5 tips for Antwerp

Port authority house (Porthuis) designed by famous Zaha Hadid Antwerp, Belgium
©Dmitry Rukhlenko/stock.adobe.com

Antwerp, the lively port city on the Scheldt, is one of the best-known art cities in Europe and is attractive because of its exciting alternation between tradition and modernity. On the one hand, visitors to Antwerp walk in the footsteps of the baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who lived and worked here for 32 years. Many churches around the historic Grote Markt with its magnificent guild houses from the 15th and 16th centuries and the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady are Baroque treasure chests, and the numerous museums are a paradise for art lovers.

But Antwerp also offers many modernist attractions, as Antwerp is considered one of the largest fashion designer talent hotbeds in the world. Thus, strolling through the alleys and streets of Antwerp, you can discover the latest fashion trends, exclusive designer labels can be found next to fun second-hand stores. But Antwerp is also interesting for another reason, combining tradition and modernity. Antwerp is the diamond city of Europe – with its diamond district, which also houses the largest diamond exchange in the world.

Tip 1: The Rubenshuis

Besides Plantin-Moretus Museum of the History of Letterpress Printing, Rubens House is the most visited museum. Peter Paul Rubens, the world-famous Flemish painter, lived and worked in the diamond city and was active as a book illustrator, author, architect or diplomat, among other things. During his lifetime, Rubens influenced the intellectual life of Antwerp in many ways.

Rubens House in Antwerp
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Some 50 famous works can be seen today in numerous institutions in the city. The Rubens House presents his living and working environment in the center of Antwerp in a unique way. The museum is housed in a historic building built in the early 17th century. Before World War 2, the city acquired the building with its magnificent courtyard and gardens.

Peter Paul Rubens was born in Siegen in North Rhine-Westphalia on June 28, 1577, and is considered one of the most important painters of the Baroque period. Towards the end of the 16th century, Rubens came with his mother and siblings to Antwerp, the home of his mother Maria Pypelinckx. Rubens was active as an artist and politician in Antwerp in different ways, so there are different works of the artist to admire in museums and churches in the old city. In 1610, Rubens had a house built on what is now the Wapper Square.

The architecture was designed by Rubens himself. The house in the style of the Italian Renaissance was also designed as a workshop. Rubens spent most of his life in his house in Antwerp, which became the property of the city only after about 300 years. Shortly after the 2nd World War, the renovated house became a museum. Today, the Rubens Museum is one of the most visited sights in Antwerp.

Tip 2: Cathedral of Our Lady

One of the most outstanding buildings in the Belgian port metropolis of Antwerp is the Cathedral of Our Lady, the historic cathedral church of the Antwerp diocese. The Brabant architecture was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The cathedral is one of the most beautiful church buildings in Belgium and the Netherlands. Catholic houses of worship have stood on the site since the 10th century. At the end of the 20th century, the bishopric church was renovated and today it is one of the most visited sights in the center of Antwerp.

Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp
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Among the highlights inside are four paintings by the world-famous painter Peter Paul Rubens, who immortalized himself here with paintings such as “Assumption of the Virgin Mary” or “The Erection of the Cross.” The paintings attract many visitors to the cathedral, which has been changed several times over the course of time and even had to serve as a cattle shed during the times of the French Revolution. The organ concerts in the cathedral are especially well attended. The magnificent organ has wonderful acoustics.

Tip 3: The Grote Markt

In the heart of the Belgian port city of Antwerp lies the Grote Markt (Great Market Square). The Grote Markt reflects the imposing trading history of the northern port city with its 16th and 17th century guild houses. Central to the historic square is a landmark of the diamond city, the Brabo Fountain. The bronze sculpture by Antwerp artist Jef Lambeaux is located in front of the historic City Hall, one of the most magnificent buildings in Antwerp.

The Grote Markt in Antwerp
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The late Gothic Antwerp City Hall was designed by Cornelis Floris II., one of the most famous artists of the Nordic Renaissance period, who worked in the 16th century. Among the historic buildings is also the House of Crossbowmen with the sculpture of Saint George fighting with a dragon. From the Grote Markt, you can walk to explore the many sights in the medieval old town, which are very well preserved. From the Grote Markt it is only a few meters to the Scheldt and the harbor area.

Tip 4: Het Steen

Steen Castle on the right bank of the Scheldt is the city castle of Antwerp. The first mention of Het Steen (The Stone) Castle dates back to the 12th century. Thus, it is considered the oldest preserved building in the city of Antwerp. The castle was part of the city fortifications and was intended to protect the entrance to the city from the direction of the Western Scheldt. In 1520, Charles V determined that the castle should be renovated and rebuilt to accommodate artillery. Later the castle became a prison. The crucifix above the entrance still bears witness to this today. It symbolizes the place where criminals sentenced to death had to say their last prayer before execution.

Het Steen in Antwerp
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In the 19th century the castle was badly damaged, but it was rebuilt in the old style. Since 1952 the castle has been a museum.

Little is known about the original state of the castle. However, the newer construction from the 16th century was built according to the requirements of the nobility for more living space. The actual keep no longer exists. On the other hand, massive palatial buildings were built. Above the main entrance there is a battlement. This battlement is equipped with pitch noses. A massive round tower with battlements secures the entrance on the right side, another round tower with conical roof and pitch noses is on the left. On the seaward side, bastions were built to house the artillery. The style is striking. Clearly Hanseatic in character are the stepped roof gables.

As mentioned above, Het Steen, as the people of Antwerp call it, has been the National Maritime Museum of Belgium since 1952. Here, ship models of famous, historical ships, as well as paintings, nautical instruments, photos and documents can be viewed.

Tip 5: Plantin-Moretus Museum

The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp was the first museum to make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005. Christoph Plantin ran a book printing shop here in the 16th century. 16 printing presses still stand in the factory hall of the workshop in the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp and can be admired. At that time, up to 80 printers worked in this workshop to produce books. At that time, it was the largest printing house in Europe. Copperplate printing made it possible for knowledge to be printed and reproduced fairly quickly. Christoph Plantin thus made letterpress printing industrial. Also impressive are the many books on display in the museum and business archives, which accurately showed the level of knowledge of the population at that time. Whether they are scientific books on botany or even human anatomy, or intellectual products such as Bibles and literature, or the world view of the people of the Baroque era: the many world maps and atlases show the world as it was known at that time.

Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp
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A look into the house library in the adjacent residence of Plantin Moretus is also worth seeing: here the family of the book printer collected up to 30,000 books in the library. In addition, the residence is a fine example of how the noble bourgeoisie lived at that time: The walls are decorated with golden leather wallpaper or rich wooden ornaments, in the salon you can see one of only 3 pianos made in the world, on which you could play on two sides, and in addition, in the living rooms hang paintings by contemporary Peter Paul Rubens, whose home is only a few meters away from the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The garden offers a wonderful oasis of peace with the magnificent view of the Flemish architecture.