Day 3 of our Belgian adventures brought us to the capital of Flanders – Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch, Anvers in French). Just like Bruges, the influences of the city are much more Flemish/Dutch in appearance. Most people speak a local variation of Dutch/Flemish though, like much of our time in Belgium, it isn’t hard to find someone who can speak English or even French. The city is diverse and has eclectic vibes ranging from minimal/modern to ornate/Gothic.
Antwerp is Europe’s second largest port city thanks to its location on the Scheldt River. Major expansions of the harbor during WWII helped the city and its industries grow rapidly. The Port of Antwerp describes the importance of the city’s location best:
Romans, Vikings, the Spanish, Napoleon; they all understood the strategic importance of the Scheldt. Thanks to its location to the river, Antwerp has become what it is today: a metropolis with an international seaport. “All an Antwerper has to do to connect with the rest of the world is simply dip his hand into the Scheldt’s water,” former mayor Lode Craeybeckx once said.
Yet, besides the economic success of the ports, most know of Antwerp because of its world-renowned diamond industry which has been active since the 16th century. (Fun fact: legend has it that the first diamond cut in Antwerp was in 1476!)
Having had our quiet sojourn in Bruges, my cousin and I were ready to throw ourselves back into the hustle of cosmopolitan world of Antwerp.
One of the most iconic buildings of Antwerp happens to be its main rail station, Antwerpen-Centraal. Lucky for us, our day trip began right at the station. Stepping out of our train, I immediately knew there was no question as to why this station is so highly regarded. As we made our way up the escalators to the main level of the station/train hall, we were greeted with wonderful sunshine gleaming through the glass dome ceiling.
Much like the rest of the city, as we would soon find out, the station itself is a mix of both new and old styles. The glass dome in the train hall is very modern, but as soon as you walk into the entrance hall it feels very grand and highly embellished. Somehow the influences that inspired designer Louis Delacenserie complement each other seamlessly. Many people have named Antwerpen-Centraal as the most beautiful railway station in the world – and we definitely agreed! (Learn more about the station here).
Architectural Styles of Antwerp
Our walk through the city towards the historic center of Antwerp confirmed the mix of styles that we had noticed earlier in Antwerpen-Centraal. You can find “skyscraper” styled buildings that house businesses and old remnants of Gothic architecture on the same street. This amalgam of styles is revealing of the city’s history and industrialization. Everything from the churches of the pious to the museums of the modern is what makes up Antwerp’s overall character. (It’s no wonder that architectural evolution has also influenced the avant-garde fashion scene of the city!)
Groenplaats, or the “Green Place”, is one of the main squares in Antwerp. This was the first place which let us know we were headed in the right direction to the city center. Here we found a statue dedicated to Antwerp’s most famous citizen, Pieter Paul Rubens. Rubens was a prominent artist of his time, with many of his lavishly Baroque paintings hanging in various churches (and now museums) around the world. You’ll also get your first glimpse of Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal (or the Cathedral of Our Lady).
As we walked past Groenplaats, we passed by Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal and went onwards to Grote Markt. Entrances to OLV did not start until 1 PM, so the only people allowed inside were those who were there for mass. (Unluckily, we happened to be in Antwerp on Ascension Day, so many attractions were closed in observation of the holiday. Likewise, the Cathedral had additional masses scheduled for the day, pushing back the normal visitor entry time.)
Just around the corner from the Cathedral was Grote Markt. Just like Brussels’ and Bruges’ central squares, Antwerp’s Grote Markt is lined by its City Hall and guildhalls – though less extravagant and colorful comparatively. (Learn more about Grote Markt).
A unique feature to Antwerp’s Grote Markt, is the fountain right outside the City Hall. Brabofontein, or the Brabo Fountain, holds importance in the naming of Antwerp. The fountain captures a romanticized depiction of the legend of Brabo which is said to have taken place during Roman rule of the area.
Story Time: It is said that a giant by the name of Druon Antigoon used to live in the area near the River Scheldt where he would charge a toll on any ship that sailed along the river. Those unable to pay the toll had their hands cut off and thrown into the river. However, a Roman solider named Silvius Brabo who was sailing down the river refused to pay a toll and challenged the giant to a duel. Of course, Brabo emerged victorious, chopping the hand off Antigoon and throwing it into the river.
Thus, in Flemish, the act of Brabo’s throwing of the giant’s hand into the river, or “handwerpen”, is thought to be where Antwerp (Antwerpen) is derived from!
After snapping some pictures and wandering off from Grote Markt, we found ourselves by the Scheldt. Right along the riverside lies Het Steen (Steen Castle), or literally translated to “the stone”, the oldest building in Antwerp (some of the castle’s stones date back to the 11th century).Het Steen has had a variety of uses over the centuries, but during our visit it had been converted into a children’s museum. Currently, the castle is undergoing yet another revitalization. The city has plans to turn the castle into a historical museum for everyone to access. Renovations are set to be completed by 2020. We decided not to go inside, but it definitely seemed like a hit with the families/kids who went in for a visit. Instead, we decided to take silly pictures with the statue outside the castle gates.
Het Eilandje & MAS
One of the main things we wanted to see in Antwerp was the MAS, or Musuem aan de Stroom. However, this is when we realized it was Ascension Day – aka a public holiday in town. Along with many other places, MAS was closed for the day. A little bummed out, we decided to just walk around the area of Het Eilandje, “The Little Island”, and get a general feel for the more modern/gentrified part of Antwerp.On a normal day, Het Eilandje is where many tourists flock to for both the MAS and the Red Star Line museum. There are many cafes and restaurants by these converted docks/water inlets. The vibe is definitely a sharp contrast from the very traditional parts of the historic center. If we could visit again, this would definitely be a place I’d like to come back to experience more thoroughly!
Lunch in Grote Markt
With still some time to kill before we could check out the Cathedral, my cousin and I decided to grab lunch. Having exhausted our quota of mussels and frites, my cousin suggested we get something different. I let her have her pick of places to eat, and we ended up settling for Grand Cafe du Nord, which happened to be right outside Grote Markt. We decided to sit outside so we could admire the views and enjoy the fresh breeze and sunny weather. Overall, I wasn’t too impressed with the food selection – it was your generic kind of “Italian” food. It was slightly overpriced (expected since we were in “tourist central”) for just a simple plate of spaghetti. Not really too memorable to write home about.
Views of the Scheldt at Steenplein
After lunch, we decided to take a short walk back to the riverside and enjoy the views. The Steenplein, which is like a boardwalk of sorts, acts as a nice vantage point of the Scheldt as well as the great views of the Cathedral’s spire/clock tower. On a warm day you might find some people boating or jet skiing on the river. We saw a few people down by the river (possibly friends?) who took turns on a jet ski, they drew in a large crowd of on-lookers cheering them on. Of course we joined in too!
Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal
At long last, we finally decided to head back towards the Cathedral. The sun was finally shining on the outside of the Cathdral’s doors instead of against it in the morning, which allowed for another photo op outside.
After snapping some more pics, we headed in, paid for our tickets to enter and began to explore. (Tickets for students are discounted at €4/person. Otherwise, it is normally €6/person, or if you are under 12 it is free.) With time on our side, we were able to take our time and really delve into the artwork and architectural beauty of Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal. The Cathedral is home to several of Pieter Paul Rubens’ most famous paintings. Inside you’ll get to see his ornate depictions of Christ’s ascent and descent from the cross. If you aren’t in a rush, I definitely recommend taking your time during your visit to OLV so you can fully admire the intricacy of the works displayed inside. (Learn more here).
Other Antwerp Highlights
The Madonnas of Antwerp
Something I noticed throughout Belgium, prior to our day trip to Antwerp, were the statues of the Madonna on some of the corners of buildings/streets. I hadn’t paid much thought to them until we got to Antwerp when I started seeing them pop up almost everywhere I looked. Not one is the same, but I thought it was such a fascinating quirk.
I later found out that these Madonnas were less about the pious nature of the people of Antwerp, but rather a deal that was cut between the Church and the citizens regarding street lighting and taxes (though the particulars are not so clear). Essentially, residents who put up one of these statutes would have their taxes paid by the Church, or so the story goes… (it also helps that the Virgin Mary/Madonna/”Our Lady” also happens to be Antwerp’s patron saint).
Another cool thing we stumbled upon in Antwerp was a Chinatown gate as we were leaving Antwerpen-Centraal. When I looked into to it further, it turns out that this particular Chinatown is the only officially recognized Chinatown in all of Belgium! No one really talks about the Chinatown in Antwerp, so I’m not sure that there is much to do/see – but it may be an interesting place to explore if you have more time! (Learn more here.)