ANTWERP, BELGIUM (Dutch: Antwerpen):I think, Antwerp is mostly known for being the capital of diamonds. This is the most important financial center of the world’s diamond industry. But the city has more to it than just trading diamonds. Antwerp is one of the major destinations in Belgium in the region of Flanders, situated by the river Schelde. It has a major European port. The city has a historic old town in one side and other side, you will see the trendy shopping stores, international cuisines, designer shops…a perfect mix of past and present life.
TIME OF TRAVELLING: Antwerp is about 45 minutes of drive from Tervuren, Belgium. We went there on a Sunday morning in May 2012 and stayed there until late afternoon, covering almost all the places we wanted to see. It wasn’t cold, but a bit chilly.
WHAT TO BUY AND EAT IN ANTWERP: Of course, you can buy diamonds as souvenir while in Antwerp, if you have lots of euros to spare. Other than that, there are some Belgian lace stores, ceramic stores, and regular souvenir stores selling key rings, t-shirts, post cards, and mugs in Grote Markt. Most of the shops are closed on Sundays, but the stores in Grote Markt are usually open every day.
We had lunch in a restaurant in Groenplaats, if I can remember correctly, the name of the café was Cave (or something similar). I ordered chicken with mushroom, my friend ordered a Caesar’s salad with chicken, and my daughter ordered a trio plate containing cannelloni, lasagna, and ravioli. I must say all of them were out of this world, simply delicious.
PLACES WE VISITED: Antwerp has many things to offer to its visitors. We spent about little more than half a day to explore the city. May be another couple of hours would have been perfect to learn about other parts of the city. But fortunately, we can always go back.
1) HET STEEN (The Stone): This is a rather small medieval castle by the bank of the river Schelde. It is free to enter the castle, but there isn’t much to see inside, except one room with some temporary exhibitions and a small cafe. The stairs after the front courtyard will take you to the starting point of the scenic boardwalk. Enjoy the beautiful river in one side and the old, medieval buildings on the other side. The castle is within the walking distance of Grote Markt and Vleeshuis.
2) VLEESHUIS: This is a house for old meet house from around 1250. It is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Antwerp. The building is famous for its original masonry, which was made to resemble stacks of bacon and its fat, switching between white stones and red bricks. This was the guild hall for the butchers and functioned as a meat market where butchers could sell their merchandise. In 2006, the Butcher’s Hall reopened as the City Sounds Museum, a museum of music that illustrates 600 years of sound, music, and dance. Only 2-3 minutes of walk from Grote Markt and can been seen from Het Steen. Vleeshuis is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
3) ST. PAULUSKERK (St. Paul’s Church): Although we couldn’t go inside the church because the church is open from 2-5 everyday (I think), we had to get as close as possible because of its bold gothic shrine that catches your eyes right from the boardwalk near Het Steen. This 16th century church has a very clam and quiet inner courtyard surrounded by very old church walls with a statue of Virgin Mary in one side. We enjoyed the charm of this church even if we couldn’t go in. The church is located right beside Sint-Paulusplaats, which is a nice little square with some shops and cafes. Everything was closed on Sunday except for the café/restaurants.
4) GROENPLAATS: This is one of the major squares of Antwerp old town. Statue of the famous painter of Antwerp Petro Paulo Rubens dominates the square. Surrounding the statue are the cafes, shops, flower vendors, and hotels. It is a perfect place for lunch or to just sit down with a drink and watch people go by.
5) CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal): This is one of the most impressive and largest Gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe. You can see its 400 ft. tall tower from almost any part of the old town. The cathedral is standing there since 1351 and features some of Peter Paul Ruben’s world-class paintings (like “The Raising of the Cross” and “The Deposition”) along with work of other painters like Frans Floris, Artus Wolffort, Hendrick Van Ballen, and many more. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is Antwerp’s pride and joy. There is a 5 euros fee to enter the cathedral, but it’s definitely worth the money. Other than the paintings, the cathedral houses magnificent furnishings, stained-glass windows, etc.
The cathedral is open from Monday thru Friday from 10-5 pm, Saturday 10-3pm, and Sunday and holidays 1-4pm. And as I mentioned above, it’s 5 euros to enter per adult and free for children under 12 years of age.
6) CITY HALL & OLD MARKET (Stadhuis & Grote Markt): This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site of Antwerp. This may not be as big as the “Grand Place” of Brussels, but definitely as beautiful. This is the heart of the old city and like any other Flemish historical town, it is also surrounded by the typical medieval guild houses. The tower of Our Lady Cathedral in the background completes the magnificent view of this market place. We took a double-decker horse-carriage ride from Grote Markt. It was 6 euros per person (including toddlers) for a wonderful 40 minutes ride through the old town. It runs beginning of every hour (last ride of the day starts at 6pm) and you can buy the tickets right there.
In the middle of the square stands the Brabo fountain from 1887. Brabo was a mythical Roman soldier who killed a giant, called Druon Antigoon. Brabo removed its hand after killing and threw it in the river Schelde. The story goes saying that this would have created the name Brabant.
The Gothic and early Renaissance style city hall was built in the 16th century. The façade is richly decorated with statues, ornaments, and coat of arms. Usually the main facade of the city hall is decorated with 87 flags adding multi-colors to the square by showing off flags from different countries and regions. The central flags on the bottom row represent Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium, Europe and the United Nations. The other flags represent countries that are member of the European Union and nations that have a consulate in Antwerp.