By Gregory – What do style, fashion, art, culture, diamonds, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle have in common? New York, Paris or perhaps London? Could be…but I’m thinking about Antwerp. A city of just 512,000 inhabitants but which has a lot to offer – more than anyone might think. Most people travelling to Belgium only visit Brussels or Bruges and that’s a shame. Not that those cities don’t have a lot to offer, but Antwerp is different. Different in so many ways.
Let’s start with Antwerp’s main railway station, Antwerpen Centraal. Travelling to Antwerp has to be by train. Not just because it’s convenient and brings you straight into the center but because this station is an incredible attraction all on its own. This architectural masterpiece, in eclectic style, was built between 1895 and 1905 by Louis Delacenserie and Clement van Bogaert. Both were inspired by the station in Luzern and the Pantheon in Rome. The station building consists of a vast dome made out of bricks and stone above the ticket hall and waiting room areas, and an iron and glass arched train shed, 185 meters long and 44 meters high.
In 1998 major transformation work began to convert the station from a terminus to a through station allowing high-speed trains from Paris to Amsterdam to stop at Antwerp en route. Today the station consists of six terminating tracks in the original train shed, four terminating tracks on level 1 below ground and four through-tracks on level 2 below ground.
In 2009 the American magazine Newsweek judged Antwerpen-Centraal the world’s fourth greatest train station, and in 2010 this impressive building was chosen as the most beautiful station in Europe.
A short walk from the Central Station brings you to the heart of Antwerp’s Diamond District. Diamonds have been cut, polished and traded in Antwerp since 1447. With 80% of the world’s rough diamonds and 50% of the cut diamonds passing through Antwerp this city is truly a girl’s best friend!
And what would a nice diamond be without a nice dress? Exactly! Since the late 1980s, Antwerp has become synonymous with all talk about fashion. The city became famous for what is today called the ‘Antwerp Six’ when Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries van Noten, Dirk van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and Ann Demeulemeester graduated from Antwerp’s Fashion Academy and went on a trip to London to show their wares at the British Design Show. After spending time working in studios from Milan and Paris to London, they returned home with bags of creativity and knowledge, turning their city into a fashion hotspot. The ModeNatie, a ‘temple’ for the fashion industry houses the Fashion Department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the Fashion Museum (MoMu) and the Flanders Fashion Institute. Today the city is a hive for talent and creativity, leading to the opening of numerous fashion boutiques on the cities 19th century cobbled stone streets. In Antwerp, you dress to impress!
Impressive too is the diversity of museums in the city. In Antwerp you will find historic houses where you can soak up the atmosphere of the past, or enjoy the best of the present – whether your interests lie in lifestyle, literature or music, contemporary art or photography. A brand new museum, Museum aan de Stroom (MAS), explores the history of the city and Antwerp’s hugely important maritime heritage. And of course there’s the house of the famous master painter Rubens. It’s nearly impossible not to find a museum or gallery that does not appeal to you.
If that’s not your thing, then just go for a walk on Antwerp’s streets. The architecture will amaze you. Old medieval buildings sit in harmony next to modern ones. A great example is the new Justice Palace. This modern building made out of steel, glass and wood has some similarities with the Sydney Opera House.
Top of the list of “must sees” is the ‘Grote Markt’ where you will be surrounded by the City Hall, guild houses and the impressive cathedral, all in splendid gothic, baroque and renaissance style.
When night falls, that’s when Antwerp really wakes up. This is the time when the city gets into full swing. A night out in Antwerp starts with a good meal in one of the numerous restaurants and brasseries, but certainly doesn’t end there. Is theatre your thing? deSingel is an art site for theater, dance, music and architecture for a broad art-loving public. Or rather go for a drink? Head south to ‘t Zuid – as locals call it – for a night that never ends. Enjoy an authentic Belgian beer or a cocktail on one of the numerous terraces or let yourself be carried away by the rhythms of the many clubs in the north of the city, an area called ‘t Eilandje. Here, clubbing meets history as many disused warehouses from Antwerp’s original port have been transformed into nightclubs. Trendy. Funky. Hot.
And when you wake up the next day, you will wonder if it was all a dream, a dream too good to be true. A dream about a city, just like a diamond full of surprises. Forever shining.