Getting to and exploring the city
When we visited Antwerp last year for our summer holiday, our daughter was only two and a half years old, so I’d expect parents of similarly aged children to raise an eyebrow, or two, at our decision to embark upon a family holiday to a city for a full week — “Naive new parents” I can hear you say. To be totally honest, even we were a little apprehensive at the thought of this prior to booking the Eurostar and paying for our apartment in the centre of the city.
The rationale was simple: Firstly we wanted to drive to our destination — with a toddler, the amount of supplies and equipment required for even a semblance of regular day-to-day existence is vast! We live in Kent, and our close proximity to the Eurotunnel Shuttle is very convenient for access to the continent, especially if you’d like to take your car (the double decker car train is brill — here’s a link for the curious). No airports, no planes, no check-in, and no herding — just shove everything in the boot, and drive! Love it.
My wife and I visited Ghent a few years prior, and were really impressed with the beauty of that city; the friendly and laid-back nature of the Belgians; the surprising amount of great art, design and creativity that’s on offer; and of course the chocolates and beers — but really that goes without saying.
Therefore we were keen to spend some more time in Belgium, and Antwerp stood out as being a very creative city, one with bags of design, fashion architectural pedigree. Also, it’s compact, walkable and very pedestrian friendly, things that are particularly important with a little human in tow.
We were not disappointed with our decision. Antwerp really is a gem in the crown of Belgium. Yes, that was a diamond related pun — Antwerp has a long and dominant history as one of the world's leading diamond centres dating back to the 15th century. Whilst on the topic of diamonds, there is an essay which should be considered an extension to this one, where I focus on The Port House building — designed by the inspirational architect Zaha Hadid — it has a beautiful glass extension that was inspired by cut diamonds.
This introduction is getting quite long, so let's explore some photos and I’ll share more information about Antwerp as we go — but suffice to say at the outset: after only spending a week here, Antwerp is now amongst both my and my wife’s favourite European cities!
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Thanks to Antwerp’s sustainable design initiatives, such as its car-free zones and bike-friendly infrastructure, the city feels clean, friendly and enjoyable to explore on foot (or next time, bike). I believe thanks to this, what would have previously been car zones are now organic social environments.
This weekly jumble sale and flower market, in what used to be a busy area for cars, is a wonderful example of how these initiatives are shaping a better urban lifestyle. One I hope other cities can look to for inspiration.
It’s a common sight to see the inhabitants of Antwerp decorate the exterior of their homes with art, collectables and objects of personal expression — and here, a chair! It at all adds to the quirky charm and open approachable friendliness that is special to this city.
Middelheim Museum Sculpture Park
A short 15 mins drive to the south of the city you’ll find the Middelheim Museum, which is an open-air sculpture park. If the weather is fitting, it’s a wonderful place to spend half a day or more, and perfect destination to tire out the young artists in this huge and engaging park — and a tip for fellow parents of little ones, there’s a superb children's playground within the grounds of Middelheim Park, in which the museum is also located.
The museum features a vast collection of modern and contemporary art, with a particularly strong focus on sculpture. The artworks are displayed throughout the park, making it an engaging and immersive experience for adults and children alike. Some of the artists whose works are on display include Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Jean Arp, and Alexander Calder, among many others. Head to the Middelheim Museum website for more information.
In addition to its permanent collection, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions and installations throughout the year, as well as various events and educational programs. The temporary exhibition that was displaying when visited was for the French sculptor Camille Henrot — more on her below.
The Middelheim Museum is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, and is widely regarded as one of the finest sculpture parks in Europe. It's definitely worth a visit if you're interested in modern and contemporary art, or if you simply want to spend a pleasant day outdoors in a beautiful setting; it’s easy to forget that Antwerp city is so close.
Camille Henrot is a contemporary French artist who was born in 1978 in Paris, France. She is best known for her sculptures, installations, and videos that explore themes related to cultural identity, language, and the construction of meaning.
Her work draws from a wide range of sources, including popular culture, literature, and anthropology, and she often combines these diverse influences to create works that are both conceptually rich and visually striking.
Despite the weighty subject matter of her work, Henrot often infuses her art with a sense of humour and playfulness.
All of the photos here were from the exhibition entitled “Wet Job” — exploring the limits of the post-partum body and also ideas of labour, work and “the fluidity of identity”.
*only the polar bear was not part of her exhibition.
During the summer, when we visited, much of the museum grounds were allowed to transform into huge blossoming meadows awash with colourful wildflowers and grasses, all in a bid to do their bit for our important pollinators — the meadows were full of busy bumblebees and beautiful butterflies. Our daughter enjoyed this area a lot!
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Antwerp Central Station
The Antwerp Central Station; Antwerpen-Centraal — is the main train station in Antwerp and is a magnificent example of railway architecture, considered to be one of the most beautiful train stations in the world.
It was designed by architect Louis Delacenserie and built between 1895 and 1905. The building combines different architectural styles, such as Art Nouveau and neo-Baroque, and features a large dome with a height of 75 metres, which is made of steel and glass and has a diameter of 43 metres. The dome is supported by a complex network of iron arches, which are decorated with beautiful Art Nouveau details.
In addition to its impressive architecture, the Antwerp Central Station is also known for its fine engineering features: The station is built on four levels — two of which are for the trains and the other two are for commerce; it was one of the first buildings of its type to use reinforced concrete for its foundations, and within the architectural industry was revolutionary setting a new standard of what structures were deemed possible to construct; the use of iron for the dome and roof structures required advanced engineering techniques, and in this example it was the largest structures of its kind in the world when it was built — again the proven use of iron in this way opened up new avenues for architectural exploration in the industry.
Louis Delacenserie was a Belgian architect who is best known for his work on the Antwerp Central Station. He was born on January 8, 1838, in Bruges, Belgium, and died on March 17, 1909, in Brussels.
In 1871, Delacenserie was appointed chief architect of the city of Antwerp, where he worked on a number of public buildings, including the city hall, the courthouse, and the post office. However, his most important work in Antwerp was the design of the Central Station, which he began working on in the 1880s. Delacenserie's design for the station was inspired by the neo-Baroque and Art Nouveau styles and aimed to create a building that would reflect the city's growing importance as a cultural and economic centre.
Delacenserie's work on the Central Station brought him international recognition and established him as one of the leading architects of his time. In addition to his work in Antwerp, he also designed several other notable buildings in Belgium, including the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels and the Church of Our Lady in Laken.
The Museum Plantin-Moretus is dedicated to the history of printing and bookmaking, and is named after two of the most important figures in the history of the printing industry: Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus.
Christophe Plantin was a French bookbinder who moved to Antwerp in the 16th century and established a printing business here. His son-in-law, Jan Moretus, took over the business after Plantin's death and expanded it into one of the most successful printing houses in Europe.
The Museum Plantin-Moretus is located in the former home and printing house of the Plantin-Moretus family, which was in operation from the 16th to the 19th century. The museum contains a vast collection of printing presses, typefaces, and other printing equipment, as well as a library of over 25,000 books and manuscripts.
One of the highlights of the museum is the original Gutenberg Bible, one of the first books ever printed with movable type. The museum is an enjoyable experience, and has a good range of breakout areas and fun activities to keep the little ones entertained too. If you enjoy typography and the history of print, I’d certainly recommend it.
In 2005, the Museum Plantin-Moretus was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of its importance to the history of printing and bookmaking.
Mediaeval Centre and ‘Corner Marys’
Antwerp's mediaeval centre is one of the most well-preserved and beautiful historic districts in Europe. It is located in the heart of Antwerp, Belgium and is surrounded by a ring of fortifications that were built in the 16th century to protect the city from invaders.
The centre of the mediaeval district is the Grote Markt; Great Market Square – which is lined with historic buildings and has been a hub of activity for centuries. One of the most notable buildings on the square is the beautiful Gothic-style City Hall, which was built in the mid-16th century.
Another landmark of the mediaeval centre is the Cathedral of Our Lady, which was built in the 14th and 15th centuries and is famous for its impressive spire that reaches over 400 feet tall. The cathedral is home to several masterpieces of Flemish Baroque art, including works by Peter Paul Rubens.
Throughout the mediaeval centre, you can also find and enjoy charming cobblestone streets, cosy cafes, and interesting shops selling handmade crafts and local delicacies. The district is a popular spot, and for what feels quite rare from our experience of the city, is relatively busy! The whole area needs to be explored on foot or by bike, taking in the beautiful architecture and rich history of one of Europe's most beautiful mediaeval cities.
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The Brabo sculpture is a statue located in Antwerp's market square and depicts a legendary hero from Antwerp's folklore. The statue shows Brabo, a young Roman soldier, holding the hand of a giant named Druon Antigoon in one hand and a sword in the other, as if about to throw the hand into the river.
According to legend, the giant demanded that all ships passing through the Scheldt River pay him a toll, and if the captain refused, the giant would cut off the captain's hand and throw it into the river. Brabo defeated the giant and cut off his hand, throwing it into the river as a symbol of freedom for the people of Antwerp. The name "Antwerp" is said to have come from the Dutch words "hand werpen," which means "to throw a hand."
Whilst mooching around the streets, lanes and avenues within Antwerp it’s a common and fun sight to happen upon these statues and sculptures that adorn many a corner. They frequently depict the religious symbol of Madonna and Child (Mary and the baby Jesus) and therefore have come to be known as ‘Corner Marys’.
It is believed that the reason there are so many of these statues is because they are part of the city's long-standing tradition of using public art to tell stories about its history and culture. Apart from the religious, there are also many of these statues depicting characters or events that are important to the city's identity, such as the legend of Brabo, which as we saw above, is said to explain the origin of Antwerp's name. Others, like the statue of Nello and Patrasche, celebrate the city's artistic heritage and its love of literature.
In addition, many of the statues were commissioned as part of urban renewal projects in the mid-20th century, when the city was undergoing significant redevelopment. These projects aimed to beautify the city and promote civic pride, and public art was seen as an important part of this effort. As a result, many new statues were created and installed in public spaces throughout the city, and it’s details like these that make exploring the city such a joy.
Here are only a few examples. I would love to spend more time in the city capturing them all!
Diamonds Are Forever
I couldn’t resist using that title, mainly because I wanted to use the diamond background image, but also, as an aside, I’m quite a 007 James Bond film fan — so it had to be done in the city of diamonds — whilst on the topic of Bond, I was disappointed to discover that the film of the same name had zero film locations in Antwerp, which seems like an opportunity missed if you ask me.
Before we move on, I’d like to apologise — You may have noticed that I have zero photos of diamonds in this essay. Quite the omission considering the essay title I think you’ll agree. The truth is we didn’t give the diamond district a second thought once we arrived and started exploring the city — I say it’s a testament to the richness of this city’s culture and history that despite the world associating diamonds with Antwerp, the reality is that it’s just one hue on the rich gamut of this city’s colourful character. Is that a reasonable excuse? I hope so.
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I feel I haven’t articulated sufficiently just how creative this city is, so before moving on to the closing photos. I think it important to share a little more about the Antwerp creative scene.
In recent years, Antwerp has also undergone a significant transformation, with new architectural projects that reflect the city's contemporary and forward-thinking spirit. The city's impressive Port House, for example, is a stunning example of modern architecture, with a sleek, diamond-shaped design that creates a striking contrast against the backdrop of the historic port area.
Antwerp has a thriving design, fashion, and art scene, which reflects the city's creative spirit and its long-standing reputation as a hub for innovation and cultural exchange.
In the world of fashion, Antwerp is renowned for its avant-garde fashion design, which emerged in the 1980s with a group of pioneering fashion designers who studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. These designers, including Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, and Martin Margiela, gained international acclaim for their unconventional and innovative approach to fashion, which continues to inspire designers around the world.
Antwerp is also home to a vibrant art scene, with numerous galleries, museums, and cultural institutions that showcase the work of both local and international artists. The city's Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA) is a must-visit for art lovers, with a collection that spans from the 1970s to the present day, and includes works by some of the most influential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In terms of design, Antwerp is a hub for innovation and creativity, with a number of design schools and studios that are at the forefront of cutting-edge design practices. The city's Design Center, for example, hosts exhibitions and events that showcase the latest trends and innovations in design, from furniture and product design to graphic design and architecture.
In summary — whether your interests lie in fashion, art, or design, Antwerp offers a unique and dynamic creative scene that is sure to inspire and captivate you. Known for its avant-garde fashion designers who have made a name for themselves on the global stage, Antwerp is a must-visit destination for fashion enthusiasts. The city's thriving art scene, with its numerous galleries, museums, and cultural institutions, offers a diverse range of contemporary and traditional art that is sure to stimulate the senses and get inspirational thoughts and ideas flowing. Meanwhile, Antwerp's design community is at the forefront of cutting-edge design practices. Whatever your creative passion, Antwerp has something to offer, and its innovative and dynamic cultural scene is a testament to the city's vibrant energy and rich cultural heritage.
Het Steen and River Scheldt
These five photos are from the area around Het Steen; Antwerp’s mediaeval fortress — which is northwest of the Main Square, and is built upon the banks of the River Scheldt.
There is a lot of regeneration taking place in this area, and despite the rusting and crumbling ornately decorated iron warehouses, it’s an interesting area to take a stroll. You’ll find pop-up bars, art exhibitions and some good spots to relax next to the river.
The legend behind the Lange Wapper statue, seen below, is a bizarre and interesting tale — read about it here.
There are also riverboat and cruise services that run to various destinations, and the featured article photo from this essay is of the Cruise Terminal Antwerp — I wish I’d have taken more shots of this architectural pontoon — here’s a link for the curious.
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Antwerp has a rich artistic tradition, and street art is seen as a natural extension of that tradition. The city has a long history of supporting and promoting the arts, and street art is viewed as a legitimate form of artistic expression here.
Antwerp also views street art as a mainstream form of political expression, and many of the city's murals address issues such as inequality, discrimination, and environmental degradation.
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The central city of Antwerp is enriched with numerous plants and green spaces that add to the city's charm and beauty.
In addition to these formal green spaces, the streets, alleyways and homes around the city are often adorned with plants and flowers, making the urban environment that much more enjoyable to traverse.
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