A March 2004 trip
to Antwerp by wanderingnomad
Quote: A highly underrated travel destination, Belgium's essence is more than just a frothy brew of hops and barley and sinfully rich cocoa-based creations.
Belgium is one of Europe’s underrated tourist destinations when compared to its more famous neighbours such as Italy and France. But don’t let its low-key reputation fool you--scratch beneath the surface of its (well-deserved) reputation for fine beer and chocolates and you will find a country bursting with art, culture, food and architecture, replete with the traditional European charm of cobblestone streets, historic buildings, and a tumultuous history.
There are three official languages in Belgium: French, Dutch, and German. But getting around is easy, as English is widely used and spoken, especially in the cities.
Antwerp is Belgium’s second-largest city after Brussels and is situated by the Scheldt River. As Europe’s second-largest harbour (Rotterdam being the largest), it has a long history of trade with other countries. In honour of its maritime heritage, there is a National Maritime Museum located at the Steen (literally meaning "stone," as it was one of the first buildings in Antwerp to be made of stone), which is a castle majestically situated at the entrance to the city. This is a nice place for photo opportunities, which is free if taken outside the castle, though real museum buffs might like to pay the entrance fee of about 4 Euros to take a look inside.
The main attraction in Antwerp is perhaps its historic quarter, which is filled with many architecturally interesting buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. One of its most famous landmarks is the Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal, Belgium’s oldest Gothic cathedral, which was completed between 1352 and 1521 (165 years!). It towers over the rest of the old quarter and makes a useful landmark for navigating around the winding cobblestone streets. The essence of the old quarter is best captured in its picturesque market squares, with the largest square, the beautiful Grote Markt (Town Square), and the smaller Handsschoenmarkt (Glove Square, where gloves were sold in bygone days) being the main hives of activity, with numerous cafes and outdoor terraces. For those with the cash to spare, Antwerp is the diamond centre of the world, with its epicenter in the Diamond District, a small area filled with nondescript offices. It is also famous as Belgium’s fashion capital, with illustrious designers such as Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene, and Dirk Bikkembergs (the “Belgian Six”) calling it home.
Museum buffs will have a field day – there is Rubens’ House, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Diamond Museum and the Folklore Museum, etc. A complete listing can be obtained from the tourist office at Grote Markt. Shutterbugs might be interested in the Photography Museum, one of the world’s major museums on the history and evolution of photography.
Try a fruit-flavoured beer (called kriek), which is very light and refreshing. Those with stronger constitutions can try a beer called Kwak – be warned, it has a high alcohol content! The cafes in Grote Markt and Handsschoenmarkt are good places for a drink. Also try the local specialties such as waterzooi (a chicken stew), mussels in wine, and thick-cut french fries (“frites”), crisp and excellent with mayonnaise!
For unique souvenirs, get some Belgian beer glasses (available from liquor shops in Handsschoenmarkt). They come in different designs, as each brewery has its own unique glass. Belgian chocolates (Godiva, Leonidas, and Neuhaus) are excellent as gifts and also for personal consumption, as they are very good value. For shopping, head for the Mier, the pedestrianised shopping street adjacent to Groenplaats (where the Antwerp Hilton is located), for excellent variety and up-to-date fashions.
Antwerp is a relatively compact city and is easily navigated by foot and Metro (tram). The best way to see the historic quarter is by foot. Maps are obtainable from most hotel receptions as well as the tourist office (Grote Markt and Centraal train station). Self-guided walking tour routes can be obtained from the tourist office and reputable guidebooks – I found Lonely Planet to be a good source of suggestions. For a fee the tourist office can also arrange for guided walks.
Rail connections within Belgium and to the rest of Europe are very good. There are regular services to Brussels and Brugge from Antwerp’s Centraal train station (a beautiful building worth taking a look for its architecture) as well as to other major Belgian cities. Fares are quite affordable and trains are prompt. Standard and first-class seats can be purchased – the standard seats are a good value and very comfortable. Both Brugge and Brussels are between 1.5 to 2 hours from Antwerp and are good ideas for day trips. A good website containing useful information on Antwerp is http://www.visitantwerpen.be/indexuk.html.
The Hilton Antwerp is a five-star hotel that is conveniently located at Groenplaats Square, next to the magnificent Antwerp cathedral and adjacent to the historical city centre. As such, it is a very convenient base from which to explore the historic quarter of the city, which is just a few minutes' walk out of the main lobby. The hotel itself occupies a historical building (in what used to be Antwerp's "Grand Bazar") and was reinstated as an architectural landmark in 1993. For shoppers, the pedestrianised Mier shopping street is a 5-minute walk from the hotel; in addition, a small shopping mall is directly connected to the hotel (via an internal walkway) and contains a Tintin outlet, several small boutiques, and a good-sized supermarket, good for essentials such as bottled water, juice, cookies, snacks, and also freshly made sandwiches and salads. Travel connections are also easy from the hotel; there is a secure underground car park for those who intend to drive, and the Metro service runs directly beneath the hotel, with various stops around the city, including the Centraal train station.
The reception staff is multilingual and English is widely spoken, so getting directions is not a problem. The rooms are fairly standard in terms of decor, with the usual amenities such as bathrobes, slippers, attached bathroom, hair dryer, cable etc. - what one would expect from a five-star establishment. Business travellers are well-catered for with a fully-equipped business centre, and an upgrade to the Club floor offers access to the exclusive Club lounge, where breakfast and all-day snacks and beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are served daily. A free flow of wine and canapes are available in the evenings, all at no extra charge. In addition, there is also a concierge staff in the lounge who can help with business-related assistance, as well as booking of day tours and directions. All in all, the Hilton is an excellent hotel with high service standards. It is highly recommended if you are looking for a five-star establishment in a great location.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 10, 2005
Restaurant | "Via-Via Restaurant"
If you are looking for sumptuous classical French cuisine with a romantic candlelit ambience, then Via-Via Restaurant might just fit the bill. Located in a narrow cobblestone street just off one of the main thoroughfares of Antwerp's old quarter, Via-Via is a short 10-minute walk from the Hilton Antwerp and close to the Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal, a very pleasant stroll in the evening and a great prelude to a romantic night out. Via-Via is only open for dinner (weekdays 6 to 10:30pm; weekends 6 to 11pm) and its menu is seasonal, so depending on when you go, expect to find something different being offered.
There were not many main course items on the menu when we went (reminiscent of most fine dining establishments), but this was more than made up for in the quality of the ingredients and the substantial portions. My husband had a steak and I ordered braised lamb shank; although he is not ordinarily crazy about huge hunks of meat, my husband finished his meal with gusto! My lamb was so tender and juicy that the meat was literally falling off the bone. Both our main courses were accompanied with seasonal vegetables and potatoes. Delicious! Our total bill for two main courses, coffee, beer, and wine, came up to about 45 Euros (less than US$50), which we thought was an excellent value given the ambience and quality of the food. But that's Belgium for you - eating out is generally not as expensive as in other European countries, and the servings are large and of high quality.
Reservations are recommended, especially if you are going as a group, as the restaurant can accommodate only a limited number of patrons. The seating is arranged mainly for couples and groups of four, though the staff will willingly rearrange the tables to accommodate larger groups (call ahead, though). Do note that, as in the rest of Belgium, dinner typically lasts over 2 hours (!), so it is good idea to schedule this into your plans. This is due to the Belgians' custom of lingering over meals, especially when eating out. The dishes usually take a while to be served; though the service may be considered slow by conventional standards, it is normal here. Just like the siesta in Mexico, it is perhaps part of Belgium's many charms.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 9, 2005
Antwerp, Belgium 2000
+32 3 226 52 42