It is known to some as the little brother of Brussels and Bruges but there is rather more to Antwerp, Belgium´s second city, than meets the eye.
Did you know, for instance, that the world’s first newspaper was printed in Antwerp (or so it is believed) 400 years ago?
Or that Europe’s first skyscraper, the art deco Boerenttoren, was built in Antwerp in 1930?
Other perhaps little-known points about this underrated city include the fact that it has one of the world’s oldest zoos and reportedly has the oldest fish and chip shop in the world. Did you also know that Van Gogh once studied there and that it is the birthplace of the painter Peter Paul Rubens?
Yes, Antwerp may continue to live in the shadow of its two more famous Belgian neighbours, but it has a lot going for it and the locals are rightly intensely proud of this resolutely Catholic city.
While the summer crowds flock to the Med and beyond, Antwerp, the home of Belgium’s diamond industry, remains the place to head to for the stay-at-home brigade.
A good starting point for any visit is Rubens House. While almost none of the house is as it was during the 25 years the Baroque painter and architect lived there, it remains a must-see and contains his spacious studio, semi-circular gallery and an endearing self-portrait of the painter himself.
Rubens is also immortalised in a bronze statue looking out over Groenplaats, the city’s main square that was once Antwerp’s main cemetery until the 18th century.
Now it is flanked by bars and restaurants and is a great place to meet up before heading off to further explore the nearby zoo, one of the world´s oldest, which is home to around 5,000 animals from 950 species. The animals include elephants and hippos, and a set of scales that tells you what animal you most closely resemble in weight. Personally, I find it very difficult to comprehend a zoo being situated in the middle of a large city but it remains popular so I guess it must be doing something right.
The zoo is right next to the main rail station, which is something of an attraction in its own right. Trains pull in on three levels and the main marble hall soars up to 44 metres, a metre higher in fact than the city’s cathedral.
Also near the main station is the famous diamond district where more than 12,000 expert cutters and polishers beaver away in 380 workshops, serving 1,500 firms and 3,500 brokers and merchants around the world. Here you will find countless jewellery shops, as well as the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, possibly the most important financial centre of the world’s diamond industry. The district is also interesting from an ethnic and cultural perspective, since at least 50% of the local diamond industry is in the hands of the city’s Jews. Antwerp has a large population of 15,000 Jews, many of them Orthodox.
Indeed, Orthodox Jewish men clad in distinctive black coats and hats shuffle around streets crisscrossed by surveillance cameras, where uniformed and plainclothes police abound. Visit the shops to see polishers, setters and goldsmiths at work. The area is, for some, what put Belgium on the map, and no visit to the city is really complete without calling in on the quarter, whether you’ve set your sights on a five carat number or not.
You cannot leave Antwerp without visiting the cathedral, not so much for the building which has undergone countless ravages and makeovers, but for two of Rubens’ most important and expressive pictures, The Raising of the Cross and The Deposition, each dominating an aisle on either side of the nave. The Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, believed to be designed by Jean Appelman and built between 1352 and 1521, is apparently the most popular tourist attraction in Flanders.
You should also make a beeline for the Grote Markt, a much prettier square than Groenplaats, with a row of tall, steeply gabled guild houses that are all typically Flemish with their leaded windows and golden statues. The Grote Markt, lined with the 16th century Stadhuis, may not be as big as the Grand Place in Brussels but most would suggest it is just as beautiful. The guild houses were lucky to survive heavy bombing during the war, which explains the less attractive modern developments as you meander north to the Vleeshuis, a beautiful castle-like structure that used to house the butchers’ guild and an abattoir.
Antwerp also boasts the art school where Van Gogh studied, the thriving Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten, which, although not open to the public, is one of Europe’s oldest art schools.
The city is ideally proportioned for exploration by foot, and another place worth a visit is the medieval Steen castle which once guarded the river and is now a noted symbol of the city, housing a museum.
There are other places well worth ticking off, including the Plantin Moretus museum which houses five of the oldest printing presses in the world as well as tapestries, plus the MAS, the Museum aan der Stroom (by the river) which opened in May 2011 and is the city´s largest museum, bringing together some 480,000 collections from all over the city.
Despite lying 30 kilometres from the sea, it is often forgotten that the city is Europe´s second most important port after Rotterdam, although most of the activity is some way out of the centre.
If you have 48 hours in Antwerp, you would be advised to buy an Antwerp city card, which will get you into all manner of Flemish museums and other cultural attractions. You also get free beer, chocolate and other goodies!
After all that sightseeing you will have worked up quite a hunger (and thirst) and among the many places to eat one of the best is ´tZilte, a two Michelin star restaurant that is at the top of its game since moving from a small town near Antwerp to the 9th floor of the MAS. A rather cheaper option is Xarme, where you can indulge in chef Augusto Lima´s passion for Algarve produce such as churra, a rare breed of sheep, beautifully cooked and served with xerem (cornmeal).
For a spot of shopping, Coccodrillo is where the well-dressed of Antwerp go to round off their outfits in style – they know this shoe shrine carries the best of Belgian and international designers.
A Jimmy Choo boutique is just a handbag´s throw away, and any visit to the city should not end without sampling those other great Belgian exports – the waffle and a local Trappist beer.
They serve as a reminder that while food and drink rank as highly on the ‘must do’ list in Antwerp as anywhere else in Belgium, this city also has a quirky personality all of its own.