A weekend break in Antwerp

I love exploring a new city, and I especially love exploring more than one new city on the same trip. So, after our few days in Amsterdam, my husband and I hopped on a train down to Belgium to meet up with some friends in Antwerp for a weekend – we suspected that it would be more of a catch-ups-and-beer kind of break, but we got some good exploring thrown in as well, so win-win!

I’ve been a huge fan of Belgium since our trip to Bruges a couple of years ago, and I couldn’t wait to explore another city in this fabulous country. Our first sight of Antwerp was the train station, and WOW is it impressive. It’s somehow got several floors of train tracks, all housed inside a truly stunning building with a glass dome atop, which quite rightly is the focal point of the area. (There were roadworks going on outside it so I couldn’t get a decent shot of the front, but trust me when I say that it’s stunning.) We stopped for a quick Belgian waffle at a café nearby – it has to be done, right? – before making our way to our hotel.

We’d heard that the tram system made it incredibly easy to get around the city, but we unfortunately arrived on the day that tram and bus workers were on strike (which we only realised after waiting at a tram stop for 20 minutes…!) Instead, we went to a nearby hotel and asked them to book a taxi for us. (In hindsight it would have been just as quick to walk – we’ll know for next time!)

The arrival

Once we’d been driven through the main shopping area and wound our way through the tiny cobbled streets of the historic quarter, we arrived at Hotel Rubens Grote Markt. Housed in a gorgeous old building, the fairly unassuming entrance hides a light and airy reception room, and the bar/lounge area beyond. It looked as though work was being done to the reception, so I’d be intrigued to see how it changes in the future.

I’ll try to write a more detailed review at a later date, but suffice to say we were impressed. It didn’t quite live up to the beautiful Sir Albert hotel in Amsterdam from where we’d just travelled, but it ticked all the boxes, and I’d definitely consider using it as a base for future trips. The rooms were large and had all the mod cons you needed, complete with underfloor heating and views to the cobbled streets below. The welcome mini chocolate bar was a nice touch, the breakfast buffet had everything you could possibly want, and the self-service bar area made for some relaxed evenings.

The hotel is located in the historic quarter, and I can’t recommend this pretty corner of town enough. Our first night comprised of beers at the hotel bar, dinner at the unusual Elfde Gebod – lots of religious iconography displayed in a (I think) tongue-in-cheek manner – and cocktails at the Hard Rock Café (typically Belgian, of course!), but the next morning we had a couple of hours to explore.

The exploration

We decided to take a stroll around the historic streets and Grote Markt itself. The square is dominated by the spectacular city hall, but the surrounding architecture is just as beautiful. I meant just look at it.

Stunning, right? I’m pretty sure that Belgian architecture is my favourite. It’s all so intricate; the detailing is incredible, the figurines and statues that seem to adorn every corner are mesmerising, and pretty much every shopfront and restaurant window has some beautiful brickwork above it. It pays to look up sometimes.

And did I mention the cathedral? It dominates the skyline in this corner of the city, and with good reason. The Cathedral of Our Lady is a seriously imposing building, with its 123m steeple making it the tallest Gothic building in Belgium. It took 169 years to build – and still isn’t technically completed, according to the history books – and has been the focal point of the city since 1521.

It’s a striking example of Gothic architecture, but inside it’s just as stunning. We were taken aback when we stepped inside – we had no idea it would be this beautiful! The sheer scale of the place is enough to take your breath away.

Now as much of a museum as a place of worship, the cathedral houses numerous major art works, including those by Rubens. Works of art aside, everywhere you look is exquisite; from the various chapels and naves to the stained glass windows and pulpits, and the impressive cross suspended below an intricately-painted Da-Vinci style dome that reaches high up to the heavens. It’s all stunning. We only had half an hour to spare to take a look around, but that seriously wasn’t enough time to take it all in. I’ll definitely be going back.

A short walk from the cathedral is the River Scheldt, and on its banks you’ll find Castle Steen, or Het Steen as it’s known in Belgium. Turning a corner and seeing a castle was surprising to say the least!

This medieval fortress has been central to the city of Antwerp since it was built in the Middle Ages. Formerly used as city fortifications and then a prison, it’s more recently been used to house various museums, but it’s the statue outside it that I found particularly appealing.

It looks like a giant towering over two civilians, and according to Wikipedia, that’s exactly what is it: it’s said to be the giant Lange Wapper, a Flemish folkloric character who terrorised and played pranks on the inhabitants of the city in medieval times. Who knew!

The beer

No Belgian break would be complete without a trip to a brewery, so that’s exactly what we did. The De Koninck Brewery is home to several beers synonymous with Antwerp, and is the birthplace of the distinctive bolleke glass. And the tour itself was so much fun! It was nothing like any other tour I’d been on. The interactive rooms had often-humorous videos and displays, and in many cases you could get involved, too. Some of the rooms were quite bizarre and mainly focused on the history of Antwerp rather than the history of the beer – which was pretty confusing at the start – but it was great fun nonetheless.

Then, the beer itself. The bar downstairs offers a beer flight, three very decent testers for 6euros, which can be accompanied by a plate of cheese and/or chorizo (the cheese won for us). I have a soft spot for Belgian fruit beers, and I found a new favourite in the form of Fruitesse. AMAZING! Think passion fruit and pineapple and you’re onto a winner. It’s served with ice when you order a full glass, which seems weird, but I soon got on board.

Oh, and the bar had an Instagram square. Fun!

Everything else

A lack of forward planning on the Saturday night meant we had trouble finding somewhere for dinner (who’d have thought places get booked up on a Saturday?!), but we eventually found a Vietnamese place called Pho 61. What can I say – great food, weird service. For example, there were six of us but we were only allowed to choose four different dishes at each course; doggy bags weren’t allowed to take home the massive portions; we couldn’t split the bill; and we couldn’t get tap water. They take “house rules” to a whole new level! But the food was good, and they didn’t mind (much) when a load of red wine got spilt. We can’t complain too much.

On heading back to the hotel I noticed an ice cream parlour opposite the restaurant, and I couldn’t resist. I needed dessert, right? I opted for a takeaway Ferrero Roche-style sundae, and YUM. It may not be Italy, but the Belgians know how to do good ice cream!

The rest of the trip involved more exploring and some more beer as we waited for the train. This time we went to Bier Central, which has literally hundreds of beers, and is right near the station. Again, weird service – this time painfully slow – but great beer and equally as good Belgian waffles.

All too soon it was time to leave; we felt that we’d barely scratched the surface of this fantastic little city. I guess it just means we’ll have to come back again one day!

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