A name shrouded in legend
The most reliable account seems to be the one which tells of war with a terrible giant. This bad man raided ships ostensibly to collects duties, but if the sailors had nothing to give, he would chop off their hands. This is where the Flemish phrase “hand werpen” came from (a hand cast away), which then, over time, became Antwerpen, the name of the city. As you walk around the streets, you will come across hand monuments, and now you’ll know the hidden meaning and not mistake them for some modern art installation.
You can fly direct from most European airports using scheduled and low-cost airlines.
You can also take an international train to Antwerp from Brussels. You can find the timetable here. There are trains about every 10 minutes, and they arrive at Antwerp’s main station, Antwerpen-Centraal.
Where to stay
If you are traveling by car, the question of parking will come up sooner or later. Given that most of the hotels offering free parking are located in the less attractive outer suburbs, it’s worth considering the P+R (Park + Ride) option. You park the car for free at one for Antwerp’s four P+R stations (Olympiade, Linkeroever, Keizershoek Merkzem, and Metropolis) and then jump on the public transport which is close to hand.
The best location to stay is in the Old Town, which is attractive, full of interesting sights and sounds, and easy to cover on foot without having to worry about rushing for the next tram. Then you’ll find out how expensive Belgium is when you see what 2* hotels are able to charge.
What to see
The sightseeing begins right away at Antwerp’s central railway station. It’s almost as if you have been transported into some kind of royal enclosure. It’s wealthy, spotless, and instead of the usual fast-food stands, you’ll find yourself surrounded by jewelry shops. Antwerp sells more diamonds in Belgium than any other city, so you will find more jewelers here than grocery shops.
The marble floors, pillars, gold leaf, statues of lions, clocks – it’s not like you’re waiting for a train – it’s difficult not to get totally engrossed in all this magnificent décor.
The station has been renovated quite a few times, then reconstructed, and then at one point they wanted to demolish it completely as it was falling apart in front of their very eyes – the masonry was actually falling on people waiting for trains. But in the 20th century, someone finally took the situation in hand, and now the building is one of Belgium’s most famous architectural landmarks and is credited with ebing the fourth most beautiful railway station in the world.
Wealth is the elder brother of poverty
Antwerp’s railway station owes its beauty to the Congo, for it was largely built on the wealth generated in that colony from mining. This is how the riches of a poor country was expropriated by one of Europe’s richest countries.
Meir Street, which you will come onto as soon as you leave the station, is heavena and hell for shopaholics. It’s not even a street, really, but a wide pedestrian avenue with signs on all sides inviting you to spend all your hard-earned cash. Apart from the boutiques and high street brands, there are handmade Belgian chocolate shops. You should take a look at ll these local shops, not just the omnipresent Leonidas, which is supposed to be the cheapest of the Belgian confectionery “boutiques”. You can hand pick 250g of chocolate in a little basket here for €6.00. At Galler you’ll find gift boxes of sweet delights with all sorts of fillings and if you want to treat yourself to the “Louis Vuitton” of Belgian chocolate, then take in the shop window at Godiva with its gift wrapped sweets, chocolates, and candied fruits. This place is a bit pricey, but you will still end up buying something, for sure.
If you have managed to resist the temptation to spend the day shopping, then yo have probably made it as far as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp. There are not many tall buildings in the historic center, so finding the cathedral won’t be difficult. As you approach the cathedral, your attention will be drawn to the loveliest little monument in the world – a little boy hugging a dog under a blanket made out of cobblestones.
The story behind the monument
The story behind the monument is a sad one. The story of “A Dog of Flanders” by Ouida (the pen name of the English author Marie-Louise de la Ramée), tells the tale of a young boy called Nello and his dog Patrasche. The boy dreamed of becoming, and artist, and one Christmas he went to the cathedral to admire the paintings by Reubens, but he and Patrasche both froze to death. The film version of this story is now popular, especially in Japan.
The cathedral bell-tower is so well regarded that it is a UNESCO heritage site. You will find three paintings by Reubens inside – “The Ascension of the Virgin Mary”, “The Elevation of the Corss” and “The Descent of the Cross”. Entrance costs €6.00.
If you appreciate Dutch masters, then you will appreciate a visit to Reubens’ House. He designed and planned the dwelling himself, which only goes to prove how multi-talented he was. Not only did he live here with his family, but he also created msot of the masterpieces which gaze down on you from the walls within. In his chamber of curiosities, he created his own collection of different art forms, from paintings to books and coins. Not everything could be preserved, but when the building underwent renovation, they did their best to keep it as close to the original as possible. The entrance costs €8.00.
Of course, you should not ignore the city’s main square, the Grote Markt. This was originally a large market square but is now a focal point for tourists where you can gze upon the Town Hall, the Brabo Monument, and listen in on the local guides as they recount the founding myth of Antwerp.
Head in the direction of the river Scheldt, and you will enjoy a lovely view over the other half of the town, and, with the wind in your hair, you’ll be able to contemplate what to do next from the huge number of options before you. It’s not for nothing that Antwerp is known as a museum city – there’s hardly anything here which does not have its dedicated museum – it all depends on what you like, how much time you have and what inspires you. Would you like to know more about the navigation of water? Then off you go to MAS. If you are or look like a student, the entrance fee costs €3.00, otherwise you’ll have to pay €6.00.
Are you interested in the history of typography? Then head for the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The entrance costs €8.00, and the sight of one of the earliest printing presses is priceless.
From office to the city’s main printing house
The Dutch printer-publisher Christophe Plantin did not come to Antwerp for the sights, but to pursue pure business interests and get rich. He founded his own printing works and tried to build a monopoly in the publication of printed materials, and he seems to have succeeded. Many well-known people were drawn here, and his business continued long after his death.
If you are interested in current and past trends, the museum of fashion is worth a visit. The have a large collection of extravagant lines in haute-couture and many interesting temporary exhibitions and activities. The museum is partially closed for renovation until 2020, so it’s best to check before you visit that what interests you will be available. How much you pay to get in depends on what you want to go and see, but the most expensive tickets cost around €10.00. The main exhibition costs €8.00
Food and drink
Belgians don’t just appreciate chocolate but coffee as well. Fierce competition has forced coffee shop owners to think up new ways of attracting coffee lovers to their establishments. Here are four places that are worth visiting, if not for a cup of coffee, then to see the fruits of the owners’ creativity. Coffee costs around the same price everywhere, from €2.00 to €4.00.
Antwerp’s best coffee shops
The owner of this coffee house also owns a knitwear shop, and the interior of the café follows in the same vein with knitted toys from floor to ceiling and each cup wrapped in its own little sweater.
The answer is in the name – this is a bar with books. It’s not just a bookshop with a coffee bar, though – it also has its own reading room. Sounds of nature are constantly played in the background to help you focus on the subject of your book. You can bring your own reading material or buy something there and enjoy your new purchase over a cup of delicious coffee.
Music lovers and lovers of coffee will make a beeline for this place. You don’t have to buy any records, but enjoying a cup of coffee whilst listening to some great music is a definite must. They have new releases on offer as well as older records in their original sleeves. This is where you are likely to find the first edition of something by some well-known band or other.
This is a good place for breakfast as the staff here are really proud of their chef. It’s a classic offering based on croissants, egg dishes, and jam, but it all tastes delicious. Breakfast with coffee costs on average around €10.00. They also sell their own coffee beans. If you have a coffee grinder at home then why not buy a couple of packets. Prices depend on the sort of coffee you buy and where it comes from, but range between about €7.00 and €14.00.
The interior is quite minimalist, which draws in a lot of students and freelancers who want to work in a laid-back atmosphere without being distracted.
Hunger can strike suddenly when travelling but bear in mind that in Antwerp, many restaurants insist on reservations in advance. Bear in mind also that what you see on a menu might only be there for a short time. The daytime menu can differ significantly from the evening menu. Balto’s has a nice view over the main square. You can enjoy sandwiches or even a late breakfast here until 5 pm. Lunch with drinks costs around €15.00. They recommend trying short ribs in a honey sauce or chicken in a cream sauce for dinner, which, with a glass of wine, costs round €20.00.
Going somewhere just to enjoy a drink is tough before about 10 pm since most places will only take hungry customers before then. But somewhere like Elfde Gebod is worth the wait. The name of the establishment translates as the Eleventh Commandment, and inside you will find more than 400 statues of saints. The Eleventh Commandment states that yo have to eat well, drink good beer, and pass the time well. So don’t be put off by the gaze of the statues – just go straight for the drinks menu.
Remember that a beer menu in Belgian can have more pages than War and Peace. Amusingly enough, in this seemingly blessed place, there is a beer called Lucifer. If you do decide to come here for dinner after all, you can try the dish called Adam’s Rib. Dinner and drinks will cost around €20.00-€25.00.
If you really want to feel at home, then pop into Den Hopsack, off the tourist track, and somewhere where you feel as if you are you’re sitting in someone’s flat. People come in, greet each other, smile, some play on a guitar, and sing songs, others might be drawing or reading out loud. It’s as if the owner just popped upstairs to shake you by the hand and welcome their new guests.
In actual fact this is a place where young talent congregates, where they want to try out their skills in public. Despite the themed evenings, the atmosphere here is laid back and unpretentious. Don’t forget that Belgian beer is strong and can go to your head quite quickly. A couple of medium-sized beers will cost around €12.00.
Antwerp is a very varied place. For some, it’s a shopper’s paradise, even better than Paris or Milan. For others, it’s the culture that attracts them, the legends, and its love of beauty. Some are attracted by the cozy little hostelries, almost all of which have history and a story to tell and an innovative approach to décor and menu. For all its gloss, wealth, and kind of superficial culture, Antwerp always has jokey creativity about it.