Made in Antwerp
TEXT: PAOLA WESTBEEK
Situated on the banks of the River Scheldt, the bustling port city of Antwerp’s rich medieval history blends perfectly with its vibrant and modern atmosphere. This urban gem boasts everything from cutting-edge culture and fashion, to cosy shopping streets and bustling terraces steeped in Old World grandeur. The draws of Flanders’ ‘capital of cool’ are endless. Here are three reasons to plan a visit.
Soak up some culture
Antwerp certainly has its share of awe-inspiring museums. Among them is the Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA), located in the south of the city, a cultural hotspot teeming with galleries and other cultural gems such as the Photo Museum (FOMU) and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Antwerp is the world’s diamond capital, so it should come as no surprise that there is a museum dedicated to these precious gemstones. At the DIVA Antwerp Home of Diamonds, visitors can learn about the history of these and other luxury goods while admiring the lavish collection. The MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), located on the old port neighbourhood Het Eilandje, has a collection of over 500,000 pieces divided over nine floors. There’s even a rooftop terrace where you can take in an exceptional bird’s-eye view of the city.
In the 16th century, the expanding city of Antwerp earned its mercantile reputation and was one of the most important trading ports in Europe. Today, not only does Antwerp continue to grow and thrive (in the last 10 years, its population increased by 50,000), but the cosmopolitan city happens to be home to Europe’s second-largest port. Despite the hustle and bustle, Antwerp manages to retain a laid-back atmosphere and small-town feel.
If you’re arriving by train, be prepared for a grand entrance at its magnificent central station. Trumping the list of the world’s most beautiful railway stations, this architectural masterpiece was constructed between 1895 and 1905 in an eclectic mix of styles. The iconic station (situated just 30 minutes from Brussels Airport) is not only a convenient way to access the Flemish hub, but is one of the most impressive welcomes a city can offer.
Het Steen, the city’s cradle and oldest monument, also serves as a gateway to Antwerp as well as a cruise terminal and a central point for tourism. The building, which originated as a fortress and was later a prison and a museum, is one of the must-see landmarks on the banks of the River Scheldt. It houses the city’s Visitor Center, The Antwerp Story (an attraction that serves as the ultimate introduction to those new to the city) and a panoramic terrace where you can indulge in a sprawling 360° view over the city.
From here, you’re just a pleasant five-minute stroll from Grote Markt, a historic and animated market square in the old quarter with myriad fine restaurants, bars, terraces and striking buildings that vie for your attention. One of them is the Town Hall, a UNESCO World Heritage site with a jaw-droppingly beautiful Renaissance-style facade. Other architectural wonders in the city include the richly decorated guild houses and the striking Port House (a former firehouse crowned with a diamond-shaped structure designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid). Also worth mentioning are the sumptuous Art Nouveau buildings that will take you back to the glory days of the Belle Époque.
Indulge the senses
Of course, chocolate is one of the city’s gourmet attractions, but there’s also something to be said about indulging in a paper cone filled with thick-cut chips, piping hot and served with a dollop of mayonnaise. If beer is your tipple of choice, pop into a ‘brown café’ or terrace and sip on a local brew such as a ‘Bolleke’ from the De Koninck (one of the many breweries open to the public). For fans of fine dining, it’s good to know that there are a wealth of restaurants to satisfy even the most discerning of palates.
Antwerp has made a name for itself in the fashion scene with designers such as Dries van Noten and the many boutiques that have made the city a shopping mecca where retail therapy takes on a whole new dimension. Strolling along the main shopping street (Meir), you’ll come across international chain stores, but don’t forget to look up and admire the striking Rococo architecture!
After your urban adventure, end the day by hopping on the free ferry to the left bank and feasting your eyes on the city from a distance. It’s easy to see why the city has been captivating visitors for centuries.
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