Travel Diaries: Spending the Perfect 2 Days in Antwerp

When we went to our very first trip to Europe few years back, I couldn't pass up the chance to finally visit Antwerp  a tiny yet charming port city in Belgium that I've always been fascinated with as a kid. Before the trip, people around me actually kept on asking "Why Antwerp?" because it sounded like such an odd choice since it's not yet a popular travel destination among our circle. But with its colorful history, inspiring art scene, vibrant fashion, yummy Belgian waffles, delicious beer and chocolates, I don't see why not.

I was made aware of Antwerp's fabulous existence on the map sometime in the 90's because of an animated movie produced by Japanese film studio Nippon called "Dog of Flanders", which was based off Marie Louise de la Ramee's 1872 novel of the same name. That awareness of Antwerp from way back my childhood eventually evolved through the years and has transformed into a full-blown obsession. 

That scene of poor young boy named Nello and his loyal dog named Patrasche, both dying in front of a Rubens painting inside a cathedral in Antwerp broke my heart as a child, and eventually sparked my interest on celebrated Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens and the dream of someday visiting this quaint city.


We spent barely two days in Antwerp and I couldn't help but feel downright criminal right after, because those two days felt more like a split second to me. Our stay was painfully short, because the minute we stepped out of the train, it immediately became quite obvious to us that Antwerp does not deserve a mere stop-over. The many things you can see and experience in this vibrant little city obviously call for a full week vacay (probably even more to be honest).

How I wish I can write a complete travel guide on the wonderful city of Antwerp, but for now, let me just recount our brief adventure to atleast give you a glimpse of what's in store for you in this Belgian gem of a city in case you haven't been there.

Where to stay in Antwerp
We stayed in Astoria Hotel, which was only a five-minute walk from Antwerpen-Centraal railway station. It's priced as an average hotel, but with the spacious rooms, varied breakfast buffet spread, and friendly staff, this hotel delivered way beyond expectations that it felt almost luxurious. I really felt like we hit the jackpot with this hotel because we had such a comfortable stay all throughout.
Astoria is located in the city's Diamond Quarter (also dubbed as "Square Mile") because in order to get there, you have to walk past countless diamond shops in all their shining shimmering glory. This shouldn't come as a surprise since Antwerp is the world's diamond capital.

One cool fact: Did you know that more than 80% of the world's diamonds are said to be traded in Antwerp? So if you're a firm believer that diamonds are a girl's best friend, Antwerp is definitely the best place to get your bling fix.

Inspire your inner artist
Antwerp has always been known as a haven for artists, designers, and art aficionados. Van Gogh, his contemporaries, and a long impressive list of other notable artists and fashion designers have been particularly drawn to this posh little city throughout the years. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1663 and located in Antwerp, is actually one of the oldest art academies in Europe, and considered as one of the most prestigious academies in the world.

Huge and colorful murals like this can be spotted all over Antwerp

We visited this small novelty shop somewhere in the city center to buy some quirky postcards and graphic shirts. The nice shop owner explained to us the meaning of the Dutch phrase "Moet Just Niks" that's printed on a lot of their products. If I remember it correctly, it's basically translated as "must be nothing" or "must do nothing," which sort of means one must not be pressured or feel stressed out by other people's expectations. 

It's the same as saying "don't worry," "just relax and do not give a f***", and "live your life the way you want to," which, according to him, is so inherently Dutch. Now, ain't that an awesome life mantra? :)


The most beautiful train station in the world
The Sinjorens' flair for artistry is so apparent in every corner of the city that it's not only the delicious waft of freshly-made waffles that will welcome you the moment you step out of the train. The grandness and magical allure of Antwerpen-Centraal station (also commonly called Middenstatie, which means "middle station") could really give Hogwarts a run for its money. It looks mesmerizing beyond words!

As I was walking down the grand staircase in the main hall with my luggage, I came close to expecting Professor McGonagall to actually come out with the magical sorting hat that will declare me Gryffindor worthy. I guess you could say that I was seriously starstruck by a train station (Yes! There is such a thing!).

The station's ornate facade peppered with gold accents, stone-clad interiors, vast dome, large petal-shaped glass ceiling windows, and overall eclectic design (Was it neoclassical? Art deco? I have no idea at all) are such a magnificent feast to the eyes. With its stunningly complex architecture and old world charm, it's really no wonder why it's been dubbed as the most beautiful train station in the world.

Antwerpen-Centraal railway station was constructed in 1895 and also bears witness to the incredibly rich culture and history of Antwerp, including World War II. It is a museum in itself and truly deserves a visit when in Antwerp. Trust me on this. :)

The main event  finally meeting Rubens
The first thing we did was visit Rubenshuis or Rubens' House— the very reason why we're in Antwerp. Our train arrived in Antwerp around 4PM on a Sunday so we had to rush in order to get to the museum.  At first I was still on the fence if that was a good thing, but since the museum will be closed the following day (a Monday), we really had no choice. And since they were almost closing, we had Peter Paul Rubens' former 17th-century mansion and studio all to ourselves, which felt like a private viewing exclusively for us. So I guess in the end, it's still a win for me. :)

It felt so surreal being in the same house where Rubens used to live; also the study and dwelling place a lot of other important artists. If only those walls could speak! I seriously got major goosebumps while marveling at the well-preserved art pieces by the master himself and his contemporaries.

Fortunately for us, since it wasn't a busy day, the staff manning the studio at that time was super nice to extend a little bit, so we can briefly explore his gardens too.


I was particularly captivated by Rubens' beautiful portrait of his only daughter Clara Serena who died at the age of 12. It was part of the exhibition Rubens in Private, which was running at that time.

So much controversy surrounded this painting. It was initially dismissed by New York's Metropolitan Museum as the work of a mere follower and was valued at £22,000. But years later, the painting eventually got the seal of approval and now regarded as an authentic Rubens' work. This piece is now already valued at millions.
It's not as extravagant compared to his other works, which is understandable considering Rubens' emotional and grieving state as a father while he was painting it back in the 1620's when he lost his daughter. But this understated artistry and melancholia add to its mystery and make this piece even more special.

The exact address of Rubens House
Wapper 9-11, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium
Opening hours are from 10AM until 5PM everyday (except Monday) and final admission is usually 30 minutes before closing. The museum is exceptionally open on Easter Monday and Whit Monday. They are closed on the following days: Monday, 1 January, 1 May, Ascension Day, 1 November and 25 December

One tip: You can schedule your visit to Rubens House during the last Wednesday of the month so you can enter for free. Before paying for your ticket, ask first if they have any on-going promotion or special offer. At the time of our visit, the regular admission price for adults was 8 euros, but since we arrived in Antwerp through one of the regional/intercity trains, we presented our train ticket and the ticketing staff gave us a discount, which was surprisingly nice.

The best Belgian treats
We were devouring fresh hot waffles every chance we got when we were in Antwerp. Maybe it was just me, but it actually felt "extra" fancy eating Belgian waffles in their home court. I had a huge smile plastered on my face throughout our trip because of it.


Of course, we got to sample a lot of Belgian chocolates and even brought home tons of premium pralines too from Leonidas one of the finest chocolatiers in Belgium no less.

One tip: If you have time, you can actually go on a personalized Belgian chocolate tasting tour. The Flanders region ain't called the Chocolates capital for nothing, and Antwerp is definitely one of the best cities to learn more about truffles, pralines and all those chocolatey goodness. Walking through the charming city center with a knowledgeable tour guide, discovering not only about its rich history, while getting treated with a variety of the finest Belgian chocolates will surely make one's Antwerpen experience a lot sweeter and more memorable.

But the best sweet treat that got first dibs on the "Made in Antwerp" tag would have to be their famous Antwerp Hands. These delicious local biscuits shaped like tiny hands are made of butter, eggs, sugar, flour, and almonds and taste super addicting. I started munching on one piece and next thing I knew, I already finished an entire box all in just one sitting! This biscuit's origins can be traced back in the 1930's from a culinary competition in Antwerp and the shape is based off a folk tale explaining how the city got its name.

I didn't manage to take photos of the biscuits though because they automatically went inside our stomach (so good!), but here are some silly photos of us posing next to a giant hand statue to compensate. Haha!


  How the city of Antwerp got its name  
According to the legend, the city got its name from a mythical giant named "Antigoon" and the Dutch words "hand werpen" which means "to throw". Antigoon who used to live near the river banks of Scheldt would extort money from residents crossing the river, and he would chop off the hands of those who refused to pay him. Fortunately, a brave Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo battled Antigoon, cut the giant's hand in revenge, and threw it into the river. This well-loved story continues to live on and the city still shows their reverence for the local hero. In fact, a statue of Brabo holding a hand prominently stands in front of the City Hall to this day. 

But you can't take Asia out of the girl
We were already in the middle of our Euro trip when we arrived in Antwerp from Amsterdam, and after not eating rice for five straight days, the Asian girl in me was already out of sorts, desperately begging for steamed white rice. So after googling "best Asian restaurants in Antwerp", we found ourselves seated comfortably inside Bij Lam & Yin— a Michelin-starred Mandarin restaurant in the middle of Reyndersstraat. It was a bit on the expensive side, but we didn't have that much choice since it was a Sunday and most of the restaurants were still closed.

We ordered a basket of dimsums, plates of wagyu beef and steamed sea bass in ginger, and few moments later they were served to us by a friendly Chinese auntie. The restaurant's peaceful and homey interiors boast of understated elegance and blended so well with the sophistication of Antwerp. It's one of the most satisfying meals we've had all throughout our Euro trip for sure.

Nello was here
The next day, we visited Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal or the Cathedral of our Lady— a Roman catholic church located in Groenplaats, which was first constructed in 1352. Its architectural design is primarily gothic and houses several Baroque masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens and other artists. I had a good cry seeing Rubens' works in person.

The Raising of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens inside Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Peter Paul Rubens inside Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium

The Descent from the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens inside Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium

The cathedral's belfry is considered as the tallest church tower in Belgium and actually listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We paid 6 euros to enter the cathedral and see the paintings on display and all the proceeds go to the restoration and maintenance of the cathedral and the masterpieces inside.


Stepping outside the cathedral, you will also see a "larger than life" statue of Nello hugging his dog Patrasche right in the middle of Handschoenmarkt. It's so cleverly done because the statue seems to grow out of the street. The pavement looks like a blanket comfortably wrapped around the two best friends in deep slumber. It's such a sweet and heart-tugging site to see, despite the tragic story behind it.


Exploring around Antwerp
From Central station, it's also an easy walk to get to the fashionable Meier street— the main shopping district of Antwerp's city center. This boulevard is traffic-free and where you will find most major European chain stores housed on stunning 18th and 19th century buildings in theatrical Rococo style and architecture. Stadsfeestzaal or the festival hall has been beautifully restored as well and is now an exclusive shopping centre. This was also the place where we bought those highly addicting Antwerp hand biscuits.

There was even this one time that I almost tripped because I kept on looking up instead of looking where we're goingutterly mesmerized by the unique architecture of their beautiful old buildings that they managed to maintain so well.


One tip: One fun way to explore around Antwerp is by renting a bike. They have a lot of bike rental shops available all over the city and a lot of bike tour operators as well.

The weather was particularly chilly when we were there and it was very comfortable to walk around. We ended up in the old docksides area of Eilandje where MAS | Museum aan de Stroom is located along the ever famous Scheldt River.

It's an immersive museum housing significant maritime objects and chronicles the history, art, and culture of the the city's international trade and shipping industry connecting it to Europe and all over the world. MAS is also considered to be the largest museum in Antwerp. The building's art-deco style and red Indian brick facade is such a stand-out that you can easily spot it even from a distance.

The eclectic Loodswezen or the Antwerp Pilotage Building, located on the right bank of Scheldt upstream, is symmetrically designed and serves as a strong image binder "between the old city and the port." It is currently being used for various exhibitions and cultural events. On top of it is yet another statue of Brabo holding Antigoon's hand.

After spending some time by the riverbank, we decided to walk back again to the city center. I think it's one of the best things I love about Antwerp. Aside from being utterly beautiful, it's also safe and conveniently walkable. We didn't ride the tram or take an Uber, which to me basically translated to "more money to shop". :)

On our way back, we spotted a signboard that says "Sip happens, it's okay to wine" in front of a quiet pub surprisingly located right next to the cathedral. And so we did "wine" and even had one round of refreshing Belgian beer. But after walking the entire day all over the city, we decided to call it a night and headed back to the hotel early.


We didn't do much on our last day, but we did stuff our faces with a bunch of food from the restaurants located along Statiestraat. The homey Arirang Korean BBQ was a favorite for "obvious" reasons (Hint: R-I-C-E). I also remembered to drop the postcards in the post office for our friends and family back home, and purchased a bunch of random Antwerpen souvenirs from shops near Groenplaats.

So one of my childhood dreams finally became a reality and until now, the experience still blows my mind. 

It was nice to wake up early and savor our last moments in Antwerp. After packing our luggage (why the hell did we even unpack?), we did linger a bit in "the most beautiful train station in the world" and enjoyed one more round of fresh hot waffles while waiting for the afternoon train bound for Paris. I remember incessantly whispering thank you's to my husband because he was so game and generous to indulge me with this short experience.

We kept it short and sweet, and all I can do now is hope and pray that someday I'd get to come back and do it all over again and more. :)




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