A guide to Antwerp, Belgium's striking second city
An arresting clash of old-world grandeur and industrial power plays out across Belgium’s unpretentious second city, home to historic dockyards, award-winning cuisine, captivating museums and some of the country’s best beer.
Antwerp has long been at the centre of things. Belgium’s handsome northern city grew wealthy on the profits of its port, trading since the 16th century in glittering diamonds, priceless works of art and the spices and spoils of assorted empires. The Port of Antwerp remains extraordinary: a Blade Runner-esque noirscape of industrial architecture, where the rusted hulks of old trade ships sit side-by-side with space-age modern buildings, presided over by a steel canopy of creaking girders and looming cranes. Nothing encapsulates the port’s double-edged character like the Zaha Hadid-designed Havenhuis, where a futurist, diamond-like building glitters atop a historic former fire station. In the midst of it all are remnants of the port’s pre-industrial life — lonely church towers, frozen windmills and, most charming of all, the village of Lillo: a pocket of Old Flanders marooned among reed beds and duckboard walkways.
Today, most visitors arrive in Antwerp by train, with the city’s heritage on show in the cavernous marble hallways of Antwerpen- Centraal railway station, a masterwork of art nouveau architecture. This style crops up throughout the city, most notably in the fashionable district of Zurenborg, where eye-catching houses are testament to a boom during the late 1800s. Antwerp is no stranger to fortune, of course; before that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the city was famed for the riches of its citizens. A wealth of grand Flemish buildings survive from this era, including the home of Peter Paul Rubens, the masterly painter whose work remains the pride of Antwerp.
Despite this grand past, the city is a straightforward kind of place, where bustling cosmopolitanism and commercialism can still be felt everywhere. Car-boot traders cheerfully set up shop in the grand squares of the historic core, and the boxy post-war architecture south of the train station makes a humble setting for the world’s most lucrative diamond district.
The character of the city also reveals itself through food: even with a galaxy of Michelin stars, the favoured local dish remains, reassuringly, a steaming pot of moules with a bucket of frites. This unpretentious spirit pervades the city, whether you’re dining by lamplight in the rarefied surrounds of the historic stock exchange or rubbing shoulders with the bright young things of Belgium’s most vibrant nightlife scene.
Antwerp’s broad, leafy boulevards and outdoor cafes might evoke those of Paris, but in the cobbled, 16th-century alleyways, Flemish townhouses and sprawling, retrofuturist port, Antwerp shows its true face: one which is all its own.
Things to see and do
1. Cathedral of Our Lady
Among the treasures in Antwerp’s Gothic cathedral are two vast Peter Paul Rubens triptychs — including his masterwork, The Elevation of the Cross. Little chapels branch off from the ambulatory, adorned with kaleidoscopic stained glass that floods the marble in technicolour on sunny days. You can also worship at the altar of Belgian beer at De Plek, the cathedral’s bistro-bar.
2. Museum Plantin-Moretus
For a vivid illustration of the wealth that flowed through Antwerp in the 16th century, visit the former home and workshop of printing magnate Christophe Plantin. Gorgeous rooms, decked out in dark wood, harbour magnificently wellpreserved artifacts of the printing revolution, including the world’s two oldest surviving printing presses, dating from around 1600. There are also priceless manuscripts, including the grandly illuminated Wenceslas Bible.
3. Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA)
Reopening in September 2022 after being closed for over a decade, the neoclassical building that houses the Royal Museum of Fine Arts has had a top-drawer makeover and will once again be the best place in Antwerp to admire the works of the Flemish Masters. Collection highlights include Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man with a Roman Medal and Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim.
The stereotype of the artist starving in a dark garret wasn’t for painter Peter Paul Rubens, as his former home and workplace attests. Buying the grand property in 1610, he transformed it into something akin to an Italian palazzo, with a neoclassical courtyard and even a miniature ‘Pantheon’ room. Rubens’ own works are also exhibited here, of course; meet the artist’s gaze in his self-portrait.
5. Red Star Line Museum
Antwerp’s most captivating human-interest museum chronicles the lives of some of the two million passengers who departed Europe for the US on the Red Star Line ships, including Albert Einstein and Irving Berlin. The museum outlines the struggles and indignities faced by the passengers, who endured stringent medical examinations and rough living conditions on the journey.
6. Mas Museum
This angular, red sandstoneand- glass confection is the city’s largest museum, with its varied exhibitions spanning everything from Antwerp’s food scene to pre-Columbian art. Those interested in the mechanics of museums will be fascinated by ‘A Look at the Collection’, which tells the human stories behind chosen objects, including who made, used and collected them.
How to explore like a local
Hundreds of Belgium’s famous beers can be sampled at this under-the-radar bar, where the elderly proprietors will only deign to let you in if you ring the bell then utter the password, “I am here to taste beer.” Inside are board games and a quiet atmosphere. One for the purists.
2. Exotic Market
The rather vaguely named Exotic Market sees locals descend every Saturday on the Oudevaartplaats, not far from the Rubenshuis, for a worldwide street food tour. Alongside Belgian classics (shrimp croquettes and stroopwafels) are stalls selling French cheese and charcuterie, Moroccan small plates, Mexican quesadillas and more.
3. De Roma
A sumptuous art deco auditorium is the centrepiece of this 1920s former cinema, which now serves as a multipurpose performance venue. Local bands and singers grace the stage along with international acts on tour; indie films are shown; and there are expos and events on issues as diverse as refugees and mental health.
4. Seef Brewery
There are several great brewery tours to choose from in Antwerp (including at the legendary De Koninck), but Seef’s is the best. Owner Johan Van Dyck is a colourful character who will talk you through his revival of Antwerp’s historic Seefbier, a cloudy buckwheat blonde known as ‘working man’s champagne’. The tour is followed by tastings, naturally.
Where to eat
It’s a crowded field, but this legendary street shack just off the Grote Markt does the best fish and frites in Antwerp. Perch at a tiny sea-blue wooden table and chair and order the house specialities — mussels in white wine sauce or shrimp croquettes, served with that most Belgian of accompaniments: chips and mayonnaise. Oysters, when in season, are also a fantastic choice.
This relaxed restaurant has a reassuringly slim menu: a creamy pancetta pasta, rich bouillabaisse and lamb sausage are the mainstays, alongside what may just be the finest steak in Antwerp. Opt to sit at the bar surrounding the open kitchen for a lively, sociable dining experience.
The grand surroundings of Antwerp’s former stock exchange form the backdrop of this elegant city-centre restaurant, all ornately carved stone archways and wood panelling worthy of a cathedral. Just as spectacular as the setting is the food, including mouth-melting kobe beef and truffle pappardelle.
Where to shop
Luddites Books and Wine
Urbane travellers will feel right at home in this charming bookshop, which has a decent English-language selection among its cookery books, novels, poetry and assorted non-fiction. Shopping done, head upstairs to the laid-back bar, where you can enjoy a glass of wine while leafing through your purchases.
The Chocolate Line
Self-described ‘shockolatier’ Dominique Persoone puts a modern, vibrant spin on traditional Belgian chocolate. The purple selection boxes offer a rotating medley of Dominique’s creative offerings, which include treats infused with matcha and bergamot, calamansi and pine nuts, and more. They all look and taste like tiny works of art.
Dries Van Noten
The ‘Antwerp Six’ are the most prominent movers and shakers on the city’s world-renowned fashion scene. Among them, Dries van Noten has garnered particular appeal for his colourful threads. His flagship shop is on Nationalestraat, just a few steps from the ModeMuseum, where you’ll find an informative exhibition of the finest work by Antwerp’s designers.
Where to go for nightlife
Jazzcafe de Muze
Hang out with Antwerp’s hepcats at this glorious, cavernous jazz bar, which resounds with live music five nights a week. Pull up a chair at one of the wooden tables, spread across two floors, and soak up the lounge-like atmosphere while sampling a wide selection of beers, wines and spirits.
If you need a break from Belgian beer, look no further than this voguish cocktail bar, decked out with wooden pallets, potted plants and bare bulbs. The menu spans dozens of classic and creative cocktails; try the oriental blossom, with rum, elderflower and ginger.
Antwerp’s clubbing scene outperforms that of sedate Brussels, and Ampere is one of the city’s finest institutions. The emphasis is on house and techno, with world-leading international acts such as Nina Kraviz and Joris Voorn appearing alongside Belgian veterans like Marco Bailey. Workshops in music production, video and photography are held here during the day.
Where to stay
Combining sociability with an eye for design, this ultra-stylish hostel has bookcases lined with arty books, plush banquettes bookended with houseplants and a breezy rooftop garden complete with sofas. The dorms are charming, too, with recessed wooden bunks and cosy window seats. Large private rooms are also available.
Down a quiet side street off bustling Grote Markt, Hotel Rubens promises the best of both worlds. The rooms and stylish communal areas have an airy, modern feel that belies their historic surroundings, and some overlook the baroque tower of St Paul’s Church.
This exquisite hotel, set in a 12th-century monastery and surrounded by botanical gardens, is the epitome of peace and quiet. Rooms feature splendid wooden beams and period windows, but are otherwise modern and understated, with an earthy colour palette and in-room greenery. There are four excellent fine-dining restaurants, including traditional Belgian offerings at 1238.
Getting there and around
The quickest and most comfortable way to get to Antwerp from the UK is to travel by Eurostar from London St Pancras to Brussels and then take one of the many regular trains onwards to Antwerp.
Average journey time: 2h40m.
British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa and Ryanair fly from UK airports, including Manchester and Heathrow, to Brussels, but not directly to Antwerp.
Average flight time: 1h20m.
It’s possible and enjoyable to explore the majority of Antwerp’s attractions on foot. For sights further afield, use the efficient De Lign transit network — tickets, bought online or at stops, can be used on buses and trams — or Antwerp’s waterbus. Bikes can be rented using the Velo network. delijn.be portofantwerpbruges.com velo-antwerpen.be
When to go
Summer is pleasant, with plenty of sun and temperatures generally falling between 20C and 25C. Rainfall is a possibility year-round, and in fact is slightly higher in the summer months, so a waterproof layer is always advisable. Spring and autumn are relatively mild, while December is also a good time to visit as the traditional Christmas markets open.
The Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg, £9.99
How to do it
Eurostar offers three nights in Antwerp at the NH Collection Antwerp Centre hotel B&B, including trains from London, from £310 per person.
Published in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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