Starting out – the Diamond District
Just a short taxi ride from Antwerp Airport and you can be in the heart of the city’s diamond district, ready to explore this magnificent city. As the name would suggest, this area is littered with diamond shops, specialists and jewellers – and the perfect destination for anyone wishing to purchase a special stone.
But first things first – I arrived on a beautiful evening and I needed food. I soon came across the temptingly-named Bier Central, with outdoor terrace, and decided to settle there for the evening. There’s a great snack menu and even better, you can order a flight of four of their 300+ beers to try for just €9. I ate bitterballen, Belgian frites and local cheese washed down with a selection of Belgian Trappist and fruit beers.
I had a comfortable night at The Park Inn, overlooking the square by the central station (chosen by Newsweek as the fourth most beautiful train station in the world, no less) and right next to the city’s zoo.
Historic City Centre
It’s about fifteen minutes’ walk from the diamond district to the historic city centre. Make sure you pop in to the Antwerp Visitor Centre here to pick up an Antwerp City Card – it’ll give you entry to museums, discounts and free public transport. The prices vary as to how long you want it to last for.
You’ll probably be ready for a pit stop before you hit the attractions, so try Vascobelo’s V-Bar – a Belgian brand coffee shop on Grote Markt (“The Great Market Square”), just by the City Hall. The quirky interior looks more like a library, with vintage bikes thrown in for good measure (in fact, it’d fit in very nicely in my home town of Southsea!). Relax to a jazz soundtrack, plan your day and peruse the fine art on the walls while enjoying a fine cup of coffee (I went for a Vienna coffee – double espresso topped with whipped cream).
Grote Markt is beautiful. The majestic town hall dominates the square and the fountain attracts frolicking tourists and kids alike. The nearby Cathedral of Our Lady is a beautiful space for reflection amidst the hustle and bustle of the Historic District. This Roman Catholic cathedral has an impressive seven naves and took 169 years to build. Here you can see some of Ruebens’ most famous paintings in the REUINION exhibition. The collection brings together masterpieces from the Royal Museum reunited in the Cathedral.
The area directly around the Cathedral is pretty touristy – with the usual suspects (McDonalds & Starbucks) taking up prime position and the best views, plus strips of restaurants that wouldn’t look out of place in a Greek resort. However, savvy travellers will be able to find independent restaurants slightly off the beaten track – if in doubt, speak to the knowledgable people at Visit Antwerp visitor centre.
The Eilandje district
The imposing MAS (Museum aand de Stroom – “museum on the river”) tells the story of the city of Antwerp; its people, its past, its present and its future. Along with changing galleries and exhibitions, there are permanent fixtures such as Life and Death of Men and Gods, World Port and Metropolis.
I was lucky enough to see an incredible temporary exhibition called World in a Mirror, charting the history of world discovery – land, sea and space. It takes you on a journey though cartography and tells the story of explorers such as Cook and Stanley, and visionary Jules Verne. As a wanderer, this was right up my street.
After this I popped across the marina to Balls & Glory in Felixpakhuis De Markt to try out their handcrafted meatballs. If you’re eating in you have a choice of two different Glory Balls of the day, served warm with a delicious cous cous salad or mash. The restaurant is relaxed and sociable – with canteen tables, cobbled floors, exposed brickwork and warehouse features. For more choice, there are a larger selection of balls that you can take away. Seeking a sweet finish and wanting to dodge the rain, I then dashed into Urban Story Deli shop for a coffee and pastry.
Fashion & Shopping
The MoMu (ModeMuseum), Antwerp’s museum dedicated to fashion, is currently hosting a beautiful Dries Van Noten exhibition; Inspirations. One of the ‘Antwerp Six’, with a headquarters in the city, Dries is known for his exquisite print designs, rich use of textiles and his passion for the visual and graphic arts. One of the galleries even reflected the smells of the featured pieces (earthy, leafy and garden-esque!), which was created by Norwegian researcher and sense of smell artist, Sissel Tolaas. There’s also a captivating film installation by David Michalek, a New York artist, animating several of Van Noten’s recent designs.
Feeling inspired by all that fashion, I went for a mooch around the shops nearby. The Wilde Zee area is home to some wonderful chocolate shops, bakeries, alternative boutiques, independent coffee shops and raw health food cafes.
Sadly I didn’t have time to visit Rubenshuis – the home of the 16th century genius Peter Paul Rubens, or to buy any chocolates or diamonds – so I definitely feel a return visit is in order. And I don’t think it’ll be long before I want to spend some time in Antwerp again.
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