Time to explore Antwerp Belgium
The tram driver of the #6 to Diamond Station was marching down the aisle of the tram towards us. He was on a mission and he seemed to be heading straight towards us. In an excited manner, all arms flailing about, he was pointing to the door and speaking to us in Flemish, simultaneously. Suddenly the penny dropped. We had to get off here. We quickly gathered up our bags and umbrellas and scooted off the train, much to the amusement of those left on board.
15 minutes earlier, we had found ourselves getting onto the tram at the last minute, after being unable to find the bus stop that was meant to be relatively close to our campground.
We knew the tram would go into the city of Antwerp, but we weren’t sure exactly where to get off. So, with our map, and our non-existent Flemish, we tried to communicate with the driver. We thought we were looking for Diamond Station (which actually turned out to be Diamant) . But, it seemed the driver was wanting us to get off at Centraal Station, so who were we to argue. There was a fair chance he knew more about Antwerp than we did :)
What a wonderful ambassador for Antwerp the driver was. Too often we see cranky drivers or people in tourist offices. He had a bit of fun with it all too, laughing at us as we got off his tram and giving him a big wave as we walked past him!
Quick Antwerp facts
The country of Belgium is so small that I find myself wondering lately how it can have so many amazing cities. They just keep coming and I still have another week left here.
- Antwerp is around 45 km north of the capital of Brussels
- It is a major port city, with the River Scheldt having access directly to the North Sea. It is Belgium’s largest port and the second largest in Europe, making it a strategically important transportation hub for inland Europe.
- Dutch (Flemish) is the official language, but like a lot of people in Belgium, a number of languages are spoken
- to the French, Antwerp is known as Anvers and to the Dutch, Antwerpen
- Antwerp has been the only Belgian city to host a Summer Olympics, in 1920
- The world’s first printed newspaper originated here
- About 500,000 people reside here (2011)
- The city suffered significant damage during rocket attacks by the Germans during WWII
- It’s a very easy city to walk around
Centraal Station: a destination in itself
The station was humming with people, rushing somewhere. Meanwhile, we were just taking our time, soaking up the most incredible building that we had found ourselves in.
When it comes to railway architecture, this building is an absolute standout. It is regarded as perhaps one of the finest examples of a railway building in all of Belgium. Originally built in 1895, it has had several additions and restorations made to it, but the gothic and art nouveau interiors are still visible. The dome, with the grand clock, sits aloft the entire building.
Today, restoration work is still underway, with modern technology and building materials being used, in keeping with the building’s historical features.
As I walked away from the station, down the roads that lead toward the Cathedral, I was still mesmerised by this beautiful building. Walking backwards to ensure I could see it for as long as possible, I caught a few funny stares from people walking around me.
We were fortunate enough to catch our tram here, but even if you aren’t planning on using public transport, be sure to add this to your list of things to see in Antwerp. I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.
The Old Town of Antwerp
It’s a reasonable distance to walk as you head towards the Frankrijklei Boulevard and finally onto the pedestrianised Meir, a large street filled with more beautiful buildings and retail shops. Keep walking and you will eventually arrive at the Old town and the Grote Markt.
The Old Town’s are always my favourite. With everything so old, it’s a glimpse into yesteryear, and it’s so wonderful to see how so many of these areas have been retained and looked after. I live in a country that is a little more than 200 years old, so these areas are quite simply astounding for me to be a part of, if only for a little while.
The Old Town is also where many cafes, bars and restaurants are located. Beer shops offering tastings and of course you don’t have to venture too far away to find good quality, artisanal chocolate shops.
Buy some diamonds
Antwerp trades between 80-90% of the world’s rough diamonds and 50% of cut diamonds each year. The area near Centraal Station contains many diamond shops and wholesalers. Fittingly, this is known as the Diamond District.
Shop in the Stadsfeestzaal
Even if it’s only to admire the interior like we did. The Stadsfeestzaal is gorgeous. The former banquet hall was used for balls, fairs, elaborate dinners and a variety of other high society events. The intricate interiors, with the finest of features and plenty of gold, exposes enormous dedication from a team of people who wanted to bring this building back to life. In 2000, almost all of this building was destroyed by fire. It would have been easy to just clear what was left and rebuild something else. Instead, an enormous amount of time, planning, effort, expertise and money has delivered a truly magnificent environment.
Eating real Belgian frites
Ok, ok, so it’s become a bit of a common occurrence these days! But, we’re not going to be in Belgium forever are we? So we really should savour the moment (and the frites) whilst we can.
Eat some Australian ice-cream (or not)
This was one of the funniest things I’d seen. If it isn’t funny, then it’s clever marketing, or perhaps in some countries, it would be misleading or even fraudulent. Intrigued by the name, the use of the kangaroo and of the identifying Australian colours of green and gold, I went in search of some answers.
After a spirited conversation, we learned that there was absolutely nothing in this product that could be remotely classified as Australian. The only link, and it’s a stretch, is that the owner has an Australian friend !!
The ice-cream was actually a very good celebration of Belgian products, using fresh Belgian milk and cream. Obviously, it works as a gimmick, but I think it was all rather strange.
Another Belgian town, another Grote Markt, but still they continue to impress. Like all that I have seen, the grand square is the home of some incredibly beautiful buildings. On one end is the usual Town Hall and at the other, the grand Cathedral of our Lady.
Erected between 1561-1565, the Town Hall in Antwerp is not of the Gothic style that I’ve been used to seeing. Here, the Renaissance style of architecture is showcased. It’s not as intricate, not as detailed, but it is still an imposing and stunning building. The front of the Town Hall is covered with the flags of many countries, adding weight to the value of international trade to this port-city.
Antwerp has a little bit of everything, and down on the waterfront, on the River Scheldt sits the former city fortress of the Steen Castle. It’s origins date back to the 9th century. After being used as a fortress for centuries, it became a prison in the 1800s and later a residence, a sawmill and even a fish house. From 1952 until 2008, it became the home of the National Maritime Museum. today, it is a child-friendly space, with classes, exhibits and interactive displays that are continuously updated.
Like most of these larger towns, there is a great variety of things to see and do. From churches to museums, to walks around the streets, to shopping, shows, eating and drinking with the locals. We didn’t have enough time to do all, but we left feeling as though we had done Antwerp some justice in being able to absorb a lot of its history and it’s atmosphere.
If you are also looking for a couple of tips of where to stay or eat (we only drank De Koninck beers here), check out another post on Antwerp.