Situated on the eastern bank of the River Scheldt, Antwerp has been an important centre of trade in the Low Countries for centuries and today is famous as one of the world’s most prominent centres for the buying and selling of diamonds.
But there is more to Belgium’s second city than commerce. The architecture ranges from the typically grand Flemish buildings of the Main Square to the strikingly modern law courts designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership. Antwerp also boasts an impressive artistic heritage and was once home to Peter Paul Rubens and his pupil Anthony van Dyck. Today the city - known as Antwerpen in Dutch - is a popular destination for tourists thanks to its many attractions and the fact its small size means it’s easy to explore.
History of Antwerp
Archaeological investigations have shown that Antwerp was inhabited during the Gallo-Roman period around the 2nd century and grew up around two distinct settlements, but it was not until the 12th century that the city began to boom as the silting up of the port at Bruges meant trade flocked to the city from its rival to the west. The growth in commerce meant that by the 14th century Antwerp had become one of the most important trading and financial centres in western Europe.
In the 16th century Antwerp found itself at the centre of political and religious struggles between Protestants and Catholics, which led to the closure of the River Scheldt being closed and an economic disaster for a city so reliant on trade. But despite this Antwerp flourished culturally until the middle of the 17th century thanks to painters like Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and Teniers, and the city’s famous harpsichord makers.
The Scheldt remained closed until after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 and the city became little more than a provincial town. But the reopening of the river led to a short period of renewed prosperity which came to an end with the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and further closure of the Scheldt. The river was finally reopened for good in 1863, paving the way for Antwerp to return to its former glory.
Despite interruptions during the two world wars Antwerp experienced economic growth throughout the 20th century and is today an important port and centre for the diamond trade which draws visitors from across the world.
Five things to do in Antwerp
So you are ready to start your Antwerp adventure. But what are the ‘must see’ attractions that should be on every visitor’s itinerary? Here are five suggestions of things to do during your visit to the city - and a map to help you find your way around.
The Rubenshuis - Rubens House - is the former home and studio of Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. Designed by Rubens himself in the style of an Italian Renaissance palace, the painter spent much of his life here in Antwerp and it was in the studio at the house that much of the work for which he is famous was created.
Sold after the his death in 1640, the property was eventually purchased by the city of Antwerp in 1937 and after a major restoration project it was opened to the public in 1946. Today many works by Rubens and his contemporaries are on show at the house, although the porch and the garden pavilion are now the only authentic remains of the original 17th century building.
Rubenshuis, Wapper 9-11, 2000 Antwerp. Telephone: +32 (0)3 201 15 55
Museum aan de Stroom
Located on the waterfront in Antwerp, the MAS celebrates the stories of the people who helped shape the city down through the centuries. But even if you don’t set foot inside the building itself is well worth seeing. Its design was inspired by a 16th century warehouse and the galleries are stacked up like boxes to create a spiral tower offering constantly changing views of Antwerp below.
Inside the museum’s permanent displays unfold floor by floor, exploring themes such as the display of power, the metropolis, and life and death. In all the museum’s collection contains some 470,000 objects, a fraction of which can be displayed to the public at any one time. As well as artefacts to inform and entertain, the museum has places to eat and a rooftop terrace from which visitors can admire the views of the city.
Museum aan de Stroom, Hanzestedenplaats 1, 2000 Antwerp. Telephone: +32 (0)3 338 44 00
If you are visiting Antwerp as a family then the kids will love a visit to Aquatopia where they can learn all about the different creatures living in watery habitats around the globe. Among the environments for the family to explore are the rainforest, the swamp and the coral reef. Animals you can see at Aquatopia include reef sharks, poisonous frogs and boa constrictors.
Aquatopia, Koningin Astridplein 7, 2018 Antwerp. Telephone: +32 (0)3 205 07 40
Diamond District Tour
Antwerp is one of the world’s leading centres for the diamond trade and billions of dollars worth of precious stones pass through the diamond district every year. Taking a guided tour of the diamond quarter is a great way to learn about the growth of the business and the role it has played in the history of Antwerp.
Setting out from the central station, your guide will take you through the streets of the diamond district and lead you through the fascinating story of the glory days of the trade, the near collapse and the ultimate resurrection of the Antwerp diamond industry in the 19th century. For more information about tours see the Visit Antwerp website.
Central Station, Koningin Astridplein, 2018 Antwerp
For the more adventurous visitors the Ruien, underground waterways beneath the streets of Antwerp originally dug out as fortifications to guard the city, provide a novel way to learn about Antwerp’s past. Previously used as sewers and as a system for regulating water levels against flooding, the Ruien are now more a maze of underground streets that offer a unique perspective on the city above.
Those who wish to explore these underground spaces can join three-hour guided tours. But they are not for everyone. They can be quite arduous and those with a fear of creepy-crawlies might want to give it a miss. But if you are excited about the chance to see beneath the city streets then you can book a place on a tour by calling +32 (0)3 232 01 03.
Ruihuis, Suikerrui 21, 2000 Antwerp
Antwerp is located in the north of Belgium close to the border with the Netherlands. It is easily reached by car if you travel by ferry from Dover to France, being roughly a two hour drive from the port at Calais.
MyFerryLink offers up to 16 sailing between Dover and Calais every day and you can book your crossing from £19 one way by visiting our booking page on the website or by calling 0844 2482 100.
You can find out more about Antwerp on the visit Antwerp website.