One day in Antwerp – what to do for free
According to legend, a giant was demanding taxes to sail on the river Scheldt, so the local hero Brabo cuts off the giant’s hand and throws it away. Hand throwing translates to “hand werpen” in Dutch.So there you go, the port city of Belgium gets its name – “Antwerpen“, a.k.a., Antwerp!
Join us on our free tour of one day in Antwerp, as we try to soak in the essence of the world’s diamond capital in less than a day. I’ll also mention some bonus places which we missed but is 100% doable in one full day.
Where we stayed in Antwerp?
One day in Antwerp – Our First Impression of the World’s Diamond Capital
Our hostel was in a surprisingly peaceful complex near the throbbing fashion district. We loved the hostel, but what we cherished the most was the free pocket maps from the UseIt series that were made available on the rack for tourists. These were not just maps but also had a host of local tips and some history lesson of the city which not only guided us through our walking tour of the city but also helped me recollect the tidbits while writing the blog (yes, this is the only souvenir I could bring from Antwerp, keep reading to know why). So after taking some time to freshen up, we set off for exploring the city on foot. Here are a few things that are hard to not notice when you walk on the streets of Antwerp-
- Lots of under-construction stuff going on. The skyline full of building cranes, with the roads connecting one construction site to another. According to the map, the construction work included a renovation of old monuments, raising skyscrapers, constructing tram lines and some big plan of building a whole new green district on top of the ringway around the city (“Ringland”).
- The formal, classy dressing style. When it comes to fashion, we mostly think of Paris, but just a walk down the fashion district and looking at the well-dressed men and women you’d know Antwerp is not behind. Honestly, I don’t understand fashion, but even for a fashion agnostic person, it was not difficult to appreciate their stylish outfits.
- It is a well-planned city with one dedicated block for each purpose. On our way from hostel to the Stadspark, we walked through the fashion district with the designer boutiques, big brand outlets and then the shopping malls. Then we came to the Cathedral around which there are the souvenir shop and those mouth-watering Belgian Chocolate shops. Then you would walk into the world’s largest Diamond District, with diamond shops, the Diamond trade center, and few offices and banks within or adjacent to the diamond district. Then you enter the foodies street with lots of pop-ups bars, restaurants, pizzeria and cafes. You will see pop-up bars and cafes everywhere in the city, but there is this one block where you can just reach and have all the options for food within a small radius.
|Had one of the best Pizza I’ve tasted at Del Popollo Pizzeria near the Central station|
Highlights of our walking tour of Antwerp
We had a delicious bacon and prawn pizza at a local pizzeria and then we went to the city park, called Stadspark. The remains of a 16th-century Spanish fortress was re-engineered into this beautiful open park in the 19th century, in a classical English landscape style. “On summer days it’s full of skaters, girls in bikinis next to women in veils..” said our pocket local guide. But on a relatively cold, somber day it just looked like a page out of Tom Sawyer or Great Expectations. There was a lovely children’s park where parents were watching the kids play after school-time.
Antwerp Central Station
We went to Central Station to buy a ticket to Brugge and took a stroll inside the magnificent building. It actually has two parts- a steel platform covering and a stone station building near the Antwerp Zoo. It was originally constructed in the 19th century but completely renovated ten years ago, completed with a tunnel underneath the station, reverting the station’s status as a terminus. Look up at the glass dome above and the details on the arches with tainted glasses when you go up the escalators. It indeed looks like a cathedral inside but I appreciate the fact that the locals don’t shy away from telling the truth – according to our pocket guide the original building was built under the command of Leopard II, with blood money from inhumane rubber harvest and genocide in the then colonies of Belgium.
The Diamond Quarter of Antwerp, Jewish neighborhood and the Indians
Antwerp is the heart of diamond trading for over five centuries, with around 84% of the world’s rough diamond passing through the city. With 220 million dollars worth of diamonds traded daily in the diamond district of Antwerp, you’d know why there are so many men in uniform around in the city. The highly secured Diamon quarter is home to the diamond trading center, a large number of jewelry shops, diamond traders, wholesalers, cutters and guess what, a branch of The Bank of India! Orthodox Jews have dominated the closed world of diamond trading in Antwerp for centuries, but Indians are taking over steadily. The rising prominence of the (mostly Jain) Indian community is seen in the cuisine as well, with special mention of vegetarian Indian restaurants on our map. You’d see a large number of formally-clad Jain Indians and orthodox Jews identified by the headwears (kippah) and long beard walking on the street with the complete no-nonsense look. There are around 20,000 Jews in Antwerp, most of whom are orthodox and these families have inherited the diamond business from their ancestors from as early as the fifteenth century. The Jewish neighborhood near the diamond district has beautiful old buildings and synagogues. You’d find most of my pictures of the city roads are sort of photo-bombed by an unusually large number of wires – I first thought these were only for the tram-lines, some of them are, but mostly it is the Eruv – a holy wire that symbolically encloses a certain area (a larger home). Read up a little about this on the internet and found out that Eruv runs almost throughout the central city enclosing the station and diamond district, to allow the orthodox Jews to move around as usual during a religious observation called Shabbat, in which they are forbidden to leave their home.
The Grote Market (The Great Market of Antwerp)
This is the central square of Antwerp is famous not only for a large number of shopping options and cafes but also for the architectural wonders around. Each building- be it a shopping mall or a bank has a medieval design lending the place its old-world charm. The Brabo’s fountain stands at the center, (recall the story I began with?) depicting the hero This is where we also saw the chocolate shops I mentioned and the stunning OLV Cathedral. With a 123 meter tall tower, which could be seen from various parts of the city on our walking tour, this Gothic masterpiece was completed in an early 16th century and has been robbed several times since then. From here we followed the direction of Brabo’s hand towards the river Scheldt.. just kidding, we followed the map and walked towards the river
The Steen – My favorite place of one day in Antwerp
The things we missed? Well, there are some, as always when you have such a short stall in the city. Here are a few which you can add to your list even if you have only one day in Antwerp. I wish someone told me about them before I embarked on this memorable walking tour of Antwerp.
- The underpass connecting to the left bank of the Scheldt river, which, according to our map is the spot from where you get the best panoramic view of the city
- Ruben’s museum which is a tourist classic
- The peaceful hideout of the Beguines, being the top three in my miss-list. If you are going with kids and have a little more time, the Antwerp zoo will be a great idea. The locals spoke highly about it and it’s right next to Central Station.
Just 1.5 hours from Antwerp (by train) lies the fairytale medieval city of Bruges. I missed it and went to DeHaan instead, click the link to know how. You can also check out what to see in Brussels which is less than 1-hour drive from Antwerp.
This was a part of our first Euro-trip where we explored multiple countries in 15 days and we planned it all on our own. Read more to know about it: Planning our first Euro-Trip
Below are the best experiential guided tours which I could find for you.