The Diamond Capital of the World
It’s great to travel back to cities and places when long time elapse in between the visits, and especially if that is to one of the greatest cities in terms of history, architecture and sights. For me, this is the third time here. If the first was the shortest as all I had was few hours interconnecting buses on way from Brussels to Amsterdam with the second time way longer than before; now this is the longest I’ve been hence covering deeply every sight and corner of the city. A great chance as well to now completely revamp this travel guide, rewriting and reviewing most of it.
Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium after its capital Brussels, and with difference, also the second in elegance and richness. While Ghent and Bruges are incredibly beautiful places, these are first smaller, and secondly, like taken out of a fairy-tale. Antwerp in the other hand is grand and one can feel how powerful it once was.
Its port remains second in Europe, and one of the biggest in the world. It is merely 25 kilometers to the North Sea along the Westerschelde estuary of the River Scheldt that cross the city. One of the most important trading cities in the 16th century especially during the Spanish rule when it was the sugar capital of Europe after such commodity was coming from the colonies; cinnamon and pepper from Portugal and plenty others, translating in rivers of wealth and countless merchants coming to the city, and earning the Spanish crown seven times more revenues than the Americas.
With the wealth comes money, and so the creation of banks. The world’s oldest stock exchange was built here in 1531 (rebuilt in 1872). Then the designation of the city as the diamond capital in the world. It’s the most important place in the world for trading the precious stone, with the Diamond Stock Exchange located right in the middle of the diamond district. Even the luxury from the wealth can be seen at central train station where you can admire the Carrara marbles and elegance of a design resembling the Cathedral of Florence in Italy.
Since the historical city centre is not big and everything is compact and short distance each others, visiting whole city won’t take you any over than a day, and unless you would like to include it as a stop over should you be travelling north towards the Netherlands or south towards Brussels or elsewhere, you can easily visit the city on the go without the need to spend the night here. This is basically what we did, coming to enjoy the Saturday on a day trip from Eindhoven this time; and from Dusseldorf on a previous trip.
With regards to food, the good news is that you are in Belgium! It’s delicious, and knowing where to go or checking some restaurants before choosing one it can easily translate in a good value for money. But remember to be careful with any of these fancy restaurants which are basically a tourist trap. You will find the national dish everywhere, mussels and fries. They do them in many varieties and many sauces to choose from. It does not matter which one you select it is guaranteed you will enjoy them. Fish and seafood is also popular here in Antwerp due to its proximity to the sea, and so is their other national dish, steak and fries with salad.
Chocolates, pastries and sweets, yeah you are in the kind of “sugar paradise”. Belgium produces some of the best chocolates in the world; on top of that who has never heard of a waffle! And of course fries with mayonnaise; not the healthiest yet very tasty.
Lastly, you should not leave the city, nor Belgium, without drinking any of their beers. Belgium is world famous for having some of the best beers in the world. The choice is so vast you will really get lost. Apart of the usual Duvel, Leffe, Kwak, Chimay, Kriek or Hoegarden to name a few, there are hundreds others to choose from. Basically the ones above are nowadays easily to find elsewhere in the world at any supermarket, pub and bar hence why not to try something new?
For further information about Antwerp visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Belgium’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Antwerp
- Diamond Quarter As the name suggests, where you will find hundreds of jewellers and diamond traders. Located towards the east of the city.
-Zoo Opened in 1843, one of the oldest in Europe. The entrance gates are a wonderful piece or art-nouveau.
-Central Train Station Designed by Louis Delacenserie and completed in 1905 is a wonderful piece of art. The main hall has similarities in design with Florence’s Cathedral, also using the same colours and patterns of Carrara marble.
-Diamond Stock Exchange South from the train station on the pointed corner of Pelikaanstraat and Vestingstraat. Built in 1910 in eclectic style.
- Zurenborg District Developed at the end of the 19th century, it features one of the highest concentration in Europe of townhouses in art-nouveau and other fin-de-siècle styles. Located south of the Central Station and Zoo.
-Zonnebloem Meaning the Sunflower, on Cogels Osylei 50, designed by Jules Hofman. One of the most iconic homes in the district.
-The Battle of Waterloo On Waterloostraat 11 designed by Frans Smet Verhas.
-Boreas House On Transvaalstraat 56 designed by Joseph Bascourt.
-The 4 seasons On Generaal van Merlenstraat 27 designed by Joseph Bascourt.
- De Keyserlei-Meir Area Connects Market Square with the Central Train Station. It’s the main shopping district and major pedestrian thoroughfare.
-Flemish Opera At the corner of Teniers Square with De Keyserlei and beginning of Meir Street. Built in 1907 in beaux-arts style.
-Teniers Square With the grand symmetrical neo-baroque buildings flanking the beginning of Meir Street.
–Stadsfeestzaal Galleries Along Meir Street, quite impressive and elegant worth to enter to see.
-Saint James’ Church Designed in Brabantine Gothic style, with 17th century Baroque interiors, it is where you will find the tomb of Peter Paul Rubens and most of the family members. Located a block north from the Galleries on the parallel street to Meir, on Lange Nieuwstraat.
-Rubenshuis Located on Wapper, a perpendicular street to Meir. The former home and studio of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Entrance 10 Euros.
-Bourla Theatre Not far south from the Ruben’s House in the parallel street to Meir. Dating from the 19th century in neo-classical style.
-Royal Palace Along Meir Street, in rococo style.
-Trading Exchange One of the world’s first stock-exchange built in 1531, the current building dates from 1872. You will see it from Meir on the perpendicular street Twaalf Maandenstraat.
-Boerentoren Farmers’ Tower or KBC Tower as it is more commonly known is a 26 storey Art-Deco building from 1932 and regarded one of the oldest skyscraper in Europe at the time, just second only after the Telefonica Building in Madrid, Spain.
- Grote Markt Area With the landmark Market Square, second in beauty after that of Brussels but as imposing, elegant and historical like the one in Brussels. The incredible amount of guildhouses and their design denotes how wealthy the city was in the 16th century.
-Groenplaats Right behind the Boerentoren, the largest square within the city centre, and from where you will get the best views of the Cathedral in the background.
-Plantin-Moretus Museum Located in the former residence and printing establishment of 16th century printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. The entire complex is listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its invaluable importance and heritage. West from the Groenplaats, in another beautiful square, the Vrijdagmarkt.
-Cathedral of Our Lady With construction begun in the 14th century and finished in 1518 in Gothic style. Famous are the four works by Rubens: The Descent from the Cross, The Elevation of the Cross, The Resurrection of Christ and The Assumption. Is the highest cathedral in the Low Countries and tallest building in the city. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Belfries of Belgium entry. Entrance fee 5 Euros.
-Grote Markt The Great Market Square, most precious sight in the city completely surrounded by impressive constructions.
-City Hall Designed in a combination of Gothic and early Renaissance with Flemish and Italian influences, a style only found in Belgium. Completed in 1564, it is listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Belfries of Belgium.
-16th-century guildhouses The whole square and nearby streets are filled with those beautiful houses. Pay attention at each of them for the details and statues in their façades.
-Statue of Brabo and the giant’s hand Symbol of the city. Legend says a dragon inhabited the river and asked for a toll for anyone crossing it, while those refusing to pay, the right hand would be cut off until one day a hero cut the right hand of the giant and threw into the river.
-Vleeshuis Hall Meaning the Butchers’ Hall, is a late Gothic brick building from 1500, former guild hall for the butchers now housing a musical instrument collection museum. Located north from the Grote Mark along the Braderijstraat street.
-Het Steen Castle Literally meaning The Stone, is a medieval fortress located at a strategic location in order to control the access to the Scheldt River. It is nowadays home to the archaeology museum. Visible from the Vleeshuis Hall.
-The Oldest House Located in Stoelstraat, off Zirkstraat, just a street northeast from the Vleeshuis Hall. From 1546.
-Saint Paul’s Church Farther north after the Oldest House. Completed in 1571 with in Gothic style, contains beautiful Baroque interiors. Among its treasures are a painting by Rubens, The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament; and a copy of a 1623 Caravaggio, the Madonna of the Rosary. The original was taken to Vienna in 1786 by Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
- Museum aan de Stroom Which translates as Museum by the River. Located north of the city in former industrial docks now being radically transformed into a proper 21st century city. It is mostly dedicated to the city and its connection with the rest of the world. Designed by Willem Jan Neutelings of Neutelings Riedijk Architects, it has immediately become a new landmark in the city.
- Law Court In a striking design by genius architect Richard Rogers, the roofs resembling the masts of ships have become the new landmark in the city’s skyline. The only downside is the location, south far from the central core and main sights. The tram 12 passes right there.
Although the city is served by its own airport, this is almost in full dedicated to business passengers. The recent extension of the runaway is permitting the introduction of other airlines and the opening of new routes, still not very helpful airport. The good news is that Brussels airport is not really far and frequent buses and trains run between both. Furthermore, since the introduction of the new fast rail link between Antwerp Central Station and Brussels via Brussels airport, the journey time is only 35 minutes with a cost of 10 Euros for a single ticket (at the time of writing this); making this option the best choice.
Buses and trains from neighbouring countries are frequent day and night for what Antwerp can be your best bet should you want to do a day trip from wherever you are nearby, like France, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands or elsewhere in Belgium.
Within the city you have buses, trams and commuter trains, but as a tourist you will not need any of these as you can easily walk from sight to sight. Distances around the old town are not big while most of it is now pedestrian friendly.
Since this was a day trip from Eindhoven, there is little I can say about accommodation here in Antwerp other than the usual, checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.