Belgium’s unique character and two-language culture makes it a must-see destination in Northern Europe.
But go beyond Brussels. One of Europe's hidden gems is Belgium's second city.
Just up the estuary from the North Sea, Antwerp's historic port became its claim to fame and source of wealth as a trading capital 500 years ago. The port is still the second largest in Europe. The wealth of this great trading city financed great art and artists, the world's oldest stock exchange, and an historic core of richly elaborate Flemish buildings.
BestTrip.TV's producer/host Lynn Elmhirst shares her favorite things about Antwerp.
History with a Quirk
Distinctive historic Flemish architecture reflects Antwerp's power in its heyday, including the magnificent Town Hall, guild halls, and Notre Dame Cathedral. Check out the altarpieces by iconic local artist Rubens here, and the 400-foot spire that makes the cathedral still the tallest building in town.
Walking through Antwerp's historic streets, you'll start to notice apparent evidence of exceptional devotion to the Virgin Mary. In addition to Notre Dame cathedral, a surprising number of very ornate Madonna statues stare from the corners of buildings onto the street below.
We were told a number of stories about why street-corner Virgin Mary's abound, and oddly, none were about religious fervor. One person told us of reduced taxation on 'religious' buildings, another that the city provided free street lighting for religious buildings – and in either of those scenarios, a Virgin Mary statue on the building made it qualify.
Virgin Mary building statues are one of the most characteristic – and quirky – symbols of Antwerp's historic streetscape. Very instagrammable. #MadonnasofAntwerp.
Time has not stood still in Antwerp. Nowadays, it has the reputation of one of the most interesting, modernist cities in Europe.
Only a five-minute walk from the Cathedral, for example, is the city’s neo-classical festival hall from 1905. Period restoration on the outside, but inside, jaw-dropping luxury 50-store mall where the neo-classical glass dome, gold leaf, mosaics and oak floors are juxtaposed by sexy ultra-modern design. I fell in love with the space age champagne bar at the top of a stemmed glass installation (pictured top. Photo: BestTrip.TV). Like stylish Jetsons.
And if the Jetsons ever had to go to court, the Antwerp Law Courts would be the place. The building's spectacular roofline mimics a series of sails in full wind. Today's nod to Antwerp's shipping and maritime heritage.
Hipness is in very 'fabric' of Antwerp, which has cult status in global fashion. Antwerp is home to one of the most important fashion academies in the world. The city also produced the famous ‘Antwerp Six’ designers who cut a radical new pattern for European design that still thrives in Antwerp today. Fashion is thick on the ground in Antwerp, with distinctive styles that are cool and chic all at the same time. Do any shopping here, and both men and women will have envious friends at home asking, 'Where did you get that?'
Antwerp has long been the 'Diamond Capital of the World'. It has a whole district devoted to the precious gems, where even today, up to 80% of the world's diamonds are still polished and processed. Diamond houses line the (very secure) streets. Some are open to visitors, where you can learn about the world's hardest stone and watch the most expert diamond cutters in the world polish raw diamonds into sparkling symbols of love and luxury.
The perfect destination for a one-of-a-kind engagement or romantic getaway with a dazzling souvenir.
And Really Good Taste:
Some people rave about Belgian waffles, but for me, it's Belgian Frites. There are stories of peasants frying potatoes here in the 1600’s and Belgium lays claim to inventing this world-wide fast-food phenomenon – even though they became known as 'French fries'.
Connoisseurs distinguish between Belgian fries (or frites) and any other ‘fry’: true Belgian frites are thick, irregularly shaped, and DOUBLE fried. And local tradition doubles down on the artery-clogging snack by dipping them in mayonnaise.
Frites are a must-try treat in Antwerp. Indulge in a paper cone while wandering the streets, or find a restaurant serving ‘moules et frites’, that is, steamed mussels and fries – the Belgian version of ‘fish and chips’. No fry at home will ever compare.
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