A relatively easy train ride from Lille, France brings you to Antwerp, Belgium. Not only that, but you arrive into one of Europe’s most stunning train stations, Antwerpen-Centraal.
Getting to Antwerp
Aside from ending our trip with one night in Paris, visiting Antwerp was our shortest stay in a city on this winter trip at only two nights. We picked Antwerp partly because it was an easy city to get to from Lille, where we started this trip. Our train transferred through Brussels Midi (south station) and we had about an hour layover, which was fine.
Antwerpen-Centraal Train Station
Once we were on our way, we arrived into a lower level of Antwerpen-Centraal where we were greeted by an impressive clock when we looked up on the escalator.
From there we made our way into the main entrance hall. Move over (New York’s) Grand Central, I have a new favorite train station main hall.
Brief History of Antwerp
The port of Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe, behind Rotterdam. As part of that, Antwerp has been known as the hub of the world’s diamond trade for centuries when the first stones were brought over from India. Today, 85% of diamonds pass through Antwerp’s diamond district.
Staying at the Sapphire House Antwerp
Keeping that history in mind, Nik wanted us to stay at the Sapphire House while visiting Antwerp, which conveniently is a Marriott property. We applied to use some of our suite nights, a perk of Nik’s Marriott status, and were approved.
Our room felt like a spacious penthouse suite with exposed beams and separate rooms for the toilet and shower.
The diamond theme was prevalent in small details, down to the pen in our room that was topped with a plastic diamond. Upon check-in, we were given a felt bag with two small plastic diamonds in it. We were told to bring them to the hotel bar to redeem them for chocolate, and so we did. The chocolates were diamond shaped! The staff said it was a fennel and citrus taste…not so sure, but it was absolutely delicious.
Sightseeing in Antwerp
While visiting Antwerp for only two days may not seem like a lot of time to explore, it ended up being just right for us. Grote Markt and surrounding area is what I will call the heart of the city. Once you walk a little outside of that area, you’re along the water to see some cool old buildings and the newer MAS, Museum aan de Stroom building.
Antwerp’s main square is called Grote Markt and is home to numerous city landmarks. At the time our visit, one of Antwerp’s Christmas markets had taken over. It was full of vendors, lights and so much Belgian charm surrounded by City Hall, some gorgeous old buildings and Cathedral of Our Lady, as seen in the distance above.
The Christmas Market opened on our second day there so it was nice to explore the square both with and without big crowds. The market had everything one would want including food, drinks and random souvenirs.
The central fountain in Grove Markt is called Brabo Fountain. It’s of a naked man throwing a giant severed hand.
The legend tells of a giant called Antigoon who was said to have lived near the Scheldt (river) and extracted a toll from passing boatmen who moored in the area. He severed the hand of anyone who did not pay, and threw it in the river. Eventually, the giant was challenged and killed by a young captain of the Roman army named Brabo, who imitating what he had done, cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river.
The fountain reflects the moment when Brabo throws the giant’s hand into the river.
Nello & Patrache Statue and Cathedral of Our Lady
Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady is a stunning Gothic building. It feels like it was built and then the rest of the city popped up around it and therefore it’s not easy to get a picture that shows its huge scale.
A few feet from the Cathedral is the Nello & Patrache Statue. It was inspired by a novel about a Flemish boy named Nello and his dog, Patrasche, and set in Antwerp. The story was relatively obscure in Belgium but a big hit in Japan and Korea, among other places. Atlas Obscura summarizes the story well:
The climactic scene of A Dog of Flanders follows a desperate Nello, who after being wrongly accused of causing a fire in his village, goes to the cathedral in Antwerp to see his idol Rubens’s “The Elevation of the Cross” and “The Descent of the Cross.” However, he was out of money and unable to see the artwork. On Christmas Eve, Nello and his dog stayed at the cathedral when they found the doors open. The next morning, the boy and his dog are discovered frozen to death under his favorite artist’s painting.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp
Sticking with a common theme when Nik and I travel, we passed by another museum that we probably should have gone inside and explored. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, or locally known as The KMSKA (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen.) Apparently it was closed from 2011-2022 for renovations.
Antwerp’s oldest building is Het Steen, a fortress built between 1200 and 1225, and was a gateway to a larger castle most of which was demolished in the 19th century. At the entrance bridge to the castle is a statue of a giant and two humans. It depicts the giant Lange Wapper (a Flemish folk character) who used to terrorize the inhabitants of the city in medieval times.
What remains are parts of the first stone fortification wall.
Monument for Killed Belgian Sailors
Something we stumbled upon while walking near the Port of Antwerp was the Monument for Killed Belgian Sailors. It’s situated facing the water, behind “Loodswezen,” a historical landmark that appears to be vacant but has grand plans to be a riverfront hotel and promenade.
MAS, Museum aan de Stroom
One of the more modern buildings in Antwerp is the MAS, Museum aan de Stroom. It opened in 2011 and the diverse collection ranges from art, history and culture of Antwerp through the same topics internationally. The architecture is unique. Deep red, almost a burnt orange, brick makes up the facade in a design where the rooms are stacked on top of one another.
The museum also boasts a rooftop with free entry and incredible views of the city. Unfortunately for Nik and I, our day for viewing was gray and overcast.
While we didn’t explore the collections, the museum definitely seems like it’d be an interesting space to visit.
Across from the MAS was this interesting building with figures climbing the side. As I looked it up, they are called The Whisperers and there is a large one closer to the museum dock that you can apparently make a message for someone to hear. The idea is that the Whisperer at the top hears it and passes it down to the one on the dock.
As we were making our way back to the train station to depart a rainy Antwerp, we went past a pair of Stumble Stones located at Lange Kievitstraat 62, where Salomon Birnzweig and Ester Birnzweig-Echt once lived. A Google search to learn more about them led me to this page with pictures of the dedication ceremony.
Dining out in Antwerp
Since we were only visiting Antwerp for two days, we didn’t plan a lot of our dining out other than a making a reservation at Elfde Gebod. That said, we ate and drank pretty well and I’ll highlight a few places.
In the shadow of Cathedral of Our Lady, Elfde Gebod was once property of the church and is said to be Antwerp’s oldest restaurant. It sits on a corner across from the Cathedral and you could almost walk by it without realizing it’s historic.
The restaurant is unique. It’s decorated with 200+ religious figurines including angel and saint statues. You are surrounded by them throughout your whole meal at the restaurant.
I don’t remember how I heard of Elfde Gebod, but when we arrived for our reservation they had a big line of people hoping to get in. Definitely reserve ahead.
Their menu is typical Flemish cuisine with croquettes, stews and meat. They also have an extensive Belgian and Trappist beer list. Nik and I shared an order of shrimp croquettes, a bowl of goulash and ribs. The food was ok. Very heavy and rich. I think we were slightly disappointed and felt the food was underwhelming. It’s a place you go for the environment and history.
Quite possibly our favorite spot in Antwerp was Nordica 31. Recommended by a friend, it was a bit outside of old town and walking there was a great way to see more of the city. It has the charm and food you would expect in any of the Nordic countries such as Sweden and Denmark. We each had one of their buns and they were delicious.
Fish A’Gogo is a casual spot just off Grote Markt. Nik and I stopped in for lunch and really liked it. I had a piece of sea bass and Nik had fried fish bites. It’s a small space and everything is made to order. Definitely stop here if you’re in the area.
Other Places We Went
Soju Bar for Korean fried chicken wings that were delicious. We also tried Soju, a distilled liquor and Korean specialty, for the first time and really liked it.
De Zeven Schaken, off to the side of Grote Markt, is a restaurant serving typical Belgian cuisine. We can’t speak to the food since we didn’t eat there, but it seemed to be a lively place.
Belroy’s is a cocktail bar next door to Elfde Gebod that we enjoyed a couple drinks at. The menu had a nice variety and the space felt very new. We were first seated at a couch that was not very comfortable because of proximity to others but eventually moved to two seats that were much more comfortable.
Billie’s Bier Kafetearia was one of two beer spots we checked out. This place had a French bulldog theme and was very cool. A tight space with an upper level, we grabbed seats at a hightop.
Station 1280 is the other beer-centric spot we visited. It had a few coolers of beers you could buy to takeaway or consume on site and maybe six to eight beers on draft. It definitely had a homebrew vibe…like some friends got together to make beer and open a shop. Not an insult, just a very casual spot.
Cafe Ernst was located along the river, not far from Grote Markt. A craft beer and wine cafe that was nice to check out. The space seemed newer and drew a bit younger of a crowd.
Rococo, a cocktail bar along Grote Markt was pretty empty when we went on our first night in Antwerp, but it was packed the next night when we walked by.
Baret Bar & Food and Pelikaan were also two random places we popped into for drinks.
Putting a Bow on Antwerp
Not to be overlooked, but since this was our second stop in a two week trip, we did our first load of laundry in Antwerp. I found Wasbar through Google, a laundromat and bar close to our hotel.
Laundromat is very loose term to describe Wasbar. There were three washers and three dryers and you pay by adding it to your tab. The space was huge, with the machines on the upper level. In order to do laundry, you had to order something to eat or drink. Not a big deal but the waiter we dealt with wasn’t very friendly. Clothes got cleaned, the drying took awhile, so we took it back to our hotel and hung things to finish drying.
Overall, we really enjoyed visiting Antwerp. An easy city to explore by foot and so much charm and history to keep it interesting. Have you ever been?