Port of Antwerp
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Though it receives its share of visitors, drawn to its churches, medieval guild houses and winding backstreets, Antwerp is the least touristy of Belgium's Big Four. Everyday life goes on, largely undisturbed by visitors, and it goes on with enthusiasm. There are lots of places to eat in Antwerp, but the majority are full of locals.
Antwerp is also home to one of the pre-eminent collections of artwork by the painter Peter Paul Rubens, who spent much of his life there. Visitors can tour the house where he ate, slept and painted, and then check out samples of his work in the Cathedral of Our Lady. A more 19th-century kind of art can be found across town in the stylish residential neighborhood of Zurenborg, where most of the opulent mansions are showcases of Art Nouveau architecture and interior design.
Antwerpenaars are very proud of their city. In fact, someone whose parents were both born in Antwerp can refer to himself as a "sinjoor" from the Spanish, Senor. The people of Antwerp are also proud of their Flemish identity. Belgium has long been governed by a French-speaking minority based in Wallonia, the southern half of the country. Antwerp has led the Flanders region in maintaining the Flemish language, cuisine and culture. This has occasionally been taken to extremes, particularly by the Antwerp-based political party Vlaam Belang, which has pushed an anti-French-speaking agenda and campaigned for Flemish independence.
While most Antwerpennaars do not hold such extreme views, there is still a lingering rivalry within Belgium between Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. Visitors should be aware that speaking French to the locals in Antwerp may sometimes be received as rude or insulting. If you don't know Flemish (or Dutch, to which it's quite similar), try English instead.
Top Antwerp Itineraries
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Where You're Docked
Larger ships dock along the Wandelteras Zuid, which is only a 10-minute walk along Hoogstraat to Grote Markt, the city center. Cabs line up outside the terminal.
Smaller ships dock at Kattendijkdok or Willemdok, both about a 15- to 20-minute walk (through the Red Light District) from the city center. Your ship's reception staff can call a taxi if you don't wish that pleasure.
Wandelteras Zuid is downtown, giving you easy access to Grote Markt (the main square), the Cathedral and other attractions in the historic center.
Kattendijkdok and Willemdok are close to MAS, the iconic new city museum rising up high and clad in red Indian tiles. It's located between the Willemdok and Bonapartedok. (Hanzestedenplaats 1; 32-3-338-4434; open from 10 a.m. Tuesday to Sunday) This area also has some of the best fashion houses and a few interesting restaurants. A Red Star Museum, commemorating the European emigrants who boarded ship in Antwerp for the United States, will open in September 2013. From these Napoleonic docks, it's a 20-minute walk to the tourist attractions around Grote Markt, but it's best to take a taxi.
Good to Know
Belgium's position on the North Sea coast means the weather can change rapidly. Pack an umbrella and sunglasses, and be prepared to use both.
Check on the times tourist sites close before setting off. The Cathedral closes at 3 p.m., and last admission at the Rubens House is at 4:30 p.m.
On Foot: The city center is easily walkable, from the main cruise dock on the western edge of town to Central Station and the Diamond District in the east.
By Taxi: Taxis line up at the cruise terminal and other marked locations around the city, particularly near busy squares and train stations. Look for the orange "taxi" signs. You can also call Antwerp-Taxi at 32-3-238-3838.
By Public Transportation: Antwerp has both buses and trams. Buy single rides direct from the driver, or purchase a 24-hour card in advance or onboard. Advance tickets (a lijnkaart of ten) are available from the tourist office on Grote Markt.
By Car: Auto Europe (888-223-5555), Avis (800-331-1212) and Europcar (877-940-6900) have rental locations downtown.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro, which you can get out of various ATM's throughout the city. The BNP Paribas Fortis Bank on the corner of Melkmarkt and Lijnwaadmarkt is convenient to Grote Markt and the Cathedral. There is a Western Union on the corner of Hoogstraat and Suikerruistraat.
For up-to-the-minute conversions, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
The official language is Flemish, a variant of Dutch. Most shopkeepers and waiters speak a range of languages, including English. Use French and you may be politely ignored.
Food and Drink
For a small city, Antwerp has a surprising number and variety of restaurants, ranging from gourmet dining to tiny waffle shops. Local specialties include mussels and fries (moules et frites); seafood, in general, is excellent. For sheer variety, browse the narrow medieval streets surrounding the cathedral. If you don't see something that really catches your eye, move on.
Zuiderterras is right on the riverfront near the Wandelteras Zuid cruise terminal. This modern black-and-white building was built in 1973 on the site of one of the city's 19th-century customs houses that had recently burned down. Huge plate glass windows over two floors give a great view back over the river. The menu is contemporary Belgian and includes dishes like filet of lamb, wild boar (in season) and the ever-popular fish and chips. It also serves up an excellent selection of fresh main-course salads. (Ernest Van Dijckkaai 37; 32-3-234-1275; open daily from 9 a.m.)
Fiskebar is a noisy, cheerful, white-tiled seafood restaurant at a famous road junction in the Parisian-style design quarter south of the city center. Get there early in the evening, as the place fills up with young fashionistas. (Marnixplaats 12-13; 32-3-257-1367; open, daily from noon.)
Lux is a conversion of a Polish merchant's house overlooking the Bonapartedok. The family made its money fitting out ship's galleys, and Lux's grand staircase reflects how lucrative this business was. The delicious four-course Lux Menu is very good value. Book ahead to get a table in the window upstairs. (Adrian Brouwerstraat 13; 32-3-233-3030; open daily from 6 p.m.)
Brasserie Appelmans & Absinthe Bar is named after the master builder of the cathedral and built over a medieval wine cellar. (Papenstraatje 1; 32-3- 226-20 22; open daily from 6 p.m.)
The lengthy menu at Del Sud Classico includes two pages of pizza options alone, along with other Italian favorites like calzones and pasta. Inside it's warm and homely, with brick walls and murals of Italian life. (Oude Koornmarkt 5; 32-3-226-5245; open daily from 11:30 a.m.)
Tucked away on a cobblestone side street just next to the Cathedral is Het Vermoeide Model, where light lunch options include omelets and croque monsieur sandwiches. (Heartier dishes are also available.) One half is an art gallery, and the other is a restaurant/tavern with brick walls, wood fixtures, plenty of green plants and a warm ambience. (Lijnwaadmarkt 2; 32-3-233-5261; open daily for lunch and dinner.)
For sheer style, Restaurant Kathedraalcafe is hard to beat. This small brick house is crammed full of religious statuary and has a theatrical feel. It serves bistro meals and snacks. (Torlburg 10; 32-3-289-3466; open weekdays from noon, weekends from 11 a.m.)
Cheap little waffle houses can be found on every other corner in Antwerp, but, for one of the best, try the tearoom known as Desire de Lille. There, fluffy waffles are topped with ice cream, fresh fruit or simple powdered sugar. Salads and light snacks are also available, and there's a garden, too. (Schrijnwerkersstraat 14 - 18; 32-3-233-6226; open from 9 a.m.)
If you can afford it, buy diamonds. If not, invest in chocolate. The Chocolate Line (Paleis op de Meir 50; 32-3-206-2030) is a store located in the palace used by Napoleon during his time in Antwerp. It's now a second home for the undisputed prince of Belgian Chocolate, Dominique Persoone, TV personality and cofounder of the guild of Belgian Chocolatiers. Dominique helped put Brugge on the chocolate map and is now doing the same for Antwerp in these palatial surroundings.
"Antwerp hands" (cookies in the shape of hands) are a popular treat based on the legend that Antwerp gets its name from a giant's hand that was cut off and thrown into the River Scheldt.