The city of Antwerp can rightfully pride itself on its rich, historic past. Through the centuries the city has managed to develop a rich and unique cultural heritage. Antwerp has always been at the crossroads of culture and the arts, being the hometown of great painters such as Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck, as well as architects and authors.
Belgium’s second largest city (population: 450,000), Antwerp is a cultural melting pot, with a port that is Europe’s second largest. The river Scheldt links the city to the North Sea some 60 miles (97km) away.
The importance of the river Scheldt cannot be overemphasized. Antwerp would not be what it is today without its river, which has been – and continues to be – of major strategic importance to the city. Many river cruise vessels visit Antwerp.
The river even appears in a well-known legend, said to explain the origins of the city’s name. Antigoon, a giant who lived on the river, would demand a toll from anyone wanting to cross the river. Those who did not pay would lose one of their hands. That all stopped when Brabo, a young hero, defeated Antigoon in combat. He then cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river. Hence the name Antwerpen, from Dutch hand werpen, or “hand throwing” in English. A statue in front of Antwerp’s town hall immortalizes the important moment.
Legends aside, historic documents show that the city was officially named as early as in the fourth century.
In more recent times, the river Scheldt played an important role as Antwerp developed into one of the most important centers for the transatlantic liners that transported people and goods to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Currently being developed into a museum, the departure halls used by Belgium-based Red Star Line still stand at the city’s Rijnkaai quays.
Throughout the centuries, the quays of Antwerp have been important to many others too. The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, saw a military potential in the city. For that reason, he constructed the Bonaparte Dock in the early 19th century.
Napoleon was not the first (nor the last) military man to consider Antwerp an important city. Het Steen – “The Stone” in English – stands as a reminder of this. The citadel was finished in 1225, built to control access to the river Scheldt. It is now Antwerp’s oldest remaining building. It also used to be the home to the National Maritime Museum, but this is being moved to the Museum an de Stroom (MAS) – set to open next year (see below under Museums).
Today’s cruise passengers can admire the old medieval and modern skyline of the Antwerp waterfront, while sailing up to the mooring right in the city center. Ships moor only 110 yards (100m) from the marvelous Market Place (Groote Markt), 16th century City Hall, amazing Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady and enchanting ancient city center with its churches and museums. New facilities, such as the computer controlled gangway and cruise terminal, welcome passengers efficiently. Before arriving, passengers will have passed a 12-mile (20km) panorama of port activity and nature reserve.
Antwerp is also the world’s diamond capital. Since the 15th century the city has played an important role in the diamond trade and industry. More than 85 percent of all the world’s diamonds are cut, set or traded in the city representing an annual turnover of US$26 billion.
Antwerp has become a major trendsetter in the European world of fashion. Belgian designers that scored internationally have artistic roots in Antwerp. Most of the up-and-coming designers have their atelier, showroom and shop in the city center. The number of fashion shops in Antwerp continues to grow, and the range of boutiques in the pedestrian friendly center makes strolling and window-shopping particularly easy.
- The Cathedral of Our Lady is impressive. Construction started in 1352 and was finished 169 years later.
- Groote Markt. The Market Place, with the Town Hall. Situated in the old part of Antwerp, only a short walk from the cruise terminal, the Groote Markt is surrounded by historic guild houses.
- The breweries. Belgium’s beer-brewing traditions go back to the Middle Ages. The country boasts the most varied collection of high-quality beers in the world, and there are some 125 smaller breweries. Many of them are open for visitors, for example the De Koninck Brewery (situated in Antwerp).
- Chocolate tasting. Each year, Belgium produces 172,000 tons of high-quality chocolate. Many cruise lines visiting Antwerp have chocolate tasting or a visit to a chocolate factory on the list of available shore excursions. Ghent (62 miles from Antwerp) is a center for chocolate manufacturing.
- Shopping. With several shopping centres, Antwerp offers everything a shopaholic could wish for. And don’t forget: Antwerp is home to some of the most interesting contemporary designers that there are to be found.
Several museums are located in Antwerp and its surroundings. Some of them are within walking distance from the cruise terminal. Examples include:
- Diamond Museum. To many, Antwerp is synonymous with diamonds. The Diamond Museum tells the story of what diamonds have meant to the city over the centuries. Street address: Koningin Astridplein 19-23
- Fashion Museum (MoMu). With its collection of 25,000 fashion related items the, MoMu is a must to anyone who has an interest in clothing. Street address: Nationalestraat 28
- MAS (Museum aan de Stroom). MAS focuses on the city and the river – and the interplay between the two throughout history. Street address: Hanzestedenplaats 1
- Red Star Line Museum. The story about Belgium’s own transatlantic line will be told in a suitable setting: the departure halls used by Red Star Line. The museum is developed by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners – the same US-based architect firm that is behind the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, Grand Central Station and the South Street Seaport museum in New York. It is not scheduled to open until 2012, but it is possible to have a look at the old departure halls from the outside. Street address: Rijnkaai 15
- Rubens House. Experience the house in which the famed Baroque artist lived with his family for more than a quarter of a century. Rubens is an Antwerp icon who attracts visitors from around the world. Street address: Wapper 9-11
- Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp. Situated in the trendy Zuid district, the Museum of Contemporary art offers a varied program of performances, lectures, concerts, debates and guided tours. Street address: Leuvenstraat 32
Shore excursions in and around Antwerp include:
- Guided tours of the city hall and the impressive Cathedral of Our Lady
- Breendonk SS transit camp – a tour of a concentration camp used by the Nazis during the Second World War
- Brussels tours can be available in a numer of forms, ranging from guided coach tours to individual excursions by private car.
- Excursions to Ghent. The medieval city southwest of Antwerp is famous for the fine chocolate being produced there.
Brussels, the capital of the European Union, is only 28 miles or 45km away. Distances from Antwerp to other marvelous Flemish art cities are barely 31 miles (50km) to Ghent and 62 miles (100km) to Bruges. Even Paris can be reached within three hours.
This article is provided free to the travel agent community by:
ShoreTrips – Sign in to create your own TripPlanner itinerary of shore excursions for your clients!
An avid traveler and an award-winning journalist, Ralph Grizzle produces articles, video and photos that are inspiring and informative, personal and passionate. A journalism graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ralph has specialized in travel writing for more than two decades. To read more cruise and port reviews by Ralph Grizzle, visit his website at www.avidcruiser.com