After spending two days on a stag do in Belgium’s second city, Antwerp, I discovered that it’s far too nice a place for blokes on the rampage. With a beautiful main square and cracking cafe culture, it’s a new entry in my top ten European cities. Read on to find out why it should be your next city break.
Situated on the banks of the River Scheldt in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, just 15 miles from the border with the Netherlands, Antwerp doesn’t get anywhere near as many visitors as Brussels or Bruges. Which is good for you, as you can enjoy it in peace.
So what’s all this about hands?
Well, according to legend a giant called Antigoon demanded a toll from anyone crossing the river, and those who refused had a hand cut off and thrown away. People had had enough of the bullying giant, so a hero called Brabo cut the giant’s hand off himself, and threw it in the river. The name Antwerp comes from the Dutch words for “hand throw”. Hands can be seen all over the city – the one below is in the main shopping street, Meir.
So what is there to see and do in Antwerp?
For culture vultures
The city’s main square, Grote Markt, is one of the nicest you will ever see, with gold-topped guild houses all around it. Grab a seat at one of the pavement cafes and soak in the culture. There is a statue of the giant-slayer Brabo in the middle of the square – look closely and he is throwing nasty Antigoon’s hand away, with fountains of water rather than blood spurting from it.
Antwerp’s immense gothic cathedral (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, or OLV for short) can be seen from just about anywhere in the city, and is a great reference point if you get lost – it’s also handy if you need the time. As well as looking pretty stunning from the outside, I’ve since heard it’s a bit special on the inside too, with works of art by the famous painter Rubens.
I do like a tall building, and at a height of 123 metres, there can’t be too many taller than OLV in Belgium – shame I couldn’t climb the tower.
Alongside the banks of the Scheldt is Het Steen. This impressive looking castle is the oldest building in the city dating back to the Middle Ages, and now houses a maritime museum. Antwerp is the second biggest port in Europe after Rotterdam, so this fortress had an important part to play in protecting the city from invaders in days gone by.
For the men
Drinking beer is great fun in all of Belgium, as it should be anywhere in the world, but in Antwerp – referred to as the City of Pavement Cafes – it is an absolute joy. Find a bar (there are tonnes around the Grote Markt), sit inside or out, and order the local beer De Koninck (“The King”), served in its own distinctive round glass called a Bolleke. They’re very proud of De Koninck in Antwerp, and every bar sells it on draft.
In the unlikely event that you get tired of this 5.2% dark amber coloured concoction, there are hundreds of other beers to sample – fruit beers, trappist beers, wheat beers, Duvel, Stella Artois, Maes, the list goes on…
Being a port city, seafood is big in Antwerp and we enjoyed a fantastic meal of mussels in separate trays of white wine, beer and garlic. Other than that, our stag do staple was fries with mayonnaise from the many Frituurs around town, although we did see plenty of intimate restaurants with hand-written menus on black chalk-boards outside.
I missed breakfast in our hotel, so had warm Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce for €2.50 – a heavenly start to the day. These are sold at little shacks dotted around the historic centre, and are not to be missed.
Chocolate and Belgium have become a bit of a cliche, but you can’t leave Antwerp without visiting a chocolatier and bringing a box or two home. There are a couple of magical chocolate shops on Jan Blomstraat near the cathedral. I dithered about which one to choose, before buying a box of the ubiquitous Antwerp chocoalate hands (Antwerpse Handjes), and very nice they were too.
For the ladies
Antwerp has a reputation for being something of a shoppers’ mecca, with a mixture of high street stores and independent boutiques, and is regarded in fashion circles as being on a par with London, Paris and Milan.
The Antwerp Six – six local fashion designers – put the city on the map in the 1980s, when they made international headlines for their innovative designs. The only one I’ve heard of is Dries Van Noten. As I was part of the Antwerp Fourteen on a stag do, the only shopping I did was for beer.
Antwerp has a city centre zoo, right next to the train station. It’s one of the oldest zoos in Europe, but I didn’t have chance to visit – I saw enough animal behaviour the night before with my friends.
Over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the city, making it the unofficial diamond capital of the world. The Diamond District, in the streets around the train station, is a popular place for couples to buy discounted engagement rings.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in the Het Eilandje area to the north of the city centre. This district is a bit like Liverpool’s Albert Dock, with museums, a few restaurants and bars surrounding a marina.
Although it has its own tiny airport, there are few flights to Antwerp from the UK. It’s best to get the train there from Brussels Airport (43 minutes), Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (56 minutes on the high-speed Thalys service) or the Eurostar from London St. Pancras via Brussels (3 hours 18 minutes).