Antwerp is a historic city in the Flemish region of Belgium. After Brussels, it’s the largest metropolitan region in the country; with over half a million people living in the city proper, it’s the most densely populated city in Belgium.
Antwerp has taken less of a tourism-oriented approach compared to other cities in the region; it’s an ideal location to avoid the massive crowds that so often characterize Amsterdam and Bruges.
It has a rich history that once marked it as the wealthiest city in Europe. The diamond trade, active for at least a few hundred years, has characterized the economic strengths of Antwerp. The district that spawned around the industry is one of the most opulent on the Continent.
The area of Antwerp has seen traces of human activity for at least 2 000 years. The quiet city was largely unnoticed by the world until the decline of Bruges in the 15th century, caused by the silting of their important connection to the North Sea. Antwerp was prime to receive this new traffic via the Scheldt River’s connection to the Sea.
It gained prominence as the sugar capital of Europe, importing the raw commodity from Portuguese and Spanish plantations like those in Cuba and Brazil to supply the demands of inland cities like Dusseldorf. They diversified into finance, attracting the richest individuals on the Continent. For a while, it was the “center of the entire international economy”, considered the wealthiest in Europe. Their ‘Golden Age’ was intimately linked to the Age of Exploration, funding and profiting from exploratory journeys.
This prosperity wouldn’t last forever; the 16th century brought decline, and a transition of wealth and trade to Amsterdam. Napoleon took interest in the strategy position of the city, but did not do much with it. The world wars saw Antwerp occupied by the Germans twice and taking heavy bombardment at the end of WWII.
Through all this, one industry remained: Diamonds. It is what Antwerp is best known for, currently and the last 400 years. The precious stones have allowed the city to make a resurgence recently, with powerful global players in the diamond trade.
The city is conveniently located between the main Flemish cities of Belgium (Bruges, Gent, Brussels), and the historic Dutch bastions to the North (Amsterdam, Den Hague, Rotterdam). Antwerp itself is divided into nine districts or neighbourhoods, each with a distinct vibe. Don’t expect to practice your Dutch here, the Antverpians have a particular dialect – Antwerps – that’s found nowhere else.
Antwerp is a little over 50 kilometers inland from the North Sea, connected via the Scheldt River’s Westerschelde estuary. This position, just up the coast from Bruges, affords a central but protected position; the Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest in the world.
The inland positioning gives Antwerp uncharacteristically warm summers and mild winters, even though it shares an oceanic climate similar to Southern England. The summer months often have long stretches of days with temperatures that exceed 23°C. The thermometer rarely dips below 5°C, regardless of the time of year.
At the height of the city’s wealth, Antwerp housed many massively wealthy merchants and financiers. Many of their homes remain, scattered throughout the city. The Zurenborg neighbourhood especially is a festival of Art Nouveau architecture, constructed during the pre-war Belle Epoque. It also features a magnificent Jain temple, owing to a sizeable population in the city.
The Indian Jains have been drawn by the sprawling diamond trade in Antwerp; they alone supply over 30% of India’s raw stone imports. Combined, the city sees over 85% of the global supply of rough diamonds. Along with the Jains, there is a sizeable population of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, taking residence during and after WWII. Combined with large immigrant communities, mainly from Morocco, Antwerp has a thriving cultural identity.
In the last 20 or 30 years, Antwerp has attempted to establish itself on the world fashion stage. The city has attracted talent from across Belgium, and Europe at large. It maintains more of a ‘cult status’ among the fashion cities; they emphasize the avant-garde to compete with London, Paris, Tokyo, Milan and New York. For those with money to spend, and adventurous tastes, shopping can be transformative.
Antwerp is an amalgamation of its history and resident cultures. The city prides itself on some local brands, fiercely protected and promoted by non-profits. A particular point of pride is the Bolleke amber beer from De Koninck Brewery, with a food and culture festival named in its honour. Another tradition is the common biscuit Antwerpse Handjes (‘Small Antwerp Hands’), delightful shortbread confections often smothered in almond or chocolate.
Along with the local fare, Antwerp is an excellent destination to sample the Belgian national delicacies: beers of all kinds, fries from their native land, deep-fried oliebollen with a liberal dusting of sugar. Beside these culinary institutions, offerings from the immigrant communities are plentiful; smells of memorable indian food can be caught from the doorsteps of Jewish Delis. Perhaps some of the best Moroccan food can be sourced outside of the Magreb.
The highlight attractions of Antwerp are all within a few blocks from the city center. If fashion is your thing, head to De Meir, the high street of the area; visit the Stadsfeestzaal for an unmatched shopping experience in a gold-filled banquet hall.
In the heart of the city, not far from the Grote Markt, lies an endless selection of world-class culinary options. From local celebrations of beer or food, to sophisticated explorations of ethnic flavour, there’s something for everyone and every craving.
After gorging yourself on the local culinary attractions, you can venture outside of the ‘Old City’ to see the other highlights of Antwerp. These locations are not only architectural triumphs but also emphasize the cultural and artistic history of the Belgian city.
Antwerp has a sophisticated history, with incredible highs and crippling lows. It has often competed, and traded prominence with Bruges and Amsterdam; these cities have powered trade and innovation on the North Sea for millennia. The wealth of the city has left opulent marks throughout Antwerp, with modern additions in the last century. It is now known primarily as a hub in the international diamond market; this wealth has spurred the nascent fashion and cultural industries that will bring this city into the future.
Antwerp is unique in its mix of modern and historical, a city best enjoyed on foot in the historic center, with an open wallet to enjoy the shopping and cuisine.
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