By Hillary Latos
Considered to be the melting pot of Europe and a sister city of New York, Antwerp is home to over 170 nationalities hailing from all over the world who have passed through this port city to realize the dream of a better life elsewhere and/or fell in love with this liberal and progressive city and never left. There are many things this dynamic city is famous for - it's the epicenter of the lucrative diamond industry, and also a center of nurturing creativity producing some of the most important 17th century artists to their rising fashion scene. The common thread that reverberates throughout its storied history is making dreams materialize which infectiously touches everyone who visits this vibrant city.
From 1873 to 1934, more than two million migrants departed through Antwerp’s docks to New York City’s Ellis Island and Canada to avoid persecution in search for a better life, and boarded the Red Star Line steamer ships with all of their worldly possessions and dreams in tow. After years of painstaking restoration, The Red Star Line Museum has opened in the same complex as a memorial of walking in the migrant’s footsteps to uncover their personal accounts as they made their courageous journeys across Europe to an unfamiliar land. By keeping meticulous records of the passengers as well as photos, letters, personal momentos, and relics from the ship, touching personal experiences are recreated to give the visitor a picture of what life was like on this 20+ day journey to the New World in steerage from passing scrutinizing medical examinations to life on board the ship to another subjugating exam on Ellis Island before allowance into the US. First and second class passengers lived large with lavish accommodations, formal gourmet meals, and nightly cocktail parties, while steerage was a different world with crowded and often unsanitary conditions. Notable passengers on the ship were Albert Einstein and Irving Berlin. If you enjoyed the history of Ellis Island this is an important and comprehensive attraction that completes the picture of immigration to the US.
Chronicling the expressions and emotions of the immigrants passing through Antwerp was artist Eugeen van Miegham a passionate realist, who sketched thousands of foreigners as they waited for days to board the ship. From old bearded men whose faces and posture demonstrated years of hardship and despair to the innocent young families with all of their meager possessions held in a cart and a glimmer of hope in their eyes. The most comprehensive collection of his work can be seen at the Eugeen van Miegham museum on Ernest Van Dijckkaai 9 located in the heart of the historic district.
The best way to explore Antwerp and truly appreciate the relaxed yet sophisticated atmosphere is by foot where the majority of museums, shopping, attractions, and nightlife are within walking distance of the center. One of the best ways to explore the city’s attractions and museum is with the City Card that allows free access over 48 hours to all of their museums and churches and discounts to various attractions for 28 Euros. The Northern district and waterfront is home to the Red Star Line Museum and the striking MAS, Museum aan de Stroom that tells the story of the city, the port and the world, housed in an architectural gem with ribboned glass windows and red tile that has unparalleled views of the city. This neighborhood has become Antwerp’s latest trendy area dotted with cafes and restaurants with locals enjoying the good life. Adjacent to the museums is the uber hip Luxe that sits in a historic bi level house and serves contemporary Belgian fare of seafood and meat with views overlooking the lively harbor. Philips Pakhuis is a local favorite housed in a renovated warehouse that is designed like a lofty living room with retro furniture and serves Belgian favorites using seasonal and local ingredients.
Take a stroll down the waterfront passing through the historical center and visit the impressive Gothic Cathedral of our Lady built in 1351 that houses some of the world’s most famous Rubens tryptichs. In the historic district, one of the most unique museums is the Plantin Moretus Museum that was formerly the stately home of printer Christoffel Plantin and provides an overview of the history of book printing from the 15th to the 18th century with some of the oldest printing presses in the world. Admire the rich furnishings and regal surroundings throughout the various rooms. Another notable museum is the Rubens art museum which is located in his palatial home that is a wonderful preservation of the Baroque period and displays a significant body of his work spanning his illustrious career.
As Antwerp was one of the most important cities to flourish during the Belle Epoque era, children and adults will enjoy the city zoo founded in 1843, which is one of the oldest zoos in the world and landmarked as a UNESCO heritage site. It is home to over 6,000 animals with landscaped grounds and meticulous 19th century architecture that captures the essence of this historical period.
Antwerp is a true shoppers paradise. Known as the diamond capital of the world, about 80 percent of the world’s diamonds pass through their exchanges, and it is also the headquarters of the IGA and GIA that rate and value every diamond for its cut, clarity, color, and carat. With careful planning bargains can be had when buying direct with the majority of diamond wholesalers located in the Jewish district and around the central station.
For fashion aficionados, visit the MoMu fashion museum that explore the beginnings and rise of Antwerp’s most famous designers including the revolutionary Antwerp 6 that shook up the fashion world and also exhibits work from the future stars of fashion who have passed through the famous Royal Academy of Art located on the trendy shopping street Kammenstraat.
For antiques, galleries, independent fashion boutiques and vintage clothing shops meander around the charming and trendy Southern district that is also lined with neighborhood outdoor cafes and restaurants. Kloosterstraat is home to many bric a brac shops selling unique one of a kind finds as well as fine antiques to post modern contemporary pieces. The most famous Antwerp designers Anne Demuelmeester, Dirk Bikkemberg, and Dries Van Noten have their flagships in this district.
For those with an adventurous streak, try the Belgian chocolates from “Shock-o latier” Dominque Persoone’s The Chocolate Line, located in Napoleon’s former palace on the main shopping street, the Meir. He’s created exotic and other worldly combinations and fillings such as helium, marijuana, curry, bacon, tomato basil olive, and wasabi that seamlessly blend for a unique, lasting and memorable flavor.
Belgium is also known for their beer culture. Bier Central is testament to that and even has a beer encyclopedia for newbies. Serving over 300 types of bottled Belgian beers and 20 beers on tap from the coveted and rare Trappist beers to well known exports to the Brut des Flanders that tastes like a champagne beer, and as purists go, all the entrees are also prepared with beer. As Belgian’s take their beer very seriously, every beer is served in a uniquely shaped and named glass that was created to optimize its flavor.
After living the good life in Antwerp, it’s easy to see why so many people passed through and never left. •
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