Some 50km north of Brussels, ANTWERP, Belgium’s second city, lays claim to being the de facto capital of Flemish Belgium, boosting its credentials with an animated cultural scene, a burgeoning fashion industry, and more top-ranking cafés and restaurants than you could possibly sample alongside a spirited nightlife – quite enough to keep anyone busy for a few days, if not more. The city fans out carelessly from the east bank of the Scheldt, its centre a rough polygon formed and framed by its enclosing boulevards and the river. Recent efforts to clean and smarten the centre have been tremendously successful, revealing scores of beautiful buildings previously camouflaged by the accumulated grime. On the surface it’s not a wealthy city, and it’s rarely neat and tidy, but it is a hectic and immediately likeable place, with a dense concentration of things to see, not least some fine churches, including a simply wonderful cathedral, and a varied selection of excellent museums.

North of the centre lies Het Eilandje (the Little Isle), where the city’s old docks and wharves have been rejuvenated and deluxe apartments shoehorned into the former warehouses, the whole caboodle overseen by the soaring modernism of the Museum Aan de Stroom, Antwerp’s premier museum. To the east of the centre, the star turns are the Rubenshuis, one-time home and studio of Rubens, and the cathedral-like Centraal Station, which itself abuts the diamond district – the city has long been at the heart of the international diamond trade. The area to the south of the centre, Het Zuid, is of interest too, a long-neglected but now resurgent residential district whose wide boulevards, with their long vistas and geometrical roundabouts, were laid out at the end of the nineteenth century. The obvious targets here are MuHKA (the Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Art Museum), though this is currently closed for a thoroughgoing revamp.

Antwerp’s bustling centre is the most engaging part of the city, its mazy streets and cobbled lanes studded with fine old churches, mansions and museums. The logical place to start an exploration is the Grote Markt, still the centre of activities and flanked by the elegant Stadhuis. From here, it’s a couple of hundred metres south to the magnificent Gothic Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal, home to a quartet of paintings by Rubens, with the intriguing old printing house of Christopher Plantin, now the Museum Plantin-Moretus, just beyond. Another short hop, this time to the north, brings up the striking medieval Vleeshuis, one-time headquarters of the guild of butchers, with the sinuous Baroque of St-Pauluskerk beckoning beyond. The city centre finishes off with two other excellent attractions, the charming Hendrik Conscienceplein and the Rockoxhuis, which holds a small but superb collection of paintings.

Brief history

In the beginning Antwerp wasn’t much desired: it may have occupied a prime river site, but it was too far east to be important in the cloth trade and too far west to be on the major trade routes connecting Germany and Holland. However, in the late fifteenth century it benefited from both a general movement of trade to the west and the decline of the Anglo-Flemish cloth trade. Within the space of just 25 years, many of the great trading families of western Europe had relocated here, and the tiny old fortified settlement of yesteryear was transformed by a deluge of splendid new mansions and churches, docks and harbours. In addition, the new masters of the region, the Habsburgs, had become frustrated with the turbulent burghers of Flanders and both the emperor Maximilian and his successor Charles V patronized the city at the expense of its Flemish rivals, underwriting its success as the leading port of their expanding empire.

Antwerp’s golden age lasted for less than a hundred years, prematurely stifled by Charles V’s son Philip II, who inherited Spain and the Low Countries in 1555. Fanatically Catholic, Philip viewed the reformist stirrings of the Low Countries with horror, and his sustained attempt to bring his Protestant subjects to heel brought war and pestilence to the region for decades. Protestantism had taken root in Antwerp early on and the city seethed with discontent as Philip’s intentions became all too clear. The spark was the Ommegang of August 18, 1566, when priests carting the image of the Virgin through the city’s streets insisted that all should bend the knee as it passed. The parade itself was peaceful enough, but afterwards, with the battle cry of “Long live the beggars”, the city’s Protestant guildsmen and their apprentices smashed the inside of the cathedral to pieces – the most extreme example of the “iconoclastic fury” that then swept the region. Philip responded by sending in an army of occupation, which sought to overawe and intimidate the local citizenry from a brand-new citadel built on the south side of town. Nine years later, it was this same garrison that sat unpaid and underfed in its fortress, surrounded by the wealth of what the soldiers regarded as a “heretical” city. Philip’s mercenaries mutinied, and at dawn on November 4, 1576, they stormed Antwerp, running riot for three long days, plundering public buildings and private mansions, and slaughtering some eight thousand of its inhabitants in the “Spanish fury”, a catastrophe that finished the city’s commercial supremacy. More disasters were to follow. Philip’s soldiers were driven out after the massacre, but they were back in 1585 laying siege outside the city walls for seven months, their success leading to Antwerp’s ultimate incorporation within the Spanish Netherlands. Under the terms of the capitulation, Protestants had two years to leave town, and a flood of skilled workers poured north to the relative safety of Holland, further weakening the city’s economy.

In the early seventeenth century there was a modest recovery, but the Dutch, who were now free of Spain, controlled the waterways of the Scheldt and were determined that no neighbouring Catholic port would threaten their trade. Consequently, in 1648, under the Peace of Westphalia, which finally wrapped up the Thirty Years’ War, they forced the closure of the Scheldt to all non-Dutch shipping. This ruined Antwerp, and the city remained firmly in the doldrums until the French army arrived in 1797 – Napoleon declaring it to be “little better than a heap of ruins…scarcely like a European city at all”. The French rebuilt the docks and reopened the Scheldt to shipping, and the city revived to become independent Belgium’s largest port, a role that made it a prime target during both world wars. In 1914, the invading German army overran Antwerp’s outer defences with surprising ease, forcing the Belgian government – which had moved here from Brussels a few weeks before – into a second hasty evacuation along with Winston Churchill and the Royal Marines, who had only just arrived. During World War II, both sides bombed Antwerp, but the worst damage was inflicted after the Liberation when the city was hit by hundreds of Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets.

After the war, Antwerp quickly picked up the pieces, becoming one of Europe’s major seaports and, more recently, a focus for those Flemish-speakers looking for greater independence within (or without) a federal Belgium. It has also consolidated its position at the heart of the worldwide diamond trade and developed an international reputation for its innovative fashion designers, from the so-called “Antwerp Six” to new and upcoming talent such as Tim Vansteenbergen, A.F. Vandevorst and Stephan Schneider.