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krisek Antwerpen - A travel report by Krys
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Antwerpen,  Belgium - flag Belgium -  Antwerpen
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krisek's travel reports

Belgium's diamond centre is charming. Antwerp.

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Antwerp (aka Antwerpen, aka Anvers) is Belgium's largest city and one of world's most important centres of diamond cutting and trade. The city has remarkable historical buildings and is charming. It has lively student community and great social life.

Grote Markt
Grote Markt
Legend has it that long, long time ago, a monster giant lived in the mouth of the Scheldt river taxing the traffic into the city. Trade suffered immensely, poverty kept spreading and fear kept paralysing the population. One day, a young man called Brabo engaged the giant in a battle, cut off its hand and threw it into the river. Antwerpen, ant-werpen, means 'thrown hand'. A monument commemorating the brave young man in the act of victory now stands prominently in the Grote Markt, right opposite the townhall.

Antwerp was the very first place in Belgium I visited. It happened in 1992, when I hitch-hiked from Poland to visit one of my mates, who studied at the university there. I went together with my brother. My mate introduced us to the local student scene, social life, diamond cutting, the Orthodox Jewish community (he lived in the Jewish district), red light district, karaoke bars and a number of Belgian beers, including the weird flavoured ones.

Since then, I had visited Antwerp at a number of times, during various seasons, and for various purposes, including business. I came for a day and for a week. And every time I loved the city. It has a great character, countless places to try the all those beers and excellent restaurants. I mean truly excellent restaurants! Both seafood and steaks are nearing perfection!

Favourite spots:
Antwerpen travelogue picture
Antwerp had a few cosy little spots, which stuck in my mind for a while. Two of them were in the immediate vicinity of the asymmetrical cathedral (read more below). I think I liked the most the tiny square right in the front of it. It was so small that one had to have an unusually wide angle lens to capture the entire front of the church. There were a couple of very good eateries there, one of which served delicious and juicy steaks with incredible pepper sauce (read more below!).

The other spot is pictured here. It looked best at night with the cathedral illuminated in gold. There was often something happening in this large square. Whether it was a market especially organised for something or a small orchestra playing all sorts of music - unplugged of course. And free of charge. And the place was great for the trams, both underground and on the ground. Around it, there were a few places to sit down for a drink, perhaps have a snack, and even a comfortable hotel, too.

What's really great:
Antwerp architecture is amongst the loveliest amongst all of the old Hanseatic towns. The guild mansions, the merchant houses, and palaces, the main train station (wow!!), the castles... It all dazzled me thoroughly when I first ended up in the city - by hitch-hiking from Poland. It was new and pretty.

It was also the very first time when I realised that a 'red light district' could actually be a safe place, firmly on a map of a regular tourist. It was a bit shocking at first, but then I was young and had not seen a place like that before. I was well aware of prostitution of course, but this kind that was more 'discrete' and definitely not based on window display like in a department store, where you browse the windows and then you choose what you like. What I liked was that it the 'shopping' or even just 'window shopping' was all in the open and safe. I am not sponsoring this by any means. I guess it was just a fascination of the form of it.

the Cathedral of our Lady
the Cathedral of our Lady
Antwerp has a few really interesting sights, some of which has a very interesting history. One of them, of course, is the Cathedral of Our Lady. But there are also other interesting temples, like St Paul's, St Jacob's, Carolus-Borromeuskerk, and a number of synagogues. Antwerp has a large orthodox Jewish community.

The UNESCO-listed cathedral started in the 14th century was not completed. One of its towers stands short to this day. Apparently, there is a sister cathedral somewhere in Europe with its towers complete. I heard it was the Cologne's, but I could not verified this for sure.

Vleeshuis is a magnificent late Gothic sandstone brick house, built by the Butchers' Guild and was the meet hall. Absolutely fabulous!

The Townhall, from the 16th century is a Renaissance building incorporating Italian style into Flemish architecture always flies flags!

The Vlaamse Opera is an early 20th century building but it looks classical, the Central Train Station is amongst the loveliest on Earth.

Antwerpen travelogue picture
There are many more sights around the old town, some of the buildings date back to 12th century, and are just squeezed between much younger (say 15th and 17th century) structures. There are palaces and halls, most notable are those erected by the trade guilds. But there are also mansions from late 19th century, which were styled to blend well.

There is no shortage of places to stay in Antwerp, including both very comfortable and cheapish spots, in this Belgium's largest city packed with students. When I first came to Antwerp I stayed at my friend's shared flat, who was studying there. Other times, I stayed at the Hilton and other expensive business hotels. I liked the Hilton best for its location so close to the core historic centre (superb views of the cathedral), the restaurants, bars and the nightlife. The Hilton often offered excellent weekend rates, which competed successfully with three star hotels, and even the upper end of the two star hotels, so it is always worth checking.

Antwerpen travelogue picture
The large numbers of students, a large port and good number of visitors in Antwerp created perfect platform for all sorts of nightlife orientated businesses. It was here that I had the opportunity to experience karaoke for the first time... and I will never forget it.

Some of the bars and drinking holes were located in spectacular places, one styled as a church, but the most atmospheric ones were based in cellars of the medieval houses with their Gothic arched roofs. They were closing relatively early, around midnight, and I did not go to night clubs, which operated until the early hours of the morning. But there were plenty of those around, too. This being a students' den, it was worth asking around which clubs were trendy at the time, as the tastes changed quickly and places become less or more popular depending on the word of mouth.

Cafes, restaurants, clubs...
Cafes, restaurants, clubs...
The Grote Markt complete with the Townhall was one of my favourite places to hang out and sit down at one of the cafes and bars and sip one of the several hundred types of beer. But there were at least two other places.

One of them was the Het Steen, a castle-like structure right at the river. The raised walkway at the riverfront offered great views of both the old town and the cathedral as well as the river, and the castle resembled a fairy-tale building. The place looked best at sunset and when the old city illuminations were switched on, one by one, giving the prominent sights of the city the golden glow.

The other one was the Meir, an avenue running from the central train station towards the river, via the Cathedral. It was packed mainly with shops, but it was also dotted with fountains and peculiar sculptures, one of which was the hand of the giant monster. A favourite with tourists taking photos with it. I have one, too.

The main train station
The main train station
I must have been to Belgium over 200 times in many places (Brugge, Gent, Brussels, Diest, Leuven) but I have to say that the restaurants of Antwerp impressed me the most (although there were two eateries in Diest, which were unbelievable!), particularly for beef and seafood.

The In de Schaduw van de Kathedraal was a place, where I had one of the best steaks ever. It cuisine was advertised as traditional Belgian (mussels, eel) with the bouillabaisse as a specialty, coming in a large portion. The chef did not advertise beef dishes as his favourite, but the pepper steak was incredible.

For seafood lovers, the Maritime, was one that I remembered best. It is located along Suikerrui street leading from the cathedral to the river. Their 'sole fillets poached in Normandy way' were perfect and their wine list had some good St Estephe's and St Emillion's. I also tried their fried gambas with garlic - large and juicy of excellent texture.

Other recommendations:
Het Steen
Het Steen
Diamond cutting is at the very heart of Antwerp's industry. The city developed its own techniques of cutting the stones, and its diamond cutting schools are world's best. The city has a few spots, where visitors are allowed to learn about the industry and learn about diamonds and the four Cs (clarity, cut, colour, carat) contributing to the quality of the finished product.

I found it peculiar in Antwerp that bars' waiting staff would collect your glass from the table even if there were still a few sips on the bottom of it. So it was better to hold on to it until it was definitely empty!

Antwerp is easily accessible by air or by rail. It has its own airport, which is relatively small, although some of the cheap airlines fly there. Anyway, the Brussels airports are only about an hour away by train. Regular and relatively frequent trains run into Amsterdam, to Brussels and to Paris. Few of them are the superfast services, though.

Published on Saturday March 14th, 2009

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Thu, Apr 08 2010 - 10:19 AM rating by sujoy

report with nice pics

Sun, Sep 20 2009 - 07:22 AM rating by patje64

Indeed very detailed and I can tell ;-)

Wed, Jul 08 2009 - 10:52 PM rating by basia

This report deserves a 5 * ... and very good pictures.

Sat, Mar 21 2009 - 06:05 PM rating by robynallen

I love the pictures of the buildings. Amazing architecture.Great report

Wed, Mar 18 2009 - 11:21 PM rating by shubh

I like Antwerp for its architecture. Every building is the superb example of construction technology. Culture of Antwerp also influence most visitors.
Adviser travel.justluxe

Tue, Mar 17 2009 - 06:39 PM rating by bootlegga

Brings back memories of my visit to Antwerp! Great report as usual.

Sun, Mar 15 2009 - 02:40 AM rating by porto

I agree 100% with Petra here,Krys.

Sat, Mar 14 2009 - 08:18 PM rating by pesu

A pleasure to readm beautiful pics (inclusive stunning night shots) - a great report again, Krys.

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