Part of a series written for easyJet holidays…
A quick recap: I have a fantastic friend in the lovely Belgian city of Leuven who put his university work aside for a weekend (a chore I’m sure!) to show me the sites around his temporary home from home. So far we’d explored Leuven and Bruges, next stop – Antwerp.
In Belgium, Sundays are still very much a day of rest. That’s great news for locals who don’t have to go to work and can use it as a long relaxing day off. Not so great for visitors with a limited time to explore. With Leuven eerily quiet and not much sign of life, we decided to take a train ride to what my friend calls “the London of Belgium”. Antwerp gets its name from an old folklore tale that neighbourhood giant Antigoon used to make anyone crossing the River Scheldt pay a toll, and if they refused he’d chop of their hands and throw them into the river. Eventually hero Brabo came along and gave the giant a taste of his own medicine. After chopping off the giant’s hand (hant) and throwing it away (werpen), the place that it landed grew to be Antwerp (hantwerpen – hand, throw).
The city of Antwerp is worth visiting just to see the train station alone. An architectural masterpiece, it stands at a whopping 44 metres high and has trains arriving on 4 different levels. The design, inside and out, is both intricate and powerful, the building makes you feel tiny. The walk into the centre takes you past a lot of buildings that have been strongly influenced by the Dutch while the ‘high street’ could be mistaken for anywhere in Europe. Packed with fast-food shops and high street chains, anyone feeling homesick for shops will be glad to see Antwerp. Just make sure you don’t plan a day of a shopping on a Sunday, turns out even the “London of Belgium” doesn’t open for the day of rest.
The Grote Markt, like many cities in Belgium, is made up of a mix of 16th century guild houses alongside the Town Hall and a statue of our hero Brabo. When we arrived we were surprised to see the square bursting with people and a very excitable atmosphere. Although most of Antwerp was shut, we had arrived just in time to see the finish of the Antwerp marathon and the beginning of the half marathon. With cheesy 90s pop blaring over the speaker and lots of sweating, grinning people, Antwerp started to feel a bit more exciting. The Cathedral of Our Lady is another building in Antwerp that will leave you feeling very small. Reminiscent of the Anglican in Liverpool, it is the tallest building in the city and took over 200 years to build. The Steen Castle and Fortress are a must for checking off the tourist to-do list. Originally built in the 11th century it helped protect Antwerp from attacks and later became a prison and finally a National Maritime Museum – which is currently in the process of moving across town. Walking from the castle and along the port, you can get a glimpse of the Belgian skyline and watch it go through its daily routine.
Antwerp trades 80% of the world’s unpolished diamonds and the city is considered the ‘diamond capital of the world’. The Diamond District is packed with shops selling the city’s jewels in all sorts of shapes and sizes with a hefty price tag to match. If you’re looking for an authentic Belgian souvenir, it might be cheaper to head to Bruges for some lace! The Middelheim Open Air Museum is home to over 300 pieces of contemporary art and is internationally recognised with artists such as Rodin and Manzu offering their work to this unusual and interesting museum. Antwerp Zoo is one of the biggest and oldest zoos in the world. 950 species make up the 6,000 animals in this zoo and with a focus on conservation and endangered species, it houses some extremely rare animals.
Food and drink have similar pricings all over Belgium but to avoid a shock when the bill arrives try to keep away from the Grote Markts. Cities, like Antwerp, know that the main square is where tourists will head first so any nearby restaurants and cafes that are considered convenient incorporate this into their prices. For better quality, quantities and value take a 5 minute walk away from the centre and find yourself a much better deal. The Belgians are quite strict with their eating times so don’t be surprised if you can’t get served for lunch after 2pm or for dinner after 8 or 9pm.
After three days of walking and sightseeing it was time for me to head back to Leuven before getting up the next day to visit the final city on my list – Brussels.