You’ll find Belgium’s international port city, Antwerp on the Scheldt River. In the very heart of the city is the centuries-old Diamond District where many traders, cutters and polishers live. Founded in 1663 the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts is today a well-known European fashion academy. One of Antwerp’s main landmarks is the Antwerpen-Central train station dating from 1905 with an impressive neo-Gothic facade. Newsweek magazine rated it as one of the world’s five most beautiful train stations.
Visitors are quite impressed with MAS, a ten-storey museum-gallery complex that opened its doors in 2011. The floors of the museum are designed around big-idea themes and illustrate such themes as “power” and “life and death” making use of different media like Old Master paintings, tribal artifacts and even video installations. By using an iPod or smart phone you can read the QR-codes. There are also special exhibitions for an extra charge. You’ll want to go up to the open roof for spectacular views of Antwerp and do visit the three small pavilions outside of the museum which offer exhibits on Antwerp’s port and diamond and silver industries.
The Museum Plantin-Moreturs has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was once home to the world’s first industrial printing works and became a museum in 1876. It is a fantastic medieval building with a lovely 1622 courtyard garden. Among the highlights here are the 1640 library, the historic bookshop and Rooms 11 and 12 housing gilt leather “wallpaper”. Visitors can also see a priceless collection of manuscripts, tapestries and the world’s oldest printing press. There is a valuable collection of painting to delight the eye including an original Rubens. There are also examples of books by Ruben’s brother, illustrated by Pieter Paul and published by Moretus.
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal is Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral that took almost 169 years to complete. It has an amazing 123m high spire. Inside are late-Baroque decorations among them four early Rubens canvases. Visitors can get a free look down the nave by turning left on entry to the “prayer” area. Guided tours are available at 11 AM.
About 4 km to the south of the city center you’ll discover a large, landscaped park. The name is quite a mouthful so if you have to ask directions make sure you have the name written down – Openluchtmuseum voor Beeldhouwkunst Middelheim or Open-Air Statuary Museum. The highlights are more than 300 sculptures including carvings by Rik Wouters and Auguste Rodin. There are also indoor sculptures in the Braem Pavilion. The other building in the park is Castle Middleheim, a farm dating back to the 15th century converted into a Louis XVI type of castle.
Southwest of the train station is the Diamond District. An amazing 80% of the world’s uncut diamonds are traded in Antwerp.Along Hoveniersstraat and Schapstraat there are four dour exchange buildings. These pedestrian streets are heavily guarded and are also home to Indian banks, specialist transportation companies, diamond “boilers” and the industry’s governing body, HRD Antwerp. Today the district is mostly Indian dominated.
St-Carolus-Borromeuskerk is an amazing Baroque church dating from 1621. One of its interior designers working as part of a team was Rubens. Its incredible altarpiece was created to let vast canvasses be changed with the help of a series of wire pulleys. Even thought the church’s original Ruben’s paintings were sent off the Vienna, Austria, in 2014 Ruben’s painting “Holy Family Returning from Egypt” was returned and can be seen on the right-side of the gallery. There are magnificent carved confessionals.
Every day life in Antwerp stretches out from the Grote Markt, a large, triangular market square. It is overlooked by the amazing Renaissance-style Antwerp City Hall which was designed by Cornelius Floris De Vriendt. Its palatial facade is a mix of Flemish and Italian styles with a gable topped by a gilded eagle and flanked by the statues of Wisdom and Justice. There is a wonderful Baroque Brabo Fountain depicting Antwerp’s hand-throwing legend. Here you can also view two guildhalls.
Den Botaniek or The Kruidtuin is a small botanical garden that was created for the students of the School for Surgery, Chemistry and Botany in 1804. It is a most charming garden with around two thousand herbs. Here one can relax on benches and there is a small pond with large goldfish and a sculpture. At the north end of the garden is a greenhouse, closed to the public but worth taking a look at. At the other end of the garden visitors will find a picturesque building that looks like a Swiss Alpine lodge and is a popular brasserie. In front of the building is a statue of Peeter van Coudenberghe who was a local pharmacist and botanist. He kept a garden with exotic plants just outside of the city walls.
The Waterpoort, is an early 17th century gate that is decorated with large sculptures. Moved twice the gate ended up in the center of a small square just south of the city center. Originally it was part of the defensive wall that surrounded the city from the 14th till the 19th century. Since at that time it gave access to the river bank it was named Water Gate. It now looks like a triumphal arch and residents refer to it as the “walking gate”. The gate is decorated in Baroque style and on its east side is a statue of the mythological god Neptune and on the opposite side a coat of arms and heraldic lions.
In Marnix Square, from which radiate eight streets is a large monument inaugurated in 1873 to commemorate the settlement with the Netherlands that allowed for free passage of ships to Antwerp, so very vital to the city’s maritime commerce. The square was named after Marnix van St. Aldegonde, Mayor of Antwerp during the fall of the city in 1585. The stone monument was named “Schelde Vrij” or “Scheldt Free” and set up in the new Zuid neighborhood in 1873. It was designed by Jan Jacob Winders. It stands 20m tall and is decorated with many statuary and reliefs. At the top is Neptune, god of the sea, holding a trident in his right hand. He is flanked by Mercury, god of trade and a kneeling woman representing Antwerp. Behind them is a little boy taking notes. Below the monument you can see ships’ prows, medallions, garlands, lions and at the pedestals are reliefs of water gods spouting Scheldt water. The statues of Neptune and Mercury were created by Frans Joris and the lions by Louis Depuis. The monument is surrounded by an iron fence with lovely cast-iron street lamps at each corner.
Groenplaats Square was Antwerp’s main cemetery up until the 18th century. After it was converted into a square residents tend to call it “green cemetery”. Here is a bronze statue of Rubens honoring Antwerp’s most famous citizen. The painter lived in the city from 1587 until his death in 1640. The statue was commissioned by the city council in 1840, at the bicentennial of Ruben’s death. It was created by local sculptor Willem Geefs. The square offers visitors a great view of the Cathedral bordering it to the north and is the place to catch the tourist tram to some of Antwerp’s most interesting sights.