It’s hard not to fall in love with Antwerp. Belgium’s second largest city has so much more to offer than you would expect at first glance. I will kick off this article with a handful of things Antwerp is well-known for, and I will conclude with a list of places you should absolutely visit.
Antwerp’s Claims to Fame
A Trading Mecca
In the 16th century—I know, it’s a while ago—Antwerp was one of the wealthiest and most influential cities in the whole world. In its heyday, the city was where merchants from all over the known world, from northern Europe to Africa to the Middle East, came to sell, buy and trade products and services. Antwerp had a direct trade connection with powerful cities and states in southern Europe, most notably with Venice , Spain, Portugal and Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik.) Many buildings in the historic core of this old city date from this period of superiority in Antwerp’s history.
Located in the north of Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern half, at the mouth of the Scheldt River, Antwerp is still home to one of the world’s biggest ports. After Flanders and Antwerp were conquered by the Spanish in the late 16th century, financial power shifted north to Amsterdam. Nowadays, the people from Antwerp are still nicknamed “Sinjoren”, a name derived from the Spanish word for lord—“señor”.
It was also in this period that Antwerp became the home of Peter Paul Rubens, who grew to become nothing less than a superstar painter in 17th-century Europe. This was also due to the conquest of Antwerp by Spain, which opened up a whole new world to Antwerp-based artists and craftsmen.
Modern Antwerp is still a cosmopolitan and culture-conscious city. Maybe even more than ever. Antwerp is now the actual focal point of the worldwide diamond industry. No less than 85% of rough diamonds pass through the city each year. If you want to purchase a diamond, there’s no better place to do that than Antwerp. The appropriately named Diamond Quarter lies right next to the Central Rail Station—which is where most visitors arrive in the city—and it is home to dozens of diamond shops. It’s truly a remarkable area to stroll through, and it is unique in the world.
Fashion and Food
In addition to being a diamond center, Antwerp also happens to be one of the world’s fashion capitals. This is due to the so-called Antwerp Six, a group of six fashion designers from Antwerp. All six of them graduated from the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts roughly within a year from one another—between 1980 and 1981—and grew to become world-renowned fashion gurus.
So, from world-class Baroque art and historic architecture to modern fashion and precious diamonds, Antwerp can hardly be called uninteresting. In fact, I would dare to say that it is one of the most fascinating, yet also one of the least known, cities in Western Europe.
Adding to all of the above, Antwerp boasts a brilliant zoo that’s among the oldest in the whole world, a few extraordinary art museums, a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Listed cathedral, an array of delicious local beers and cozy cafés serving tasty Belgian food, and you have a destination that belongs on any travelers itinerary when visiting Western Europe.
Antwerp Must-See Attractions
As promised in the beginning of this post, I’ll end with a selection of five major attractions, highlights and landmarks—whichever word you prefer—in Antwerp.
Cathedral of Our Lady
The magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady stands in the heart of the historic city center. Even though it misses one of its two originally intended towers, it still is a marvelous ediface—in fact, it’s the largest Gothic structure in the entire Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). The interior is worth seeing as well and it features a few paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.
Antwerp’s Market Square lies right next to the cathedral and is one of the most jaw-dropping places in the city. A large cobbled square, this historic urban space is lined with gorgeous guild houses and it is home to the imposing Town Hall. Be sure to check- out the Statue of Brabo in the middle of Market Square.
The Central Station is also referred to as “the railway cathedral” because of its sheer size and ornate design. It’s a truly impressive piece of architecture, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful train stations on the planet. If you can, make sure to travel to Antwerp by train—it provides an extraordinary first impression.
The former house and workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, the Rubens House is quite nice to look at from outside, but it’s the interior where the treasures lie. Restored to resemble how it must have looked when Rubens lived there, this building is chock-full of paintings, works of art and furniture.
Het Steen is an old riverside fortress on the banks of the Scheldt River. In use since the 9th or 10th century—sources don’t seem to agree—this is the oldest building in the city. It’s a short walk from the historic city center to the castle. There you can have a free visit and enjoy the view across the river.
If you’re like me, I know you’ll fall in love with Antwerp whose many riches will inspire and enrich your Belgium travel experience.
Written by and photos by Bram Reusen for EuropeUpClose.com. Bram Reusen is a freelance travel writer, translator and photographer from Belgium who currently lives in Vermont, USA. Bram’s preferred ways of traveling and getting around are hiking, cycling and road tripping. You can follow his adventures at Travel Experience Live