If you’re looking for somewhere different for a weekend break to Belgium then Antwerp offers a compact and fun alternative to the more obvious attractions of Brussels and Bruges
For many people Belgium means waffles, beer and medieval guild halls and whilst Antwerp has all these it also offers a sense of a city run for the benefit of those who live there rather than tourists and a quirkiness that means you have to keep on your guard, for all is not always what it seems.
If at all possible arrange to arrive in Antwerp by rail via one of the easy half hour connections from Brussels. This way you enter the city in style, with your first acquaintance the magnificent splendour of Antwerp’s Centraal Station, recently voted the world’s fourth most beautiful station in Newsweek magazine - a wonderfully Belgian kind of accolade. A vast echoing mock-Gothic warehouse of a building with a towering glass dome, the station’s appearance flatters to deceive, a theme that recurs as you get to know the city, as it is in fact only just over 100 years old.
Compact and Reasonable
As if the station isn’t dazzling enough Antwerp is probably best known for its diamonds and you step out of the booking hall straight into the heart of the diamond district, with shops clustered around the station tempting you in with expensive displays. These are not really representative of Antwerp however, and in the ten minutes it took to walk to our hotel, the Plaza on Charlottalei, they’d disappeared.
A mid-priced hotel at around 80 Euros a night for a double, tellingly the Plaza Hotel (Charlottalei 49) seemed to be used by both businessmen and tourists. A determined half hour walk from the city centre across the main park, the hotel’s location offers the twin benefits of access to more local areas for eating and the opportunity to burn off some calories if you do end up eating in the centre. Other hotels, closer to the centre include the Hotel D'Sandt on 13-19 Zand or the practical Ibis Antwerpen Centrum on 39 Meistraat.
A short walk from the Plaza is the Dageraadplaats, a square with a children’s play area, which offered a choice of more modest bars and restaurants off the usual tourist track and a sense of families gathering to celebrate the beginning of the weekend. We ended up eating in the Brasserie Van Loock (11 Dageraadplaats, Tel: 03 235 01 58), where the owner gave us personal attention and painstakingly translated the menu item by item. His passion for his food made it difficult to choose we ended up starting with his recommendation of the delicious in-season locally grown asparagus, all for around 40 Euros a head including wine.
Although there is a tram system we found we didn’t need to use it to get around and other nights we ate in the centre, with our favourite probably the t’Brantyser (Tel: 03 233 18 33), a brasserie serving a good range of mainly meaty dishes as well as a range of risottos for much the same as we’d paid in the Dageraadplaats. The restaurant lies on the small but atmospheric Hendrik Conscienceplein, where if you sit outside you can watch the sun go down on the façade of the Baroque church of St Carolus Borromeus. One of the biggest surprises in Antwerp is that prices for food and drink don’t seem to vary much by location with a beer in the main square or off the beaten track for example fairly uniformly priced at around 3 Euros. This helped to add to the sense that you are a visitor to someone else’s town rather than simply another tourist statistic.
The Conventional …
Antwerp offers a list of conventional things to see you’d expect in a city of its size. The first thing to do is to head for the main square, the Grote Markt – just aim for the Gothic spire of the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Cathedral, you can’t miss it, and keep going. The square is dominated by the Stadhuis or town hall, which on Saturdays sees a procession of weddings passing through, with parties of relatives gathering for drinks before and afterwards in the bars dotted around, which makes people-watching a particular delight. The Grote Markt is surrounded by tall Guild Houses often topped off with gilded roofs, but most of these are reconstructions following severe bombing in the war.
Outside the Stadhuis is the golden statue of Silvius Brabo, the city’s big hero and the square also houses the Tourist Information Office. Although more formal tours are offered we opted to pick up a useful self-guided walking tour here which, along with stops for beer and other nourishment, took the best part of the day to complete. Along the way our walk took in the city’s castle by the side of the River Scheldt, where we learned about the part the city played in the liberation of Europe, later crossing under the river via a long subway for panoramic views on the other side. We also explored the narrow cobbled streets and enjoyed the snippets of history provided by our booklet.
Other ‘must sees’ in Antwerp include the Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece with one soaring spire sitting next to an unfinished stump, left when the money ran out to build a second matching tower. It’s also impossible to leave Antwerp without paying some kind of homage to the celebrated painter Rubens, who lived and worked here. You can visit his house, which is worth doing if you manage to dodge the coach parties, not just for the paintings but also for the magnificent formal gardens. For those who enjoy a good museum amongst the many on offer is one dedicated to printing, one to fashion (the MoMu) and a frankly dry and uninspiring one on the diamond trade. There’s also a zoo near the station, which explains some of the weird screeches that can be heard in the area.
… and the Unconventional!
A review of Antwerp’s history reveals that its inhabitants seemed to have taken pleasure over the centuries in bucking prevailing trends, whether they be political or religious, and sees itself almost as independent of the rest of the country. This probably goes some way to explaining the relaxed feel of the city as well as a number of idiosyncrasies dotted around it.
Perhaps the most extraordinary of these sits to the south east of the centre centred around the Cogels-Oslei district. It was here that a century ago some of the city’s wealthiest citizens competed with each other to build outlandish buildings inspired by all corners of the globe. The result is an architectural car-crash, but like all car-crashes it’s impossible to avoid the temptation to stare. One crossroads has mosaics on the houses on each corner depicting different signs of the zodiac whilst elsewhere a house is lined with wooden corbels carved as devils. Wandering around here is like visiting a planning committee’s worst nightmare, something that only reinforces the pleasure of doing so.
We were lucky during our stay to enjoy excellent weather, which made wandering around easy and seemed to encourage serendipity, be it an Om Pah Band following us around or the 24 hour dance marathon in the Grote Markt, but we got the feeling that whatever the weather Antwerp would have found a way of surprising us. The people are relaxed and welcoming and there’s no rush to see the sights – they’re all there and are easily seen but the main pleasure lies in immersing yourself in the city and letting it happen to you.