Antwerp is one of those cities that I passed through several times but never had enough time to visit. So when I was planning a weekend in Brussels with my girlfriends, I knew that it was my next chance to see Antwerp. Why now? Antwerp is only 40 minutes away by train from Brussels and, in addition, I had Monday off, so it was enough time to have a one-day trip.
At first I wasn’t convinced but my colleague kept praising this city so eagerly that I decided not to let go on it this time. According to the plan I took 10:30 morning train. The connection from Brussels to Antwerp is very good as the trains run practically every 15-20 minutes and a ticket costs 8,60 euro. You only have to remember to get off at Centraal station. From this place I’d like to thank Sylwia from the blog Antwerpia Jawniej who, in a nutshell, advised me what is a must to be seen in Antwerp. And I, for my part, will just add a few more things.
Time: 11am. I reach main station Antwerp Centraal and I get a shock right after I get off my train. It is so beautiful here! I knew the train station in Antwerp was beautiful but what I saw was beyond my expectations. Both the building’s original construction and its spectacular architecture are breathtaking. No wonder that the train station in Antwerp is regarded one of the most beautiful railway stations in Europe. So before you hit the town, it’s worth taking a half-hour walk around there. Pay special attention to the clock and the viaduct. It is difficult to assign the station to one particular architectural style. Several styles are mixed here and it clearly shows that its construction took a few years.
Before you leave the station it’s good to get to know the arrangement of tracks and check a track for your return train as trains leave from different tracks situated on several levels. Mind that the station names can be displayed both in Flemish and in French.
After you leave the station right into the market, your attention will be drawn by Radisson Blue Astrid Hotel with its unusual shape and the Zoo Entrance. It is the place that I especially recommend for families with kids due to its numerous attractions for the youngest ones, such as animals feeding or birds flying show, etc. However, it is not so big and interesting as Pari Daiza in Brussels. My favourite place was a garden with butterflies. It was such an awesome feeling when one of the butterflies simply sat on my head. The Zoo is arranged in the form of a vast park. That day the weather was beautiful and sunny so I decided to get tempted to take a two-hour walk among the greenery (ticket 26 euro). The Zoo is a very easy and pleasant place to visit. Well, I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t treated myself to a Belgian waffle. Food booths are located on every corner (about 3 euro).
Relaxed and full of solar energy I decided to hit the town. For a start I wanted to visit a museum of diamonds and a diamond district. Unfortunately it turned out that the museum had been closed a few years ago. And the only remnants of the district were just a few Jewish tenement houses with jewellery shops. However, they neither impress me much nor give me the feeling of luxury. Only the prices of jewellery and the shop windows do remind of a foregone trading splendour of this place.
So I change the direction of my route a bit and head towards China Town district which runs along Vestingstraat close to the station. Its entrance is marked with a big Chinese arch. This place does not make a good impression on me too. It looks poor compared to other Chinese districts I know. I feel disappointed and start wondering where this beautiful Antwerp that I’ve heard so much of is. Having left the Chinese district I come back to the main street De Keyserlei and the promenade, and head towards the port down Leysstraat which then connects with the commercial street of Meir.
After a few meters I discover a completely different side of the city. Meir street literally stole my heart. It is full of architecturally beautiful buildings where mostly shops are located but it doesn’t matter.
Stadfeestzaal shopping centre, which entry leads through a characteristic golden gate, deserves to be given a special attention. What you’ll see inside will totally change your idea of a department store and bring you to a conclusion that there’s much more in the world than just Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II in Milan. It’s worth sparing a few minutes for a walk and stopping for a while to admire the interiors of this department house. However, this is not the end of surprises. A few steps away there is Royal Palace (Paleis op de Meir) with the paradise for all chocolate lovers – a shop and a chocolate factory The Chocolate Line connected with Belgian master Dominique Persoone. You will smell it right from the doorstep. Inside you can not only see different delicacies made of chocolate but also watch how chocolate is produced. The entry is free.
Other places in the palace are not available for visitors which I had no idea of and accidently I happened to enter the private apartments. Somebody is very lucky to own such beautiful rooms that find themselves so close to a chocolate factory.
Another point on your sightseeing map should belong to the Rubens House (Rubenshuis) located in his former home (a side street on the left of Meir). It is a typical 10th century building where he artist’s art collections were gathered and where he spent 5 years of his life. He also designed the building himself based on Italian Renaissance architecture. If you are not fans of Ruben’s painting you can skip this place free of guilt.
Following the street full of shops, that is Meir and then Schoenmarkt, you’ll get to Groenplaats with the statue of Ruben. Such a pretty place. It is at its rear where you’ll find another square – Grote Markt with the Cathedral of Our Lady and the Renaissance City Hall –Stadhuis. In my opinion this is where the most beautiful and representative part of Antwerp starts.
The City Hall of Antwerp belongs to one of the most important Renaissance monuments in The Netherlands which has been inscribed on UNESCO’S World Heritage List. Currently it is the seat of the mayor of the city.
The cathedral, however, is the biggest and the most important gothic church in Belgium. Outside service hours the entry to the cathedral is paid but in my opinion it’s worth it. Giant ribbed vaults and big stained glass windows so characteristic for gothic are very impressive. The cathedral possesses some major works of art, for example, “Assumption of the Virgin Mary” by Rubens (altarpiece), Cornelis Shut of the same title (above the altar) and the sculptures such as Madonna from Maasland and Our Lady of Antwerp. Notable are also the paintings of Flemish painters commissioned by the merchants’ and crafts’ guilds in the 16th and 17th century.
Next to the cathedral we’ll be able to see a typical Flemish buildings with indoor houses. Heading a bit further we can get lost in a maze of numerous narrow streets (for example Hofstraat, and see other characteristic buildings such as the oldest house in Antwerp located at Zirkstraat). Among them there is hidden, among others, beautiful St. Paul’s church at Zwartzustersstraat.
From here we are only a stone throw away from the port part of the city with medieval castle Hetsteen (meaning stone in Dutch) on the river Scheldt. It is the oldest building in Antwerp (1200 – 1225). A bit further away we can find modern buildings of the docks. Antwerp is the second after Rotterdam biggest harbour city in Europe.
This area especially took to my heart. I even thought to myself that I could live in one of those apartments with a river view. Unfortunately the apartments prices are surely beyond my reach. Yes, Antwerp is the city I could live in. You’ll recognize the district by a characteristic building of MAS museum (Museum aan de Stroom) in the form of a brick structure.
I decided to sit a while on a river bank and watch floating boats. Unfortunately it was already 5pm, high time to eat something. Belgian cuisine is famous mostly for chocolate, waffles and fries. However, not many people remember that mules are also Belgian speciality, best served in wine sauce. No wonder I decided to have mules for dinner.
The selection of places serving mules in the city is great. I felt like having my meal at Grote Markt. My choice fell on Balto’s restaurant where besides mules (22,90 euro) I also ordered homemade ice-tea (4 euro). I think this is quite a decent place with reasonable prices.
It was getting late and it was time to get back to Brussels. On the way to the railway station I stopped for mango flavoured Australian ice cream (a yellow booth with the sign Australian Homemade Ice Cream). Tasted like little drops of heaven so when you are in Antwerp, get tempted. It’s only 400 meters away from the railway station.
My short but intense trip to diamond Antwerp got to an end. I do hope you liked it and it encouraged you to visit this city. I look forward to your comments. Perhaps you know other interesting places in this city. Share them with me in your comments.