Following in the footsteps of its Dutch neighbour, Belgium is busily making preparations for the abdication of King Albert II and the succession of his son, Crown Prince Philippe, to the throne on July 21st, Belgium’s national day. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be taking a look at Belgium’s many treasures which make it a most attractive, not to mention easy, destination to visit. Today, we focus on its 2nd city, Antwerp.
Described by Lonely Planet as “Belgium’s Capital of Cool”, Antwerp has for centuries held an attraction for those with a creative flair. Home to undisputed Belgian masters, Rubens and van Dyck, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the influence of the former on Antwerp is unquestionable and reminders of his life and works are still apparent throughout the city today, from his house and studio, Rubenshuis (one of Antwerp’s chief attractions), to the awe-inspiring gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest church building in Belgium, home to four of his magnificent works.
Alongside the cathedral is Grote Markt, a huge cobbled square flanked by attractive Gothic and Flemish old town houses and the impressive 16th-century Stadhuis. Here, you’ll also see the baroque Brabo Fountain, commemorating the legendary sailor who gave Antwerp its name. Indeed, the city’s rich maritime heritage remains an integral part of its economic make-up, for to this day it remains Europe’s most important port.
You’ll find that many of the city’s major sites are concentrated between the grandiose Central Station, a monument to the architectural grandeur of the 19th century, and the old town, centred around the Grote Markt on the banks of the River Scheldt. Linking the two is the pedestrianised Meir, Antwerp’s bustling shopping thoroughfare, on which you’ll find designer boutiques paying homage to the city’s thriving fashion industry, star turns of which include an annual international fashion show, fashion museum and one of the world’s leading fashion schools.
As famous for its artistic, maritime and sartorial greatness, Antwerp has also enjoyed a long and prestigious association with diamonds: the art of diamond polishing was invented here and some 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the city. In the diamond district, you’ll find nearly 2,000 diamond dealers trading their sparkling wares.
In short, Antwerp is a fascinating melting pot of tradition and trendy, where centuries-old architectural and artistic richesse effortlessly goes hand in hand with a pulsating nightlife and contemporary and cultural edge that’s hard to beat.