There's a romantic story for the origins Antwerp's name, one involving giants and trolls and a brave Roman hero. And there's a stuck-in-the-mud story too – apparently 'Antwerp' actually means 'alluvial mound'. That just about sums up this ancient city.
Antwerp sits astride the muddy Scheldt river in the far north of Belgium – reaching for stratospheric heights of culture and imagination (as home-town both to romantic 17th-century painter Rubens and cutting-edge new millennium fashion houses), all the while being firmly grounded in the down-to-earth business of turning a coin.
In fact, Antwerp was once considered the very centre of world commerce, albeit some centuries back. And it remains a trading centre of repute today, home to the second largest port in Europe.
But despite the long sweep of its history, the vast expanse of its docklands, and the high reach of its cultural achievements, it's the little things that can make Antwerp such an attractive experience for visitors.
Narrow lanes crowded with boutiques, tiny eateries boasting menus to shame larger restaurants, and of course plenty of bijou bars, fit-to-bursting with the considerable beer heritage of this small nation. More on that later, but lets start with the big things that make Antwerp a city of repute – not just in Belgium and Europe, but in the wider world too.
Antwerp is the capital of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country, and is home to around 500,000 people.
The River Scheldt – and the access it provides to the world's oceans through the Scheldt estuary – has shaped Antwerp's geography, as well as its history.
The Old Town is clustered protectively around a broad sweep of the Scheldt's right bank. Some parts of town were wrecked in the World Wars of the last century.
But as an ancient city Antwerp boasts many surviving architectural gems, in its churches, castle and civic buildings. It also boasts the real thing by the safe-load, with the city being the world's pre-eminent diamond-trading hub.
Nearly half of the world's polished diamonds, and over 80% of its rough diamonds, pass through the hands Antwerp's diamond merchants.
Of course that other national treasure, beer, has its place in the Antwerp story too. But it all started with a hand – a giant severed hand, to be specific.
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The best cities in the world are founded with a myth, and Antwerp is no exception. The legend has it that, to cross the river Scheldt, you first had to pay a toll to a fearsome giant – Antigoon by name – or risk invoking his wrath and losing your hand.
Of course a hero was needed, and he arrived in the form of a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo. Brabo slayed the giant, cut off its hand, and tossed it into the River Scheldt.
And given that the Dutch for 'hand thrown' is 'hand werpen', a city's name was born. The story has led to white hand becoming a symbol to be found on many a crest in the city.
Once we move from fables to facts, the history of the city can be seen to be no less dramatic.
After being settled by the Franks, and developed as an outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, the city grew rich on the trade of its port, and the wealth of wool passing through it.
The late Middle Ages saw the city boom, as the river at the Belgian rival port of Bruges silted up. But what really made – and later broke – Antwerp was the passing on of Flanders to the Spanish Hapsburg's. Spain was very much in the lead in the age of Exploration (and exploitation), and much of the riches from the New World (in terms of sugar, spices, gold and silver) passed through Antwerp's gilded warehouses.
Some reckon that Antwerp was earning seven times more revenue for Spain than the Americas themselves were.
The Spanish influence on this Dutch-speaking city has been long-lasting – full-blooded citizens of Antwerp still call themselves 'Sinjoren', a corruption of the Spanish señor.
That strange mix of Spanish overlord-ship and Dutch commerce became a volatile one at the end of the 16th century. With the religious ferment of Reformation bubbling over, and influential Flemish locals converting to the new faith, a conflict between Catholic Spain and Dutch Protestants blew up – mainly in the face of Antwerp and its inhabitants.
The city was ransacked in 1576 during the so-called 'Spanish Fury', when Spanish troops went looting, and slaughtered 9,000 of Antwerp's citizens. A siege in 1585 eventually led to the Spanish exiling the best part of the city's Protestant community. They went to the free Dutch provinces, taking much of their wealth and trade with them. Antwerp went downhill.
The slide-down was prolonged because the wily new Dutch nation to the north forbade ships from plying the Scheldt's waters, in the subsequent peace treaty.
They wanted to protect and promote their new port at Rotterdam. It wasn't until the time of Napoleon, who saw Antwerp as "a pistol pointed at the heart of England", that the port, and the city, began to regain some of its former glory.
Since then, Antwerp has successfully shrugged off the ravages of two World Wars, and re-invented itself as a city of culture. But commerce remains the lifeblood of Antwerp. That and, of course, its many fine, outstanding examples of Belgian beer-craft.
Getting There & Getting About
The sea-lanes may have been the best way of arriving at Antwerp in the past, but these days the traveller is better served by motorway, rail and airport. Antwerp International Airport gets you right into the heart of the city, lying as it does just east of the ring-road, and only 3 km/2 miles from the centre.
There are flights there from the City Airport in London, and Manchester too. For better international connections, it may make sense to fly out to Brussels Airport instead – just 48 km/30 miles away – and let the rail connection whisk you directly from Brussels Airport straight into central Antwerp.
Going rail-only is an excellent choice for those seeking to avoid the hassles of flying entirely. It involves a straight forward journey via Eurostar, from London St. Pancras, with only one simple change-over at Brussels.
Car travel is simple enough too, with most car-drivers choosing to take the E40 from the channel ports onwards to Ghent, before hooking a left onto the E17 direct into Antwerp. A word of caution though – the city centre itself is not terribly kind to car travel, especially the congestion-prone ring road. You may want to consider parking the car up, once you've arrived in the City of Diamonds.
That's because, when it comes to cross-city travel, the visitor to Antwerp is pretty well catered for.
The city has a dense network of tram and bus lines connecting the main town to the suburbs, as well as shorter journeys within the centre itself. There are 12 lines in all on the tram network, which includes 4 lines running underground section, called the Premetro.
This also includes a tunnel under the Scheldt, to get you over onto the Left Bank of Antwerp. But the best way to enjoy the city on the move is probably by walking or cycling – like most Belgian cities, Antwerp rewards those who amble around using just their own two-feet.
You might expect a smattering of five-star luxury hotels in Antwerp, the City of Diamonds – in fact the city boasts none (there's currently only one five-star hotel in the whole of Flanders). But those looking for top-quality rooms and service, with little expense spared, do have more than a dozen four-star hotels to choose from, most located in grand residences around the Diamant-Stadspark.
And beyond these top-flight lodgings, the city within the ring-road is literally heaving with great hotels in a fetching array of settings.
The costs may be higher here, but having a room within walking distance of the iconic sights – as well as some pretty iconic bars – is not to be sniffed at. Cheaper rooms can be found at the numerous B&B's in town, as well as at the less centrally sited hotels outside of the city ring-road – and you'll rarely be disappointed with the hospitality and service of your Belgian hosts.
And with such a long history of wealth and architectural innovation, even the less expensive, simple-seeming B&B often reveals itself to be sparkling with Old Town charm and style.
Although close to the coast (well the muddy Scheldt estuary) people don't generally come to Antwerp for the simple pleasures of sun, sea and sand.
But camping is definitely an option for those who like to keep it fresh and out-of-doors.
There's a camp-site on the tip of the Left Bank, which offers fantastic views back across the Scheldt to the Antwerp skyline.
And north and west, close to the border with Holland, there's a smattering of sites in the open fields and woods surrounding the city. See our travel guide categories Hotels and B&B's for full details on accommodation in Antwerp.
For The Love Of Beer
Antwerp may not be as laden with local micro-breweries and authentic Trappist tasting-rooms as some of the more provincial parts of Flanders (although Westmalle is in the province of Antwerp). But as the capital of the Flanders region, it serves as a showcase for all that's best – and most eclectic – from Belgium's wonderfully diverse beer universe. And the Sinjoren do love their beer.
Maybe it's something to do with the region being such a melting pot of diverse beer-tastes, lying at the cross-roads of Holland, France, and Germany.
Maybe it's something to do with this port city's hard-working dockers having such a need for thirst-quenching beverages. More likely it's because Antwerpers just know when they've hit onto a good thing.
The iconic beer of Antwerp is of course De Koninck, or more particularly the bulbous bolleke glasses that it's served in.
This light-red malty ale is pretty much the house beer of Antwerp, and the distinctive chalice-shaped glass is so ubiquitous that all self-respecting Sinjoren will be heard to 'holler for a bolleke', when its time for their round.
The De Koninck bolleke is not only the favourite around the town's beer-cafés – it's the mainstay of (nearly) the only brewery in town. The De Koninck brewery (since 2010 part of the Duvel-Moortgat Group), a modest building half-way along Mechelsesteenweg, in the centre of town, is conveniently open for tours too. There you'll see how the flagship De Koninck (5.2% ABV) is crafted, together with its stable-mates, the seasonally malted De Koninck Winter (6.5% ABV) and the wicked full-bodied Triple d'Anvers (weighing in at 8% ABV).
But Brouwerij De Koninck isn't quite the only game in town – Antwerp has a few other brewery aces up its sleeve, so to speak. One discovery in the best tradition of micro-breweries is 't Waagstuk, a pub tucked into the leafy square of the Stadswaag.
A recent mark-up for Antwerp's flourishing beer culture is the resurrection of the Seefbier, an old dockland favourite that disappeared in the 1930's. It has been bought back from the dead by Antwerpse Brouw Compagnie, a company set up by ex-Duvel/Moortgat man Johan Van Dyck.
It was popular in the Seefhoek part of town (which apparently is named after the beer, not the other way around!) and was known as a working-man's beer. Its yeasty cloudy-yet-frothy appearance led to a commenter, in 1863, to call it the 'poor-man's champagne' because it “foamed like champagne, and went to the head like port."
For the moment Seefbier is being brewed in Oudenaarde, by the Roman Brewery. But it is planned that an Antwerp-based brewery will be producing it soon.
But while Antwerp-brewed marques are thin on the ground, the city's beer-cafés and pubs most certainly aren't. They are strung out along every straat, peppering every street corner and square with their open invitation to mark respect for Belgium's commitment to the art of beer.
There are, of course, plenty of top-name pubs clustered around the tourist traps. These have up to a dozen beers on tap, and many hundreds of bottled beers to hand, but they can be expensive, and are certainly crowded to the point where seating is an after-thought.
Quieter, less showy alternatives aren't hard to find, however. And while some may lack the vast (and sometimes bewildering) ranges on offer at the more select beer-cafés, they make up for it in honest Antwerp charm.
Be sure to have a look at our Beer Tourism Destinations in and around Antwerp.
Food & Gastronomy
It may have little more of a lusty and down-to-earth attitude to cuisine than Bruges or Brussels. But Antwerp still subscribes to that very Belgian approach to food: the finest cuisine possible, but with lots of it. Add to that the cosmopolitan outlook of a seasoned port-city, and the marine influences that closeness to the sea brings to the plate, and you have something pretty special.
Traditional Flemish fare is very much on the menu at restaurants across town – from the warming 'Vlaamse stoverij' (beef stew) , to the rich 'waterzooi' (a creamy fish soup with vegetables), to the light sweetness of 'tomate crevettes' (tomatoes filled to bursting with shrimps).
But the Sinjoren have their own specialities too – 'paling in 't groen' being a case in point.
This dish is made from lean eels, once common to the Scheldt estuary (but which now must be imported) all bathed in a zesty green parsley sauce. It is most commonly served in the restaurants in the Suikerrui area, close to the river.
If you do go for this tasty dish, do make sure you check the eel has been caught in season – only careful sustainable fishing will stop the river eel disappearing from the Flemish plates. Antwerp also makes a big deal of its thick slabs of fillet steak – 'ossehaas' for beef, 'varkenshaas' for pork and even 'paardenvlees', for horse – often served rare, accompanied by rich sauces and fries.
If you want to experience the cutting edge of Antwerp's gastronomy department, then head to 'Het Zuid', in the south of Antwerp.
Here there has been a blossoming in restaurants offering more radical slants on Belgian and international cuisine, and staffed by some fine new chefs.
You'll also find plenty of top-rated (and top-priced) restaurants around the cathedral and the Grote Markt area. But some of the best meals to be had – and often at a much lower price – are away from these tourist-slanted venues, in the many unassuming restaurants and bistros in the wider city.
Shopping & Markets
With commerce in its blood since first founding, Antwerp has always been a city of markets. Even in the 16th century it was reckoned as a ‘triomfelycke coopstad' (a triumphant shopping city). That mercantile fervour remains to this today, and the city hosts weekly markets, and several more themed markets each month.
The historical centre of Antwerp's markets, the main square of the Grote Markt, is only occasionally used for its original purpose of ware-selling (and the Christmas stalls are indeed a sight to behold).
But there are true markets-a-plenty to be had in other parts. In the Oudevaartplaats and Theaterplein areas, for example, you'll find the weekend 'Vogelenmarkt' (Birdmarket), selling everything from flowers to fabrics to exotic birds.
On Sundays, the area also hosts an 'exotics' market, with specialities from Turkey, Morocco and southern Europe on offer.
There are also monthly book markets at the 'Boekenplein', and an art market at the Lambermontmartre, in the southern "Zuid" district. When it comes to store shopping, Antwerp has had something of retail renaissance over the last two decades. That rebirth can, in part, be laid at the door of the Antwerp Six, a group of fashionistas who put Antwerp on the map of international fashion in the late 80's.
Boutique and designer brand stores have since sprouted up along the along the Hopland and Schuttershofstraat, close to the 'Meir', Antwerp's busiest shopping street.
Inevitably, parts these parts of town are now laden with the identikit stores of international brand-names, but plenty of stores shine through with Antwerp's original retail sparkle.
When visiting Antwerp do take the time to check out the magnificently ornate 'Stadsfeestzaal', which when renovated, was converted into a shopping mall after being ravaged by fire some years ago.
The Kloosterstraat is known as a haven for hipsters and hippies, packed with shops selling retro-styled clothing and furniture, antiques, paintings and a general assortment of the odd.
Right next door is the Lange Koepoortstraat, where antique and rare books can be perused, and where there are some great record and music stores. Truth be told, there's very little in terms of merchandising wares that isn't for sale somewhere in the city of Antwerp.
See our Shopping travelguide category for more information.
Sightseeing & Culture
Inevitably for a city so ancient, and so relatively small, Antwerp packs a pretty high density of sights to be seen, per square-inch. Interestingly, the skyline of this busy city is bookended by two towering monuments to two very different eras – the 404-foot Gothic fancy of 'Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal' and the 287-foot Art-Deco stylings of the 'Boerentoren', now an office block for KBC bank.
Both are well worth the visit – the Boerentoren is the first example of a skyscraper in Europe (built in 1930).
Our Lady's Cathedral (completed in 1518) is known for its wonderful stone lace-work, ethereal grace and the four paintings it has by Rubens.
The Baroque artistry of Rubens looms large over Antwerp, as his native city, and one which fully benefited from his artistic vision. As well as being able to see his paintings at the cathedral, and at the city's museum, you can take in the Baroque splendour of the 'Sint-Carolus-Borromeuskerk' on the 'Hendrick Conscienceplein'.
Rubens designed it, and it is here he was entombed on his death. Or if that isn't enough Rubens for you, you can also visit his house, an Italian-style palazzo where he had his studio, and which is open to the public.
The city is also packed with museums dedicated to a wider artistic heritage, ancient and modern, but one of the most interesting is 'Het Steen'.
This castle, dating back to the 13th Century,is now the city's Museum of Archaeology and Maritime History. Its grey turrets date back mainly to the 16th century, when Charles V of Hapsburg was looking to strengthen defences of the Scheldt.
At its entrance you'll find something of a controversial character – a bas-relief of Semini, a god of manly fertility and virility. Or he would be, if his phallus hadn't been removed by overwrought clergy...The latest addition to the already comprehensive list of musea in the city is the stunning MAS or 'Museum aan de stroom'. The MAS opened in 2011 and tells stories about the city's historical international links, the river Scheldt, the Port of Antwerp and the world in all its diversity.
Another first for Antwerp is its zoo – built in 1843, and one of the oldest zoological gardens in the world. It has undergone successive waves of modernisation, and is today heavily involved in conservation and research.
Aiming to be a model zoo with the best facilities, Antwerp Zoo is very keen to demonstrate what it is doing for the animals its houses, rather than merely exhibiting them to the public.
Antwerp Aquatopia offers a watery perspective on the world, through the lenses of its fish tanks. Lodged on the Queen Astrid Square (opposite of the Zoo), Antwerp Aquatopia, is a great place to get away from the bustle of Antwerp, and let the tropical fish do the entertaining.
When it comes to high level cultural entertainment, the performing arts are also well represented in Antwerp. You will find a variety of performances, shows and events in the calendar, from modern or classical ballet, to opera, poetry and classical recitals.
Activities & Entertainment
It's not all high culture and history in Antwerp. This is a port city that is used to catering to the desire of pent-up sailors, and hard-working dockers, to cut loose and party. The pubs and beer-cafés are one side of that night-time vibe, and many offer up live music, from jazz to blues to Flemish folk.
Jazz in particular has driven its rhythms deep into the soul of the city. The saxophone was invented in Belgium, and Antwerp turned onto rag-time jazz right at the turn of the 20th century. The Hoogstraat area remains a popular place to catch intimate jazz moments in the local bars and clubs.
Performances of all sorts can be found at the city's 6 concert halls and 29 theatres. One of the more authentic is the 'Echt Antwaarps Teater', a theatre dedicated to the aural pleasure of the Antwerp accent.
The Sinjoren, it seems, are noted by fellow Flemish speakers for their distinctively different take on pronouncing the letter 'a'. Antverpians are as equally proud of their dialect, and this theatre, not far from the Stadspark, only stages plays and productions in proper Antwerp-speak.
For those looking for a quieter time – or for confirmed film buffs – an unique cinematic experience can be had, at Antwerp Film Museum. The museum holds film screenings, and offers film history classes for the keen.
If you want to catch a movie, there are also a couple of modern multiplex cinemas showing the latest blockbusters. These are usually shown in English, with Dutch and French subtitles.
B2B & Conferencing
If you're comi/ng to Antwerp for business, not just for pleasure, then you're in good company. Antwerp, with its major industries of diamonds, chemicals, fashion and international trade is a major business hub. So this is a city that knows how to look after the needs of its business visitors and conference organizers.
There are several major conference centres (such as Antwerp Expo), and endless opportunities for sighting business meetings and events across the city.
The Antwerp Tourism & Convention body is especially focussed on helping businesses to develop their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas in the city. It can advise on the logistical side of organizing meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations.
Antwerp Tourism & Convention will even help with enquires on the availability of venues, and can help get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.
Check Visit Antwerp for more information.
Festivals & Events
It will come as no surprise that Antwerp has a lot to offer when it comes to festivals and events. As with many Belgian cities there is a yearly fair. The fair in Antwerp is known as the 'Sinksenfoor' and is one of the largest in Belgium, with over 150 rides and attractions.
The city hosts the renowned Jazz Middelheim Festival, in Park den Brandt, each summer, widely applauded as one of the top jazz festivals in Europe. Antwerp also is a big draw for blues-fans in July, when the Antwerp Rhythm and Blues Festival kicks off with a roster loaded with international R&B talent.
At the beginning of September every year Antwerp hosts "Laundry Day". This is a large dance music festival that started out years ago as just a modest street party! Laundry Day now programs over 100 DJ's each year and attracts an international crowd of 60.000 people.
Sport fans will enjoy the "Antwerp Marathon" and the "Antwerp Ten Miles". These are organised back-to-back on the same day each year towards the end of April.
The fact is that the whole year through a wide variety events and festivals are hosted and held in Antwerp. This city has something for everyone from culinary festivals and fashion shows to cultural events.
Night-time entertainment in Antwerp has also moved with the times, and embraced the large-scale dance club scene – and in a big way. Some reckon Antwerp to be one of most exciting destinations for the all-night clubbers in Europe, with various venues on Luikstraat, or the lively scene that has clustered near the waterfront at 'Vlaamse Kaai'.
This city has one of the most happening nightlife scenes in Belgium. You will find anything from luxuriously decorated lounge bars serving up professionally mixed cocktail delights to typical Belgian 'brown cafés', which stay open well into the early hours.
With a vibrant fashion and nightlife scene it can also not come as a surprise that there's a large gay community. The city is to Belgium what San Francisco is to the United States. You will find more than enough venues, bars and clubs focusing on this segment of the city's population and visitors.
Visit our Nightlife page for more information.
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