Editor’s note: I am planning a trip to take my brother in law to Belgium for a week or so of beer, chocolate, and waffles. Antwerp hadn’t been on my radar at all, but after reading this awesome and quick view on the city from Hedy, it is now! For more of Hedy’s Euro-centric articles, click here to visit her index page.
Sometimes you visit a city for the first time, and you get swept off your feet and start to feel incredibly stupid that you haven’t visited before. I’ve had this recently and so I have to write an article to get you as enthusiastic as I am about amazing Antwerp.
To start off, I normally write about what to visit in the Netherlands, but this time I am going a bit outside the Dutch borders. But don’t worry, coming from Amsterdam it is only an hour and a quarter train ride, or a 2 hour car ride, which makes it easier to reach than – for example – Maastricht or Groningen. I would recommend taking the train, as you will arrive at the beautiful main station, a good place to start your exploration of Antwerp.
Antwerp is the largest city in Belgium and is located around the river Scheldt. It houses the second biggest port in Europe (after Rotterdam) and is the world’s centre of the diamond industry. It has a rich history in trading and because of the port and the diamonds it still is very active to this day. Not all trading nowadays is legal; there are big problems in drug smuggling, but don’t let that scare you away. Just be aware and stay safe.
When visiting a new city, I normally like to do a tour to get some basic information and a view of the highlights. For Antwerp, we chose to do a bike tour (yes, the stereotype is true; Dutch people love to cycle) and it was absolutely the right choice. Antwerp has a fantastic infrastructure, with wide and well kept bicycle lanes, and you can see so much more than when walking. Our guide was very knowledgeable as he was a local (a Sinjoor in local slang) and made sure all participants had a good time. He took us along the Scheldt to see the port and the old cranes used for moving the heavy loads on and off the ships. Then we went to the centre where he showed us an old courtyard, the red light district, and a few squares. All the way during the tour he told us very funny but interesting stories, tales, and myths about Antwerp. My favourite story he told was the myth about the origins of the name of Antwerp. A long time ago there used to be a giant on the Scheldt asking a big fee of every ship to pass. If the captain would or could not pay, the giant would chop off their hand. One day there came a brave man who killed the giant and chopped of his hand and threw it in the Scheldt. To throw a hand in Flemish is “hand werpen” which slowly grew into Antwerpen. Of course this is just a myth, but they still have a big statue on the large market square (Grote Markt) to celebrate it.
This is one of the things that surprised and excited me most about Antwerp: they have art with a story everywhere, and in every shape and form. There are of course a whole lot of interesting museums like the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom/Museum at the Stream), which is still on my wishlist, but also everywhere on the streets you can see mural art of comic books and intriguing statues with touching stories. Take the dog and boy statue in front of the cathedral. It is based on the book “A Dog of Flanders,” and it is about Nello (the boy) and Patrasche (the dog) who form a bond and in the end die together in front of the cathedral. I know, it is a sad tale, but it does show the beauty of unconditional love, and this is also beautifully shown with the statue.
If you are an art lover, do visit the Cathedral of our Lady behind Nello and Patrasche. It is has a lot of classical paintings with a few from Rubens even. For me, the most special artwork in the cathedral was a bit hidden in the back. It was a touching monument to the innocent children who were molested by clergymen of the Catholic Church. I found it very brave to place it in such a well-visited church, but it shows that change and awareness are happening; I truly appreciated that.
But if you don’t want to go for the art, there is a lot more to see and do in Antwerp. There is a zoo, many breweries you can visit for a tour and/or tasting, and even a beach. We ourselves liked just walking around in the city and finding out what wonderful buildings or streets we would see around the corner. We passed through a little Chinatown, walked along the biggest (and busiest) shopping street (the meir), and gawked at all the chocolate bars and bonbons in one of the many chocolate shops. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to visit the diamond district, but apparently that can also be very fun (or expensive). Our stroll ended at the Grote Markt where we had a a lovely Flemish dinner before we had to head home. But after that one day in Antwerp we were completely in love with the city and are already planning a next visit. So if you are looking for an easily accessible city to spend a few days enjoying all good things life has to offer, go to Antwerp and fall in love too!
How to eat and drink your way through Antwerp
Belgian beers are the best beers, and there is no shortage of them in Antwerp. My favourite for a warm day is Seefbier, light and refreshing. The other Antwerp beer I can absolutely recommend is the Bolleke from The Koninck. It is served in its own glass with a very round shape (in Dutch/Flemish bolvormig), hence the name Bolleke. The beer is a amber coloured and has a malty sweet taste.
Both the Seefbrewery and the Koninck brewery are open for tours and tastings so do visit them to discover and enjoy all their other beers and find your favourite.
With all the beer there is also need for some food. And you can’t go to Belgium without eating a waffle. Our favourite spot to do that is at the House of Waffles, right in front of the Cathedral. They have sweet and hearty waffles made with an old family recipe, and they are perfect for lunch to get some fresh energy to continue exploring.
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