The most colorful part of Antwerp is the medieval town center that fans out from the Grote Markt in a warren of winding streets. South of the town center is a fascinating district of shipping warehouses renovated into trendy bars, restaurants, and art galleries. Head to the streets around Vlaamsekaai and Waalsekaai.
Antwerp is a good walking city. Its major sightseeing attractions are easily reached from one major street that changes its name as it goes along: Italielei, Frankrijklei, Britselei, and Amerikalei. Most sights are within easy walking distance of the town center, but if the cobblestone streets start to wear through your shoes, you can always hop onto a tram.
The sightseeing treasures of Antwerp are best seen at a leisurely pace -- after all, who would want to gallop through Rubens's home at a fast clip? But if time is a factor or if you'd like a good overview before striking out on your own, the city makes it easy by providing guides for walking tours, regularly scheduled coach tours, and a series of boat trips to view Antwerp from the water, as so many visitors through the centuries have first seen it.
If you're a dedicated do-it-yourselfer, you can get maps and sightseeing booklets from the tourist office to guide you. Walking trails marked within the city will lead you through typical streets and squares to find the main points of interest. There's even a free ferryboat ride across the Scheldt.
Many of Antwerp's museums and churches are open to the public either for free or at a minimal charge. Notice that nearly all museums are closed on Monday.
Warning: The area around Centraal Station, east of De Keyserlei and Koningin Astridplein, is somewhat seedy and has drug and prostitution problems.
Note: For many of the museums and churches in Antwerp, you can get information on the Web by visiting their common sites, respectively http://museum.antwerpen.be and www.topa.be.
The city's prime location just above the point where the river meets the Scheldt Estuary made it an important Gallo-Roman port in the 2nd century B.C. For many centuries after that, Antwerp attracted a bevy of covetous invaders. Antwerp was a trading station of the powerful medieval Hanseatic League, but unlike Bruges, did not have the status of a full-fledged league Kontor.
In the port's early days, ships moored at the city itself. But the Scheldt is a tidal river, with a depth that varies twice daily from 9m (30 ft.) to 14m (45 ft.). Nowadays the port has moved 13km (8 miles) downstream to the huge excavated Zandvliet docks that jam up against the Dutch border, protected by tidal rise and fall by a series of locks. Napoleon began the process of transformation in 1806 -- he viewed Antwerp as a "pistol aimed at the heart of England" -- and 5 years later the first vessel moored in the Bonaparte Dock.
The port is well worth a visit, if only to appreciate its vast size. The entire harbor/dock complex covers 65 sq. km (40 sq. miles). Each year 16,000 ships visit, transporting 100 million metric tons of cargo. Port enterprises employ 57,000 people and add more than $6 billion to the national economy. You'll soon understand why an age-old local saying is that "Antwerp has God to thank for the Scheldt, and the Scheldt for everything else."
The Flandria boat cruises and coach tours offer the best view, but the tourist office can also furnish detailed information for those who wish to drive the plainly marked Havenroute (if this includes you, keep a sharp eye out for the hazards of this busy workplace, such as open bridges, rail tracks, moving cranes, and so on).
The Diamond Quarter
The raw facts and figures are sparkling enough: Some 85% of the world's rough diamonds, 50% of cut diamonds, and 40% of industrial diamonds are traded here annually -- together they're valued at more than $12.5 billion and account for roughly 7% of total Belgian exports. The diamond cutters of Antwerp are world-renowned for their skill, which you can admire in the Diamond Quarter, a surprisingly down-at-heels-looking area, only steps away from Centraal Station. More than 12,000 expert cutters and polishers are at work in the Diamond Quarter, at 380 workshops, serving 1,500 firms and 3,500 brokers and merchants. The trade is supervised by Antwerp's Hoge Raad voor Diamant (Diamond High Council).
Many dealers and traders belong to the city's Orthodox Jewish community, which has a long tradition of handling diamonds and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a reticent group. But the business is becoming ever more multinational, with Indians another prominent group. A code of honor and trust underlies business. Even today, when e-commerce is a fact of international business life, most deals in Antwerp are still sealed with a handshake.
There's a downside to the trade. Miners and gleaners -- many of them children -- in Africa and Asia might be paid just a dollar a day for their labor. And so-called conflict diamonds are fueling wars and internal conflicts on those continents.
In addition to perusing the stores and visiting a workshop, a good place to get close to the city's diamond trade is the Diamantmuseum Provincie Antwerpen (Antwerp Province Diamond Museum), Koningin Astridplein 19-23 (tel. 03/202-48-90; www.diamantmuseum.be; Métro: Centraal Station). Exhibits here trace the history, geology, mining, and cutting of diamonds. Diamond-cutting and -polishing demonstrations are on Saturday afternoon from 1:30 to 4:30pm. The museum is open Thursday to Tuesday from 10am to 5:30pm. Admission is 6€ ($7.50) for adults, 4€ ($5) for seniors and visitors ages 12 to 26, and free for children under 12.
Especially For Kids
Close to Antwerp Zoo and working in cooperation with it, another great attraction for kids is Aquatopia, Koningin Astridplein 7 (tel. 03/205-07-40; www.aquatopia.be; Métro: Centraal Station), which opened its doors in 2003 in the Astrid Park Plaza Hotel building, just across the square from Centraal Station. The futuristic facility's 40 aquaria, set on three floors, are together filled with around a million liters (264,200 gal.) of salt water, and house some than 3,500 marine creatures, ranging from sea horses to sharks. Tropical rainforests, mangroves, wetlands, coral reefs, the ocean floor -- all, and more, are featured. No doubt the biggest thrill will come from walking through the clear-walled "shark tunnel," while watching smallish examples of these toothy denizens of the deep swimming around you. Multimedia applications and interactive computer displays complement the live action; even Nemo puts in an appearance. If you're visiting with children, you may want to spend at least 2 hours here. Aquatopia is open daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission is 9.45€ ($12) for adults, 7.45€ ($9.30) for seniors and students, 4.95€ ($5.20) for visitors with disabilities, and 6.45€ ($8.05) for children under 12.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.