It’s late, we’re hungry and Phil is leaving nothing to chance. He’s about four dishes into an order from the extensive menu at Hong Kong Palace, a Chinese restaurant on Van Wesenbekestraat in Antwerp, Belgium, when the waiter politely stops him. “Are you sure that isn’t enough, sir?” Not quite. Singapore noodles and beef with mushrooms, and two bottles of Duvel, a strong golden ale, and that, Phil decides, should do for the two of us.
You might consider a Chinese restaurant a strange place to begin a trip to Antwerp, but you’d be wrong. This is a diverse and cosmopolitan city, a port city, a city that wouldn’t exist were it not for the sluggish, slate-gray Scheldt. “All an Antwerper has to do to connect with the rest of the world is simply dip his hand into the Scheldt’s water,” former Antwerp mayor Lode Craeybeckx once said.
That’s been the case for more than 500 years. In the 16th century, Antwerp was Europe’s richest place, attracting merchants from across the continent. The English crown borrowed money here because London’s banks were too small, but it didn’t last: Antwerp fell victim to the war between the Dutch, who were fighting for their independence, and the Spanish. The latter conquered the city in 1585 and gave its Protestant inhabitants two years to leave. The final blow came when the Dutch closed the Scheldt to navigation.
Two centuries of decline followed, but Antwerp once again is one of Europe’s great trading centers, its port second only to Rotterdam in terms of size. I’m here to trace its river story, and to discover how its seagoing tradition has given it a unique and richly textured culture.
I’m going to start with a long walk. Having left my friend with a huge bag of leftover Chinese food in the excellent Beerlovers Bar the previous evening, I wake up on Thursday morning intending to see Antwerp’s latest tribute to its seagoing culture: the Havenhuis, or Port House, designed by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect who died last year.
I should have rented a bike. As I trudge alongside the Scheldt, Antwerper after Antwerper whizzes past on sit-up-and-beg bikes. This is a city made for bikes; anything bigger has to deal with the many cobbled streets, like the trucks rolling in and out of the port, whose tires make a rippling, grumbling roar as they hit a patch of cobbles there.
I can see the Port House long before I reach it, but it’s only close up that you appreciate the scale. It’s a 1920s fire station onto which Hadid has fixed a huge, jutting, glistening glass diamond, pointing out toward the river. Beautiful? It’s certainly impressive.
This is the HQ of the Antwerp Port Authority, and I’m not clear if the public is allowed inside, but no one stops me. There’s a satellite image of the city on the floor of the atrium. The city of Antwerp is squished into the lower left-hand corner, while the port — a riot of multi-colored containers, oil holders, cranes, railway lines, warehouses and docks — spreads like spilled Skittles across the rest of the image.
The size of the port relative to the city is striking; the scale is impressive but overwhelming. I leave hoping to find something on a more human scale at my next destination, the Red Star Line Museum.
It’s housed in a handsome redbrick building down by the river, through which more than 2 million people passed in its early-20th-century heyday. Among them was Irving Berlin, then known as Israel Beilin, who left Antwerp in 1905 on his way from Belarus to immortality. Another émigré featured in the exhibits, 11-year-old Basia Cohen, sailed on the Zeeland to America in 1921 but never forgot Antwerp. “Of all the towns we visited, that was my favorite,” she said later. “It’s there that I had my first ice cream. We’d heard of it before but we’d never seen it.”
It’s a bit cold for ice cream as I step out of the museum, but I am hungry. A 15-minute meander brings me to Mercado, a food hall that opened in October. It has stalls offering a wide variety of grub, including BoxBird, which majors in wings, dim sum specialists Sum Sum and — my choice — Karnivor, where I pick up a plate of assorted charcuterie and find a place at one of the long, high, wooden tables.
I wash the charcuterie down with a glass of De Koninck pale ale, the tawny brown, delicately bitter, dry local brew whose history reflects Antwerp’s own magpie tendency: Former owner Modeste Van Den Bogaert first had it brewed to resemble the beers he had enjoyed while in exile in England during World War II.
Next, I stroll across Groenplaats to the cathedral, which was built between the 14th and 16th centuries.
It has a single 403-foot-tall spire; there were supposed to be two, but Antwerp’s wealth meant a bigger cathedral was planned and then never completed as the city lost its place as Europe’s trading capital. Inside, the highlight is Peter Paul Rubens’s triptych “The Descent From The Cross” (1612-1614). I’m particularly taken with a servant girl, a basket on her head, who glances knowingly toward the viewer from the left-hand panel. A minor detail, but beautifully done.
From the cathedral, it is a short walk to Grote Markt, the heart of golden-age Antwerp. I marvel at the muscular splendor of the 450-year-old City Hall — built in Renaissance style and soon to be renovated — and a row of gold-trimmed guildhouses. There’s the Brabo Fountain, which depicts a mythical Roman soldier (Brabo), who vanquished Druon Antigoon, a giant who guarded a bridge over the river and chopped off the hands of all who refused to pay his toll. One day, brave Brabo chopped off the giant’s hand and flung it into the river. The fountain depicts this moment of grisly triumph.
I walk toward Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS, a sturdy red sandstone-and-glass tower that records Antwerp’s place in the world, with my hands firmly in my pockets. It is a marvelous building: Inside, it’s calm and spacious, with views in every direction. I’m charmed by images of Antwerp shopkeepers on the walls around the escalators. A butcher poses with a cow’s head, tongue lolling out in front of his own; a delighted young girl, the daughter of a grocery store owner, proffers a huge bunch of mint.
It’s time for another glass of beer, perhaps accompanied by something to eat. I opt for the cozy, dimly lit De Pottekijker, where a bowl of rich, creamy fish stew and a glass of the classic Belgian witbier, Hoegaarden, are just what I need before I head back to my hotel.
The next morning, I stride out with a purpose. I pass the main station, a magnificently over-the-top Belle Epoque structure that makes up in size what it lacks in discretion, and skirt the diamond district, the center of world trade in those remarkable rocks. I hurry down Lange Kievitstraat, at the heart of Antwerp’s Jewish neighborhood, where a glimpse of what’s available in Hoffy’s Kosher Restaurant — fishballs, stuffed peppers, pastrami, innumerable other delicacies — causes me to loiter for a moment.
Next I cross Stadspark before plunging into the affluent neighborhood just south of the city center. A group of middle-aged ladies are getting their hair done at Mijo on Sint-Jorispoort while — a little farther on — Cafe Kulminator, one of the world’s great beer bars, is temporarily shuttered while owner Dirk van Dyck recovers from an operation. (It’s now open again.)
At the river I find the art-deco entrance to the Sint-Anna tunnel. Completed in 1933, this is how pedestrians and bicycles navigate the Scheldt: out of the way of the all-important shipping. The original wooden escalators, droning and clanking, take you down to a dead-straight, 1,900-foot-long tunnel tiled in white and blue. I can hear two women talking loudly minutes before they reach me; ascending the other side, I’m impressed by a young woman who nonchalantly munches an apple while ensuring that her bike doesn’t tumble down the escalator.
There’s a great view of the city from the other side, even on a gray, overcast day, plus various bits of river-related sculpture: propellers, buoys and a wooden model of a man looking across the water.
It’s too cold to linger, though, so I stroll back toward my final destination. Antwerp may be a modern and cosmopolitan city, but anyone coming back from Belgium without chocolate is likely to get a frosty reception. One of the best chocolate shops in town is called the Chocolate Line, in Paleis Op de Meir, on the main shopping street.
“Would you like special or classic chocolates?” the assistant asks. “Special” includes bacon and onion flavors, so it’s got to be classic. Chocolates in hand, I walk around the corner to the kitchen workshop where two customers are watching a young chocolatier at work.
Nearby there’s a large chocolate frog with bulging red lips. An animal equally at home on land and sea, and made out of chocolate? If Brabo ever needs replacing, I’ve got an idea for a new Antwerp city mascot.
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This elegant spa hotel offers verdant calm just minutes from the city center, plus 22 comfortable, simply decorated rooms. Doubles start at $180.
Ibis Antwerpen Centrum
With many of the city’s major attractions — such as the Rubenshuis — close by, this well-run, 150-room hotel offers excellent value. Doubles start at $72.
With more than a dozen food vendors to choose from and a well-stocked (if somewhat generic) bar, Mercado is understandably popular with young and old Antwerpers. Expect to pay no more than $20 for lunch.
Come hungry. A portion of creamy, rich Vispannetje De Pottekijker (Pottekijker fish stew) comes with a jacket potato or fries on the side, and other options are scarcely less filling. Entrees start at $18.
Maria Pijpelincxstraat 4
Opened in 1924, this lively one-room “Brown Cafe” is the perfect place to get a taste of Antwerp’s pub culture. Try De Koninck on draft or one of the excellently chosen, rotating bottles: The tart, spritzy Kriek De Ranke ($9.50 for 75cl) is recommended. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
This simply decorated bar will be familiar to anyone who has visited modern city beer bars around the United States or Europe. There are fridges full of ales and lagers from around Europe; draft beers are dispensed from a back wall. What’s on tap changes all the time, but try anything by De La Senne.
There’s much to see here, but the highlights include a wooden pulpit covered with ornately carved birds — cockerels, eagles, peacocks and more — and plants, and the four works by Peter Paul Rubens. English Mass every Saturday at 5 p.m. Adult entry is $6.30.
The museum of Antwerp, which includes an excellent permanent exhibit on the evolution of the city’s port. Entry costs $10.50 if there’s a temporary exhibition ($5.30 if not); $15.80 allows entry to both MAS and the Red Star Line Museum.
Red Star Line Museum
The displays are not all translated into English but visitors get an excellent booklet containing the key information. There’s also a tower with an excellent view of the river. Adult tickets cost $8.40.
Although Rubens’ wonderful self-portrait is away for restoration until next year, there’s still plenty to see and enjoy at the house he bought in 1610 and subsequently remodeled. Look out for three works by Anthony Van Dyck, Rubens’s greatest student. Entry is $8.40.
The Chocolate Line
Paleis op de Meir 50
Given the dizzying variety of chocolates on offer, it might be best to ask the assistant to put together a selection. An eight-ounce box costs $17.50. Open 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday.