Rediscovering Antwerp, Belgium

The last time I left Antwerp, in 2007, we parted on bad terms. I was headed south by train from Holland and wanted to spend one night in the city I remembered fondly from my studies abroad, when a whole slew of friends and I would pack into a car and drive down on Friday nights for some of the city’s famous house music and stay until well after sunrise.

The guild houses in Antwerp's market square

The guild houses in Antwerp’s market square

At around 6 p.m., I checked into the only hostel I could find with any available rooms. Upstairs, the smell of mold hung in the air, the hallways and bedroom floors were lined with crushed beer cans, and there were centerfolds taped all over the walls. Still holding my bag, I pondered whether it was worth spending a night in a possible flophouse. At that moment, a naked man appeared in the doorway of the room, propped himself against the door’s frame and just stared. My mind suddenly made up, I called a friend in Luxembourg and told him I would be on the next train south.

Five years later, I arrived by train to a city I barely remembered. Fortunately, Belgium’s second city is easily walkable, and it’s not hard at all to get acquainted. To the north is the port, Europe’s second largest. South of the port, along the Schelde River, is the old medieval city center, with the market square and giant Gothic church tower any Flemish city worth its salt must have. From the market square, you can head east toward the central station and the diamond district, through which 80% of the world’s diamonds and 10% of Belgium’s revenue passes, or you can head farther south to visit the shops of the designers who have made Antwerp a fashion capital in its own right. All four areas are essential to Antwerp’s identity, so I found it best to explore each one at a time.

Antwerp’s Central Station and Diamond District

The main staircase in Antwerp's central train station

The main staircase in Antwerp’s central train station

If you can, always arrive in Antwerp by train. The central station is just incredible, and you have to descend the staircase pictured above when you disembark the trains. Few cities in Europe offer a more regal welcome. Just outside the station is the diamond district, which dates back before the Renaissance. There are four diamond markets here — twice the number New York has — employing more than 12,000 gem cutters and more than 3,000 traders and merchants.

The Port and Its Surroundings

The Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp

The Museum Aan de Stroom

The port is larger than the actual city of Antwerp and extends all the way north to the Dutch border. What has interested tourists for centuries, however, is not the port itself but the peripheral areas that thrive in close proximity, namely the red-light district. Antwerp’s red-light district is smaller than Amsterdam’s, but it looks similar with its big parlor windows and nervous tourists who cannot decide whether or not to actually look. Literally nestled between brothels, in an old church, is Cafe d’Anvers, an institution in the city’s nightlife scene and a club that most of Belgium’s big DJs played at one point.

Just above the red-light district is the MAS, or Museum Aan de Stroom , which was built in 2011 and is intended to share the history and cultural heritage of the city. Until December 2012, the third floor will also house many masterpieces from the last 500 years while the Royal Fine Arts Museum undergoes renovation. If nothing else, at least climb to the top floor for a great panorama of the city.

Antwerp’s City Center

Bikes are a primary mode of transportation in Antwerp

Bikes are a primary mode of transportation in Antwerp

The main square, or Grote Markt, is no more than a 10-minute walk from the port area, and like most cities in Dutch-speaking Europe, the cafes and pubs organize themselves around this central point. Antwerp, by the way, has more than 400 cafes and pubs, so there is little chance you will go thirsty here.  While Antwerp’s city center is decidedly Flemish, it lacks the medieval charm of Brugge or Gent or Leuven. In fact, I thought it looked more like Brussels with its mixture of old and new architecture crammed haphazardly together.

A major attraction is the house and former studio of Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, which houses a large collection of his works. Entrance is normally 8 euros but free on the last Wednesday of each month.

Antwerp: Fashion Capital

View of the city from the MAS

View of the city from the MAS

Head south along Oude Koornmarkt from the market square, and you will reach the Modenatie , which houses both the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the fashion museum. Antwerp’s fashion scene rose to prominence in the mid-1980s with the success of a local collective of designers known as the Antwerp Six. Flagship stores of designers such as Dries van Noten are all in this area. There is a certain fashion consciousness among the people in Antwerp, although it is much more relaxed than in, say, Milan. Still, eager fashion academy students might give passers-by the odd sneer for subpar style.

If anything, though, Antwerp’s easy style is the perfect complement to a city whose wealth is rooted in shipping and diamonds, and whose nightlife owes much to an old church wedged in between brothels.

 Written by Eric Barrier for EuropeUpClose.com   All photos by Dace Pelše

 

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