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For visitors hoping to experience a slice of Belgian life, the place to go isn't ultra-touristy Brugge or the international capital city of Brussels; it's Antwerp, a mid-sized city in the Flanders region. Though it receives its share of visitors, drawn to its medieval guild houses and impressive art collections, Antwerp tends to fly a bit under the tourist radar -- and that means that here, everyday life goes on largely undisturbed by camera-toting hordes. Jewish parents push strollers through Stadspark in the heart of the city's Hasidic quarter, while shoppers browse the fashionable boutiques on Nationalestraat and businesspeople enjoy local brews over lunch in bustling pubs across the city.
The simple, everyday pleasures of life here make Antwerp one of Belgium's most accessible cities, but that doesn't mean that it's ordinary -- in fact, as the locals would be proud to tell you, it's anything but. The city's biggest claim to fame is its key role in the diamond industry; jewelers here handle more than half of the world's rough, polished and industrial diamonds, and the label "Cut in Antwerp" commands international respect.
Antwerp is also home to one of the preeminent collections of artwork by the painter Peter Paul Rubens, who spent much of his life here. Visitors can tour the house where he ate, slept and painted his famously curvy women, and then check out samples of his work in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and the Cathedral of Our Lady. A more modern type of art can be found across town in the stylish residential neighborhood of Zurenborg, where most opulent mansions are graced with mosaics, stained glass and other Art Nouveau flourishes.
Antwerpians are justifiably proud of their city, not only for its diamonds and its art but also for its thriving Flemish identity. Belgium has long been governed by a French-speaking minority, but 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 in recent years has pushed an anti-French agenda and campaigned for Flemish independence.
While most Antwerpians do not hold such extreme views, there is still a lingering rivalry within Belgium between Flanders and the French-speaking province of Wallonie. 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 • Brussels • Dublin • Edinburgh • Ghent • Hamburg • Holyhead • Lisbon • Liverpool • London • London (Dover) • London (Harwich) • London (Southampton) • Newcastle • Paris • Paris (Le Havre) • Paris (Rouen) • Prague • Rotterdam • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vigo
The official language is Flemish, a variant of Dutch. Many people here speak at least a little English. For the reasons noted above, you may wish to avoid speaking French.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro, which you can get from the many ATM's throughout the city. The Fortis Bank on Melkmarkt and Lijnwaadmarkt is convenient to Grote Markt and the Cathedral. For up-to-the-minute conversions, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
The ultimate Antwerpian souvenir is jewelry from the city's famous diamond district -- but if your budget isn't quite up to it, you may want to opt for chocolates instead. "Antwerp hands" (cookies in the shape of hands) are a popular treat.
Watch Out For
Belgium's changeable climate sees its share of rain. Pack both an umbrella and a pair of sunglasses, and be prepared to use both (occasionally in a span of only a few minutes!).
Where You're Docked
Larger ships dock along the Wandelteras Zuid, which is only about a five-minute walk from the city center. Cabs line up outside the terminal.
Smaller ships dock at Kattendijkook or Willemdok, both about a 15- to 20-minute walk from the city center. Your ship's reception staff can call a taxi if you don't wish to walk.
Wandelteras Zuid is right downtown, giving you easy access to the National Maritime Museum, Grote Markt (the main square), the Cathedral and other attractions in the historic part of town.
There's not much to do near Kattendijkook or Willemdok, so if you're docked there, your best bet is to walk or take a cab into the city center.
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. Tickets are 20 percent cheaper when purchased in advance rather than from the driver. A single ride is 1.20 euros (about $1.55) in advance or 1.60 euros ($2.07) from the driver. You can also buy a 24-hour card for 5 euros ($6.46) in advance or 6 euros ($7.75). Advance tickets are available at public transportation stations, supermarkets or 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.
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 goes that a giant called Druoon Antigoon used to guard the Schelde 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, and took revenge by cutting off the giant's hand and throwing it in the river. To this day, the hand is the symbol of Antwerp (the city's name literally means "hand throwing" in Dutch).
The massive Cathedral of Our Lady (Groenplaats 21, +32-3-213-99-51, Monday - Friday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., Sundays and holidays 1 - 4 p.m.) took 169 years to build, beginning in 1352. Today its 403-ft.-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."
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. You can add something sparkly to your collection from one of the many jewelry stores in the Diamond District, spanning several streets near Central Station. For more information about the industry, visit the Diamond Museum (Koningin Astridplein 19-23, +32-3-202-4890, Thursday - Tuesday 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.), where you can learn how the stones are processed and see examples of unique diamond jewelry.
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 here), and his life and art are celebrated at the Rubenshuis (Wapper 9 - 11, +32-3-201 1555), his former home. Visitors can tour the elegant rooms where Rubens ate, slept and painted, and then wander the colorful paths of the house's Flemish-Italian Renaissance garden.
Standing guard over the Schelde 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 houses the National Maritime Museum (Steenplein 1, Tuesday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., +32-3-201-9340), which includes exhibits on fishing, shipbuilding and Belgian naval history.
The neo-Classical Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Plaatsnijdersstraat 2, +32-3-238-7809, Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.) houses an extensive collection of work by Rubens, including the magnificent frescoes in the entrance hall. Other Flemish masters are also well represented, such as Jan van Eyck and the Brueghels.
Been There, Done That
The 163-year-old Antwerp Zoo (Koningin Astridplein 26, +32 3 202 4540, daily from 10 a.m., various closing times throughout the year), located just behind Central Station, is home to 5,000 animals from around the world. Giraffes, elephants, hippos and several species of penguins are perennial crowd pleasers.
If you're looking to do a little shopping, grab your credit card and head downtown. For high fashion, try the boutiques on and around Nationalestraat (where you'll also find the MoMu Fashion Museum at number 28). Big-name European department stores fill the elegant historic buildings along the pedestrian-only Meir, where the rent is supposedly so high -- between $40,000 and $66,000 per month -- that most of the stores here actually lose money.
On a sunny day, head for the green lawns of the Stadspark, or City Park (Rubenslei). It's located in the heart of Antwerp's Jewish quarter, and is a prime strolling spot for the Orthodox families who live nearby. During Rosh Hashana, many Jews pray around the pond, symbolically drowning their sins by throwing pieces of bread into the water.
Hop a tram to Zurenborg, an elegant residential neighborhood just north of the Berchem train station. Magnificent Art Nouveau architecture is on display in the houses here: wrought-iron 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 often have more interesting and intricate architectural details.
Take a day trip to Ghent, about a 45-minute train ride from Antwerp (note that you'll depart from Berchem Station, not the more conveniently located Central Station). In the Middle Ages, Ghent was one of most Europe's most powerful cities thanks to its thriving textile trade. Today, you can still visit the 15th-century Cloth Hall, where merchants once gathered to store and trade the city's prime export.
For a small city, Antwerp has a surprising number and variety of restaurants, ranging from gourmet dining establishments to tiny waffle shops. Local specialties include mussels, Belgian fries and, of course, the ubiquitous waffles.
Right on the riverfront near the cruise terminal is Zuiderterras (Ernest Van Dijckkaai 37, +32-3-234-1275, from 9 a.m.), a modern black and white building designed to resemble a cruise ship. The menu is contemporary Belgian and includes dishes like filet of lamb and the ever-popular fish and chips. In the summer there's also an excellent selection of fresh salads.
The lengthy menu at Del Sud Classico (Oude Koornmarkt 5, +32-3-226-5245, daily from 11:30 a.m.) includes two pages of pizza options alone, along with other Italian favorites like calzones and pasta. Inside it's warm and homey, with brick walls and murals of Italian life on the walls, while outside is a lovely view of the Cathedral.
If you're looking to try traditional Belgian fries, there's no better place than Frituur Number One (Hoogstraat 1, open 24 hours), which is hugely popular among locals and visitors alike. Remember that Belgian-style fries come with mayonnaise, not ketchup.
Tucked away on a cobblestone side street just around the corner is the Cathedral is Angelot (Lijnwaadmarkt 10 - 12, +32-3-231-4757, open daily for lunch and dinner), where light lunch options include omelets and croque monsieur sandwiches (heartier dishes are also available). Brick walls, wood fixtures and plenty of green plants give it a warm, elegant ambience.
Cheap little waffle houses can be found on every other corner in Antwerp, but for the real deal head to the tearoom at Desire de Lille (Schrijnwerkersstraat 14 - 18, +32-3-233-6226, from 9 a.m.). Delicious fluffy waffles are topped with ice cream, fresh fruit or simple powdered sugar. Salads and light snacks are also available, and there's a lovely garden.
For Art Lovers: Follow in the footsteps of Antwerp's most famous artist with the "Antwerp, City of Rubens" tour. Start with a visit to the Rubens House, where the painter lived and worked, and then head to the Old Town to visit the Cathedral of Our Lady, which houses four major paintings by the artist. 3 - 3.5 hours.
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. 3 - 3.5 hours.
For Foodies: Travel by bus to explore the medieval city of Ghent and get "a taste of Belgian waffles" at Max, where the Belgian waffle was invented in 1839 by Max Consael. Your stop includes information on how waffles are made -- and, of course, a sample of the real thing. 4.5 hours.
Staying in Touch
There's an Internet cafe at Megabyte Trading BVBA (9 Kortekoepoort Straat), which charges 1.25 euros (about $1.62) for 30 minutes.
For More Information
On the Web: Tourism Antwerp and Belgian Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe
Independent Traveler: Europe Exchange
--by Sarah Schlichter, Associate Editor for Cruise Critic's sister site, IndependentTraveler.com.