Arriving in Antwerp, I was instantly struck by the clash of worlds that exists in the city. In the main square, tourists can find the quaint chocolate-box vision of Belgium – synonymous with places like Brussels and Bruges. Over at the city’s port they can get an insight into the importance of Antwerp as a trading power. Meanwhile the buzz around The Zuit neighbourhood nods to Antwerp’s trendy, design-led future.
I’d wanted to go to Antwerp for some time. Studying fashion, I was aware of the city’s importance in the world of art and design, which emanates from the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. In fashion circles, the Academy is best known as the creative playground of “The Antwerp Six”. This group of fashion designers, which includes Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, rose to prominence thanks to their radical approach to design in the 1980s.
We were only in the Netherlands for one weekend. So, we planned to spend just 24-hours across the border in Antwerp. With our limited time, I was grateful that one the highlights of the trip came as soon as I stepped off the train. I definitely have a thing for train stations; The hoards of people in transit and the anticipation of what awaits you in your new destination is something that never fails to excite me. I’ve marvelled at the marble concourse at Grand Central, been welcomed by the gothic grandeur of St. Pancras, and have special a place in my heart for Milan’s Art Deco-Art Nouveau termini which was spearheaded by Mussolini himself. But Antwerp Central – or Antwerpen-Centraal – is something else.
It seems architects spared no expense on the grand station’s waiting hall. Designed by Louis Delacenserie in 1905, the hall is covered by a vast glass dome which allows light to flood across every intricately decorated surface.
After a good 15 minutes spent standing in awe in the train station concourse, we headed over to the Eilandje district to eye up one of the prettiest views in Antwerp. Here, situated on the banks of the mighty River Scheldt, is the striking Museum aan de Stroom – or MAS. The postmodern building is comprised of Indian red sandstone and curved glass panels, which sure helps it stand out against its modest surroundings.
With the clock ticking, we skipped the exhibitions and headed straight to the top floor of the structure, where – on the 10th floor – there’s a viewing deck which overlooks the entire city. From up here you can also get a bird’s eye view of Luc Tuymans’ Dead Skull mosaic in the square below. Although we didn’t see any of the galleries, the museum itself looked interesting and is focused on the history of Antwerp. If we’d have had longer I would have liked to have spent the afternoon in there, but sadly we had to move on.
Next we headed to Grote Markt, Antwerp’s main square, and then onto the Cathedral of Our Lady. After taking in the majestic Belgian architecture, we only had one thing on our minds – frites. Chips, fries, frites; No matter what you call them, there’s no denying these deep fried potato oblongs are delicious. Mouths salivating, we headed to the nearby Frituur No°1. What I liked about this place was that it looked largely unchanged since the 1950s. Chips are the food of the people, and as such I prefer my dispensaries to be unpretentious. As a northerner, I usually prefer my chips swimming in gravy, but this time I opted for the Belgian way and added a health dollop of mayonnaise and curry sauce instead.
Bellies filled with fried goodness, we were now prepped to drink. Belgium is a haven for beer drinkers so we were unprecious about which establishments we frequented. The next few hours were a haze of De Koninck, Delirium and Seef. I’m not ashamed to admit that my rumbling stomach was the only thing to awake me from my merry stupour. Falafal was calling.
For our late night snack we headed to Falafel Tof. I couldn’t recommend this place enough. The decor had a cool, understated vibe. Moreover, the Lebanese man behind the counter was warm and welcoming, despite our drunken demeanour. The food is all fresh and organic. After choosing your sandwich filling you can stuff it with a range of leaves, pickles and sauces. So, so good.
The next day we arose as early as our hangover would allow and headed out for breakfast. We stumbled upon a little place called Barnini. The cafe features a cute, retro-inspired interior and serves good fresh coffee and tasty bagels.
After eating we headed for the Sint Anna Pedestrian Tunnel. Known as the “Underpass” to the locals, the tunnel connects the city’s left and right banks. For years, authorities had opposed the building of a bridge over the River Scheldt over concerns such a structure would stop ships accessing the port. So, in 1933, the Sint Anna tunnel opened. The tunnel spans 572 metres and can be accessed by two original wooden escalators on either side. With most of old Antwerp situated on the right bank, the gothic spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady dominates the impressive view from the left bank.
We crossed back over the river and spent our remaining few hours in Antwerp wandering around the fashionable Zuit district. Since it was Sunday, there were a couple of flea markets on the go. But, a little shop called Rewind Design was my favourite haunt. The stores sells a range of stylish and sustainable interior design items. Here, I took the opportunity to buy a little memento of our time in Antwerp.
On first impressions, Antwerp is a really vibrant city that seemed to have a lot going on; Great shops, lively bars and an interesting history. I’d definitely like to go back and spend a little bit more time there at one point.