Onsite Review: Antwerp Sparkles Like a Diamond

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Antwerp in Flanders
A typical sidewalk cafe in Antwerp (photo credit: Sergio Ortiz).

It’s no secret that Flanders, Belgium’s incomparable northern region, long ago forfeited its label as “Europe’s best kept secret.” Line Vreven, director, North America, Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels, agrees that Flanders now ranks among Europe’s premier destinations due to its distinctive culture, unparalleled cities and the light-infused brilliance that inspired Rubens and Van Dyck.

How does Vreven describe Flanders to prospective visitors or to travel agents booking clients to the small nation wedged between Germany, France and the Netherlands?

“If I were speaking to them I’d say Flanders is state-of-the-art,” she confides. “Flanders is where you find a combination of cutting-edge craftsmanship with cutting-edge destinations, all done on a human scale. You’ll be delighted, as Flanders is over-performing and under-promising.”

Flanders’ troika of sparkling cities—Mechelen, Bruges and Ghent—would rank as “over-performing” in any traveler’s book and a short visit will prove that they are indeed among the most appealing European urban centers, while Brussels—with its efficiency, cleanliness and order—can boast of being the European Union’s de facto capital without blushing.

But it’s Antwerp, about one hour from Brussels by train, that’s sure to capture a traveler’s imagination with its singular attractions. A visitor to the home of Rubens, the thriving port that sparkles with its world-class diamond industry, will find Antwerp a delight accented by thoroughly Flemish touches.

sleeping around
Along the line of Vreven’s “state-of-the-art” description, Antwerp offers a cutting-edge concept in accommodations: the Sleeping Around Hotel (from approximately $200 per night dbl).

Sleeping Around is a pop-up hotel with no street address, no signs pointing the way and no brochures. Constructed from six 20-ft. recycled shipping containers, the hotel changes locations every few months to provide guests fresh views and experiences. The hotel, currently on the banks of the Rijnkaai Canal close to the city-center (although by the time you read this, it might have already popped up somewhere else), consists of four guestrooms with modern amenities and bathrooms, restaurant and lounge, and guest sauna/spa.

More conventional travelers will find Antwerp’s Radisson Blu Astrid (from approximately $175 per night dbl) to have what might be Antwerp’s most
convenient location. The 247-room property faces the city’s central rail station—built in 1895 and ranked as one of the world’s great train depots—across a gleaming city park and adjacent to Aquatopia, a splendid aquarium with more than 10,000 species where visitors also have the rare opportunity to walk through a simulation of several of the Earth’s natural water biotopes.

According to Dominique Jansen, director of sales and marketing, Radisson Blu Astrid “offers a great location and equally great service and gives guests the chance to experience Antwerp like a local.”

We’ve got a couple of more hotel picks in Antwerp you’ll want to know about: Antwerp Hotel Picks.

hanging out
While visiting Antwerp one would be remiss to skip the Red Star Line Museum, housed in one of the ancient sheds along the Scheldt waterfront. The museum offers a comprehensive look at the great migration of Europeans, mostly Jews escaping pogroms and “final solutions,” who fled to the U.S. and Canada between 1873 and 1935 and used Antwerp as a jumping-off point. The museum opened last year as a “lieu de memoire” for the millions of immigrants who crossed the Atlantic on Red Star Line vessels.

Close to central Antwerp one finds the Rubens House where native son and legendary artist Peter Paul Rubens spent the last 25 years of his life creating timeless masterpieces. The house is visited by more than 150,000 tourists annually and is a fine example of Flemish architecture with its surrounding gardens and airy atmosphere.

Of course, chocolates, the city’s main export, are found in small mom-and-pop chocolatiers and in large emporia on virtually every corner—and your clients can’t go wrong by sampling the prodigious and creative delights that are sold there.

tour operators do the talking
“Antwerp has managed to preserve its medieval personality and remains an intriguing city lined with cobblestoned pathways, 16th century guild houses and a riverside fortress,” says Phil Cappelli,president of Insight Vacations, USA. “One of Antwerp’s most legendary sights is the Cathedral of Our Lady—dating back to the ninth century. It’s on the list of World Heritage sites and Insight guests witness it along with the ancient city on our Country Roads of Belgium, Luxembourg & the Netherlands tour.”

The tour (starting at $3,050 dbl plus airfare) is a 12-day excursion where passengers can see bridges arching over peaceful canals, old windmills slowly turning their blades while cattle graze under a brooding sky. In short, it’s a capsule view of the Low Countries.

According to Guy Young, president of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Antwerp ranks among the most popular stops of Uniworld’s river cruises. “Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world, Belgium’s largest port, home to trend-setting fashion designers and a mecca for chocolate-lovers. It is lively and historic, lovely and legend-filled,” he says.

Tulips and Windmills (from $2,999 pp) is a 10-day river cruise adventure with a walking tour that highlights Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady (four Rubens originals hang on the walls!). The tour also includes a stop at Grote Markt (Market Square) in the heart of Antwerp, which is surrounded by guild houses. Local guides provide some insights: where to buy diamonds, the finest chocolatiers, the names of the best Belgian ales and the best places to find Belgian frites (French fries) and waffles. The excursion also allows time to browse in the unusual boutiques of the city’s pedestrian-only zone.

contact information
Insight Vacations: (888) 680-1241; insightvacations.com or insightvacations.com/us/user/log-in (travel agent login)
Radisson Blu Astrid: (800) 333-3333; radissonblu.com
Sleeping Around Hotel: sleepingaround.eu
Uniworld: (800) 257-2407; uniworld.com