We visited Antwerp twice during the course of the last year. We loved it so much that we started picturing ourselves living there: morning runs in the Middleheim park, weekly dinners at our favorite restaurant, bike rides to work- stuff like that. We wanted to spend more time there, to feel the vibe of the city, hence our twice-in-a-year score. Our first visit to Antwerp in October last year was kind of improvised- we wanted to get away for a couple of days, found a flight from Pula to Brussels and decided to make a little road trip out of it, which included Brussels, Antwerp, Utrecht and Waterloo.
We did have some trouble finding the apartment in Antwerp, as everything nice and affordable was apparently booked, but we decided to stretch our budget a bit on behalf of comfort. We ended up in amazing town house, so beautifully decorated that it would fit perfecly the pages of some interior design magazine, with luxurious room and a view of the neighbouring forest park. Our hosts were a source of usefull information about the city and served the tastiest breakfast in their classy dining room (think arguably the best croissants in Antwerp, a selection of tasty jams and juices and inevitable pot of tea).
The house was close enough to the city center that we parked our car in front of the house and didn't use it again till the day of our departure. With Antwerp city bikes (called Velo bikes), the car was unnecessary. There are bike stations literally on every corner of the city, and for 3.80 Euros a day, you got your transportation in Antwerp covered. There is an organized network of bike lanes and cyclists definitely have a priviledged status in the city transport system. From the area we covered with bikes, it seemed that you can be anywhere in the city within 20 minutes ride.
Our hosts offered suggestions on what to visit, and the crown jewel of their recommendations (and Antwerp as a whole) was the Middleheim park. Situated on the outskirts of the central Antwerp, it functions both as a park and one of the oldest open air museums in the world. We were taken there by our host on a foggy October morning, which made the first impression to be even more enchanting than it might have been on a sunny day. As we walked trough the park, unexpected views kept opening in front of us: there were Rodin's Honore Balsac, Juan Munoz's figures trapped on the trees, Giacomo Manzu's Cardinal, just to name a few. Then there were contemporary instalations and sculptures which left us in awe: Honore d'O's Shouting is breathing (a giant network of wires and motors that makes the tree braches vibrate), Antony Gormley's Firmament III (a three dimensional net of stainless steel), Erwin Wurm's Misconceivable (a bended sailingboat which deviates subtly from the reality)... All in all, a morning spent there was not enough. So we went another day with our Velo bikes, and enjoyed art while cycling (sounds familiar?). If you find yourself in or around Antwerp, take some time to visit this park. It will pay off, and not just because the entrance is free of charge. :)
Antwerp is loaded with museums, and we got to see a couple of them the first time we visited. The Plantin-Moretus museum ranked as one of the most important Antwerp museums, so we decided to pay it a visit. Once the first industrial printing house in the world (founded in 1555), now it hosts a collection of oldest printing presses in the world, typographic material, art, books, and also period rooms with Rubens's artwork. It was protected by Unesco in 2005, and completely renovated in 2016.
Except for the museums, strolling around the city and admiring its architecture is worth a day of sightseeing. Grote Markt (the main square) reminiscents medieval times, with its medieval guildhalls and a town hall which is one of the first examples of Renaissance architecture in the Low Countries. A couple of minutes walk from the Grote Markt is a hidden 16th century alley called Vlaeykensgang- once a place where shoemakers and the poorest city dwellers lived, now a hip secluded street with restaurants and shops in a medieval atmosphere.
One of the unmissable stops in Antwerp is its Central Train Station, built in 1905 in eclectic turn-of-the-century style. Our first glimpse of it was by night, which made it even more magical- we marvelled at the lighting on the red steel construction, and the recently built levels below the ground where trains kept coming and going. We visited it by day as well, just to see what daily light brings to its glass and steel construction.
One morning before breakfast, our host offered to take us to see the Cogels-Osylei street, famous for its grand turn-of-the-century houses. He drove us around, showed us the street, and while he went to grab those delicious croissants for breakfast, we had some time to admire and photograph the houses. Photos don't do them justice, especially not on a cloudy day like we had, but there were some seriously interesting (and romantic!) round windows, golden sunflowers, representations of seasons of the year, mosaics and entire flow of refined ornaments for which the peirod is known for.
It wouldn't be a complete post about Antwerp if I hadn't mention how amazing the food is there. I've heard before opinions on Belgian food to be boring and tasteless, which was so off according to our experience. We got hooked on waffles, stews, beer (that's food as well, right?), mussels, frites, all traditional Belgian, but also on falafel, burgers, fish and chips... A place called Falafel Tof got us excited about vegetarian dishes- tasty and colorful vegetable sides, crispy potatoes with sauces and falafel of course. A place called Brutal got us excited about Thai Boulabaise, burgers, stew and the best yoghurt, clementines, crumble and mint desert. And a place called Bia Mara got us excited about proper British fish and chips with tasty dips (think truffles with mayonaisse). We loved the diversity of diferent cuisines, reflecting diversity among Belgians, a thing not that common back at home.
In those three days we got to know the city pretty well, thanks to the fact that we cycled to almost all of the places we wanted to see. We decided we'll be back, and so we were, about half a year later. In one of my next posts, I'll write about our second visit to Antwerp.
Have you ever been to Antwerp? Or plan to visit? I would really love to read some thoughts or tips on this amazing city.