A Whistlestop Visit to Antwerp, Belgium.
‘Atypical Antwerp’ is the marketing slogan for a city that is creative, dynamic and vibrant, a small city of half a million people that punches far above its size in art, fashion, architecture and more.
I had passed through Antwerp once before en route to Amsterdam and I suspect that too many tourists do just this. This time I had only 48 hours in which to visit Antwerp and explore – although I packed in as much as I could, there are plenty more things to see and enjoy.
The weekend got off to the best possible start when I booked into De Witte Lelie – an astonishing boutique hotel on Keizerstraat, in Central Antwerp. As I had an hour before closing time (museums close at 5 pm), I popped next door to the Snijder-Rockoxhuis museum.
This charming museum was an excellent introduction to the Baroque trail I was planning to follow while in the city. Nicholas Rockox was mayor of Antwerp and a patron of the artist Peter Paul Rubens, while Frans Snijders, himself an artist, was his neighbour. Their two 17th century homes have been combined into a museum packed with art and furniture of the period. It also has a beautiful courtyard planted with orange trees.
On the way to dinner in the evening we stopped off in the most unique bar-café I have ever visited. Elfde Gebod is situated in the shadow of the Antwerp Cathedral and is packed full of ecclesiastical statues and artefacts.
It really is like having a drink in a museum and it is hard to know whether one should take it seriously or if it is some sort of humorous comment on religion. Perhaps both. Throughout the weekend we came across the quirkiest shops and eateries where the spirit of the Baroque is alive and well in a fun-filled, over the top way. It is a city that considers itself different from other Belgian cities, a city proud to show off its creativity and life-affirming atypicality.
We ate dinner at Invincible where we sat in the heart of the action alongside the open galley kitchen. Lucky guests sit on bar stools along a narrow wooden strip that runs the length of the kitchen where two chefs entertained us all evening. For a food lover, this was the best fun in town. Other guests sit in a more conventional dining room. We chose the three-course meal for 37 euro which can be accompanied by a wine pairing.
The starters included homemade paté with pickles, caponata with poached egg or pasta pancetta. I chose sea snails in a stock of fennel with mayo pastis. My companion opted for tartar Holstein beef. I adore sea snails which I am used to eating cold with mayonnaise on the windswept shores of Western France. These at Invincible were served warm in a flavoursome bouillon with sautéed onions and celery, along with a pastis mayo.
Main courses brought a perfectly cooked fillet of mooie meid, from the cod family, on a plate of sauteéd tomatoes and a fabulous basil oil. I took great pleasure watching the chef sautée a pan of baby red and yellow tomatoes with sliced red onions which I then gladly ate along with the fish. My companion enjoyed a spring chicken with dark beer jus and carrots. A homemade mustard marinade added a vinegary note while the deep dark beer jus was a revelation to those of us more accustomed to a wine reduction.
Despite our tasty dishes I repeatedly suffered from menu envy as plate after plate of gorgeous Holstein rib-eye was sliced and plated right in front of us. It looked quite outstanding. Talking with the chef was great fun and he kindly explained all the dishes to us. I got such a buzz from watching the service and even the clean up at the end of the evening. A great night out.
On the way back to the hotel we wandered through the streets marvelling at the gabled buildings in the Grootemarkt, beautifully lit up in the night sky.
On my visit to Antwerp I was particularly interested in the Baroque period, an explosion of flamboyance in the 17th century. Antwerp was a key part of this movement in the region and there is no better way to immerse oneself in the art and architecture of this period than a walking tour. I booked a private Baroque tour through the Antwerp Tourist Office. Our tour guide Rick Philips spent three hours sharing the history of the Baroque in the city and guiding us through the magnificent collection of Rubens paintings in the cathedral and then on to the Rubenshuis.
While the structure of the Cathedral is Gothic, the interior was decorated by Rubens and his contemporaries. After Antwerp’s Golden Age in the early 16th century, the city became increasingly Protestant and the art collection in the Cathedral was destroyed by Protestant iconoclasm. When Catholicism became resurgent during the Counter-Reformation, the church authorities approached the artists of the day to refurbish the Cathedral. This was the era of the Baroque and chief amongst these artists was the Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens. He produced magnificent altarpieces which were later removed when the French occupied swathes of Europe following the French Revolution. Once Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the art returned to the city. However, the French had destroyed the Cathedral altars and so Rubens altarpieces went to a museum. As the Royal Museum of Fine Arts is currently being refurbished, the altarpieces works are temporarily on display in the Cathedral where fortunate visitors can see them in situ for the next two years.
While churchgoers in the 17th century were able to understand the messages inherent in Rubens’ works, we benefited from the instruction of Rick Philips who taught us how to ‘read’ the political and religious messages (and propaganda) contained in these masterpieces. If one has the time, three hours could be spent in the Cathedral.
Sadly we needed to move on to keep to our schedule; Rick accompanied us through Antwerp – pointing out a great deal about the development of the city – its first skyscraper, its role in the fashion world – while we made our way to the Rubenshuis.
This was the home and workshop of Rubens and is a must-see on any visit to Antwerp. It provides the visitor with an insight into the life of Rubens himself – not only an artist but a Homo Universalis, a man who spoke eight languages, a go-between between the Kings of England and Spain, an ambassador. His home was an attraction in his own time, renovated in Italian Baroque style and where he entertained his wealthy clients who came not only to buy his works but to admire his collection of Roman antiquities and his private art collection which included five Titians.
Rick gave us a tour of the house and a wealth of information which brought to life not only Rubens and his family, but the art history of Antwerp which was one of the most important European cities of art at this time and Rubens one of its leading figures.
A three-hour tour was far too short and we felt we had just scraped the surface of the great works of splendour that Antwerp contains. However, one does reach visual saturation point, so we changed gear in the afternoon and took ourselves on a self-guided food tour. A little research had revealed where the best in town was located and we ate our way through biscuits, chocolate, chips and waffles with ice cream before we could not eat another morsel and had to delay the best croquettes in town until the next day.
We did manage to squeeze in another museum before the end of the day – Antwerp has an astounding collection of excellent museums – the Plantin-Moretus – which is housed in a 17th century townhouse where the named family lived and developed a highly successful publishing business. The museum not only displays the original printing presses – including the world’s oldest, built around 1600, along with original manuscripts and publishing paraphernalia. It also charts the economic development of Antwerp which was the commercial centre of Europe in the 16th century, considered the New York of Europe in its day. A visit to the museum is highly recommended.
You would think we would be collapsing by now, but Antwerp has such energy which just carried us along. Around the corner from the museum is St Anna’s Tunnel, a subterranean tunnel that links the two sides of the Scheldt river that flows through Antwerp. It is an art deco delight and we descended on a series of wooden escalators and then walked 572m under the river in a tunnel tiled with art deco motifs from 1933. We emerged on the far side of the river to an unprepossessing residential area where we made our way to the ferry dock and were whisked across the water back into the historic centre. From here we took a walk along what seems to be in the process of redevelopment of a riverside area. We later discovered that it was once the landing dock for the ships that took millions of emigrants to America.
We walked as far as the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) in Het Eilandje neighbourhood which is undergoing redevelopment and is emerging as a hub of contemporary museums, bars and restaurants. The museum itself charts the maritime history of the city over 9 floors with a panoramic viewing terrace on the top floor. It is a striking building of brick and glass and quite a joy to look at from the outside as well as to look out from once inside its glass windows.
We ate dinner at another eatery where top-quality beef takes pride of place. Mon restaurant is located across from MAS. In contrast to this ultra-contemporary museum, Mon is housed in a low built, 17th century property. Outdoors there are thick wooden tables with benched seating covered in sheepskin. The warm weather was turning rather cool as an evening breeze blew in from the Scheldt, so we opted for an indoor table. A large cattle head greeted us as we entered. Mon is the Catalan word for ‘world’ and references the different worlds that live harmoniously in Antwerp. The meat is such good quality because Mon breeds its own Limousin cattle in the Massif Central region in France. The grills are prepared in a Josper oven.
I eat red meat only rarely and so when I do I want it to be worth the carbon footprint and my cholesterol level. This was. My fillet, served saignant, was tender, well-spiced and seasoned. The desserts were lovely – a tarte tatin with crisp base and well-cooked apples and a terrific cinnamon ice cream alongside, as well as what was described as Greek frozen yoghurt with fruit. What arrived what a tower of fruit – blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and redcurrants – and frozen yoghurt with a tuille biscuit. It was more than enough for two.
The following morning, we made final use of the Antwerp City Card at the Red Star Line Museum, another sign of resurgence in Het Eilandje area. This was a very moving experience as the museum tells the story of migration from Antwerp to America between 1873 and 1934. The building was once the hangar of the Red Star Line shipping company. On this site, almost two million emigrants were interrogated, disinfected, sorted, and dispatched. Traumas and heartbreak took place there as thousands of Jews fleeing persecution found themselves in this building having travelled by train across Europe, hoping for life-saving passage to America. There are few display cases here as the stories are related through video footage and interviews with family members. One of the highlights of the items in the collection is composer Irving Berlin’s piano. He left Europe at the age of 5 and went on to write ‘White Christmas’ and ‘God Bless America’. Perhaps the most famous passenger on the Red Star Line ships was Albert Einstein who travelled to America several times before finally having to flee the Nazis and leave Europe. His wife made her final voyage as an emigrant from Antwerp.
I highly recommend getting an Antwerp City Card as it gave us quick and free access to all the museums as well as the many churches we visited. We were also able to hop on all modes of transport to crisscross the city. This included the ferry. We particularly enjoyed the Antwerp trams. The card also provides discounts in many shops.
As we strolled through the historic centre on Sunday afternoon, jazz wafted out of bars, outdoor tables were filled at restaurants making use of the warm sunshine. The atmosphere was inviting and made us wish we were staying longer. While we packed in a fair amount in a short time, I feel I have only scratched the surface of Antwerp. I was unprepared for how the city would seduce me and I have recommended it to many people since. It makes an easy weekend trip from London and should be higher up on the bucket list of destinations. It is a truly multicultural city, with 170 nationalities, more than New York or London. It has superb art, architecture, top-quality museums, restaurants from Michelin star to cheap as gourmet chips, avant-garde fashion and music. I am certainly planning a return visit.
Antwerp makes an impact from the moment one arrives at the cathedral-like, late 19th-century railway station, considered the most beautiful in Europe. Waiting for my return train in the large station café – all marble and gilded with an enormous station clock – I marvelled at how glamorous travel once used to be. I took a moment to drink in the over the top surroundings and realised that while the Baroque era might have come and gone, its spirit lives on in Antwerp.
Antwerp FactboxGetting to Antwerp is easy from London. I travelled on the Eurostar service from London to Brussels. Then changed platform and hopped on a local train from Brussels to Antwerp.
The Antwerp City Card is available for 24, 48 or 72 hours (27, 35 or 40 euros) and includes a city guide, a map of Antwerp and a booklet of discount vouchers. It can be purchased online https://www.visitantwerpen.be/en/citycard or at one of the Visit Antwerp visitor’s centres in the city or at the central railway station. It allows free access to a wide range of museums plus free transport on bus, tram and ferry. Very good value.
You can book a wide range of Walking Tours at Visit Antwerp https://www.visitantwerpen.be/en/business/travel-trade-en/plan-je-trip-en/book-guided-walk
Or contact the office via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Or call on +32 3 3389530
Further information on Antwerp and the region is available from Visit Flanders https://www.visitflanders.com/
I stayed in a gorgeous small, luxury hotel which I highly recommend for its comfort, service, style and being so central. It is only a few tram stops from the railway station. Do check my review of the De Witte Lelie which is part of the Small Luxury Hotels group. You can find more details about their hotels at www.slh.com
De Witte Lelie – Keizerstraat 16, Antwerp
T: +32 3 2261966
I ate dinner at the following two restaurants. Antwerp has eateries for every budget.
Haarstraat 7/9, Antwerp
T: +32 3 2313207
Sint-Aldegondiskaai 30, Antwerp
T: +32 3 3456789
I visited a number of wonderful museums. Here are the links to a few. All are free entrance with the Antwerp City Card
Red Star Line Museum
Montevideostraat, 3, Antwerp
Wapper 9 – 11, Antwerp
Vrijdagmarkt 22 – 23, Antwerp
Keizerstraat 12, Antwerp
Thinking of visiting yourself? Why not pin this post for later
Did you know Antwerp is famous for diamonds? Check our feature for more about Antwerp’s Diamond Trade (which dates back to 1470).