Belgium’s second city, Antwerp, is – if you get a fast train – only 42 minutes away from Brussels. So I’m not sure how it took me till my final weekend of six months in Belgium to visit the City of Diamonds, as it is known.
Too much travelling round the Continent and neglecting what’s on my doorstep I guess. And when I say my doorstep, I mean Belgium as a whole, because hey, it’s a teeny little place really.
But I digress.
By Jove! I liked Antwerp a lot. A lot a lot (as Halle pretending to be Annie from Parent Trap would say). My Belgian colleagues had told me that after visiting other Belgian cities, you realise there are far nicer places than Brussels. And, no offence to Brussels and all, I now have to agree.
Antwerp struck me as simultaneously charming, trendy, interesting and fun. Little did I know before I arrived, but I was actually visiting during the city's annual four-day Bollekesfeest, which is basically a big town festival celebrating the local beer. I seem to be doing a pretty good job of ticking off Belgian summer city festivals - remember Ghent? - but I'll come back to the fest later.
I arrived a little after noon (don't judge, weekend lie-ins are sacred), excited for the final day-trip of my year abroad. Yup, my last travels of oh so many wonderful trips!
I'd heard that Antwerp main station was something of an architectural feat, and it did not disappoint.
It's a really impressive and beautiful old stone building, and what's more, its location is fantastic too - beating Brussels main station on two counts then. I love it when you can just walk straight out of the station into the town centre.
Diamonds and station aside, everyone had told me Antwerp is fabulous for shopping, and yup, superior to Brussels. My housemate had recommended I see the sights before hitting the shops, and this was certainly my plan, buuuuut... Well it turns out the station is located at one end of the main high street, Meir, so I simply had to walk down it to get to the historic city centre.
Seriously, that's the high street. I don't know where you live, but growing up in Leicestershire meant my nearest big city was Leicester. Leicester does not have high streets that look like that.
Practically every building was ornate, classic and grand, and the tree-lined street was lovely to walk down. And sure, I may have popped into the occasional shop. Or six. But I was only going to go into ones we don't have back home.
One shop which immediately caught my eye was Sissy Boy. Yeah, in my opinion the name totally doesn't match with the brand, for the Dutch shop is home to lovely fashion, homewares and toiletries.
It's a little more expensive than the likes of H&M, but full of pretty things nonetheless. And a little bit different.
On the same street, I was unsurprisingly drawn into Forever 21 - what can I say? I love that store, and there actually isn't one anywhere near me at home. So if you ask me a little spree was totally justified, don'tcha think? It was a massive branch of Forever 21 - as big if not bigger than Oxford Street, I swear!
Along the street, and all round the city for that matter, there were really helpful signposts signalling how to get to all the key points and how long it'd take to walk there. Extremely useful when one does not speak the language.
Of course, there were other tourists around, but it seemed like the majority of people out and about were Antwerpers. (I don't think that's what Antwerp residents are called but just go with me, mmm kay?)
I eventually made my way to the historic centre, and found myself in a big square called Groenplaats. It was here that I realised something was going on.
There was a big stage with a band performing, pop-up bars and lots of people milling around drinking. I'd seen the banners for Bollekesfeest and not had a clue what it meant, but one helpful info lady explained everything and advised me on what I should go and see. What a babe.
Right next to the cathedral, the square is beautiful, and was buzzing with life in the sunshine. Groenplaats isn't even the main square of the city though, oh no.
Given you had to pay to go into the cathedral (mean), I strolled round it and marvelled at the outside instead.
There were a few vintage and fleamarket-esque stalls round the side, which I obviously loved, and the cobbled streets were full of people sitting out at cafés in the late summer sunshine.
I then finally made my way to the big dog, the main attraction, the centre: the Grote Markt.
The buildings round the square are that classic Belgian architecture I've grown to love (oh, and I've learnt the roofs are called crow-stepped gables), and the main town hall is covered in colourful flags. Set to a backdrop of blue sky and sunshine, it was all extremely vibrant, especially thanks to all the stalls and pop-up bars that were part of the fest.
The atmosphere was simply wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the crowds making our way from stall to stall, sampling the local delicacies.
There were biscuits, sweets, breads, meats, jams and more, all showcasing Antwerp's specialities.
I loved that there was so much going on, but didn't let it distract from the beeaaauutiful charming buildings all around me.
I wandered on further to the river, where there was still more happening as part of the fest. We had beach-style bars, children's craft areas and even an outdoor dance class!
And just to the side was the fortress. I do love me a good fortress, so up I went to check it out.
Isn't the ye olde-ness just fab?
And up on one side of the fortress is a lovely wide walkway along the river. This was the perfect spot for a little sit-down in the sun. The clouds were looking pretty funky too.
Feeling the teensiest bit weary, I eventually wandered back the way I'd come with one thing in mind.
And that thing, my dears, was froyo.
I'd walked past Moochie froyo earlier, and it was just what I needed as a refreshing, delicious pick-me-up.
"Fabulous frozen yogurt" they call themselves, and the little place was full when I arrived. I'd been to their Brussels shop before, but that's just a counter in a shopping centre. The Antwerp shop was simply delightful in all its pinkness, and I loved the pretty tables and chairs outside.
It's not self-serve, but a "mini" with one topping for 3.50 Euros really isn't bad, especially considering a "mini" isn't very mini at all, and they're really generous with the toppings. I went for natural froyo with mango and honey, and it was divine.
|I heart froyo|
The froyo is somehow colder than most, but it's super creamy. Mmmmm...
Moving on (before I drool over my keyboard).
I wanted to make my way back to the station via some of the other shopping streets I'd read about (in my pre-trip research, natch.) So I weaved my way down Kammenstraat, Lombardenvest, Huidervettersstraat and Schuttershofstraat, where I found both the big-name designers and interesting, stylish boutiques.
I do love to peer in through the windows of the top designers. Oh and the snazzies bakeries too, of course. I resisted the macarons but did quench my thirst with a Diet Coke. Given Dries Van Noten is from Antwerp, I thought this was an appropriate bottle to choose:
A boutique called Sienna caught my eye, but judging from the look of it, I presumed it would be way out of my price range. As I looked closer at the window display, I was pleasantly surprised, and so in I went.
It was a charming boutique with an expensive feel, yet stocking beautiful clothes by affordable and perhaps lesser-known brands and designers. I like.
But my feet were starting to realise how far they'd walked that afternoon, the evening was drawing in, and it was soon time for me to head back to the station.
It had been an utterly delightful day in Antwerp, and a fabulous mix of sightseeing, shopping, exploring and eating. I know there's lots more of the city that I didn't have time to discover, so I'd definitely go back to Antwerp.
I'm a new fan of Antwerp, and I think it's totally worth a visit if you come to Belgium.
Have you ever been? I'd love to know if you agree with me on Antwerp compared to Brussels?
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