A week after the spontaneous idea arose to go to Antwerp for a weekend, we depart from Leiden at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning to visit our neighbors to the south. Going away for a weekend in September, you have to be a bit lucky with the weather, and we are: it’s beautiful late summer weather, in the Netherlands and luckily also in Antwerp. Perfect to walk along all the beautiful, fun and interesting places in the city, with of course enough time for coffee, good food and Belgian beers in between, with this beautiful weather of course on one of the many terraces in Antwerp.
Antwerp is a little over an hour and a half drive from Leiden. It’s ‘abroad’, but getting there is faster than driving to Groningen in the north of the Netherlands. At eleven we check in at our apartment and park the car in the garage. We are ready to explore the city. We walk to the old center in about fifteen minutes, where we first head for the Hendrik Conscienceplein. This is one of the nicest squares in the city, with terraces and old buildings, such as the former city library and the Borromeus Church. At a small restaurant on the square we sit down for coffee and lunch.
After lunch we walk to Huis Den Rhyn, a building dating from the sixteenth century. Here spices used to be traded. The building has a striking tower: the Padaggertoren, which offeres a panoramic view over the river Scheldt, where the merchant shipsused to arrive. Next we go to the Grote Markt, the central square of Antwerp. What we hadn’t counted on is that there’s an urban festival taking place this weekend and the square is filled with stands and flags and balloons and lots and lots of people. It slightly detracts from the atmosphere of this beautiful historic square, which is surrounded by sixteenth and seventeenth century guild houses. And of course the monumental town hall, which dates from the fifteenth century.
Not far from the Grote Markt is the Cathedral of Our Lady, a gothic building with the tallest church tower in Belgium. At the atmospheric Lijnwaadmarkt we go look for a terrace and order a Belgian beer. Next we head for the Vlaeykensgang. This narrow alley dates from the Middle Ages and is an oasis of tranquility amidst the busy streets. After the Vlaeykensgang we keep varying between sightseeing and drinking beers by giving in to the beckoning terraces in the Hoogstraat. After that it’s time for dinner. We decide to go to restaurant De Bomma (Flemish for grandma), where authentic Flemish food is served. And the portions are big… After dinner we have one more drink near the Grote Markt and then we walk back to our apartment.
The next morning we start with breakfast and coffee. On our second city walk we first head for Antwerp Central Station. This train station was built in the nineteenth century and has been voted the most beautiful train station in the world several times and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. From the outside it is already an imposing building, but when you enter the monumental central hall, you can’t help but be impressed. I think it’s the most beautiful building that we will see in Antwerp.
From the station we walk further along the diamond district towards the City Park. This green oasis in the midst of heavy traffic is what Central Park is to New York, but in the size of Antwerp (so a lot smaller). We stroll through the park for a while and then walk across the Vogeltjesmarkt to the Graanmarkt. Here we sit on a terrace for a cup of coffee. It is now clear to us that there are an infinite number of terraces, cafes and restaurants in Antwerp…
Near the Graanmarkt you will find the Rubens House, the former residence and workplace of the painter Peter Paul Rubens. It is now a museum, but we only look at it from the outside. A little further we come to the Meir, the large shopping street of Antwerp, where all the famous retail chains are located. On the corner is the Royal Palace, an eighteenth century palace that was once purchased by Napoleon, but no longer serves as a palace.
A little to the north you will find the Begijnhof. It’s a bit off the main routes in the city center and there is no one else at all. Entering the courtyard with its old houses is like stepping back in time. If it wasn’t for the occasional car, you would think that you are back in the seventeenth century. We continue in a northerly direction. As soon as you get out of the historic center, the streets are quieter and the buildings duller. Finally we arrive at the Schipperskwartier (Sailormen’s Quarter), north of the old center. The Schipperskwartier has been completely renovated over the years and is now a lively neighborhood with restaurants, cafes, terraces and a marina. It’s a good place for lunch.
Located at the old harbor is the striking rust-brown building of the Museum aan de Stroom. This museum tells the history of the city, but the beautiful building has another point of interest: via a series of escalators you can go to the roof of the museum, from where you can enjoy the amazing view over Antwerp. Back downstairs we walk about the old port area, where the new marina is now surrounded by new apartment buildings and old warehouses have been converted into restaurants. Down the quays along the Scheldt we walk back to the historic center. Here, right on the Scheldt, the Steen stands. In the year 1200 this was the first building in Antwerp made of stone. It was part of the fortress surrounding the city and served, among other things, as a jail.
After the long city walk we think we have earned a final Belgian beer. For that we return to the terrace on the Lijnwaadmarkt. At the end of the afternoon we close in style with Flemish fries from a traditional fries ‘kot’ (stall) at the Groenplaats, after which we go get the car to drive back to the Netherlands. It was a very nice city trip: an interesting city, good food, tasty beers, and beautiful weather.