By Rick Steves
Belgium falls through the cracks. It’s a little country, not big enough for people to find on a map sometimes. But it’s one of Europe’s great secrets.
While its capital, Brussels, has become overly international, the port city to the north — Antwerp — has more of a local identity.
It’s an honest, what-you-see-is-what-you-get place, perhaps because it’s in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium called Flanders.
This city of about 500,000 offers visitors an eclectic array of sightseeing, and it’s easy to navigate since most locals speak English.
If you have just one day (or less), you’ll need to be selective.
I can’t think of a city with a more visit-worthy train station than Antwerp. The building stands like a temple to the Industrial Age.
Stepping out of the station, you’ll find some modern buildings due to Hitler’s rocket attacks during World War II: More V-2s fell on Antwerp than on London.
Fortunately, most of the Old Town survived. As it has for centuries, the Cathedral of Our Lady dominates the city center; its 400-foot-tall spire is the highest in the Low Countries.
The interior is packed with fine artwork, including four paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.
Next door, the Grote Markt, Antwerp’s main square, is dominated by the looming tower of the cathedral at one end and the stately City Hall at the other. The City Hall flies flags from dozens of countries, representing the importance of international trade to the city.
One of the city’s top sights is the Rubens House (www.rubenshuis.be). This former home of artist Peter Paul Rubens does a fine job of introducing visitors both to the artist’s works — several of which are displayed here — and to his lifestyle.
Another type of house is found in Antwerp’s Red Light District, north of the Old Town near the port. This is Belgium’s biggest hub of legalized prostitution and one of the most businesslike I’ve seen in Europe.
I did notice that, while Antwerp has a slick red light neighborhood, it has almost no sleaze elsewhere.
This area is not as sketchy as it might seem, but it’s best to visit during the day.
The nearby Museum aan de Stroom (www.mas.be), or MAS for short, is housed in a 210-foot-tall mod tower, encased in hand-cut red stone, and speckled with silver hands (the symbol of Antwerp).
Designed to resemble the spiraling stacks of goods in an old warehouse, its maritime, ethnographic and folklore collections confirm Antwerp’s reputation as a crossroads for the world.
Take the bank of escalators to the top for a free, stunning view of the city.
Fashionistas love window-shopping in the Sint-Andries district south of the Old Town, one of Europe’s top fashion zones.
If funky urbanity is your thing, Antwerp is one of Europe’s most intriguing cities.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
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