Belgium’s second-most populated city is also the second biggest port in Europe after Rotterdam, but arguably its biggest draw is its diversity. While a number of Jews moved here after the Holocaust, the Armenian population is made up largely of descendants of traders who moved here in the 19th century. The Armenians are noteworthy in Antwerp’s booming diamond trade, which has also drawn several Indians — mostly Jains — to the city. Around $220 million worth of diamonds are said to pass through the Diamond Quarter daily. That means over $16 billion in unpolished diamonds pass through here annually, making it the largest diamond district in the world.
The diamond district is centrally located, a stone’s throw away from the stunning Antwerpen-Centraal station. A 2014 Mashable feature named it the most beautiful railway station in the world, and few might disagree. Originally built between 1895-1905, the whopping structure is split over four levels and has 14 tracks. Bruges-born architect Louis Delacenserie — on the request of King Leopold II — used the station of Lucerne and even Rome’s Pantheon among his inspirations, but it is difficult to assign the structure to a particular style of architecture, given Delacenserie’s eclectic taste.
Interestingly, the locals initially wanted to demolish the structure, because it was too decorative for their liking (that idea was shelved only when the city classified the structure). The stone terminus building — still in excellent condition — has an impressive 75-metre high dome. The structure is not easy to maintain, though. Challenges include acquiring the right materials. The black Belgian marble used, for instance, happens to be the same one used in Napoleon’s tomb in Paris,and isn’t available any more.
Next door is the Antwerp Zoo, established in 1843, making it one of the oldest in the world. Over 950 species are said to reside here, with a new ape enclosure being among the latest attractions for the zoo’s 1.6 million annual visitors. The city centre is also home to Belgium’s only officially recognised Chinatown, which was established in 1970s as a result of Chinese migration after WWII. While this one received its official status in 2001, Belgium’s only other Chinatown — in Brussels — does not hold this distinction.
Walk past the decorative arch to find yourself at Fang’s Hapje – a humble establishment serving the best pork buns and noodle soup. The family that runs it is polite to a fault, and happy to recommend their soup dumplings (a good decision, if you ask me). Across the road, the Sun Wah supermarket is a one-stop shop for staples as well as exotic produce. Think tofu or pork chilli oil, nori chips, kimchi or exotic produce ranging from water spinach to bitter melon.
End your evening further down the road at the Beerlovers Bar, with its wonderful al fresco community tables. The bartenders are friendly and knowledgeable; they do a mighty good job of gauging your preferences and then recommending what to order from their 12 beers on tap and 150-plus bottled brews.
If location is your biggest priority when booking a hotel, don’t look beyond the Queen A Hotel that sits pretty on a bustling curb overlooking Antwerpen-Centraal. Pretty much everything noteworthy is nearby, but that’s not to say that the boutique hotel isn’t great on its own. A new opening, its contemporary rooms feature oak furnishings, fur rugs and kitschy décor, while the café/bar downstairs is a trendy hangout.
Brasserie HOBS — House of Beers is a well-located, contemporary venue that opens for breakfast and invites patrons to stay till late at night. There are meeting rooms and private dining sections as well, but the local fare at HOBS is best enjoyed in the al fresco area, with a glass of beer during Happy Hours. Menu favourites include the all-you-can-eat spare ribs, lasagna and tapas boards.
For dessert, why think beyond waffles? Walk over to Désiré De Lille, a tearoom in the heart of the city, where fresh waffles, pancakes and Lacquemants have been a favourite of locals and tourists alike since 1903.
A few kilometres away, the De Koninck Brewery is a must-visit for any beer lover. It is Antwerp’s only remaining brewery within the city, and has been around since 1833. In fact, it has the second-oldest trade registry number in the city, just after the zoo. The interactive brewery experience is an audio-visual treat that spans 10 rooms and ends in a bar, where you can sample all the brews.
Another highlight, and a meat lover’s paradise, is Black Smoke, a restaurant and bar on the building’s rooftop, where American barbecue forms the core of the menu. Tacos with smoked, pulled beef come highly recommended, but the showstopper is arguably a wall stacked with logs of different kinds of wood, which are used to cook meats for up to 18 hours. Your pork would be best smoked on apple or beech wood, while cherry wood is better suited for poultry.
If there’s one museum you must check out, make it Rubenshuis — the former home and studio of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), arguably the most influential Flemish Baroque artist. On display are not just paintings that depict classical and Christian history, but also altarpieces, furniture and more. Famous works here include his early Adam and Eve. A special ongoing display is of a magnificent Tintoretto altarpiece that was owned by British pop icon David Bowie for over 30 years, and was among the first pieces of art he purchased. At an auction held after his death, the present owner bought it with the view of loaning it to Rubenshuis. Also worth checking out is the Rubenianum, a centre dedicated to the study of Rubens, that is in a building at the rear of the garden.
Start your unofficial walking tour of Antwerp in Groenplats, the city’s main square and transport hub. You’ll recognise it by the statue of the city’s most celebrated citizen, Peter Paul Rubens. Walking north-west from here, you’ll come to the beautiful Antwerp Cathedral that houses the highest church tower (123 metres) in the Benelux Union. Two of Rubens’ most important works — The Raising of the Cross and The Deposition of the Cross — are on display here, as is his Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Grote Markt, a stone’s through away, is a pretty square with rows of typically Flemish houses, the Antwerp City Hall, Brabo Fountain and more. It’s also home to the Antwerp Six — famed designers Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee — who graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts between 1980–81 and burst on to the global fashion scene in 1986, when they rented a truck together and set off for London Fashion Week with their respective collections.