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Flanders, the northern half of Belgium, has four lovely cities to visit. Brussels is the national capital, and it's full of well-heeled diplomats as the home of the European Union. Brugge by comparison is tiny and almost impossibly beautiful in its own medieval way. Ghent can be a tourist trap, but it's also very much a place for students. Antwerp, of the four, is the trendiest. It's the fashion hub of the Low Countries and a renowned center in the international diamond industry. "Cut in Antwerp" commands international respect in jewelry circles.
Though it receives its share of visitors, drawn to its churches, medieval guild houses and winding backstreets, Antwerp is the least touristy of Belgium's Big Four. Everyday life goes on, largely undisturbed by visitors, and it goes on with enthusiasm. There are lots of places to eat in Antwerp, but the majority are full of locals.
Antwerp is also home to one of the pre-eminent collections of artwork by the painter Peter Paul Rubens, who spent much of his life there. Visitors can tour the house where he ate, slept and painted, and then check out samples of his work in the Cathedral of Our Lady. A more 19th-century kind of art can be found across town in the stylish residential neighborhood of Zurenborg, where most of the opulent mansions are showcases of Art Nouveau architecture and interior design.
Antwerpenaars are very proud of their city. In fact, someone whose parents were both born in Antwerp can refer to himself as a "sinjoor" from the Spanish, Senor. The people of Antwerp are also proud of their Flemish identity. Belgium has long been governed by a French-speaking minority based in Wallonia, the southern half of the country. Antwerp has led the Flanders region in maintaining the Flemish language, cuisine and culture. This has occasionally been taken to extremes, particularly by the Antwerp-based political party Vlaam Belang, which has pushed an anti-French-speaking agenda and campaigned for Flemish independence.
While most Antwerpennaars do not hold such extreme views, there is still a lingering rivalry within Belgium between Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. Visitors should be aware that speaking French to the locals in Antwerp may sometimes be received as rude or insulting. If you don't know Flemish (or Dutch, to which it's quite similar), try English instead.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Belfast • Berlin • Bilbao • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Dover • Dublin • Edinburgh • Ghent • Hamburg • Harwich • Holyhead • Le Havre • Lisbon • Liverpool • London • Newcastle • Paris • Prague • Rotterdam • Rouen • Southampton • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vienna • Vigo
If you can afford it, buy diamonds. If not, invest in chocolate. The Chocolate Line (Paleis op de Meir 50; 32-3-206-2030) is a store located in the palace used by Napoleon during his time in Antwerp. It's now a second home for the undisputed prince of Belgian Chocolate, Dominique Persoone, TV personality and cofounder of the guild of Belgian Chocolatiers. Dominique helped put Brugge on the chocolate map and is now doing the same for Antwerp in these palatial surroundings.
"Antwerp hands" (cookies in the shape of hands) are a popular treat based on the legend that Antwerp gets its name from a giant's hand that was cut off and thrown into the River Scheldt.
The official language is Flemish, a variant of Dutch. Most shopkeepers and waiters speak a range of languages, including English. Use French and you may be politely ignored.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro, which you can get out of various ATM's throughout the city. The BNP Paribas Fortis Bank on the corner of Melkmarkt and Lijnwaadmarkt is convenient to Grote Markt and the Cathedral. There is a Western Union on the corner of Hoogstraat and Suikerruistraat.
For up-to-the-minute conversions, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Where You're Docked
Larger ships dock along the Wandelteras Zuid, which is only a 10-minute walk along Hoogstraat to Grote Markt, the city center. Cabs line up outside the terminal.
Smaller ships dock at Kattendijkdok or Willemdok, both about a 15- to 20-minute walk (through the Red Light District) from the city center. Your ship's reception staff can call a taxi if you don't wish that pleasure.
Wandelteras Zuid is downtown, giving you easy access to Grote Markt (the main square), the Cathedral and other attractions in the historic center.
Kattendijkdok and Willemdok are close to MAS, the iconic new city museum rising up high and clad in red Indian tiles. It's located between the Willemdok and Bonapartedok. (Hanzestedenplaats 1; 32-3-338-4434; open from 10 a.m. Tuesday to Sunday) This area also has some of the best fashion houses and a few interesting restaurants. A Red Star Museum, commemorating the European emigrants who boarded ship in Antwerp for the United States, will open in September 2013. From these Napoleonic docks, it's a 20-minute walk to the tourist attractions around Grote Markt, but it's best to take a taxi.
On Foot: The city center is easily walkable, from the main cruise dock on the western edge of town to Central Station and the Diamond District in the east.
By Taxi: Taxis line up at the cruise terminal and other marked locations around the city, particularly near busy squares and train stations. Look for the orange "taxi" signs. You can also call Antwerp-Tax at 32-3-238-3838.
By Public Transportation: Antwerp has both buses and trams. Buy single rides direct from the driver, or purchase a 24-hour card in advance or onboard. Advance tickets (a lijnkaart of ten) are available from the tourist office on Grote Markt.
By Car: Auto Europe (888-223-5555), Avis (800-331-1212) and Europcar (877-940-6900) have rental locations downtown.
Watch Out For
Belgium's position on the North Sea coast means the weather can change rapidly. Pack an umbrella and sunglasses, and be prepared to use both.
Check on the times tourist sites close before setting off. The Cathedral closes at 3 p.m., and last admission at the Rubens House is at 4:30 p.m.
Grote Markt is the main square of Antwerp's old city, surrounded by historic guild houses and the imposing Stadthuis (Town Hall) with its rows of colorful European flags. In the center of the cobblestone square is the Brabo fountain, which pays tribute to a local legend about how the city got its name. The story says that a giant called Druoon Antigoon used to guard the Scheldt River, cutting off the hands of any sailors who refused to pay a toll to him. A Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo eventually managed to kill Antigoon, chopped off the giant's hand and threw it in the river. To this day, the hand is the symbol of Antwerp. (The city's name sounds like the words for "hand-throwing" in Dutch.)
The massive Cathedral of Our Lady took 169 years to build, beginning in 1352. Today its 403-foot-high Gothic spire is still the focal point of Antwerp's skyline. Inside are four major paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, including the famous "Descent from the Cross." The dramatic Appelmans statue near the main entrance commemorates the master builder of the cathedral.
There is an entrance fee, but if you want to sneak a peek for free, turn left in front of the cash desk; through a glass screen marked "Prayer," you can get a superb view down the seven aisles of the nave and even take photos as long as you obey the no-flash rule. (Groenplaats 21; 32-3-213-99-51; open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays and holidays 1 to 4 p.m.)
Antwerp handles more than half of the world's diamonds, so if you own an engagement ring or a set of diamond earrings, there's a good chance it was produced here. There are plenty of stores across the city if you want to buy jewelry, but if you just want to enjoy the sparkle, visit (and maybe learn a bit at) the Diamantpaviljoen at the Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS). (Hanzestedenplaats 1; 32-3-338-4434; open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m.)
Peter Paul Rubens is Antwerp's most famous and beloved native son (even though he was actually born in Germany, he spent most of his life in Antwerp), and his life and art are celebrated at the Rubenshuis, his former home. Visitors can tour the elegant rooms where Rubens ate, slept and painted; view items from his art collection (plus many of his own works); and then explore the house's Flemish-Italian Renaissance garden. (Wapper 9 - 11; open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 32-3-201 1555)
Standing guard over the Scheldt River like the castle it once was, the Steen is Antwerp's oldest building, built around 1200 and later converted into a prison. Today it is a visitor center and cafe aimed at children and may be a useful refuge if yours get fed up with medieval ladies and Rubens' nudes. (Steenplein 1; 32-3-201-9340; open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
The Rockox House is less well known than Rubens' house but deserves a visit. There, you will see how one of Rubens' wealthy patrons lived. Nicolaas Rockox (1560 - 1640) was an Antwerp merchant and sometime city mayor. He was also an avid art and coin collector. The house contains works by Brueghels, Rubens and Van Dyck, as well as enough 16th- and 17th-century furniture to make it still feel like a home. The courtyard garden has recently been reconstructed. (Keizerstraat 12; 32-3-201-9250; open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m., closed some holidays.)
The 163-year-old Antwerp Zoo, located just behind the glorious Central Station, is home to 5,000 animals from around the world -- including giraffes, elephants, hippos and several species of penguins. (Koningin Astridplein 26, +2 3 202 4540, daily from 10 a.m., various closing times throughout the year)
For big-name fashion, try the boutiques on and around Nationalestraat (where you'll also find the MoMu Fashion Museum at number 28). European department stores sit behind the historic facades on elegant, pedestrian-only Meir, where the rent is supposedly so high -- between $40,000 and $66,000 per month -- that most actually lose money.
Zurenborg, an elegant residential neighborhood just north of the Berchem train station, is a showcase of Art Nouveau architecture. Like many newly emerged countries at the end of the 19th-century, Belgium celebrated its newfound sense of identity in Art Nouveau. It was a very costly style. Look for wrought-iron individual balconies, vividly colored mosaics, stained-glass windows and curving facades. The largest, most opulent mansions can be found along Cogels-Osylei, but the smaller houses along the nearby side streets also have interesting and intricate architectural details.
Take a day trip to Ghent, about a 45-minute train ride from Antwerp Centraal. In the Middle Ages, Ghent was one of Europe's most powerful mercantile cities thanks to its thriving textile trade. Today, you can still visit the 15th-century Cloth Hall and a magnificent cathedral, St. Bavo's, that contains "The Mystic Lamb" by Hubrecht and Jan van Eyck, recognized as the principal work of the Flemish school in the 15th century.
For a small city, Antwerp has a surprising number and variety of restaurants, ranging from gourmet dining to tiny waffle shops. Local specialties include mussels and fries (moules et frites); seafood, in general, is excellent. For sheer variety, browse the narrow medieval streets surrounding the cathedral. If you don't see something that really catches your eye, move on.
Zuiderterras is right on the riverfront near the Wandelteras Zuid cruise terminal. This modern black-and-white building was built in 1973 on the site of one of the city's 19th-century customs houses that had recently burned down. Huge plate glass windows over two floors give a great view back over the river. The menu is contemporary Belgian and includes dishes like filet of lamb, wild boar (in season) and the ever-popular fish and chips. It also serves up an excellent selection of fresh main-course salads. (Ernest Van Dijckkaai 37; 32-3-234-1275; open daily from 9 a.m.)
Fiskebar is a noisy, cheerful, white-tiled seafood restaurant at a famous road junction in the Parisian-style design quarter south of the city center. Get there early in the evening, as the place fills up with young fashionistas. (Marnixplaats 12-13; 32-3-257-1367; open, daily from noon.)
Lux is a conversion of a Polish merchant's house overlooking the Bonapartedok. The family made its money fitting out ship's galleys, and Lux's grand staircase reflects how lucrative this business was. The delicious four-course Lux Menu is very good value. Book ahead to get a table in the window upstairs. (Adrian Brouwerstraat 13; 32-3-233-3030; open daily from 6 p.m.)
Brasserie Appelmans & Absinthe Bar is named after the master builder of the cathedral and built over a medieval wine cellar. (Papenstraatje 1; 32-3- 226-20 22; open daily from 6 p.m.)
The lengthy menu at Del Sud Classico includes two pages of pizza options alone, along with other Italian favorites like calzones and pasta. Inside it's warm and homely, with brick walls and murals of Italian life. (Oude Koornmarkt 5; 32-3-226-5245; open daily from 11:30 a.m.)
Tucked away on a cobblestone side street just next to the Cathedral is Het Vermoeide Model, where light lunch options include omelets and croque monsieur sandwiches. (Heartier dishes are also available.) One half is an art gallery, and the other is a restaurant/tavern with brick walls, wood fixtures, plenty of green plants and a warm ambience. (Lijnwaadmarkt 2; 32-3-233-5261; open daily for lunch and dinner.)
For sheer style, Restaurant Kathedraalcafe is hard to beat. This small brick house is crammed full of religious statuary and has a theatrical feel. It serves bistro meals and snacks. (Torlburg 10; 32-3-289-3466; open weekdays from noon, weekends from 11 a.m.)
Cheap little waffle houses can be found on every other corner in Antwerp, but, for one of the best, try the tearoom known as Desire de Lille. There, fluffy waffles are topped with ice cream, fresh fruit or simple powdered sugar. Salads and light snacks are also available, and there's a garden, too. (Schrijnwerkersstraat 14 - 18; 32-3-233-6226; open from 9 a.m.)
Best Deal: Hilton Antwerp Hotel has been built behind the facade of the city's Grand Bazaar on Groenplaats. It's a central and convenient hotel with a great executive floor if you want to come in for a quick free snack before setting off again. (Groenplaats 32; 32-3-204-1212)
Best for Style: The Glorious Inn is just three totally over-the-top rooms above a fashionable bar restaurant in the Zuid fashion district. It's a stylish experience you'll never forget. Check out its Web site first to see if Will Eerens is your kind of designer. (De Burburestraat 4a; 32 -3-237-0613)
Best for Shopping: Hotel Les Nuits is a series of rooms immediately above Flamant Dining, which, in turn, is above Flamant -- one of Antwerp's best design shops. (Lange Gasthuisstraat 12; 32 3 225 02 04)
Staying in Touch
One convenient Internet cafe is Famous Cyber at 92 Nationalestraat.
Best for First-Timers: A walking tour of Antwerp's Old Town gives a good introduction to the city. Tours include a visit to the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp's main square and City Hall. (River cruisers will find a similar half-day walking tour -- sometimes including visits to the Steen or the Rubenshuis -- included in their itineraries.)
Best for History Buffs: During World War II, Belgian resistance fighters were imprisoned by the Germans in the Breendock SS Transit Camp, once a Belgian army base. Today, you can visit the Breendonk Fort National Memorial and tour the well-preserved barracks, which were home to more than 3,500 prisoners. The tour concludes with a half-hour walking tour of Antwerp.
Best for Chocoholics: Travel by bus to explore the medieval city of Ghent, and get a taste of Belgian chocolate. The excursion begins with a walking tour to see three medieval steeples, followed by a canal boat cruise through the city. The walking tour then continues to a chocolate factory where you'll learn how Belgian chocolate is made. There is free time for shopping before returning to the ship.
For More Information
On the Web:
Tourism Antwerp and Belgium Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe
Independent Traveler: Belgium
--by Adrian Mourby, Cruise Critic contributor