How to See Antwerp on a Budget
Antwerp is perhaps best known as a busy port or as a commercial city, especially in the trade of diamonds. Overshadowed by its more popular Belgian neighbours of Bruges, Ghent or Brussels, we were, however, pleasantly surprised to find that Antwerp had much to offer visiting travellers.
Antwerp is only a 35-minute train journey from Brussels, where we were based, and our plan was to see as much of this busy city on the River Scheldt, with as little expense as possible, within a day. What we found was that there was plenty to see in this fine municipality for free and would make a really good long weekend destination.
Our first contact with Antwerp was as we stepped off the train at the Central Station. The sight in front of us was awe inspiring. It was easy to see why the American magazine Newsweek chose the Antwerp Central Station as the fourth most beautiful train station in the world. We are quite used to departing the train and hurrying through the station to the city outside. However, this time we spent half an hour walking around and taking in the artwork, design and sheer size of the station – Central Station deserves its nickname of Spoorwegkathedraal - Railroad Cathedral. Being built in 1905, the stone clad terminus buildings, with a vast dome above the waiting room hall were designed by Louis Delacenserie and the vast (185 metres long and 44 metres high) iron and glass trainshed by Clement van Bogaert.
On leaving the station, we walked along De Keyserlei, which eventually leads to Meir, the vibrant main shopping avenue of Antwerp. It is worth stopping and taking in the beautiful architecture. Our eyes were first focused on the shop fronts of the many large international chains; however, we soon learned to look above this and study the stunning Rococo designs of the these stately 18th and 19th century buildings.
Just twenty metres along Meir, we came upon the Stadsfeestzaal shopping mall. Now, on our travels, we tend not to visit shopping malls. After doing our research on Antwerp, however, we realised that we would have to make an exception and check out Stadsfeestzaal. We weren’t concerned about the goods on display, rather we were captivated by the beautifully restored hall the shops are housed in. Originally the building served as a large party and exhibition hall and was restored to its former glory in 2007. We also took the opportunity to have a light lunch at the Delifrance canteen, which we found to be very reasonably priced.
Coming out of the mall and just off Meir, we found our first piece of Antwerp street art. The photo-realistic mural, called “Dreamin’ of inspiration”, can be seen on the blind wall of a big department store. We always like to seek out the street art of any city we visit, and we were not let down by Antwerp, which is full of great art. This particular mural was created by one of our favourite artists – Sam Bates aka SMUG or Smug One. He recently decorated our home town of Aberdeen with a fantastic mural, and this Australian born artist is very famous for his other murals that he has created in his home base of Glasgow, Scotland.
Just off Mier we found the house of perhaps Antwerp’s most famous resident - the 16th-17th century Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. Today you can visit the Rubens House, which is now a museum, and see where he created his masterpieces. Normally the museum charges €8 for entrance, but, if like us, you visit on the last Wednesday of the month, you will receive free entry.
Rubens designed the house himself and it is a surprisingly large house. The size was due not only for the accommodation of his family, but also the team of professional artists that he used during the height of his fame. The interesting history of the house did not stop with Rubens though. Following his passing, the family rented the building our as a popular equestrian centre. Then, at the end of the 18th century, the French even confiscated the property to use it as a prison. In 1937, Antwerp bought the property and turned it into a museum.
Paleis op de Meir
We re-joined Meir and headed for the Paleis op de Meir to indulge our love chocolate. Part of the ground floor in this majestic building is held by the Chocolate Line by Dominique Persoone. The sweet treats on sale are mouth watering and the chocolate sculptures are also quite eye catching. It is well worth checking out the building as well. Due to its favourable location, the palace attracted the attention of Emperor Napoleon, who acquired it in 1811. Napoleon never actually stayed in the palace, but during the exile of the French emperor on the island of Elba, his rival Alexander I of Russia did live there.
More Street Art
We carried on along Meir, with some small diversions down the side streets to take in the colourful murals, such as El Mac’s “Mural for my Father”; an intricate wording of Antwerp by Rise One; and a cute pup designed by Lazer.
Kapel Onze Lieve Vrouwe van Toevlucht
A quick diversion was also made to the quaint small chapel of Kapel Onze Lieve Vrouwe van Toevlucht, which was built near the old Shoe Market. It would be easy to miss the chapel and walk past it, but it is well worth stopping by this little sanctuary, also known as the Little Shoemaker’s Chapel. The chapel is devoted to the mother Mary and is a lovely oasis of calm within the busy city.
Cathedral of Our Lady
However, the sacred site that most visitors to Antwerp head for is just metres away – the Cathedral of Our Lady. This imposing cathedral took 169 years (1352-1521) to build and the steeple rises 123m heavenward, making it the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries. As impressive as it is outside, we found that the interior was just as awe inspiring, being a treasury of major art works, including a series of paintings by Rubens including the ‘Elevation of the Cross’ and his ‘Descent from the Cross’.
Nello & Patrasche
Just in front of the cathedral, we also made a stop at the quirky statue of Nello & Patrasche. It is a statue of a boy and his dog, created by artist Batist Vermeulen. The two were the main characters in the 1872 novel A Dog of Flanders, which is a story of pride and unconditional friendship.
The area surrounding the cathedral is a wonderland of medieval buildings and architecture and just a two-minute walk took us to the Grote Markt. This bustling square seems to be a magnet for local and visitor alike. Originally this was a forum or square just outside the medieval residential quarter, when, in 1220 Duke Henry I of Brabant (1165-1235) donated this community land to the city. Soon the square became home to annual markets (Brabant fairs), where merchants from all over Europe would congregate and do their business. It was partly due to these fairs that by the end of the fifteenth century Antwerp overtook Bruges as the most prominent city of the Low Countries and the wealth of this city becomes obvious when you study the architecture around the market.
The focal point of the market is the Brabo Fountain. There is an interesting story behind this feature which was unveiled in 1887. The statue on top of the fountain is based on the legend of the giant Druon Antigoon. The giant is said to have cut off the hands of all ship captains refused to pay his toll when they moored in the area, throwing their hands into the Scheldt. The giant, however, received his comeuppance when the captain of the Roman army.
Carolus Borromeus Church
We took our time checking out the Grote Markt and wound our way through the medieval town until we arrived at what only could be described as a charming Italian piazza! The square in front of the Carolus Borromeus Church was a delight, and along with the façade of this Jesuit church, it really transported you to Rome. Inside the church, we learned that there had been a set of stunning ceiling paintings created by Peter Paul Rubens. The 39 paintings led to the church being described at the “the eighth world wonder” and attracted visitors far and wide during the seventeenth century. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed in a fire, but it is still a beautiful church to visit.
Even More Street Art!
Leaving the ‘piazza’ we headed toward the port area and MAS (Museum aan de Stroom), but on the way we encountered more exceptional street art, such as Larsen Bervoets “Whale or Giant?”, Gun T’s birds in flight; and Hendrik Conscience’s cartoon inspired mural.
The MAS building towers over the port of Antwerp and this modern museum tells the story of the city, the river and the port. The collection boasts over 500,000 museum pieces. At the top, on the tenth floor, you can also enjoy a 360-degree panorama. Tickets are €10, however, similar to the Rubens House, if you visit on the last Wednesday of the month, you get in for free.
The Beguinage & The Diamond District
By now we were getting into early evening and had our mind on getting the train home to Brussels. However, on the way back from the port area, we had a chance to walk through two interesting areas – the Beguinage and the Diamond District.
The Beguinage is a community of tiny houses which offers a haven of silence, having been built to house local devout women. The Antwerp sanctuary was built in 1545, with beautiful homes, connected by cobbled streets. The last Antwerp beguine, Virginia Laeremans, died in 1986, but the original character and tranquillity of the Beguinage has been preserved.
Antwerp has been the largest and most dependable diamond centre in the world for more than five centuries. It controls no less than four-fifths of the rough diamond market and half of the polished market. The district is adjacent to the Central Station, and it is an interesting walk, seeing the diamond exchanges, stores and the general hustle and bustle of the place.
Join us next time when our family adventures continue in Belgium.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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