Antwerp Central station provided us with an impressive greeting after an hour’s train ride from Brussels. The multi-level platforms (fourteen tracks over four levels) give the interior an almost futuristic feel, which is beautifully juxtaposed by the ornate entrance hall with its domed ceiling and neo-gothic exterior. A sight worth visiting in its own right, it’s easy to see why Antwerp Central is considered one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world.
Upon exiting the station we found ourselves on the Meir, the main shopping street of Antwerp which leads all the way to the Town Hall. The usual suspects can be found along the pedestrianised street – from the likes of Zara, Esprit, Karen Millen, and Galleries Inno – alongside a couple of hidden gems tucked away behind unassuming entryways: the Paleis op de Meir and the Stadsfeestzaal.
Paleis op de Meir (Palace on the Meir)
This mid-18th century palatial building was formerly used by the Belgian royal family (and even by Napoleon once upon a time). Part of the former palace now houses the Chocolate Line chocolate shop whose walls still maintain some of the original murals, making for an extremely beautiful setting for chocolate sampling.
Stadsfeestzaal (City Festival Hall)
The large hall was originally built at the beginning of the 1900s as a permanent location for official festivities and is now an impressive shopping arcade that combines historical and modern architecture to great effect. It houses four levels of fashion and homewares shops and eateries, and links to the upmarket shopping street, Hopland.
Grote Markt (Great Market Square)
Reminiscent of Brussels’ Grand Place, Antwerp’s Grote Markt is an inviting town square surrounded by beautiful guild houses. Along one side of the square is the renaissance-style Town Hall, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and covered in international flags to represent the importance of international trade to this port city.
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady)
The market square is also the perfect spot to take in the sight of the gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, whose impressive spire somehow manages to permeate almost every view throughout the city centre – at 123 metres high, it is hard to miss!
Het Steen (Stone Castle)
A leisurely stroll along the raised promenade on the Scheldt riverbank led us to Het Steen, a medieval fortress and Antwerp’s oldest building. Guarded by a statue of a giant, who we later learned was ‘Lange Wapper’, a character in Flemish folklore who used to menace the city’s inhabitants in medieval times, Het Steen has since been used as a prison, a sawmill, a fish warehouse (!) and more recently as a museum. It is currently used as an information centre, offering a range of workshops and an outdoor summer bar.
Chinatown and surrounds
I couldn’t leave Antwerp without a quick exploration of Chinatown, and although it was pretty underwhelming I’m glad we made the detour which led us to stumble upon the Aquatopia aquarium and the Antwerp Zoo – how had these slipped under my radar? They definitely warrant another visit to Antwerp – and soon!