The cultural capital of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern area of Belgium, Antwerp is both a bustling industrial port city and an outstanding historic center for Belgian craftwork and artistry.
The city was once home to such famous artists as Rubens, van Dyck, and Jordaens, while centuries of prosperity through trade and commerce have bequeathed an inheritance of architectural beauty, which includes the magnificent cathedral, the town hall, and many other outstanding historical buildings in the old town center.
For art-lovers and culture-vultures Antwerp’s excellent museums are a vital stop on any Belgian itinerary. In particular, the city’s paintings – an incomparable collection of 15th- to 17th-century masterpieces from a time when the work of artists of the South Netherlands school attained extraordinary heights – is a highlight of any visit
Grand Place (Grote Markt)
Antwerp’s Grand Place (Grote Markt) with its town hall and numerous guild houses is the heart of the old town. In the middle stands the ornate Brabo Fountain erected in 1887 by Jef Lambeaux and depicting the Roman soldier Silvius Brabo tossing the severed hand of the giant Antigonus into the Scheldt. The Town Hall (or Stadhuis) dominates the plaza’s western side and was built by Cornelis Floris de Vriendt between 1561 and 1565. Inside, the rooms are hung with 19th-century paintings by H. Leys illustrating the history of Antwerp. Apart from the Stadhuis, most of the buildings bordering the Grote Markt are former guild houses (gildehuizen), which originally served as headquarters of the city’s 16th- and 17th-century guilds. Among the most interesting guild houses on the north side are the Gildehuis der Kuipers (Coopers’ House No. 5), the Huis van de Schutters (Archer’s House No. 7), and the Huis van de Kruideniers (Grocers’ House No. 11). Immediately behind the town hall, in the Gildekamersstraat, a former guild house has been turned into a Folk Museumdevoted to the many traditional arts and crafts found in the Antwerp area, while nearby is the Ethnography Museum, which highlights non-European cultures.
St. Paul’s Church (Sint-Pauluskerk)
In the central city, the Veemarkt (the plaza that once functioned as a former cattle market) is home to the late Gothic St. Paul’s Church (Sint-Pauluskerk), begun in 1517 and not completed until 1639. The Baroque clock tower dates from 1680. A fire in 1968 badly damaged the church and only the spirited efforts of local people prevented the loss of valuable interior furnishings. The church is home to paintings by Rubens, Jordaens, and Van Dyck. These include the superb Baroque confessionals by Pieter Verbruggen the Elder and three paintings by Rubens: The Scourging of Christ (1617) in the left aisle and the Adoration of the Shepherds and Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament in the left transept.
Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal), is Belgium’s largest Gothic church. Work was started on the cathedral in 1352, continuing until 1521. Jacob van Thienen, Pieter Appelmans, Jan Tac, Everaert Spoorwater, Hermann and Dominic de Waghemakere, and Rombout Keldermans were among the architects and master-builders who contributed to its construction. The church has suffered serious damage on a number of occasions over the years, depriving it of many of its most precious works of art. First came a fire in 1533, then despoliation at the hands of dissident iconoclasts in 1566, Calvinists in 1581, and French Republican troops in 1794 and 1800. Sadly, only a few of the lost treasures have since been recovered. Restoration of the exterior was begun in the 19th century, and all the carved stonework on the outside of the building is therefore recent. Work on the interior began in 1965, starting with the nave where repairs were completed in 1983. The finest of the remaining works of art are displayed in the nave and aisles as well as in the cathedral treasury
Butcher’s Hall (Vleeshuis)
The elegant rooms of the late Gothic Butcher’s Hall (Vleeshuis) include the former council chamber of the butchers’ guild. The impressive brick building, built in 1501-04, was deliberately sited close to the Scheldt, allowing the blood of slaughtered animals to run off into the river. The Vleeshuis is now a museum of applied art and archaeology with collections of prehistoric, Egyptian, Roman, and Merovingian artefacts; weapons and armour; ceramics; furniture; sculpture and woodwork; and coins. Among its most prized possessions are a 16th-century depiction of the conversion of Saul created from Antwerp tiles known as the Averbode Retable by Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The Vleeshuis is also home to an outstanding collection of musical instruments including the remarkable harpsichord from the workshop of Ruckers the instrument-makers.
In 1576, Christophe Plantin the printer who hailed originally from France, moved into a house he christened “De gulden Passer” – the Golden Compasses – south of the Grote Markt. The house, lived in by Plantin and his Moretus family heirs is now a supreme example of Flemish Renaissance architecture. Today, the building is the Plantin-Moretus Museum incorporating the history of printing as well as showcasing the atmosphere of an Old Flemish patrician house. The original furnishings, wide-ranging exhibits, and above all, the still tangible atmosphere arising from the proximity of home and workplace make this museum one of Antwerp’s most fascinating tourist attractions. If you’re short on time, make a beeline for Room 7, devoted to the history of books and the processes involved in their production, from the earliest forms of writing and development of the alphabet – exhibits include important archaeological finds and manuscripts – to Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of letterpress printing using movable type. And afterwards, don’t miss Room 24, which is a celebration of the art of printing in Europe as a whole, the jewel in the crown being a 36-line Gutenberg Bible on display here.
Havenroute (Port Tour)
The Havenroute is an approximately 50-kilometer-long sightseeing tour of the port area, marked out by the Antwerp Tourist Office. The Port of Antwerp is second only to Rotterdam among the major seaports of Europe, fully justifying its claim to be one of the largest in the world. The harbor installations alone cover an area of more than 10,000 hectares, with a further 3,400 hectares of land in industrial use. Start the Havenroute tour of the docks area from the Loodsgebouw (Pilot House) on the embankment north of the Steen, from where the route heads northwards, passing almost immediately the two oldest docks, the Bonapartedok and Willemsdok, at the far end of which can be seen the massive Koninklijk Stapelhuis. The tour heads past the 17th-century Eenhoorn windmill to Lillo, one of the few polder villages to have survived engulfment by the port. At Lillo, there is a choice between driving on to inspect the huge Berendrechtsluis, the world’s largest lock, or shortening the tour by turning round and following the Havenroute south again towards Antwerp, via the Frans Tijsmanstunnel beneath the Kanaaldok.
Right in the center of the city, Antwerp Zoo was founded in 1843. It is widely regarded as one of the finest zoos in Europe on account of its variety of species, its success in breeding, the care bestowed on the animals that are kept in the most natural environment possible, and, last but by no means least, its architecture. While the Art Déco facades of the entrance area are the first features to catch the eye, inside the zoo are several buildings of note, among them the giraffe and elephant house (1855) in the style of an Egyptian temple. More than 6,000 animals of 950 species live in the zoo, including rare breeds such as the white rhino, okapi, and mountain gorilla.
Diamond Museum (Diamantmuseum)
The Diamantmuseum explores all the different aspects of the trade in diamonds, including sections on their extraction, processing, and industrial use. Diamond cutters can be seen at work. There is also a display of cut and uncut diamonds (genuine) together with copies of the more famous stones. Immediately south of the diamond museum lies the triangular Stadspark (City Park), on the site of one of Antwerp’s old defence works. Stocked with a fine range of plants, the park is attractively laid out with an ornamental lake, footpaths, and several monuments.
Rubens’ House (Rubenshuis)
Peter Paul Rubens acquired No. 9 in 1610 — a year after his marriage to Isabella Brant – living there until his death in 1640. He arranged the house to his own taste and requirements, making his home to the left of the entrance and turning the right wing into his studio. Following the French Revolution it was used as a prison, thereafter falling more and more into disrepair. Rubens’ House (Rubenshuis) finally came into the possession of the City of Antwerp in 1937 and, between 1939 and 1946, was meticulously restored with the aid of old documents and drawings. The ten rooms are furnished in the style of the period and contain numerous original paintings. These include works by Rubens (self-portrait, ca. 1625/28, in the dining room) as well as by Snyders, Jan Bruegel, Veronese, Jordaens, and Otto Venius. The large studio contains several more works by Rubens (Adam and Eve in Paradise) and others by his pupils