Belgium’s second city has wonderful architecture, a great breadth of culture, fashionable venues aplenty and a fascinating diamond heritage
Antwerp, is also the country’s biggest port and a vibrant centre of cultural cool, attracting visitors to its medieval cobbled lanes, café culture, exciting clubbing scene and architectural wonders.
While Antwerp’s port – the third biggest in Europe – provides a boost to the economy, a more unusual mainstay is the diamond trade that takes place largely in the diamond district. The docklands are home to five oil refineries, and electricity generation is a major industry, with nuclear and conventional power stations, plus a wind farm, in the city and its surrounding areas.
Antwerp International Airport connects passengers to London, and Brussels is less than an hour away by road or rail. Trains also link the city to Amsterdam and Paris.
Getting around Antwerp is easy to do on foot, and prime examples of the city’s fine architecture can be seen in the Grote Markt, which has a row of tall, steeply-gabled guild houses, typically Flemish with their leaded windows and golden statues, and the Vleeshuis, a beautiful 500-year-old Gothic building better known as the Butcher’s Hall. It is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Antwerp and once housed the butcher’s guild.
Often described as the most beautiful street in Antwerp, Cogels-Osylei, to the south-east of the centre, is famous for its eclectic architecture, from Art Nouveau and Flemish baroque to neoclassical and neo-Renaissance. There are pitched roofs and towers spiked with onion domes or witches’ hats, wrought-iron balconies, stained glass and mosaics.
Antwerp is a true city of culture. In 2011, the first phase of a major urban regeneration project – Het Eilandje, or Small Island – around the docklands area north of the Old Town, was completed. This included the modernist Museum aan de Stroom – MAS (www.mas.be), strikingly decorated with 3,000 shiny aluminium hands and, in front of the building, a giant “Dead Skull” mosaic designed by Antwerp-based artist Luc Tuymans. The top floor is given over to the two-Michelin-starred restaurant, ’t Zilte of top Flanders chef Viki Geunes.
The medieval building of the Museum
Plantin-Moretus (www.museum plantinmoretus.be) was once home to the world’s first industrial printing works and has been a museum since 1876. Along with a priceless collection of manuscripts, tapestries and ancient printing presses, there’s a preserved 1640 library and two rooms with gilt leather ‘wallpaper’.
Elsewhere on the island, the Royal Ballet of Flanders occupies a new performance space, while Red Star Line Museum (www.redstarline.be), opened in 2013 in the historic warehouses of the Red Star Line shipping company as a companion to New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
With its remarkable 123m spire that pierces the city skyline and collection of original Rubens paintings, it’s no surprise that Antwerp’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady) is the most popular tourist attraction in Flanders. There are four paintings by Rubens inside, including two remarkable triptychs: The Raising of The Cross and The Descent from The Cross. Antwerp is renowned as the home of Rubens, and you can even visit his house (www.rubenshuis.be), where highlights include his spacious studio, semi-circular gallery and a self-portrait of the painter.
Along with diamonds, fashion is big business in Antwerp. Home to the Antwerp Six, fashion students who burst onto the world scene in 1986, the city hosts a thriving fashion and design movement and is an excellent destination for clothes shopping. MoMu fashion museum (www.momu.be) has an astounding collection of 25,000 fashion-related items, bridging the catwalk between the fashion trends of yesterday and today. Back in 2013, the first Antwerp Fashion Festival took place, and this is now an annual fixture featuring designers, fashion shows, late-night shopping, in-store events, mini-concerts, competitions and street parties. Check out http://antwerpfashionfestival.com for more information about this year’s event.
It’s not all about shops and high fashion, though – Antwerp also has a tradition of open markets. Check out the city’s tourist information site (www.visitantwerpen.be) for details of the weekly and monthly markets taking place, where you can browse for antiques, fabrics, furniture and food.
And when it comes to food, it’s hard to ignore the temptations of the Belgian waffle, available with chocolate or cream from street vendors all over the city. The Van Hecke Waffle House on the corner of Nationalestraat and Franckenstraat has been there since 1905 and has hardly changed.
However, if chips are your thing, head to Frituur Number One (Hoogstrat 1), famous for its generous portions of French fries, available day and night.
There are also plenty more refined culinary experiences to be had in the city, from high-quality restaurants to the finest chocolatiers and also culinary walks, some of which include cookery lessons (www.visitantwerpen.be).
For authentic Trappist beer in a jolly tavern, visit Paters Vaetje opposite the cathedral. Bierhuis Kulminator on Vleminckveld boasts around 750 different quality beers at any given time, including vintage beers, some over 30 years old.
For low-key evenings out, head to the river terraces in the summer, or for a more dance-inspired night, the city has plenty of clubs in its Noord District and Zuid District.
So whether you want partying, shopping, architecture or entertainment, Antwerp has it all – with waffles and beer on top!
Rubens and his family lived in this palatial setting for well over 25 years and it is here that the artist created most of his work and stored his impressive art collection.
Fashionistas should head to Antwerp’s fashion museum, MoMu, which changes its exhibits every six months. Until 19th July, check out the Dries van Noten Inspirations exhibition, which combines fashion design with decorative and fine art to illustrate the Belgian creator’s distinctive style.
This vast, pedestrianised market square is lined on two sides by Renaissance-style guild houses and presided over by the impressive stadhuis. The baroque Brabo Fountain rises in the centre and depicts the legend of Antwerp’s name.
With over 5,000 animals, this is one of the biggest zoos in Europe and the oldest animal park in the world, established in 1843. The zoo also has an impressive record in conducting research to help protect the environment.
In the heart of the city, located on the corner of a picturesque street with stunning views of the cathedral, De Vagant offers a choice of more than 200 gins, fruit gins and liqueurs.
Sips is the realm of cocktail maestro Manuel Wouters who uses all-natural fruit and top-shelf liquor to create some spectacular mixes. He can make over a thousand cocktails from the original recipes that he knows off
This stylish bar in the city centre is in an atmospheric 200-year-old building with beamed ceilings and stone floors. Outside there are two patio areas for lounging with one of their excellent cocktails in warm weather.
Arguably one of the best music clubs in the south of Antwerp, visitors to Petrol will find that there are always live bands to listen to – from hard rock to hip-hop, new wave and reggae, both international acts and Flemish talent.
The luxury Radisson Blu Astrid is centrally located in the heart of the diamond district. It has 247 stylish fully-air-conditioned contemporary guest rooms, including Business Class rooms and apartments. There’s a restaurant, bar and lounge, together with excellent meeting facilities.
This boutique hotel offers elegant accommodation, as well as a gym, complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi and meeting rooms perfect for any conference, celebration or corporate meeting.
This hip hotel is located in two historic buildings close to the cathedral. There’s a lounge and bar, and a roof terrace where you can enjoy the view over the old city.
Boulevard Leopold is a B&B in a grand style: a 19th-century mansion that has been lovingly renovated and styled with delightfully-quirky touches – and serves up delicious breakfasts!
+32 (0)3 285 65 00 Distance Antwerp Airport is 2km from the city centre
For exclusive discounts of up to 15%, rent from our exclusive car rental partner Hertz at Schiphol Airport.
Short term parking, long term parking and VIP parking available at the airport. Shuttle services to and from parking lots.
There is a frequent bus service from the airport to the city centre.