A Gem of a City
The Belgian city of Antwerp has remade itself into a modern masterpiece.
Posted June 23, 2011
Antwerp has had a long reputation as one of the world’s great diamond markets, but in recent years, this Belgian city, just 45 minutes from the capital of Brussels, has become something of a gem itself. Once home to artists Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck, Antwerp has now become a center of fashion and home design, and a modern city that still honors its medieval heritage.
In its very early history, Antwerp was a maritime city, owing its very existence to the river Scheldt. Through the centuries, the city center and the port eventually diverged, and today Antwerp’s thriving metropolis spokes outward from the Centraal Station, a railway station that’s as much an architectural masterpiece as it is a hub for commuters and visitors to the second largest city in Belgium.
I’ve been to Belgium quite a few times now, but on my most recent visit decided a day’s trip to Antwerp was long overdue. (You would do well to stay for a night or two in the city, but if you only have a day, it’s just a quick train ride from Brussels.) Since I wanted to make sure I made the most of my day there, I arranged for a guide from the Antwerp Tourism Office to show me the highlights. Vera Verschooren met me at the train station and led me to our first stop—not surprisingly, Antwerp’s Diamond Museum, just steps away from the station.
Diamonds have been traded in Antwerp since the 16th century. The Diamantmuseum opened in 2002 and relates the history of the city’s connection to this precious gem. There are permanent exhibitions that detail the mining and manufacturing of diamonds, as well as collections of antique and contemporary jewelry, and ongoing temporary exhibitions. Antwerp’s diamond trade was once almost exclusively made up of the city’s Jewish residents, but recent years have seen a shift to members of the Indian community.
From the Diamond Museum (unfortunately, no free samples!), it was on to the Rubenhuis, the beautifully restored home of artist Peter Paul Rubens, who was born in Antwerp in 1577. Rubens lived, worked, and died in this house, and his own paintings, as well as furniture and objects from the 17th century, reflect his life and the times in which he lived.
Leaving Ruben’s home, we strolled along the city’s High Street, with many of its shops located in the 18th and 19th century buildings lining the street, then stopped for lunch at the popular Grand Café Horta (named for the Belgian architect who founded the Art Nouveau movement), which features dishes made with traditional Belgian beers, as well as contemporary “fusion” cuisine. Both the food and service were outstanding, but prices were reasonable. If you don’t speak Dutch though (Antwerp is in the Flemish part of the country), ask for a menu in English.
Because I have a special interest—both professionally and personally—in design, Vera took me through the city’s design district, where such famous Belgian designers as Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester got their start—and headquarter their worldwide operations. You may even be able to glimpse a fashion star in the making as Antwerp is now home to the new Fashion Academy.
Belgium itself is an antiques-lover’s dream and Antwerp is no exception. Kloosterstraat is the place to visit, whether you’re looking for 17th century candlesticks or “mod” collectibles from the ‘60s. Weather permitting, which unfortunately it wasn’t when I was there on a chilly, drizzly November day, the shops will display their goods on the sidewalk.
By the time we stopped for some traditional Antwerp biscuits and, of course, chocolates, it was time for me to catch my train back to Brussels.
Antwerp, I found, is a wonderful city for simply strolling along. Tiny cobblestone streets appear out of nowhere, medieval church spires grace the skyline, and markets and squares are gathering spots where locals and tourists alike come together for festivals (St. Nicholas was arriving the day I visited!) or just to enjoy a drink or a meal at one of the many cafes.
I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to spend in Antwerp because it really is a city that invites exploring. As Vera explained, “This is a city you discover in layers.”
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I made Brussels my home base while in Belgium, and stayed in two different hotels this trip: the traditionally elegant Royal Windsor Hotel, a member of Warwick International Hotels, which is located just steps away from the city’s Grand Place. If you’re a fashionista (or even a “wanna-be”), reserve one of the “fashion rooms,” in which well-known Belgian fashion designers have reinterpreted their style in a look that blends the art of dressing with the art of living. I also spent several nights at the newly opened Hotel Orts, located in the Bourse (or stock exchange) area, a stylish, contemporary, 13-room (and one suite) boutique hotel near the Dansaert, Brussels’ fashion and design district, as well as the Grand Place.
If you’ll be traveling from city to city within Belgium, or to several countries in Europe, visit Eurail before you leave home for information on rail passes. European trains are a great way to travel, and depending on your itinerary and the number of stops, you’ll save money when buying a pass instead of purchasing individual tickets. You can use the pass as well for other forms of transportation such as ferry rides, busses, etc.
Carol Sorgen is a nationally recognized writer, editor, and public relations consultant. Her articles have been published by WebMD, Today’s Diet & Nutrition, CNN.com, Men’sFitness.com, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Chesapeake Home, and Maryland Life, to name but a few. She is the executive editor of the travel site JustSayGo.com, and works as a writer, editor, and public relations consultant through her own site, CarolSorgen.com.