Antwerp, the capital of Flanders, is an oddly overlooked charmer in spitting distance by train of several big European cities, most notably Brussels (only 1 hour away by train), Amsterdam, Paris, London and Cologne. The city, long a diamond trade and fashion industry motor, is stylish and self-possessed.
There are loads of reasons to visit Antwerp, though an innovative museum, design, the legacy of Paul Rubens and good old jenever (gin) lead the pack.
Erudition first. In 2011, MAS (Museum Aan de Stroom) opened in Antwerp’s rejuvenating port district of Eilandje. MAS is a model for future museums. The museum is ordered into grand themes: Metropolis, Power, Port and Life and Death, and feels more like an archive than a museum, with most of its treasures in storage, including flat objects housed in display drawers. With QR codes affixed to objects, MAS is also fun to experience.
MAS is a modern museum along Antwerp’s port. Photo: Danijela Baron
Designed by Rotterdam-based Neutelings Riedijk Architects, the building makes use of curved glass panels throughout, offering striking panoramas on dramatic platforms and from the building’s roof over the city below. For adults, admission to the permanent collection is €5; temporary exhibitions run €10 (seniors and kids €3 and €8, respectively.) Entrance to the rooftop and the Visible Storage section on the second floor are free, and admission to the entire museum is free on the last Wednesday of the month. Another budget-saving tip: on the last Thursday of the month, the entrance fee drops to €1.
As an aside for museum lovers, Antwerp’s excellent Royal Museum of Fine Arts is currently closed and scheduled to reopen at the end of 2017. Until it reopens, selections from the collection are on display around Antwerp.
Eiljandje itself has become a social district, and is fun to wander. That said, it hasn’t really yet picked up its own internal cohesion. Older neighborhoods of Antwerp feel more organically linked. Particularly charming is the world-class antique and design district along Kloosterstraat with its many comfortable cafes. Weekends along Kloosterstraat and elsewhere see the proliferation of antique and flea markets, which are good for scooping up rare retro finds but sadly not ideal for snapping up true steals.
The Raising of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens (1610). Photo: Ramon
Anyone after a less contemporary version of Antwerp will be comforted to discover that the city remains the territory of Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. Four Rubens paintings (Elevation of the Cross, The Resurrection of Christ, The Descent from the Cross, and The Assumption of the Virgin) can be seen at the city’s Cathedral, which is the largest Gothic church in the Low Countries. Admission is €6.
Salute Antwerp with a shot of jenever at local favorite De Vagant. Photo: Elizabeth
Spirit-minded (as opposed to spiritually-minded) traditionalists can visit the city’s old-time jenever bars for extended sampling sessions of various types of the juniper-flavored spirit. De Vagant is an especially grand place for such an activity, with over 200 kinds of jenever on offer, all of which come from Belgium or northern France. Even better, a shot of the good stuff will usually only set you back about €2.25, so it’s an easy and affordable way to sample a few flavors.
Frituur De Smulpaep (Varkensmarkt 2/A) is cheap and delicious for frites and croquettes. You can get a plate of filling fried things plus a drink for under €10, easy. To stock up on provisions, try the local supermarkets like Lidl or Albert Heijn.
If you’re looking for an affordable place to spend the night, the Middelheim Guesthouse (Prins Boudewijnlaan 139) gets great reviews. Prices start at €60 for a single, €70 for a double and €85 for a triple.
Antwerp’s proximity to various other big tourist cities makes it easy to reach as a side trip, though it really deserves a few nights on its own.