Five Surprising Things to do in Antwerp

Antwerp is a surprising city. One of the largest ports in the world (it is ranked 15th by World Shipping Council) it's famous for being the largest center for diamonds in the world. Although you might think this would give the city a bit of a gritty or industrial vibe, in fact, Antwerp has a robust economy that supports delicious and innovative restaurants, historic charm, high fashion, and a profusion of museums, walking streets, and (of course) diamond tourism. It is also an unexpectedly quirky and fun city.

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With so much to see and do, you'll easily put together your own offbeat and surprising things to do in this port city. But here are 5 places to start.

Snort Chocolate

You can certainly do other chocolate-related things in The Chocolate Line on The Meir, but it is the only place I know of where you can snort chocolate powder. You can take a snort there, or buy a kit to take home. Located on the Meir, a pedestrian shopping street linking the ornately stylish Central Station to the Market Square, you can do more than snort chocolate. You can buy their gourmet chocolate, watch a chocolatier in action, and see the dress by designer Nicky Vankets recreated in chocolate. Biblical murals form a backdrop to Day of the Dead chocolate skeletons.

It is located in a lush 18th century building that is a former royal palace built in the 18th century. The Palace was home to such famous personages as Napoleon Bonaparte, Willem I of the Netherlands, and the Belgian Royal House. Individual and group tours are available but the hours for individual visits is quite limited

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Eat a Hand

Usually in the form of chocolate, or a cookie.
Visitors to Antwerp see a lot of hands. Not just any hand, but a stylized rendition called the Hand of Antwerp. Sculptures of it decorate buildings, show up on walls, and are replicated in delicious butter cookies (which are called biscuits in Antwerp). The Hands are a manifestation of an old tale in which Brabo, a legendary Roman soldier, freed the people of the area from the tyranny of the giant Antigoon (who used to cut off people's hands) and then, in the spirit of karmic payback, threw the giant's severed hand (hand-werpen) into the river. You'll find Hands for sale across the city.

Of course, any good legend deserves a sculpture and you can see a sculptural depiction of the story in front of the Antwerp City Hall.

Really, Really Old Printing Presses and Historic Bibles

The Museum Plantin-Moretus is a Renaissance highlight of the city. The invention of metal movable type enabled the spread of ideas that caused, in part, the blossoming of philosophy, science, and culture we now call the Renaissance.

Christopher Plantin was 16th century a French bookbinder who came to Antwerp in 1546 to set up his own printing workshop. He produced Bibles, maps, scientific books and more. The museum highlights his printing workshop and his home but the ancient books and their illustrations are the highlight, as well as the collection of rare types. The processes of hot-metal type setting and letterpress printing are also explained. It's worth noting that Plantin gave his name to a typeface still widely used today.

Hunt for Mary and Child

The public art of Antwerp is mainly statues of famous men. But there is one exception. As you stroll the streets and plazas, look up -- Antwerp is famous for its statues of Mary and Child. These colorful 18th and 19th century statues are built into building corners around the city.

The Virgin Mary is the Patroness of Antwerp and the city's famous Cathedral of Our Lady, has watched over the city for over 500 years. As a result of repairs and refurbishments now embraces architectural and design elements of those times -- gothic, renaissance, baroque, and rococo.

And more...

Of course, it is quite impossible to list all the fun things to do, but here are three more.

Learn about Diamonds

About 84% of the world's rough diamonds passed through Antwerp's diamond district, making it the largest diamond center in the world. It's all huddled together in a heavily surveilled area filled with some extraordinary jewelry, diamond dealers, and private places not open to the public.

In contrast to the pricey jewelry ranging from elegant to ornate, there is one thing in the Diamond District that is totally free and open to the public. The aptly named Diamond Land, biggest diamond showroom in the city, offers free tours that could provide the most thorough education any potential buyer of these legendary stones could want. They run tours between 9:30 and 5 with appointments recommended.

Glimpse 16th Century Antwerp at The Oude Koornmarkt

Tucked away in an ancient part of the city, the Oude Koornmarkt (Old Corn Market) offers a glimpse of 16th century Antwerp. On Vlaaikensgang, tucked behind 16, Oude Koornmarkt, you can still see the old water pump, and stand on the stepping stones that were once the only way to cross a street flowing with fouled water. The restaurant 't Hofke is also located there and is generally considered a good place to hear the carillon bells of the Cathedral of Our Lady.

Shopping for Belgium Fashion

Antwerp is definitely a high-fashion city, and Schuttershofstraat is known for its trendy high-end fashion with an emphasis on Belgium designers. At 9 Schuttershofstraat you'll find DVS created by Belgian fashion designer Dirk Van Saene where several Belgium designers have opened to the public. Het Mode Paleis is a gorgeous Belle Epoque style building and the Dries Van Noten's flagship store credited with putting Antwerp on the world map of fashion. You'll find it at Nationalestraat 16. At Hopland 15-17 you'll find Nicky Vankets famous designer gowns.

Learn more about visiting Antwerp at Visit Antwerp, Belgium at Visit Belgium and Flanders at Visit Flanders

Buy a City Pass. There's so many museums to visit that the card will make it easy to tour all of them.

We stayed at the Leopold Hotel located between the park and the diamond district of Antwerp. It offers comfortable and thoughtfully designed rooms with large tea pots and a selection of tea (as well as coffee and other amenities). The bountiful breakfasts are European style but with the addition of bacon and sausage as well as the usual yogurt, fruit, fish, ham, cheese and a machine dispensing freshly ground coffee and varieties. The staff also helps make this hotel a winner -- consistently helpful and pleasant.

Read more about travel to Belgium

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Neala Schwartzberg McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: December 5th, 2014



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