(Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information after several trips to Antwerp. This is the second in a series of quick-trips we believe better reflect the expat lifestyle in Europe. You can read the first installment, a quick trip to Düsseldorf, here.)
One of the best parts of our expat lifestyle is instant access to Europe’s wondrous cities. Unfortunately, we tend to zip in and out on business, or over a weekend.
There are cities that must be explored (Paris, Berlin and Rome). But there are also cities where you can have a terrific adventure in a few hours.
So we’ve created a different sort of travel series that better reflects our expat lifestyle than the “we went there for a week and it was beautiful” conventional story.
Next stop, Antwerp.
We rarely say this, but don’t go.
As we reported last year Antwerp is a city in the middle of the biggest makeover in Europe … by a mile.
Our group – co-CEO Cheryl Boyd, business partner Nancy Wellendorf Church and I – headed to Antwerp on the recommendation of our friend and fellow expat Charlie De Wilde, who went to university there and loves it.
But when we tried to get to the Jansplein parking garage on the north side of the city, we discovered the roads literally had been removed. Okaaay.
When we finally made it to centrum (by driving at least once the wrong way on a one-way street), we discovered Leien Boulevard is missing through the middle of the main business district. At the time, you couldn’t drive down De Leien District (also called “The Boulevard”), the series of streets connecting north Antwerp with south, between the Violierstraat and the Maria Theresialei.
You can see more details here about the various construction phases.
Once we got parked in the Diamant parking garage behind the central train station, we were off and running.
Compared to sleek Scandinavian cities such as Stockholm, or Dutch cities such as Den Haag and Utrecht, Antwerp doesn’t make a great first impression. It’s a bit shabby around the central train station as you enter the Diamond District, where maybe 80 percent of the various parts of the global diamond trade – cutting, polishing and wholesale distribution – is centered. It’s not until you walk all the way west into the elegant Old City around the Cathedral of Our Lady can you see how absolutely splendid this city is.
But first, the Diamond District: This is the center of Antwerp’s Jewish and Lebanese Maronite communities, who control most of the business. This gives Antwerp, arguably Europe’s most mixed city behind Marseille, an exotic buzz as you see groups of men and boys from the various ultra-orthodox communities wearing the distinctive fur hats of the Satmar and Lubavitcher Hasidim and clothing literally out of 17th century Poland and Hungary.
As an ethnic American Jew, I suddenly realized how un-Jewish I really am. And we came away realizing how homogeneous (read “white”) the Netherlands really is compared to Belgium.
The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie
Walking north from the Diamond District takes you straight to Koningin Astridplein, toward the heart of Antwerp’s shopping district. On this square are the zoo and the bizarre facade of Antwerpen-Centraal, the central train station. You can’t miss its eclectic Belgian architecture with an exterior that’s post-Haussmann Paris meets Hogwarts, all pilaster towers and arches.
When you enter the train station itself, you discover Antwerp has a “wow” factor left over from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of this port’s many historic boom times.
The station is cavernous, ornate and crazy cool. Go up the stairs to the right of the main entrance, and you’re at Le Royal Café, one of those places where you just have to leave your “I’m an expat adventurer” ambivalence at the door and experience it like a giddy tourist.
The centerpiece is a giant clock surrounded by gilded curlycues, arches and two giant two-story mirrors. There are several incongruous recent additions including a central dining booth and a backlit bar.
Cheryl got a “crispy sandwich,” sort of salad-stuffed lavash, and Nancy and I got wine. The food was good, as was the wine and the tab came to maybe 50 euros, so it wasn’t inexpensive. But eating and drinking is really beside the point, here. This is a place where you start to understand how glamorous it must have been to be part of the haute bourgeoisie in, say, 1910.
Speaking of the bourgeoisie, though this is Belgium, Antwerp has much more of a Parisian feel than any of the other cities in the region, even Brussels.
The wide boulevards, architecture and courtyards off the main shopping district keep you wondering if you should have made a left turn at Albuquerque …. and then you wander into Chinatown.
Just across Koningin Astridplein from the zoo and the central station are blocks of authentic Chinese restaurants down to the Beijing ducks hanging in the windows as well as Asian and Indian markets. You can’t miss the giant Chinese arch at the entrance, and It’s worth a trip to Antwerp just for this.
If you have kids, the Antwerp Zoo is another great reason to visit. Add to that everything from terrific shopping to tours of Europe’s second-largest port behind nearby Rotterdam.
Just not right now ….
As we said in our first Quick Trips post, we go to cities for five experiences, and they’re all here.
1 – Museums/zoos
2 – Shopping
3 – Dining and drinking
4 – General hanging out
5 – Ambiance/architecture
So, let’s see how Antwerp rates:
Museums/Zoos – 9 out of 10
Antwerp has one of the best zoos in Europe. We first visited back in 2004, and it was terrific. What was even better – one of the docents ended up giving us a private behind-the-scenes tour of the giraffe house. When we returned last month, the zoo was full of activity and people.
This is a 175-year-old city zoo – one of the oldest in the world – so it’s not as modern as the best in Europe, such as Basel and Tiergarten Schoenbrunn in Vienna. But it’s constantly updated, with lots of great attractions such as the new indoor butterfly garden.
Like every other European city, Antwerp has great museums and culture. One of the newest destinations in Antwerp is the Museum ann de Stroom, or MAS. This is new, sort of like the Louvre of Belgium.
• is 10-floors high with an observation deck on top
• has 5,700 m² (60,000 square feet) of exhibition space
• receives 650,000 visitors on an annual basis
• has 500,000 changing collection pieces
Dining and drinking – 9 out of 10
As with every European city, food is an art and dining is an experience. BUT, Antwerp has something a lot of other cities don’t … an authentic Chinatown – the only one in Belgium – on Van Wesenbekestraat right on the edge of the central square and the major shopping district.
I went back to my written-on-the-run notes where I had scribbled ecstatic entries such as “fried quail with pepper and salt!”; “smoked duck and ribs!”; “Go back to Lung Wah restaurant!” and “grocery after grocery with bags all in Mandarin!” So many exclamation marks, so little time.
We returned at Christmas, then again at New Year’s, eating in Chinatown both times. Fang’s and the China Star both have fabulous food and pages and pages of offerings ranging from a few euros for appetizers to 25 euros-plus for Beijing duck and other delicacies. A huge lunch – at least eight dishes in toto – for four with beer at Fang’s came to 60 euros! If you want atmosphere, go with China Star. If you want to eat where the local eats, Fang’s only has a few tables.
We didn’t even get to the Belgian beers …
Ambiance/architecture – 9 out of 10
Though Antwerp, like Rotterdam, was bombed during World War II, it’s a lot more intact than Rotterdam. Well, it was until several simultaneous projects started in 2017 including the Ringland Project and the Oosterweel Link.
So, this is a city of the future … with better transportation circulation and the same interesting Belgian fin de siecle architecture.
Yet, if you love Belle-Époque/Beaux-Arts fin-de-siecle and Medieval buildings, this is your town.
The shopping streets are elegant, with two-story tall doors leading into quiet alcoves and courtyards. A lot of the best stores are in Beaux-Arts buildings, and the Palais op de Meir is an actual 350-year-old palace complex that now houses a brassiere, a boutique chocolatier/production facility, an events space and an interior-design store.
Then there’s the Old Town, with buildings dating back to the 13th century. You can talk about Brugge all you want, and it is beautiful. But this is a magnificent living city, not a museum.
Run-down areas around the edge keep it from scoring a 10.
Shopping – 8 out of 10
Düsseldorf has its Königsallee Mile of Materialism and Paris has the Champ- Élysées. Antwerp doesn’t really have anything to compare. Though the Schuttershofstraat area in the Wilde Zee has an Hermès store and other top-end retailers.
Stadfeestzaal mall is pretty amazing. This urban mall has about 40 stores including an Urban Outfitters, which you don’t see every day in Europe. It also has Fait d’Anvers, above, a food arena if there ever was one … part restaurant, part wrap-around stage, and all under a golden dome. You almost have to see it to understand … which is why we included a snapshot.
General hanging out – 7 out of 10
Our experience is, people in Antwerp – and in Belgium as a whole – tend to be more reserved than where we live in the Netherlands. That said, we met a young 20-something Flemish couple who was defiantly slung up on big couches at the entrance to Café Impérial, this impossibly snooty restaurant and café with a beautiful courtyard that’s part of the Palais op de Meir complex.
We liked their style.
They told us they find Antwerp to be more fun than Brussels, more walkable and lively. They were not happy about multiple construction projects hitting all at one time, but felt it might be better to just get it over. Their completion date was 2019, but “we’re skeptical” said the young man.
“It seems like forever,” said the young woman.
Our Dutch friends say the Belgians are – despite being next door – the people least like them. More a Romance/French attitude, and Antwerp has a French insouciance.
Bonus – Fashion
Antwerp is not just a diamond center and an important port. It’s also a fashion center. Back in the 1990s, The Antwerp Six came to redefine European fashion as not just a French and Italian thing. The most famous of the six is Dries Van Noten, who maintains an atelier in Antwerp.
Bonus Bonus – The central train station has a dozen interesting retail concepts including The Play Ground, a coffee shop where teens collect to play cards, board games and chess. A rejection of the Digital Age brewing?
THUMBS UP OR THUMBS DOWN?
Six enthusiastic thumbs up. This is a city we can’t stop visiting, and our daughter went with her international-school friends for a few days post-graduation.
Overall, Belgium gets a bum rap as an unremarkable destination compared to France. And maybe it is.
But Belgium is smack dab in the middle of Europe’s largest concentration of expats, from Amsterdam to Paris. We rate Antwerp, along with Ghent and Brugge, as among the most satisfying places to spend a day, a weekend or a week.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.