- Lifestyle & Sports
- 25 Mar 14
This glamorous centre of the international diamond trade has something for everyone: cool clubs, great beer and gorgeous Renaissance architecture
Where exactly is it?
Antwerp is in northern Belgium, a short distance from the Netherlands border and in the Dutch-speaking, Flemish region. It’s the country’s second largest city after Brussels, with a population of half a million, and is an important port on the Scheldt River, linking the old city to the North Sea.
How do I get there?
Aer Lingus and Ryanair both operate a regular service from Dublin to Brussels International and Brussels (Charleroi) respectively. From there it’s a 35-mile, 40 minute train journey north from Bruxelles-Midi to Antwerp.
What language do they speak?
Antwerp is in the Dutch speaking northern region of Flanders, and is the language spoken by the vast majority of its citizens. There are also a small minority of French speakers, who have relocated from the more southern region of Wallonia.
What is the local beer like?
Belgium is renowned for its excellent tipples, many of the strong variety. Don’t be fooled by those small, ornately decorated bottles of Belgian beer. Some contain up to 10% alcohol and pack a mighty whack! One of the classics you may encounter is the legendary pale ale Duvel. Duvel is Dutch for devil, owing to its 8.5% ABV. Another beauty is the range of Leffe beers and ales. Leffe has a history dating back almost a millennium to a brewery based in a monastic Abbey in southern Belgium. The distinctively smooth and slightly bitter Leffe Blond is a wonderful beer, which comes served in a wineglass-shaped vessel. Again, don’t be fooled by its diminutive size; a few too many of these will soon show you who’s boss!
Although it has a tradition dating back to the ninth century, Belgian wine is a poor relation compared to the illustrious wine-producing nations to its south. Monastic orders were the first to begin widespread wine production in the fourteenth century. These days, Belgian wine has widely adopted the same classifications as its French neighbours. However, the northern region of Flanders, home to Antwerp, has unsurprisingly opted for Dutch titling. Unfortunately, ‘Vlaamse landwijn’ doesn’t quite have the same cache as a Bordeaux or chateaux!
What is the transport like?
Antwerp is a compact city, comparable to Belfast and easy to navigate. A dense network of tram lines, 12 in total, will bring you to every significant district and beyond. The high-speed Diabolo train connects Antwerp with the capital and its international airport in just thirty-five minutes and Antwerp’s central station connects onwards to Amsterdam, Bruges and many other destinations. It’s an ideal location to explore the medieval charms of the ‘Low-Countries’.
What’s the food like?
Considering its proximity to that bastion of culinary excellence, France, Belgium in general is not widely famed for its exquisite cuisine. Broadly speaking the daily fayre on offer is a combination of many traditions, particularly Dutch and German. In more recent times, American fast food has grown significantly in popularity. A peculiar, extremely popular combo-dish is moules-frites, simply garlic and white wine cooked mussels and chips! Another famous Belgian staple is waffles, available almost everywhere and smothered in a rich topping of your choice. Possibly Belgium’s greatest gift to modern gastronomy is chocolate. Belgian pralines are generally regarded as the global industry standard for totally scrumptious, luxury chocolate delights.
What’s the nightlife like?
Antwerp’s nightlife is surprisingly eclectic. Many of the more happening bars are along the river Scheldt and cater to a wide range of musical tastes from metal to hardcore techno. There’s also plenty of continental-style dance clubs based in the city centre and lots of trendy bars soundtracked by everything from Latin rhythms to jazz, a musical form which is greatly appreciated in this neck of the woods. To experience the breadth and variety of Belgian beers available, check out Paters Vaetje. This comfortable student bar serves up over two-hundred types of regionally brewed and often seriously strong beers! Some of the brands are served in the most peculiar vessels, such as Kwak, which comes in a tall, funnel-shaped glass, held in a wooden stand! For a taste of first-rate jazz, drop into the internationally renowned De Muze. You’re sure to encounter some of the coolest cats this side of New Orleans.
Why should I go?
Antwerp exudes its own unique cool and self-confidence. Home to some of the world’s biggest diamond and art dealers, Antwerp has been holding its own on the international stage since the middle ages. The old town centre remains medieval, with many sections painstakingly rebuilt following the ravages of the Second World War. Whether you want to sample its Baroque charms, sip coffee in its chic cafes, splurge vast sums on antique artefacts or soak up its vibrant arts scene, you won’t be disappointed by this beguiling city.
What are the touristy things to do?
Much of the tourist highlights in Antwerp centre around its golden age, namely the ‘Age of Discovery’ of the sixteenth century, but there are also many modern attractions in the areas of arts and culture. One of the must-sees of Antwerp is the palatial home of the Renaissance master, Peter-Paul Rubens. He designed this wonderful building himself, taking inspiration from Italian architecture of the age. The imposing Gothic masterpiece known as the Cathedral of Our Lady has been in construction since 1352 and is decorated with works by both the Dutch and Flemish masters, including Rubens himself. The main attraction in the old city is the marvellous medieval fortress of Het Steen, which contains an excellent museum charting the city’s history. The diamond district is certainly worth a look and is home to a vibrant community of Orthodox Jews. For the taste of the bold and modern, check out the Museum of Modern Art, packed full of world class exhibits from the world’s foremost avant-garde practitioners.
A short trip from Antwerp are some of the most sobering landscape views visible anywhere on the planet. The once bloody WWI battlegrounds of Flanders are today marked by endless fields of white crosses and headstones marking those who fell in the horrific trench warfare of the ‘Great War’. Some of the most fascinating memorials are near Ypres. It’s an arresting site and not to be missed.
Anything to avoid?
Beware of pickpockets! The steady stream of cash flowing into the city, due to its diamond markets and big business, has attracted the attention of some unsavoury characters. Keep your wallet in a secure location – certainly not your back pocket!
What should I bring home?
Antwerp is a great city to indulge in some leisurely shopping. How about some world-renowned Belgian chocolates or an antique from the Sunday outdoor Vogeltjesmarkt? The city’s also full of funky bric-a-brac shops and if you have some serious cash to splash, take a walk down to the glamorous diamond district!
When should I go?
Antwerp is a busy year round. However, to experience the city in all its medieval glory, take a trip in July or August when festivals and outdoor activities abound. Temperatures never get too hot and the city is alive with activity. The winter off-season is the cheaper option for hotels, but be prepared for chilly temperatures, strong winds from the North Sea and our old friend rain!
What’s my challenge?
Take in both the old and the new. Experience the city’s wonders of the Renaissance age, wander its cobbled streets and readjust to the unhurried pace of life. Rent a bike and explore the funky cafes, bars and fashion houses frequented by the city’s artistic community. It’s a city proud of its storied past, but keen to write a new chapter.
What’s the currency?
Something to remember...
In 1944, the German army attempted to destroy Antwerp, hitting it with more V2 rockets than every other WWII target combined. Miraculously, the port escaped the worst ravages of this concerted assault, but large sections of the city’s outskirts had to be totally rebuilt after the war.