Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Antwerp
The 16th century guildhouses at the Grote Markt (Market Square) lean wonderfully into each other for support, vying for attention with City Hall. The Gothic Cathedral of our Lady still has the highest spire in the Low Countries (400 ft/123m), plus several radiantly beautiful triptychs by Baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens.
You can visit the wonderfully restored house and studio of Rubens and he is buried in the ornate Gothic St James’ Church. If you like art, the Royal Museum Antwerp has a great collection, including famous 17th century locals, Rubens and van Dyck, and the Italian, Titian. And then it’s on to the 20th century.
The recently opened Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) is a 200-foot (60 m) high pile of Indian red sandstone and glass. As you’d expect the displays inside use the latest technology and its exhibits celebrate Antwerp’s life as a port: Metropolis, Power, Life and Death.
The law courts are similarly eye-catchingly modern with a roof line replicating sails. The Mode Museum (MoMu) celebrates the local fashion industry that Antwerp is increasingly known for along with its excellent beers and chocolates. Antwerpse Handjes (Antwerp Hands), almond or chocolate biscuits, are a particular city pride. Even tastier are the diamonds: watch them being cut at Diamondland, learn their history at the Diamantmusuem, or just dream about buying them along the well-guarded streets Pelikaanstraat, Vestingstraat or Hoveniersstraat.
Antwerp’s Grote Markt (Grand Market Place) is one of the city’s main attractions. Around the edges of the triangular-shaped marketplace you’ll find lovely buildings, most notably Our Lady’s Cathedral and several 16th-century guild houses. Although many of these buildings burned down at the end of the 16th century, they were rebuilt in the same style to showcase the excellence of Flemish architecture when Antwerp was a major European port city. The biggest building on the marketplace is the city hall. In the center of the marketplace, right in front of city hall, you’ll see the Brabo Fountain. The statue was built to honor this folklore tale: the Roman soldier Brabo defeated Antigoon, a giant who charged a fee to cross the river Schelde. Those who couldn’t pay had their hand cut off by the giant and thrown into the river. Brabo stopped this nonsense by cutting off the giant’s hand, and now has a bronze fountain to celebrate his heroics.
Spearheading the rejuvenation of the once derelict Willemdok harbor area, MAS (which translates as ‘Museum on the River’) opened in 2011 to great acclaim – as much for its stellar architecture as its thoughtful, well-curated exhibitions paying homage to the city of Antwerp, its history and culture. Sitting just north of the city center on a dock commissioned by Napoleon in 1811, the museum was designed by Dutch architects Neutelings Riedijk and towers 60 m (197 ft) above the harbor. It is comprised of layers of bright-red sandstone bricks held together with glass and steel; the five themed floors of interactive and entertaining displays make use of nearly half a million artifacts – including anything from Old Master paintings to model boats, newsreel, penny farthings, model ships and personal accounts on video – to showcase Antwerp’s development into one of Europe’s largest ports, a diamond capital and a multiracial center of learning and culture.
Antwerp’s main railway station is a much-loved city landmark, a spectacular domed building of majestic proportions on Koningin Astridplain and nicknamed the Spoorwegkathedraal (Railway Cathedral) by its local fans. It was designed by Flemish architect Louis Delacenserie and was completed in 1905; it is 400 m (1,300 ft) long with a grandiose façade completely covered in fancy patterned brickwork and gilded flourishes. Along with a massive central dome topped by an ornate cupola, it has eight smaller towers and an interior lavishly decorated in different shades and patterns of marble. The platforms are covered by a vast glass-and-iron vaulted ceiling designed by Clement van Bogaert, while Jan van Asperen was responsible for the elevated section of track that passes four km (2.5 miles) through the city; this was completed in 1898 and ornamented with over 200 white stone mini-towers.
About 84 percent of the world’s uncut diamonds pass through Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter, an enclave of side streets just west of Central Station. Every year more than £32 billion in polished, cut diamonds pass through the four trading exchanges, regulated by the Antwerp World Diamond Centre and bringing massive wealth into the city. Although today the Diamond Quarter is also home to Indian, Lebanese, Russian and Chinese gem dealers, creating a vividly multicultural atmosphere, most of the city’s diamond trading is still run by the Hassidic Jewish community; more than 8,000 people are involved in the industry and there are even kosher banks exclusively dedicated to financing diamond deals. The nondescript shop fronts on the little tangle of streets centered on Hoveniersstraat hide diamond dealers, cutters – world-renowned for their skill – and polishers as well as kosher butchers, bakeries and synagogues.
Centered on Antwerp’s Grote Markt and the surrounding streets are some outstanding guild houses, built during the city’s 16th- and 17th-century Golden Age as trading was expanding and its citizens were getting seriously rich. Just north of the square stands the former Butcher’s Hall, a lovely Gothic structure built of alternating stripes of white sandstone and red brick by Flemish architect Herman de Waghemakere, completed in 1504 and adorned with gables and round towers at each corner. This handsome building was started life as the city’s meat market but during the struggles for power in northern Europe in the early 19th century, the French took over Antwerp and disbanded its guilds; the Butcher’s Hall became a storage depot and was largely forgotten until it was given new life as a museum in 1919. In 2006 a themed “Sounds of the City” permanent exhibition opened in its cavernous interior, highlighting the musical life of Antwerp.
Between the late 19th century and World War II, the historic Red Star Line carried more than two million passengers across the Atlantic Ocean to start new lives in the United States, and this compelling museum was opened in September 2013 to tell the story of the migrants and showcase the backstory of the shipping company. Housed in the red-brick former company sheds, washrooms and waiting rooms in Eilandje, north of the city center, the museum buildings themselves are protected monuments. Here medical examinations took place, luggage was disinfected and would-be emigrants were assessed for suitability to enter the US. The museum’s permanent collections include a touching number of letters, faded photos and multimedia presentations of personal interviews, all displayed cleverly against a colorful, well-curated selection of posters, model ships and Red Star Line souvenirs; individuals seeking out family histories can do so in the Warehouse.
One of the best-known showrooms in Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter, DiamondLand is a sparkling, glittering homage to gemstones, with an exceptional array of certified diamonds on offer from simple solitaire rings to priceless necklaces.
Free guided tours narrate the history of Antwerp’s diamond industry and take in the polishers, cutters and goldsmiths in the workshops; a collection of spectacular jewels and uncut stones; and the salesrooms, where expert advice is available for buyers. DiamondLand is approved by the Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association and recommended by the city’s tourist authority on the free ‘Antwerp Loves Diamonds’ map available from the tourist information offices in Grote Markt and Central Station.
More Things to Do in Antwerp
Occupying a 26-acre (10.5-hectare) site behind the city’s grandiose railway station, Antwerp Zoo was built in 1843 – when it was outside the city walls – in colorful Art Nouveau style; as well as being one of the oldest zoos in the world, it must be the only one where the elephants are housed in an Egyptian temple swathed in hieroglyphics.
Currently the zoo has more than 5,000 animals of around 950 species; family favorites such as lions, tigers, polar bears, zebras and gorillas, are housed among the spacious and colonnaded enclosures, themed habitats, Arctic pools, aquariums, reptile house, aviaries, winter gardens and petting zoo for toddlers. There are daily talks plus penguin and sea lion shows; elephant, seal and hippo feeding sessions; 3-D movies in the Planetarium; and plenty of eating options for families, from waffle stands to brasserie dining.
In pole position at the heart of Antwerp’s lovely, medieval Grote Markt, the Brabo Fountain stands in front of the ornate, pennant‐encrusted Stadhuis (Town Hall) and was created in 1887 by the renowned Flemish sculptor Jef Lambeaux. The flamboyant Baroque statue represents a legend concerning the origins of the city: more than 2,000 years ago Antwerp was a small settlement in the Roman Empire when a Russian ‘giant’ called Druon Antigoon settled on the banks of the River Scheldt and charged ships to sail up the river; if sailors refused to pay the toll, Druon Antigoon cut their hands off in revenge. A Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo – rumored to be a relative of Julius Caesar – refused to pay and subsequently killed the giant in a duel, cutting off his hand and throwing it into the Scheldt. The hand became a symbol of Antwerp’s freedom and still features on the city’s coat of arms; the bronze Brabo Fountain features Silvius Brabo atop a pedestal awash with mythical sea monster.
Found in a former waterside warehouse in the on‐trend area of Zuid south of Antwerp city center, FoMu first opened in 1986 but moved to its current home in 2004. Its clean, white lines are perfect for presenting a series of temporary photographic exhibitions sourced from its own collections, which are among the most important in Europe. Treasures in the collection include images by Henri Cartier‐Bresson and Man Ray, while recent shows have included the hard‐hitting pictures of photographic journalists Broomberg & Chanarin, who examine racial tensions and colonialism in their work. Daily movie screenings curated by Cinema Zuid are held on the premises as well as workshops and lectures.
Right across the road from Antwerp’s other great family attraction, the zoo, Aquatopia is housed in a biscuit-colored Art Deco building and aims to educate and entertain kids on life in our oceans. With seven, maze-like themed marine habitats from rainforest to mangrove swamp, it provides a stimulating way to teach children about the amazing natural world beneath the sea. More than 10,000 fish and reptiles from over 250 species – from sea horses to sharks to iguanas – are housed in 40 aquariums with interactive presentations providing information on each tank; glass tunnels lead underwater so youngsters can get up close to the rays, eels and striking angel fish, enjoy the colors of the coral and watch turtles lumbering through the water.
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