Belgium is a popular weekend destination for castle dwellers, and rightly so. Full of great food, beer, architecture, and artwork, there really is something to suite all tastes. Inspired by movies and word of mouth, many choose to visit the small city of Bruges or the capital, Brussels. This puts Antwerp somewhat off the castle-student-beaten-path. When my friend Lindsay and I decided to stay in Antwerp for one night, it was a slightly impulsive choice. All I knew of the city was what I had seen in a video of a 2009 flash mob – namely, 200 Antwerp locals and the impressive train station. I did not expect to end up loving Antwerp as much as I did! Guided by a wonderful map (the Antwerp Free Map for Young Travellers) and the advice of our host for the night (a local woman named Deb), our less-than-24-hours turned out to be a huge success with several favorites.
Built in 1905, this beautiful building is the first thing you see when you get off the train. Incredibly detailed and quite large, this building hosted the 2009 flash mob (whose video has over 26 million views on YouTube as of this posting). Besides admiring the architecture, this is the perfect place to grab a post-journey snack of white-chocolate covered waffles, replenish your empty wallet at the lone ATM, or get advice for your trip at the information center.
Like most European cities, Antwerp has an area by the river full of old, impressive buildings and tourist attractions. The most famous part of Antwerp’s historic center is Grote Markt, with the Stadhuis (City Hall) on one side. In front of the Staduis is a statue of Brabo, the mythical hero who killed a giant that cut off the hands of locals if they refused to pay him to cross the river. Although worth a look, Lindsay and I much preferred Groen Plaats, which has a statue of Antwerp’s famous painter Peter Paul Rubens (and while we were there was home to Occupy Antwerp). Nearby is the gigantic Cathedral of Our Lady (you can peer inside for a few euros). A few streets over is the Borromeuskerk, a church that is free to visit and was partially designed by Rubens. (Many of the church paintings were also his, but were lost in an 18th century fire.)
Sint Anna Pedestrian Tunnel
Although it may seem a strange suggestion, the pedestrian tunnel that travels under the River Scheldt is well worth the walk. Because it is less of a tourist attraction and something the locals actually use – we saw plenty of people biking back and forth with shopping – Lindsay and I had some trouble locating the entrance. There are two options to travel the 31 meters underground – an ancient wooden escalator or a bike elevator. It’s a quick walk to the other side of the river – just don’t get freaked by the river overhead or the fact that the tunnel is 80 years old! On the other side, the park you come into offers a wonderful panoramic view of the Antwerp skyline.
Also known as Think Twice, this second hand shop is both cheap and fun. Lindsay and I had far too much fun browsing the racks of sweaters, jackets, dresses, and shirts. If you’re lucky (and we were) they might be having one of their sales – everything at a maximum of 1, 2, or 3 euro. We happened in on a 3 euro day, which was a pleasant surprise at the cash register!
The Chocolate Line
You could go into any chocolate shop in Belgium and get great chocolate, but this one is extra special. It used to be a palace, home to people like the Belgium Royal Family and Napoleon. Now, it’s a chocolate shop with gilded crown moldings, murals on the wall, and a kitchen where you can watch chocolate making demonstrations. An extra plus: it’s open on Sunday!
For an amateur photographer like myself, having the chance to see the work of professionals is always a treat. It’s especially sweet when the museum costs 1 euro for anyone under 26 and is also open on Sundays. The exhibits rotate and can be hit or miss – the Weegee exhibit I saw was wonderful, the one exploring sex by Gert Jochems far less so.
FinJan & Chatleroi
No day is complete without good food! Both of these places were suggestions of our host; Linday and I were very glad we followed her advice. FinJan is a restaurant with Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern food. It was very busy, and definitely a favorite among locals – for good reason! The food was delicious and filling, and at a reasonable price. Chatleroi is a bar just across the street. It had a wonderful atmosphere, decorated with vintage cat signs and full of local people. The staff was extremely helpful and kind, happily making suggestions of local beers to two inexperienced American tourists.
Things to Remember:
– Like most European cities, things close early – 5 or 6, 6:30 if you’re very lucky. Shops are rarely open on Sunday as well.
– Most museums are open later or on Sunday, so look up any museums you might be interested in and go to them when other things are closed.