I’m going to start this post by throwing some Antwerp facts at you. In the 16th century this indomitable city was the richest in Europe, thanks to pepper, silver, and textile booms, and attracted merchants from across the continent. At the beginning of the century 40% of world trade passed through here.
Reformation, riots, and revolt spurred the city’s decline. Napoleon had plans to reinvigorate the city’s harbour, but Waterloo put paid to those. Amidst the wars that Europe suffered in the last century, Antwerp hosted the Summer Olympics, and then in the 90’s became a major fashion centre.
Drunk man’s lock
Antwerp’s history is writ large on the city’s impressive architecture. In fact, many of the buildings reflect the characters who once lived here.
Take this 16th century lock. See how it has a wiggly ‘V’ of metal lines pointing towards the keyhole? This design allowed the owner to return home from a drunken night out and easily locate the hole with his key.
But this little reflection of character pales into comparison with what can be found in the Zurenborg district.
Art Deco wonderland
In Zurenborg’s “golden triangle” of Transvaalstraat, Waterloostraat, and Cogels Osylei streets you’ll be treated to a huge variety of architecture. Although you’ll find in this Zurenborg district Gothic Revival, Neoclassical, and other styles, it’s Art Deco architecture which prevails.
The buildings here reflect Antwerp’s growing wealth and were mainly constructed between 1896-1904.
They’re in Fashion
In the early 80s a group of fashion designers graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. They went on to become hugely influential in the fashion world and are known as “The Antwerp Six”.
Thanks in no small part to this group, the city has a thriving fashion district, in which some of the six set up shop. Here you’ll find a plethora of places to go on a spending spree, all centered on Nationalestraat, and with gorgeous shop fronts that are a feast for the eyes.
Antwerp is well-known for its “brown cafés”, allegedly named due to the cigarette smoke which once filled the cafes and leaving the walls stained brown. It’s this slightly rough-at-the-edges, very relaxed feel which make these cafés so appealing.
Inside you’ll find friendly staff, locals, and a large choice of delicious beers (try the Trappist brews, but don’t expect to walk straight afterwards).
In addition to the locations mentioned above, when you’re in Antwerp you shouldn’t miss:
- Antwerpen Centraal train station, built in 1895 – an architectural marvel
- Cathedral of Our Lady, completed in 1521 (although the south tower was never fully finished) and with impressive stained-glass windows
- MAS Museum. This museum is bursting with Belgian history, and has a free-to-visit roof terrace with breathtaking views
- St Anna’s Tunnel. This pedestrian tunnel – opened in 1933 – links the two sides of the city
Visit Antwerp as part of this 8-day Belgium itinerary (for Budget, Mid-range, and Luxury travellers)
I stayed at the Hotel Indigo, which has stylish rooms and an excellent breakfast
I recommend flying to Brussels and then taking the 31-minute train direct from the airport to Antwerpen Centraal
Take Eurostar direct from London to Brussels, and then the 46min train from the same station to Antwerpen Centraal