It always feels like a homecoming. After spending a year living in Antwerp, I love returning to my favourite haunts in this magical city. Yet the problem is there are so many of them. Antwerp, the largest city in Flanders, Belgium’s northern region, has many faces: grand, historic city, cultural capital, fashion mecca, diamond trading centre and foodie heaven. So however much I love relaxing in its cafes and bars, or strolling along the River Scheldt taking in the cityscape, a host of attractions beckon.
I first make for the Grote Markt, where I start breathing in Antwerp’s heady atmosphere once more. A glorious stately square, it’s surrounded by cafes and handsome, historic guild houses and flanked by the magnificent, renaissance Town Hall. The epicentre of the Old Town, it gives off to a network of narrow, medieval streets. Several take you straight to the Cathedral of our Lady, a vast, gothic masterpiece, whose cool, interior is always feels calming to me and which houses some of Peter Paul Rubens’ most sublime religious paintings, and – while the Royal Museum of Fine Arts is having a face lift – many other famed artworks.
Plenty of Antwerp’s renowned historic sights are within easy walking distance of here. You can take in the city’s impressive history and relics in the 16th century Butcher’s Hall – and it’s quite a story. Lying on the River Scheldt, Antwerp rose to become a trading powerhouse, reaching its peak in the 16th century – its Golden Age. But its financial savvy was also matched by its creative genius: Bruegel, Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens all lived and worked here, endowing it with a spirit of refinement it still retains.
But it is Rubens who became the city’s alter ego and his handsome face graces plenty of tourist fare. Only a five minute stroll from the Grote Markt brings you to Rubens’ House, a must see. Rubens left his mark all around the city but this is where he lived, worked and died (in 1640), and there’s a good collection of his work in the leather-lined rooms and airy studio. Other, great, patrician mansions which provide a great taste of his times lie nearby too: the home owned by Rubens’ friend, Nicolaas Rockox and, a real stand-out, the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The luxurious home the Plantin-Moretus family, it’s where the first printing works in history were founded. Rubens’ portraits of his friends in the family hang in the dining room and the old printing presses, library and bookshop are all original.
Luckily, Antwerp is flat and many of its star attractions are within a 10 or 15 minute walk of each other. Two other personal favourites lie on Lange Gasthuisstraat; the Museum Mayer van den Bergh – a stunning collection of art and antiques, and the Maidens’ House, a former orphanage, which has an enchanting interior and collection.
But Antwerp has more to offer too. Today, it’s a magnet for fashionistas, and it caters for all budgets. Not far from Rubens’ House, lie a group of streets around Nationalestraat, that make up the fashion district where you’ll also find the Fashion Museum. The streets here are lined with the boutiques of world-famous designers including locals like Dries van Noten. From the Old Town you can follow the Meir, a broad, boulevard which is flanked by cafes and boutiques, and the Stadsfeetzaal – a grand, neo-classical shopping mall. If you’re feeling flush, Antwerp’s Diamond District is near the extravagantly designed Central Station. Antwerp has classy antique shops too and I love strolling along the Kloosterstraat with its great bric a brac shops. To venture a little further afield, walk along the docks to MAS, the towering new gallery where you’ll get panoramic views of the city. Or hop on a tram for 10 minutes and find Zurenborg, where the streets are lined with spectacular Art Nouveau houses with amazing themed designs.
Part of the joy of a visit too is sampling Antwerp’s restaurants and bars. If you think Belgian cuisine is all moules and frites the locals, understandably, will get upset. Antwerp is noted for its fine cuisine and restaurants but there are lots of funky places too. Around the Grote Markt you’ll find a good selection of brasseries and bars that are full of local character, like the diminutive, 17th century Pater’s Vaetje. Sample some Belgian beer and jenever – the local form of gin; you’ll find hundreds of varieties of both – head to De Vagant for jenever. Like the city itself, there’s something for every taste. Antwerp is at once refined and upbeat, traditional and trendsetting, a heady mix of the old and the new – and the very best of both.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.