re not into diamond-buying mode, at least treat yourself to superb chocolates at Del Rey – see Diamondland and visit the impressive multi-media Diamond Museum.
Meyer van den Burgh Museum. One man’s collection of medieval and Renaissance treasures – exquisite paintings, sculptures, tapestries, miniatures, enamels, ivories – 3,000 items displayed in a house of wood-panelled rooms, their walls ‘papered’ in gold leather, all furnished with antiques.
The Begijnhof. Seek out this peaceful oasis of fairytale, 16th-century houses and cobbled pathways, hidden away from busy roads. Its pretty orchard garden is flanked by the little church of St Catherine.
Cogels Osy District. Art Nouveau architecture reigns in this gem of a neighbourhood, quickly reached by tram 8 or 11. Cogels-Osylei is the main street for ogling houses with flowing lines and decorative motifs, but the surrounding streets are wonderfully rewarding, too.
Where to stay in Antwerp
To get the best of the city you need to stay near the Grote Markt, so where better than the Hilton Antwerp, which is right on the Grote Markt itself. Failing that, try the Radisson Blu Park Lane Hotel, which is right opposite the railway station, or the lovely Villa Mozart. The Villa Mozart Hotel is superbly located by the Grote Market, in the heart of the Old Town. This small, friendly hotel was originally four medieval townhouses now totally renovated and restored to their former charm and character.