Antwerp, or Antwerpen, is one of those interesting destinations that does not pop up frequently in people’s minds, at least if you are not based in Europe. It is however, a fantastic little destination, which is best approached by train from Amsterdam, for the best arrival experience, at least in my opinion.
All that glitters
Arrival in to Antwerp via high speed train from Amsterdam or Paris is definitely the way to go. A short-ish 2 hour train ride away from Amsterdam Centraal, this gem of a destination will definitely feel like it as you pull in to Antwerp Centraal. This grand baroque cathedral of a railway station will definitely remind you of a city built on trade and diamonds.
Once the opulence and gild of the railway station settles in to your imagination, the city’s plazas and boulevards will set your imagination alight in this the major city of Flanders, the predominantly culturally Dutch part of Belgium.
Just next to the railway station is the Diamond Quarter, aptly named ‘Diamant.’ Do not let the bland exterior fool you: those stores and plain façade hide the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, numerous jewellers skilled in cutting the finest and among the most sought-after gem sets.
Straight out from the main façade of Antwerpen Centraal and Diamant is De Keyserlei, continuing on westwards to Teniersplaats and the Meir, all grand entranceways in to the central of Antwerp. Antwerp is a very walkable city, with wide shaded boulevards, ample trams, a lot of pedestrian space and monumental vistas that are arguably on par with Paris’s Champs Elysees, Newcastle’s Grey Street and Edinburgh’s New Town.
Antwerp can pleasantly surprise you, even if you have high expectations of a city of this magnitude. Walking along the wide boulevard of the Meir, the city’s commercial heart, shopping arcades blend in seamlessly with art-deco constructions, baroque edifices and 19th century opulence.
The Rembrandt House has a fine collection of Dutch works, set in a beautifully restored house, tucked away in the corner along the Meir. Given the right spring day, not your usual street performers will be enthralling you on this boulevard, with my particular highlight being a well-tuned soprano.
Amidst this avenue, you will still be reminded that this is a city in flux, that tries to balance all her commercial interests in one go. In between the medieval city and renaissance quarters, art-deco towers rise up, reminding you of the commercial importance of this city, but unlike other edifices, these almost seemingly blend in at street-level and only really pop up once you see the city from the opposite bank of the River Scheldt.
For an interesting view of Antwerp, head to the banks of the River Scheldt, where, next to the Grote Markt, is Sint-Annatunnel, a pedestrian tunnel that links communities on both sides of the river. This 1km walk under the River Scheldt was built in 1933 and has beautiful painted tiles that tell the story of this unique construction.
The Great Market
Like all great trading cities in the low countries, Antwerp pay homage to her grand market square, the Grote Markt, where the statue of Brabo, or the Brabo Fountain, lies prominent in front of the City Hall. Fantastic beer gardens and bars line the square and the surrounding alleyways, a departure from the formal lines of the renaissance city on the Meir.
The great belfry of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekatheedraal, or Cathedral of Our Lady is a prominent landmark in Antwerp and provides a good juxtaposition to the spires in the Grote Markt. The interior is, to put it simply, divine, with many beautiful Dutch Masters, Antwerp resident Peter Paul Reubens in particular, hanging in-situ as they would have been when they were initially commissioned. A very interesting way to bring in the people to church: turn it in to an art gallery.
Adjoining the Grote Markt are the old quays and docklands, some of which have been repurposed as art spaces, pop-up markets and warehouse nightclubs. As Antwerp once was one of the great trading conduits linking the interior of Europe to the great outside, Antwerp now becomes the great conduit that links the outside art world to this section of Europe. The Museum aan de Stroom or MAS, is in itself a piece of art and houses a fine collection of works from across the world and is arguably one of the more interactive museums out there. It also has fantastic views of the city from the top terrace.
Chocolate, Chips and Shells Trails
Think Belgium and Belgian Chocolate would surely pop in to your head. Apart from the usual Godiva and Leonidas, Antwerp has a fantastic array of small, artisanal chocolate shops, all tucked away in the old city. These small establishments are worth the hunt, and are consistently as good as their more famous counterparts.
The chocolate trail combines with the, as I now call it, the chips trail. Fries, pomme frites, chips, call them whatever but they taste pretty good in Antwerp, and you cannot go wrong with whichever shop you go in to. However, one particular shop, at the Groenplaats, seems to get the crowds. Queue looks long, but it is fast moving, and as it is next to a Leonidas and a few good bars, you might as well add on a chocolate trail and pub crawl while you’re here.
Another interesting feature you may notice as you walk around Antwerp would be the small bronze shells you see embedded in the pavement. It was only after a visit to the St James’s Church when I realized that there is a third trail that converges in Antwerp: the Way of St James, or the Via de Santiago de Compostela. Yes, that famous Pilgrimage Trail actually starts up in the low countries and passes through Antwerp.
Little did I know, my travels would converge in a nexus where the trails of commerce, art, diamonds, chocolates, beer and religion meet. It helps that it is still one of the largest ports in the world (the Port of Antwerp actually almost reaches the Dutch border) and one of the grandest railway stations around.
WiFi? The City of Antwerp has free decent speed wifi available city-wide, so there is no worry for you to hunt around for free wifi if you are too lazy to get a local sim or pay for roaming.
Train connections? Local trains, high speed inter-city trains and Thalys provides excellent connections to Antwerp with regular services across the Low Countries. In fact, you can just turn up at Amsterdam Centraal and you’ll be on a train to Antwerpen within the hour.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.