About 50km north of Brussels, ANTWERP, Belgium's second city, lays claim to being the effective capital of Flemish Belgium, boosting its credentials with an animated cultural scene, a burgeoning fashion industry and a spirited nightlife. The city fans out carelessly from the east bank of the Scheldt, its centre a rough polygon formed and framed by its enclosing boulevards and the river. Recent efforts to clean and smarten the centre have been tremendously successful, revealing scores of beautiful buildings previously camouflaged by the accumulated grime. On the surface it's not a wealthy city, and it's rarely neat and tidy, but it is a hectic and immediately likeable place, with a dense concentration of things to see, not least some fine churches, including a simply wonderful cathedral, and a varied selection of excellent museums.
East of the centre lies the main shopping street, Meir, whose hotchpotch of old and new buildings rolls past the Rubenshuis, one-time home and studio of Rubens, before proceeding on to the cathedral-like Centraal Station and the diamond district – the city has long been at the heart of the international diamond trade. South of the centre lies Het Zuid, a long neglected but now resurgent residential district whose wide boulevards, with their long vistas and geometrical roundabouts, were laid out at the end of the nineteenth century. The highlight here is the substantial collection of Belgian art in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Art Museum), with the invigorating Middelheim Open-Air Sculpture Museum beckoning beyond. Added to this historical and cultural stew is an excellent café, restaurant and bar scene – enough to keep anyone busy for a few days, if not more.
The citizens of Antwerp call it the Metropolis, and for good reason. The "City on the River Scheldt" is the second largest in Belgium, with a population of nearly 500,000. It is made up of so many different features that those looking to know it well must really take their time. There are a variety of unique, bustling neighborhoods to explore, each with their own personality.
The Old City
Many of the splendid architectural highlights can be found in the Old City, which was established in the 16th century. It encompasses the area around the Cathedral of Our Lady and the Grote Markt . The Vlaeykensgang is an example of the picturesque medieval streets. The golden age of Antwerp can also be found in the numerous paintings of Peter Paul Rubens who lived in Antwerp in the early 17th century. The destruction caused by WWI and WWII impacted the vitality of the Old City, but recent renovation projects have restored it to its former grandeur.
Quartier Latin and Avant-Garde Fashion
Antwerp has also earned a place among the fashion cities of the world thanks to the efforts of numerous young Flemish designers who have received international acclaim. Some of them include Nadine Wynants, the extravagant Walter van Beirendonck and the popular Ann De Meulemeester. You can find the new fashion district of Antwerp around Nationalestraat and the more mainstream boutiques in the back streets of Huidervetterstraat. Some great window-shopping is guaranteed. This part of town is also known as the Quartier Latin.
Port of Antwerp
Antwerp is the second largest seaport in Europe, following Rotterdam. The harbor was originally situated in the district which is now called 't Eilandje or "the Island." This district has definitely preserved some of the authentic harbor life. Expansion pushed it north to the left bank area, where you can now find large docks and Europe's largest energy facilities.
The main Red Light District of Antwerp is situated in what is called Schipperskwartier or Rosse Buurt which is the area between Sint Paulusstraat and Brouwersvliet, not so far from the main tourist draw around the Grote Markt square. The mood is not as playful as it is in Amsterdam, but you can still find some trouble to get into.
The main attraction in the Zuid, or South of Antwerp, is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts which is housed in a monumental, neo-classical building. This area really started to buzz a few years ago after numerous successful redevelopment projects. Now you'll find many fine brasseries and bistros that serve great food at reasonable prices. The annual amusement fair, Sinksenfoor, is held here in June.
Meir and de Keyserlei
These are Antwerp's main shopping streets and among the prettiest in Europe. Most of the Meir is reserved for pedestrians only and the stylish buildings with international department stores are quite a sight. You'll find a wide range of trendy boutiques here and in the side-streets.
As you walk down de Keyserlei at the end of your shopping spree, you'll catch a glimpse of the magnificent Central Station. The surrounding area is a strange mixture of nouveau riche and underground cool. The shops on de Keyserlei and the fabulous postmodern Astrid Park Plaza Hotel stand not far from raucous, loud bars in Statiestraat. If you walk from Koningin Astrid Square towards De Coninck Square you'll wander into Antwerp's small Chinatown and the more discreet Red Light District.
Jewish Antwerp and the Diamond Center
Antwerp is also the "Diamond Capital of the World" and near the Central Station, you will find the Diamond District. The streets between the station and the city park, called Stadspark , is also the Jewish part of the city and the area where many live and work. The people add a unique atmosphere to the city. Estimates put the number of Jewish citizens in Antwerp from 15000 to 20000. However, before the Second World War, the Jewish population was much larger, at 55000 inhabitants.
Belgium is well-known for its good cuisine, fine chocolates and sweets, and its variety of beers. The metropolis, as Antwerp is often called, is the ideal place to discover the joys of good eating and drinking and there are literally hundreds of restaurants, eateries and cafes.
Wining and Dining
Many visitors have said that you can probably eat the most delicious variety of French cuisine in Belgium and Antwerp is no exception. You'll find a wide variety of restaurants in the old city and mainly around the Cathedral and the Grote Markt but also in the streets which lead to the river Scheldt. Another popular area for wining and dining is 't Zuid, the South area of Antwerp where many new chefs are making their mark. The De Keyserlei/Meir and small side-streets also have a lot to offer but this area is not so pleasant later in the evening.
A Gourmet's Paradise
Gourmets agree that the traditional French dishes you eat here are often more refined even though the portions are more generous. You also have at least two vegetables with meat dishes. Restaurants usually serve soup, salads or other small dishes for starters and a selection of sweets or ice cream as dessert. Cheese after a meal is not the rule but many restaurants do serve them. There's no obligation to order a complete menu and unless you're extremely hungry, two courses should be sufficient. If you do take a full menu, be prepared to be at the table for two to three hours. This is also the case for lunch, so be warned that those business lunches may take up most of the afternoon at a really good restaurant. Quick lunches are served in the brasseries, bistros, cafes, snack bars, and fast-food eateries.
The Old City
While most highly regarded for its architectural and historical highlights, this area of Antwerp also boasts many great places to eat. Rumored to be one of the oldest restaurants in Antwerp, Rooden Hoed offers classic cuisine that isn't too hard on the wallet. As a result, it has remained a popular restaurant and tourist attraction for many years. Zolderke ('t) , for a unique dining experience, has an interesting nautical ambience and is housed in a building that has been around for centuries. If that's not enough, pop into Peerdestal (De) for some authentic horse meat, the resident specialty and restaurant claim to fame. While it may sound like the food comes second at these unique places, rest assured, the meals aren't likely to disappoint. Either way, you'll be dining in one of the most picturesque and historically significant neighborhoods in the city.
Het Zuid, also known as 't Zuid and The South, is one of the most popular neighborhoods for dining. The youthful crowds, art galleries, and especially the large number of interesting new dining options make this a popular destination neighborhood any night of the week. If you're in the mood for Italian, try Al Dente for the wide variety of delicious pastas and the inviting interior design. For something a little more modern, book a seat at Table d'Anvers, the coffee warehouse turned much-acclaimed new dining hotspot. If time starts to fly, move over to Bar Tabac where the young, hip crowds sip cocktails and dance to electronic music until the early morning hours. There are enough bars and restaurants in this area to keep a traveler occupied for even an extended stay, but don't make it your second home too quickly, Antwerp still has more to offer.
Another neighborhood known for its good eats is the Latin Quarter. Hungry? Dive right into Foyer (De) , located in the Bourla Theater. The lunch buffet isn't too expensive and the ornate decor makes it more than worth the price. For something a little different, order up some rabbit stew at the traditional Flemish restaurant, Gouden Ecu (De) . For a little history lesson while you dine, famous painter Adriaan De Brouwer used to have his studio in the building that is now a restaurant simply called Adriaan . While popular for its youthful and vibrant art scene, the Latin Quarter has a few restaurants that will keep you lingering even after a full day's window shopping.
The French-Belgian Cuisine
Most restaurants in the various neighborhoods of Antwerp serve the obligatory steaks called Ossehaas or Rumpsteak in Flemish. These are generally very thick fillets and served medium to rare so tell the waiter how you want the steak otherwise it'll be red or even 'bleu'. Entrecôte tends to be cut thinner. 'Varkenshaas' is pork filet. These meat dishes are served with a rich cream, pepper, or other sauce and chips or potato-croquettes. You may want to try a nice juicy horse steak in one of the specialty restaurants.
Fish dishes are also very popular including cod, salmon, and sole fillets (tongfilets). Some restaurants, in the Suikerrui near the river Scheldt for example, specialise in fish and serve the authentic eel in green parsley sauce (paling in 't groen) and various sea food dishes. From July to well into the autumn you can eat mussels which are generally imported from Holland. In Belgium, mussels are served in the shell and in big pots of 1.3 kg per portion. In Antwerp you should eat the 'Mosselen Nature' which are served with a delicious white mustard dip sauce. Most 'Sinjoren', as the local inhabitants are called, drink beer with their mussels—a great digestive.
Traditional Flemish dishes include fresh asparagus with crushed boiled-eggs and lemon sauce, cherries with meatballs, tomato filled with shrimp (tomate crevettes) and don't forget to try a good old packet of French fries from one of the street stalls. Belgian 'frites' are probably the best in the world and prepared with utmost care—usually fried in at least two or even three stages to obtain their typical crispness and flavor.
Recently, many chefs are making a name for themselves in what are called the 'new' restaurants which serve creative and surprising dishes. These brasseries and bistros are often located in quieter neighborhoods and the chefs will spoil you with delicious salads and unusual combinations of meat and fish.
Oriental and International
Antwerp is a major port and this is reflected in the very exotic range of tastes from all over the world: Chinese, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Russian, Turkish, Greek, and nearer to home, Spanish, Italian, etc.
Chocolates and Waffles
Who hasn't heard of Belgian chocolates? All the main brands such as Leonidas and the super-deluxe Neuhaus and Godiva all have shops here. Besides typical 'pralines' with or without fresh cream you can also buy the local 'Antwerpse handjes'(small hands in chocolate) which make a great gift. You should also try one of the various types of waffles which are baked on the spot at small street stalls.
Belgium and Flanders have built up quite a reputation as far as beer export is concerned but the beer story is a lot more interesting than the international export brands such as Stella Artois and Hoegaarden suggest. Antwerp has many cafes and pavement terraces where you can enjoy a wide variety of traditional and contemporary beers.
Let's start with the Antwerp 'bolleke' named after the typical rounded glass that this light brown ale is served in. This beer has been brewed in Antwerp by De Koninck for the last 200 years and has become an icon for beer drinking in Antwerp and ideal for quenching your thirst on a hot summer day. But typically, many Sinjoren drink draught lager beer, the so-called pils or 'pintje', and you'll find Maes Pils, which was originally brewed just outside Antwerp, or other competitors of Stella in many cafes. These beers are light and have generally about 5% alcohol. If you feel like a stronger beer then you should try the famous Westmalle Trappist brewed by the monks of Westmalle, a small village north of the city. The dark or double version (7%) is draught or bottled and the triple version (9%) only bottled. The bar tender may ask if you want draught beer (van 't vat) or non-chilled (van 't schap). Other traditional Flemish beers which you can drink at most cafes include Hoegaarden, Palm, Leffe, Grimbergen and Duvel. Each beer has its own typical glass.
Jenever and Liqueurs
Antwerp also his its own yellow liqueur called Elixir d'Anvers which is stilled produced in the city according to a secret recipe. You'll also find many 'jeneva' bars ( Vagant is one of them) where you can taste the many varieties of Flemish gins.
Take a tram or taxi if you plan a night out on the town because the fines can be very high for drinking and driving.
The old part of Antwerp is one of the most popular parts of the city. As such, most of the streets are in cobblestones and while they can be hard on your shoes and feet, walking through the old city is delightful. There's also lots of public transportation and you're sure to find a tram or bus that will get you to your destination.
The Old City and River Scheldt
You should begin your tour at the Grote Markt , which is a lively square. It is dominated by the Stadhuis or the City Hall. It dates from the 16th century and was burned down by the Spanish in 1576 and then rebuilt as you see it today. After a visit there, consider having a drink in one of the many pavement terraces on the square.
Around the square and in the surrounding streets you'll see excellent examples of 16th century guild houses. One worth a visit is Vleeshuis. This Gothic building now serves as a museum and covers various disciplines including archeology, ceramics, religious arts, sculpture and coins. The collections portray what everyday life was like in the 16th century.
A few steps away from the Grote Markt is the Cathedral . Construction began in 1352 and its architecture is incredible. There are 125 pillars and the impressive spire makes it the largest church in both Belgium and Holland. In addition to its enormity and splendor, the cathedral also houses three masterpieces by Rubens. Don't miss the stained-glass window from 1503.
Sometimes referred to as Steen , the Castle Steen is Antwerp's oldest building. Built on the banks of the river Scheldt in the 13th century, this fortress has served a number of purposes over the centuries and today it houses the National Maritime Museum. Near the castle you will also find the Flandria river boats which you can take for a tour of the port of Antwerp—one of the largest in the world.
Pieter Paul Rubens
Many believe that Antwerp's most celebrated citizen was painter Peter Paul Rubens, and thus no visit to Antwerp would be complete without a visit Rubenshuis the patrician house where Rubens lived. Rubens amassed a small fortune from his paintings which allowed him to build this lovely mansion in 1610. There are several examples of his work scattered throughout the house, together with works from his contemporaries. In the dining room of the house you will find a self-portrait of Rubens that he painted when he was 47 years old.
Rubens is buried in the St. Jacobskerk or St. James's Church. His vault is in the Rubens Chapel. Several of Rubens works are here as well as some from Van Dyck and other prominent artists. However to see more Rubens works than anywhere else in the city, check out the Royal Museum of Fine Arts . This museum in an impressive neo-classical building in the south of the city has a fine collection of paintings from the Flemish masters that is unlike any other. Besides the rooms devoted to Rubens, you will find works that span five centuries including Van Eyck, the Bruegel family, Hals, Rembrandt and Permeke.
The Zoo and Central Station
The Zoo is an amazing park that covers 25 acres. It stands out as a real treasure in Antwerp and is somewhat art nouveau. It is located adjacent to the Central Station and you will find a large collection of animals that come from around the world. There is also a museum of natural history, a winter garden, deer park and Egyptian temple that houses elephants. The station building is an exceptional piece of architecture which is being renovated and redeveloped to accommodate the super-fast train link between Brussels and Amsterdam. The diamond center is also situated in this area.