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Antwerp Travel Guide

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Groenplaats & Cathedral, Antwerp (©
Groenplaats & Cathedral, Antwerp.
Town Hall, Antwerp (©
Renaissance Town Hall of Antwerp.


Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch, Anvers in French; pop. 455,000, with suburbs 800,000) is the second largest city and municipality of Belgium, as well as the capital of the province of Antwerp.

The port of Antwerp is the most inland seaport and the second largest port in Europe, after Rotterdam. One third of all Belgian exports transit through the Flemish city. Antwerp is also the world's second petrochemical port, after Houston in the USA. Half of the world's top 20 chemical companies have offices in Antwerp.

Antwerp is also the world's main centre for trading, cutting and polishing diamonds. 85% of the world's rough diamonds and half of the polished diamonds are negotiated in the city.

But Antwerp is not just a big industrial port. Since the 1990's, it has been recognized a fashion design city. With 29 theatres, 6 concert halls and 35 museums, Antwerp has one of the highest density of cultural venues per capita in Europe. It also boast the third largest zoological garden in Europe in terms of species.

The city has been a bastion of Flemish nationalism for at least two decades, with the pro-independence extreme-right Vlaams Belang Party claiming one third of the votes at the last two municipal elections.

Origins of the name Antwerp

The legend says that the name 'Antwerp' comes from the Dutch "hand werpen" meaning "hand thrown".

The story has it that a mean and nasty giant controlled the river traffic, demanding exorbitant tolls. Those who refused to pay had one of their hand cut off.

But one day, a young and brave Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo managed to kill the giant. He cut the giant's hand and threw it in the Scheldt River, giving the city its name.

The name comes more probably from the word ‘aanwerp’ (alluvial mound’), which describes the first settlement's geographical feature.


Antwerp was already inhabited in Gallo-Roman times. A first fortification was built in the 7th century, but it was destroyed by the Vikings in the 9th century.

In the 10th century, Antwerp became a margraviate (a border county) of the Holy Roman Empire, the Schedlt River marking the border with the County of Flanders, which was then a fief of the Kingdom of France. In the 12th century, the Margraviate of Antwerp merged with the County of Leuven to form the Duchy of Brabant.

By the mid-14th century Antwerp had become Western Europe's leading centre for trade and finance, thanks to its seaport and wool market.

When Antwerp became part of the County of Flanders in 1356, it lost many of its privileges to Bruges' profit. However, in 15th century, Antwerp's economy boomed and it turned into a world-class metropolis with many great names of the time, such as the cartographers Ortelius and Mercator or the painters Bruegel and Matsys.

Stained glass window in Our Lady's Cathedral, Antwerp (©
Stained glass window in Our Lady's Cathedral.
National Bank of Belgium, Antwerp (©
National Bank of Belgium, Antwerp.

Statue of the builders of Our Lady's Cathedral, Antwerp (©
Statue of the builders of Our Lady's Cathedral.
St Carolus-Borromeus Church, Antwerp (©
St Carolus-Borromeus Church.

The Reformation and subsequent conflict between Protestants and Catholics wreaked havoc the Low Countries. The Spanish Inquisition under Philip II contrived the Northern Netherlands to secede from the Southern Netherlands and form the independent Union of Utrecht in 1579. The Spaniards responded by taking Antwerp in 1585, and the Northern Netherlands closed off the Scheldt to avoid further invasion of their territory. About 60% of Antwerp's population of 100,000 fled to the Northern Netherlands, including most of the intellectuals, artists and rich merchants.

This terrible blow did not prevent Antwerp from flourishing again in the 17th century, with painters like Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, the sculptor families Quellin and Verbrugghen or printers like Moretus.

The Scheldt, which gives access to the sea 60km away, remained closed between 1650 and the 19th century, and Antwerp's prosperity declined. Napoleon saw the Port of Antwerp as "a pistol pointed at the heart of England" and undertook its modernizaton. The French period (1792-1815) was not all good for Antwerp, and was accompanied by cultural plunder and destruction. The anti-clericalism of the French revolutionaries even threatened the cathedral - but the buildings remained intact.

The Northern and Southern Netherlands were shortly reunified between 1815 and 1830. The Scheldt was not reopened until 1863 though, but from that time on, Antwerp was set to become again the great city it had been. It evolved into the world's third largest port, until Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian cities slowly relayed it to the tenth position at present.

In 1920, Antwerp hosted the sixth Summer Olympic Games. In 1993, Antwerp was nominated Cultural Capital of Europe.


Grote Markt

Antwerp's Grote Markt (town square) is a jewel of 16th century architecture. The houses of the Guilds are richly decorated with golden statues, like in Brussels's Grote Markt.

The Stadhuis (town hall) was completed in 1564 in Renaissance style, with a touch of Flemish Gothic so as not to contrast too sharply with the surrounding buildings.

In the middle of the square stands a 1887 statue of Brabo, the legendary slayer of the giant.

Grote Markt (market square), Antwerp (©

'Hofstraat', a street situated near the Town Square, is the place where the 'Old Stock Exchange' stood unitil 1533.

Our Lady's Cathedral

The impressive 123m high tower of Antwerp's Gothic Cathedral is an immediate eyecatcher. A chapel existed on the spot of the cathedral since the 12th century, and the current structure was progressively constructed from 1352 to 1481, giving us a fairly good idea of the opulence that Antwerp enjoyed at the time.

Most of the original furniture was destroyed or plundered with time (by the Spaniards or the French), but the cathedral still houses two of Rubens's masterpieces, the 'Descent from the Cross' and the 'Elevation of the Cross'.

Our Lady's Cathedral, Antwerp (©

Interior of Our Lady's Cathedral, Antwerp (©

Contrarily to most churches in Belgium, or even Europe, this cathedral charges an admission fee (2 €). Visitors are welcome between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm on weekdays, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm on Saturdays and 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Sundays and public holidays.

The Steen

Antwerp's castle is known as Het Steen (lit. "The Stone"), so called because at the time it was built in the 13th century most buildings were still made of wood.

The castle was revamped in 1520 under Charles V of Habsburg by the architects Keldermans and De Waghemakere.

The statue in front of the castle's gate was once endowed of a conspicuous virile member, but the prude Jesuits disposed of it in the 17th century.

The Steen (castle), Antwerp (©

In 1890, The Steen became the museum of archeology and in 1952 an annex was added to house the museum of Antwerp maritime history, which in 2011 moved to the nearby Museum Aan de Stroom. Here you'll also find a war memorial to the Canadian soldiers in WWII.

Other sights around the Grote Markt

The Museum Plantin-Moretus traces back the history of printing and publishing since the middle of the 16th century. Christophe Plantin (1520-1589) was a French humanist who moved to Antwerp in 1549 and set up a printing establishment there, which eventually became the largest such business in the Low Countries. After his death, the company was taken over by his son-in-law, Jan Moretus. The museum has an exceptional collection of typographical material, including the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world. Its remarkable library possesses some very rare books, including a Bible in five languages (Biblia Polyglotta) and an anatomical book by Andreas Vesalius. The museum is located on Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market), 200m south of the town hall.

In the opposite direction, 100m north of the town hall is the Vleeshuis (Butcher's Hall, open 10am-5pm, closed Mondays). Headquarter of the butcher's guild since the 14th century, it used to be the only place to sell meat in the city in medieval times.

Further north, off the Veemarkt is Sint-Jacobskerk (St. James' Church). This is where Antwerp's noblemen and rich bourgeois were buried. The church was built between 1491 and 1656. It has no less than 23 tomb-chapels, one of which is the resting place of Peter Paul Rubens. The master made the painting "Our Lady Surrounded by Saints" with the intention to be placed on his tomb. It has been speculated that it could be a family portrait, with Rubens impersonating St George.

From there, take the Minderbroedersrui street southward until Keizerstraat, where Rockoxhuis (Rockox House, open 10am-5pm, closed Mondays) is located. Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640) was the mayor of Antwerp for 8 years between 1603 and 1625. His house has an small collection of paintings by Brueghel, Matsijs, Van Dyck, Jordaens, as well as his personal friend Rubens. Pieter Brueghel the Younger's Proverbs, in room 6, is particularly famous.

South-west of Rockoxhuis, you will reach the splendid Baroque-style Sint-Carolus-Borromeuskerk (St. Charles Borromeo' Church), on Hendrick Conscienceplein. It was built by the Jesuits in 1621, and for the most part designed by Rubens. The great master also made 39 ceiling paintings, which were unfortunately destroyed by a fire in 1718.

The Meir

The busiest shopping street of Antwerp is known as the 'Meir'. At the western end of the Meir rises the Art-Deco Torengebouw (lit. "tower building"), which was Europe's first skyscraper when it was completed in 1932.

In 1531, a New Stock Exchange (see above for "Old Stock Exchange') was built on the Meir. It was the first building in the world designed as a stock exchange and a trade exchange. It burned down in 1858 and was reconstructed in an intricate Neo-Gothic style.

Meir, Antwerp (© Torengebouw, Antwerp (©

The Meir is lined with Rococo-style buildings. Two of them, designed by architect Van Baurscheit, particularly stand out: the Osterrieth House and the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace), which was used, among others, by Napoleon and is the former Royal Residence of the Belgian Kings in Antwerp.

Famous brands and designers' boutiques can be found principally along Schuttershofstraat and Hopland, which run parallel to the Meir to the south. The two shopping streets are connected by a long square known as Wapper. This is on Wapper than stand the Koninklijk Paleis and Rubens' House.

Rubens' House

Peter Paul Rubens lived from 1616 to 1640 in a house in Wapper. Rubens painted most of his materpieces and received his guests and patrons in this Renaissance-Baroque building.

The House was altered considerably by the subsequent occupants, but was restored to its likely original state after the City of Antwerp purchased it in 1937.

The house is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and is closed on Mondays and some public holidays.

Renaissance guild houses on the market square, Antwerp (© Hilton Hotel, Antwerp (©

Other Museums

Antwerp has enough museums to keep you busy for a few days. Here are a few noteworthy ones :

Diamond District & Central Station

Antwerp's world-famous diamond quarter is located west of the Central Train Station, around Pelikaanstraat, just opposite the Zoological Gardens.

Approximately 85% of the world's uncut diamonds and half of the cut ones are negociated here, employing some 30,000 people. The industry is run primarily by Orthodox Jews, easily recognisable by their distinctive hair-style and traditional black outfit. The local business does not revolve exclusively around diamonds, but also gold and other precious stones and metals.

The Diamond Museum, facing the train station on Koningin Astridplein, is unsurprisingly the largest of its kind in the world.

Zoological Gardens

Antwerp's zoological gardens is one of the oldest (founded in 1843) and most famous zoos in the world, hosting more than 5,000 animals (=> see the list of famous Zoological gardens in Europe). The Royal Society for Zoology has been watching over the welfare of numerous animals and helping to protect threatened animals for over 100 years.

The Zoo is open everyday from 10:00 am. It closes at 4:45 pm from November to February, 5:30 pm in March, April and October, 6:00 pm in May, June and September, and 7:00 pm in July and August. Admission is 22 € for adults and 17 € for children from 3 to 11 years old, and free under 3.

Recommended Restaurants

N.B. : the stars indicate the Michelin Guide rating, the score on a scale of 1 to 20 indicates the Gault Millau Guide rating.

How to get there

Antwerp is easily accesible by train from Brussels (35 to 55min), Ghent (40 to 50min) or Bruges (1h20min).

The Thalys bullet-train connects Antwerp to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels and Paris several times a day.

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