Antwerp (Antwerpen if you speak Flemish or Anvers if you're French) is the second largest city in Belgium, and the unofficial capitol of Flemish-speaking half of the country (in the likely event that you don't speak Flemish, you'll probably have more success using English in restaurants and bars than you will if you try French). Linked to the sea by the River Scheldt it has always been one of Europe's major trading cities, and remains the focus of the world diamond trade. The city is heavily industrialised and was damaged in both World Wars, but at the centre of the city is a collection of nicely preserved Renaissance buildings, housing some world-class museums, excellent restaurants, and top-notch bars (the local brew is De Koninck). Antwerp is also known as the home of the painter Peter Paul Rubens, famous for painting naked fat women (that should get me some hits on Google).
From London you can be in Antwerp (on the Eurostar via Brussels) in around 3 hours, making it an ideal place for a weekend or short break. Good public transport links mean that Antwerp is only a short journey from Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Ghent and Bruges.
Antwerp has its own small airport, Antwerp Deurne, a short bus ride from the city centre. The main airline flying into Antwerp is VLM, who offer direct flights to London City, Manchester, and for some reason Jersey and the Isle of Man. If you book in advance a return ticket from London City will set you back around £120.
Antwerp is on the main rail line between Brussels and Amsterdam; on a normal intercity train Brussels is less than 50 minutes away, and there will be at least 3 trains an hour from Antwerp Centraal. A single second class ticket will set you back less than 7 euros. Amsterdam takes around 2 hours, and there are 1 or 2 direct trains an hour. The site for the Belgian state railway company is here; you can check timetables, plan journeys online, and book and pay for tickets.
From Antwerp you can also get trains to Ghent (2 or 3 trains an hour, taking 50 minutes), Bruges (usually only 1 direct train an hour taking around 80 minutes, otherwise you'll have to go via Ghent or Brussels), or if you fancy a day at the seaside Ostend is only 90 minutes away.
If you're feeling flush you can travel on the high-speed Thalys trains instead. Unlike the normal intercity trains you must book a ticket in advance, trains are only every couple of hours, a one way ticket to Amsterdam would set you back around 40 euros, and as the Thalys train is only a couple of minutes faster than the standard intercity this might be a good option for those with more money than sense... The Thalys also runs down to Paris (just over 2 hours).
The main advantage of travelling by train is that you arrive at Antwerp Centraal Station; while the area around the station may be slightly shabby the station itself in an awesome building; the main hall and concourse puts even some of the UK's grand Victorian stations to shame. It's all been refurbished recently too. The most unusual part of it is that when they had to extend the station rather than adding extra platforms at the sides they put them underneath, so there are platforms on 3 different layers, but even if you're right down on the bottom level of the station you can still see up into the main arrivals hall. Honestly, it's an amazing building, you should go and have a look at it even if you're not planning on taking the train anywhere.
On our last trip to Antwerp we travelled from London on the Eurostar. Because Belgian Railways own a small stake in the Channel Tunnel if you buy a Eurostar ticket to Brussels it also includes an onward rail journey to anywhere in Belgium within 24 hours (and you can also use the return ticket to travel from any station in Belgium back to Brussels). We found travelling on the train to be much more relaxing than flying, even when 3 of our merry band were stopped and questioned by UK Special Branch as suspected football hooligans at St Pancras Station. We left London at 7am, had a very short wait for our onward train to Antwerp at Brussels Midi, and were checking into our hotel well before midday. If like us you book your tickets in advance and are happy to travel mid-week, you can get return tickets for around £60.
If you're too cheap to take the train (and Belgian railways are much cheaper than their UK equivalent, even if you buy your tickets on the day you're travelling) Eurolines coaches will take you to Amsterdam in around 3 hours, or you can use them to travel from London (via Dover and Lille) which takes in between 8 and 11 hours. A one-way fare from London will set you back around £40, so it's unlikely to be any cheaper than the Eurostar. The Eurolines stop in Antwerp is at 8 Van Stralenstraat, northwest of the central railway station.
Antwerp stands on the Scheldt, one of Europe's largest rivers. Everything of interest is on the right (east) bank of the river, probably the only reason to cross the river (there are no bridges, you'll have to use the Sint Anna pedestrian tunnel) are for the views that you get of the rest of the city from there.
At the heart of the city are Groenplaats ("Green Square"), a square that isn't remotely green and Grote Markt ("Great Market"), which doesn't have a market. Between these squares is the cathedral (if you ever get lost just head towards the tower) and surrounding them are the narrow steets of the Old Town. Many of the streets in this part of the city are pedestrianised. Antwerp Centraal station is a short walk (it took us 10 minutes, with luggage) east of the old town, take the street called Meier (the main shopping street in Antwerp), cross over Italielei, the dual carriageway inner ring road, carry on down de Keyserlei and there you are. The area around the railway station is slightly run-down compared to the city centre. Roughly north of the railway station is Antwerp's Chinatown, and south is the Diamond District, an area with a significant Jewish presence. North of the old town are the docks, built by Napoleon (well, he didn't actually do it personally), an area of recent regeneration as formerly deserted warehouses and transformed into restaurants and living space (be warned that between the old town and the docks is Antwerp's red light district; as in Amsterdam prostitution in this part of the city has been decriminalised, but here there's a rougher, edgier atmosphere than Amsterdam). South of the old town is Het Zuid, home to Antwerp's fashion industry and the city art gallery.
Antwerp's public transport system includes trams (some of which run underground; the city started building a Metro system, ran out of money and ran trams through some of the tunnels instead) and buses. A particularly useful tram line runs from Centraal Station to Groenplaats, running under the Meier. You can buy single tickets (valid for up to 1 hour), or a day pass.
We haven't used public transport on any of our visits to Antwerp, almost everything of interest is within walking distance of the city centre, in some parts of the city you have no choice but to walk (the pedestrianised areas of the old town), and walking everywhere makes it easier (and more justifiable) to pop into a bar every now and again....
On our last 2 visits to Antwerp we stayed at the Kamerpoort at 38-40 Nationalestraat (on our first visit there we stayed on the easycruisetwo). There's nothing outstanding about it, we just wanted to say in somewhere close to the Old Town, and at a 5 minute walk from the Groenplaats this fit the bill. It helped that it was also fairly cheap (in September 2007 we paid £40 a night for a twin room; although when we went back in November that had gone up to £74 a night). The hotel is housed in a fairly unattractive modern building. There's a small reception area, and a lift at the back at the hotel (not big enough to accommodate our entire party in November, but then I've seen few lifts that are. We took turns at using the stairs).
On our first visit we were given a room on the second (third if you're American) floor. That was fine; a big bathroom, a TV with a couple of English channels (although thank Christ it didn't have BBC World, surely the most boring, repetitive, tedious, pointless channel in existence; for some reason whenever we go on holiday Dave can't get enough of it), and a couple of decent sized, comfy beds with an appropriately manly distance between them. On our second visit we were put in rooms up on the top floor, which was much smaller and more run-done, definitely in need of a lick of paint. I think the walls up there must have been a lot thinner too as we could hear Kevin's snoring from 2 rooms down (God knows what the poor bastard stuck in the room between us must have thought); then again, I think there's a good chance that we'd have still heard Kevin's snoring had he been staying in a room in, say, Rotterdam... The views were pretty good though; if you crane your neck a bit you should be able to see the Cathedral tower. Entry to the rooms is using one of those electronic swipe cards, which caused some amusement on our first visit when the guy at reception gave us the cards to someone else's room. We walked in on two young gentlemen clad in only their underpants; we didn't linger to introduce ourselves but made our excuses and left faster than a 10 year-old fleeing Neverland. The guys behind the reception were generally friendly and helpful, happy to give us directions or advice on where to go, and to look after our bags after we'd checked out. Check-out is at 11pm (although you can pay a few euros extra on a Sunday to delay your check-out until 5pm). Breakfast was included and is served on the first (second if you're American floor). As usual, I never made it down in time, but I'm told it was the standard continental selection of cold meat, bread, cheese, etc.
As I said, we stayed there mainly for the location, which is the Kamerpoort's main selling point. (Most of the cheaper hotels in Antwerp tend to be concentrated around the railway station). The hotel has a website here.
You can eat damned well in Antwerp, although given the current exchange rate it might not be a particularly cheap experience if you're a Brit. There are a lot of restaurants in the streets immediately surrounding the cathedral that seem to be solely aimed at tourists; most of them seem to be empty, and the waiters tend to stand outside in the street trying to lure people inside. Anywhere they have to try dragging punters in off the street is worth avoiding, I'd say.
One place that we seem to go back to regularly is El Bife at Hoogstraat 5. It bills itself as an Argentinean steak restaurant but for some reason seems to have a Chilean flag outside. As you'd expect from the name meat is the order of the day here, and I've some seriously good steaks, cooked on a charcoal barbeque at the front of the restaurant. Last time I was here I tried the brochette, basically a beef kebab, huge chunks of steak on a skewer, which was as good and manly as it sounds. If you fancy a started I can recommend the hot melted cheese. They also have a reasonable wine-list, with an obvious emphasis on South American wines. Downsides are that the beer only comes in tiny glasses, and if you venture away from the steaks you might be disappointed. One of our party ordered the shrimp in curry sauce and wasn't too impressed with it (his actual words were that it was "the worst fucking curry he'd ever had", although in fairness to El Bife it wasn't supposed to be an actual curry). There's a website here.
Another place that we've been back to a couple of times in Verona at Oude Koornmarkt 28, an Italian and pizza place. The first time we tried it was because we were in the mood for a pizza, and unlike most of the other pizza places around the cathedral this one actually seemed to have some customers in it. The pizzas were fine, with plenty of choices of toppings and baked on thin crispy bases, big enough to satisfy even our manly appetites. They also have salads and pasta dishes, but I've no idea what they're like. You can get De Koninck on tap (the first time I went there it was only bottled). Inside it looks like quite a classy place too, with padded leather seats and amazing views of the cathedral through the huge front windows.
We were attracted to Kiekekot (Grote Markt 35) by its enlightened opening hours (until between 2 and 6 am, depending on which day it is) and the promise of cheap chicken. Although they do have wide range of other things on the menu I think that the sight of a row of chickens roasting on the rotisserie as we came in mind all our minds up what we were having. Basically you can order half a roast chicken that comes with a range of sauces; I had the French provencal (tomato, mushrooms and herbs), I think a couple of the others had the curry sauce. It was all fine, but then how hard could it be to screw up something as simple as roast chicken? Anyway, a good place for those with the late-night munchies.
Much classier is de 7 Schaken at Braderijstraat 24 (it's actually just on the corner of the Grote Markt). It's an upmarket place housed in a lovely old building that specialises in traditional Flemish cooking. Dave and Rory had the beef stew, which was beef cooked in beer and which came in a huge metal pot; I tried a bit of it and it was delicious, unbelievably rich and tender. Kev and I went for the stoemp, which could be described as sausage and mash, although that would be doing it a disservice; it was really thick meaty sausages, and the mash also had onions and cabbage in it, all topped with a slab of bacon and thick gravy. Kev put a slight dent in the sophisticated ambiance by dolloping tomato sauce all over his. Well, whatever makes him happy. We washed all that down with a few de Konincks apiece, the service was impeccable, and it wasn't as expensive as I was expecting either. I want to go back there! (if only to try something from the desert menu, which we unaccountably skipped on our visit).
I ventured into Celtic Ireland on Groenplaats in search of some breakfast (believe it or not I do occasionally manage to drag myself out of bed in time for breakfast). As you may have gathered from the name it's an Irish pub, which can often be a good place to go if you're looking for a proper, hefty, and, more importantly, fried breakfast in Europe. I ordered the full Irish breakfast, and while it took a while to arrive it was worth the wait; sausage, bacon, beans, black and white pudding.... Dave ordered a much less manly omelet. Make of that what you will. There's a website here.
A slightly healthier breakfast option (believe it or not I've actually made it up in time for breakfast twice in Antwerp, although it wasn't on the same trip) is T'Koekebakske at the corner of Leeuwen and Geir (basically right opposite the Plantin-Moretus museum). It's a tiny place, one room with 3 small tables, with the small kitchen on one side so you can watch and smell your food being cooked. The menu is geared towards omelets and pancakes, both sweet and savoury. Although I have to admit that the idea of a pancake smothered with nutella did sound pretty tempting, I went for the more conventional breakfast of a ham, cheese and mushroom pancake, and it was delicious; light and fluffy but still filling.
Got the munchies? Head for Frituur Max on the Groenplaats. According to the sign inside their fries have won the Best Fries in Belgium award for the last 6 years, quite an accolade where chips are concerned in Belgium. According to the lady behind the counter the secret is that they're double-friend in beef dripping (which might come as a shock to any veggies who have eaten there, they don't exactly advertise the fact). You can get a big paper cone of them, with a choice of sauces to slop on them (apparently there is an enormous difference between Dutch and Belgian mayonnaise; I played it safe and had ketchup). Jonesey reckons they're the best chips he's ever had, and Jonesey is a man who knows his food. They even have a tiny chip museum upstairs, although I've never actually seen it myself.
Apparently Antwerp has more bars per capital than any other city in Europe. Personally I think there were more in Krakow, or in parts of Prague, but they put it in a guidebook so I guess it must be true. Anyway, with that number of bars we haven't managed to visit them all yet, but we have sampled a fair few...
I'll start with Paters Vaetje, as that's probably the one that we've spent the most time in. It's a great little bar in a perfect location, only a few metres from the cathedral at Blauwmoezelstraat 1, so the central location made it the ideal place for us to meet up if we'd all been off doing our own thing. In the main bar they've gone for a sort of brown cafe vibe, so lots of stained wood, beer memorabilia and enough seating for maybe 20 or 30 people. Be careful if you want one of the seats next to the iron stove, that's where the bar cat likes to sleep. Or you can climb up a very narrow, twisty staircase to the second floor which is a pretty cramped balcony (watch out for the low ceiling) that overlooks the main part of the bar, making it the ideal spot for people watching. It also allows you to marvel at the skills of the waitresses as they somehow manage to bring trays of drinks up that staircase without spilling a drop. The balcony seemed a bit creaky to me, but it held the weight of our party so unless you've somehow managed to coax an elephant up the stairs you should be fine. They had a choice of 7 or 8 beers on tap, and a menu of over 100 different bottled beers, but we just tended to stick to the De Koninck. You can also get food in here, although the menu is entirely in Flemish. We managed to figure it out though, and if you can't the bar staff will be happy to explain things to you. I can recommend the cheese burgers, made with a big thick slab of minced beef. Be careful in the toilets; they have a unisex toilet, and the ladies will have to squeeze their way past the urinal on their way to the single cubicle. A nightmare for us repressed Brits!
There's actually a row of bars along this stretch of Blauwmoezelstraat that would make for a pretty satisfactory pub-crawl. At number 8 is Witzli Poetzli. The bar itself is nothing special, although in summer the outdoor tables right next to the walls of the cathedral are the perfect spot for an alfresco pint. Inside it seems to be popular with a more jazz-oriented crowd. But I don't think I can go back there. On my list visit I lingered downstairs in the bar with a beer, while Dave clambered upstairs to the toilets. Where he remained for half an hour, eventually gingerly descending the steps with a sheepish look on his face. We made our excuses and left straight away, and I've never had the courage to show my face in there again.
Further along the same street (although the address is actually Torfbrug 10) is 't Elfde Gebod, without doubt one of the strangest bars I've drunk in. It's housed in a picturesque ivy-covered building, but when you first walk through the door you might be forgiven for thinking that you'd walked into a church by mistake. The place is absolutely covered in all manner of religious statues, they on the window ledges, any spare shelves, and are even hanging from the ceiling. Apparently they've been rescued from various churches over the years, although I'm not sure which church the big poster of a giant cock would have come from.
Understandably the bar is popular with tourists, so it seems a bit more expensive than some of the other places around here. I can't argue with the quality of the beer though. They have 6 or 7 different varieties on tap; on our first visit here we let the barman choose for us, and we ended drinking a few mad 12% trappist beers, which may have explained why our legs didn't seem to working properly when it was time for us to leave. Under those circumstances having the toilets upstairs didn't help either.
From there it's only a short walk/stagger to one of Antwerp's most venerable bars, de Pelikaan (Melkmarkt 14). Don't expect any frills here, you'll get a small street corner bar full of locals and tourists drinking well served, cheap beer. No food, no bar snacks, no TV screen (although you can ask for a pack of playing cards), with wallpaper and traditional brown-cafe decoration that probably hasn't been changed since the Germans were occupying the place in the last war. The lack of inessential fripperies may explain the low price of the beer here. Honestly, this is a great place, a sort of living museum showing exactly what a proper manly, drinker's bar should be like. We stayed here for ages, Dave left early. Draw your own conclusions from that.
Pretty much opposite the Pelikaan is Jazz Cafe (also known as De Muze) at Melkmarkt 20. As the name suggests, they have live jazz music most nights. But we went in anyway... Luckily the jazz band eventually ran out of steam and shut up. Even with the jazz it's actually a very good bar; busy, lively, and popular with a younger crowd, but we somehow managed to sneak in too... You have a choice of waitress service or getting your drinks from the bar (decisions, decisions....) No De Koninck in here, but Grimbergen is a perfectly acceptable substitute (although we couldn't decide whether we preferred the brown or the blonde varieties, so we alternated). Unfortunately after a while somebody decided that it'd be a good idea to start livening things up by ordering Jagermeister chasers with our beers. It was fun for a while, and suddenly the tables surrounding ours started to become vacant. Eventually nature took its course and one of our party, who shall remain nameless (not me) (OK, it was Kev) couldn't hold it in anymore. His excuse was that it was the fault of the curried prawns he'd had earlier at El Bife, and he also cited the fact that to get to the toilets he'd have had to walk down one set of stairs, all the way to the back of the bar, and then up another set of stairs. And in his defence he was sitting by a balcony that overlooked the rest of the bar so things could have been considerably worse (as it was he got most of it on the tray on our table instead). And we did clean up the mess ourselves (or rather Dave did) but we decided that it would be a good moment to make our excuses and leave. So, to sum a great bar as long as the band isn't playing and you're not sitting within projectile vomiting range of the balconies.
Den Engel (at Grote Markt 3) is regarded as Antwerp's best-known pub. It's a bit like the Pelikaan, there's nothing special or unusual about it, it's just a great gimmick-free place to have a beer. There's one big, basic, slightly smoky room, with a good range of beers on tap. Not much in the way of decoration, apart from beer memorabilia, some old photos, and for some reason what looked like a display of policemen's peaked caps on one of the walls. And of course you get great views of the Grote Markt and the Cathedral. One of Den Engel's selling points is that they claim to stay open as long as there are customers drinking. I don't think I'll bother booking a hotel next time I go back to Antwerp... Anyway, another fine place for those who want to get on with their drinking. Dave went back to the hotel instead. You may see a pattern emerging here.... Don't confuse it with the unconnected, inferior Den Bengel next door.
Also on Grote Markt (number 52) we popped into the Irish Times Pub because a couple of members of a group wanted to watch football game on the TV. For an Irish bar it was actually fairly pleasant, mainly because it didn't go over the top with the leprechauns, shamrock, green paint, old flour sacks and cans of baked beans that are obviously the international symbols of Ireland. There's a website here.
We popped in for a quick drink at Burning Plague because we liked the name. How could we have passed up on the chance to drink in a bar called that? Plus it was in a quite handy location on our way back to the hotel (on Oude Koormarkt). Anyway, it's a decent enough bar, although it was pretty empty when we were in there (which I guess is what happens when you start drinking as early as we do....), at least that meant we could sit in the weird little alcove by the front windows. And for some reason they have gone for a totally over-the-top Americana theme (pictures of American Indians, pin-ball machines), so was calling the place Burning Plague some kind of comment on American foreign policy? Somehow I doubt it (I think it's actually named after a Belgian Heavy Metal band).
We popped into Chatleroi (Hoornestraat 2) to recuperate after an exhausting trip round the art gallery. A very pleasant little place, playing eclectic music, and full of mismatched chairs and tables that look they've been salvaged from a demolished council estate. They serve food in here too, but we just stuck to the beer, and we lingered for a while. One of those places better suited to a reflective few pints rather than a raucous piss-up.
I think the only reason we went into Kinox Bar (at 128 Nationalestraat) was because we wanted to see if it was owned by Neil Kinnock (failed British politician who was rewarded for his failure with a cushy and lucrative European Union job). Plus it was a convenient stopping off point on the way back from the art gallery to our hotel. It doesn't look anything special from the outside, an anonymous modern place, so the complete opposite to most of the bars in the old town. Inside there's a Hollywood theme (kinox is Flemish for "cinema", so no trace of Mr Kinnock behind the bar); old black and white photos of the movies, models of Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. They had 6 different beers on tap (no De Koninck; Stella, Hoegaarden, some others) so we decided that we were going to have one of each. This was actually the bar we probably had the most fun in (I'm sure it's a coincidence that Dave had retreated to the depths of his hotel room while we were in here...). The locals seemed like a fun-loving bunch, and most of them seemed pretty well gone even though it was only around 7.30, and they didn't seem at all phased when our travelling freak-show pitched up and started ordering 3 of each beer on the menu. At one point an impromptu karaoke session broke out, and a microphone and wig were thrust in our direction. No lyrics though, but who needs lyrics when you have alcohol? We had a hard time wrenching ourselves away from this place....
At the heart of Antwerp is the Grote Markt; this used to be the main market square and commercial centre of the city, a function that has now passed to the nearby Groenplaats, leaving the Grote Markt to tourists and outdoor bars. Along the north side of the square is a row of guild houses, rebuilt after a 16th century fire and restored again in the 19th century. Each one is individual, although they all have ornate windows and richly decorated gable ends. The tallest, with the gold statue of St. George and the dragon was the guild house of the crossbowmen, which sounds a really cool guild to be a member of (certainly more fun than the barrel makers guild next door - I bet the crossbowmen used to shoot holes in the barrels....).
The west side of the Grote Markt is dominated by the Stadhuis (Town Hall), an amazing 16th century Renaissance building, one of the earliest in this architectural style in Northern Europe. In the middle of the square is the Brabo Statue, which depicts the legend of the giant Antigonus who used to harass travellers on the River Scheldt by cutting off their hands unless they paid a toll; not surprisingly the locals got a bit fed up of this until eventually a Roman soldier, Brabo, killed the giant. The statue depicts him chucking the giant's hand into the river. Once Antigonus was gone the Scheldt opened up, turning Antwerp into a great trading city, and ultimately allowing me to get here on the easycruise2 without having to risk my drinking hand. Well done, Brabo!
To the south of the Grote Markt is the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal), apparently the largest church in the Low Countries. The Cathedral's 120 metre high tower still dominates the city as it did in medieval times, and was the first thing we could see of Antwerp as we were approaching on the boat or the train. Construction was started in 1350, on the site of a much older church, and didn't finish for 170 years, nearly as long as it took to rebuild Wembley stadium. It would probably have taken even longer had they built the cathedral with 2 towers, as originally planned. Instead only the north tower was finished; construction on the south stopped when only the bottom half had been built. The outside of the building is gorgeous, the tower being the obvious highlight, the stone work becoming more delicate and detailed the higher the tower gets. The main portal in to the church is also particularly impressive, surrounded by rows of statues of saints. Next to the main entrance is a charming memorial to the masons who built the church, a series of bronze statues of builders in various action poses (you can tell they're not British builders as they're actually working, and there isn't a single expanse of builder's crack to be seen).
Assorted wars, invasions, revolutions and religious uprisings (the invasion of the French revolutionary army in particular caused a lot of damage) mean that the inside of the cathedral has undergone several changes over the years. Much of the stained glass, for instance commemorates a time when Antwerp (and most of the rest of Belgium) was a part of the Spanish Catholic Hapsburg Empire. Inside the cathedral feels very light and spacious, thanks to a combination of lots of windows, white-washed walls and the light stone used to build it. Among the treasures to be seen are 4 huge paintings by Rubens; a row of life-sized carved wooden statues down the east wall; some very decorative stained glass; a few fragments of the 15th century frescoes, and, my favourite, a magnificently detailed 18th century oak pulpit complete with carvings of sinuous vines and lots of different kinds of birds (no chickens as far as I could see, sadly, but there was a parrot).
We were lucky enough to time our last visit so that we were there to take advantage of a (free) guided tour, in English, given by a local art student. This was really informative, and we learned a lot that wasn't in any of the guidebooks. Like the reason they never finished off the second tower wasn't because they ran out of the money, just the opposite in fact. Once the first tower had been finished they decided almost totally rebuild the cathedral, making it much bigger. If this plan had been fully realised then the second tower would have been built further to the south but unfortunately most of this new construction was burnt down, and after that they really did run out of money, and the cathedral was stuck with more or less its present size and shape.
Entry to the cathedral costs 2 euros, well worth paying rather than trying to get in for free by ducking under the exit turnstile in the gift shop, as we saw some people trying to do. You'll probably go to hell if you try to get in that way...
After the Cathedral Antwerp's most impressive church is St Paul's Church (Sint Pauluskerk), which is on Veemarkt, between the red light district and the Grote Markt (strangely even though it was a Sunday afternoon there were a lot more people in the red light district than there were in the church...); the main entrance is through the gothic portal at the corner of Nosestraat and Zwarte Zusterstraat. The church was built at the beginning of the 16th century as part of a Dominican complex that came with an attached cloister (sadly, I think the monks are now gone, I certainly didn't see any, unless it was them in the red light district...). From close up it's hard to fully appreciate the outside of the church because of the closely packed streets in this part of the city. The church tower had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1679, and the church was badly damaged by another fire in 1968 when neighbours and passers-by risked their lives to pull paintings and statues out before they were destroyed. Silly sods. Before you go into the main part of the church don't miss the Calvarieberg; it's on your left after you've gone through the front gate, a bizarre artificial grotto built up one side of the church complete with a series of statues on the subject of the crucifixion.
Inside the church is bright and airy; although the walls and ceiling are plain white there's plenty of decoration, including life-sized and very detailed wooden carvings of various saints down each side of the church (I particularly liked the one of the saint who was holding what appeared to be a cup with a snake in it), equally decorative wooden choir stalls, lots of marble altars and tombs, a very impressive looking organ, and best of all along the north wall of the church a set of 15 paintings collectively called the Mysteries of the Rosaries, they're not all by the same artist; there's one by Rubens (number 7, "Flagellation"), and one by Antony van Dyck (number 9, "Bearing of the Cross"). A bit further along the north wall is another Rubens, this one "The Adoration of the Shepherds", and one more ("Dispute on the Nature of the Holy Sacrament") over an altar in the south side of the church. For good measure Rubens also designed one of the tombs in here (the tomb of Michael Ophovius, to the left of the main altar). Entry to the church is free, although donations are encouraged, and I strongly recommend you have a look. There's also a free leaflet which gives full details of all the paintings, carvings, and statues inside the church (you didn't think I'd actually remembered all the stuff I've written about it, did you?!?).
OK, one more church. The Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk is on Hendrik Concienceplein, a little cobbled square that's possibly the most picturesque in Antwerp, just east of the Grote Markt. The church was built by the Jesuits in the early 17th century and has an elaborate baroque facade. Rubens was reputed to have had a hand in designing the church's tower, although you can't really see it from the square itself, you need to nip round the back of the church to have a look at it. Rubens was also responsible for a series of 39 paintings that covered the ceiling of the church; sadly they all went up in flames in 1718. It still looks fairly nice inside though, with the black and white marble on the walls mirrored by the floor tiles. The altar is particularly grand, with lots of gold (probably not actual gold) in the dome above it. The paintings above the altar are housed in a rotating frame; there are 3 paintings and the frame rotates to display a different one depending upon the phase of the religious calendar, an early version of a digital photo frame. There are also some very detailed wooden carvings in the pulpit and down the sides of the church.
As you might expect given Antwerp's place in the history of art (as well as Rubens the likes of Bruegel the Elder and Anthony van Dyke lived and worked here) an incredible amount of top quality art was created here, and thankfully some of it has remained in the city. As well as what can still be seen in Antwerp's various churches, there's the main art gallery and a few other museums that are stuffed with paintings of international importance.
The Rockoxhuis Museum is at Keizerstraat 12. The house used to belong to Nicolaas Rockox who was mayor of Antwerp 9 terms (eat your heart out Ken Livingstone) in the early 17th century, and was also a friend and patron of Rubens. In the 1970s the house was fully refurbished and restored to how it would have looked when Nicolaas Rockox was in residence. You'll find some ornate period furniture and tapestries, as well as a pretty impressive collection of paintings, including Rubens and van Dyke, and a huge one depicting a plan of Antwerp. My own favourite was a huge painting depicting Flemish proverbs (over 100 of them) by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (a copy of one of his father's paintings) which was full of detail, I could have spent hours looking at it. The interior courtyard of the house also houses a very pleasant little formal garden, with herbs and fruit trees (who'd have though they could get lemons to grow outdoors in Antwerp?).
Entry is only 2.50 euros (although entry is free if you're unemployed, so just ask for admission in a scouse accent and Bob's your uncle) and the museum is a perfectly pleasant place to while away an hour or two.
Keizerstraat itself is an interesting little street; back in the 17th century it was one of the most desirable areas in the city and home to many of Antwerp's most powerful merchants. Although its glory may have faded since then there are still some grand buildings along it.
The Museum Mayer van den Bergh is at Lange Gasthuisestraat 19, about a 5 minute walk south of the Groenplaats. Mayer van den Bergh was a 19th century art collector. When he died in 1901 his mother (an art collector who lived with his mother; I wonder if he was good with colours?) had this museum built to display his collection and then handed everything over to the state. It's not a huge museum, but it seems to pack a lot in. Mayer van den Bergh obviously had eclectic tastes, so as well as a fine array of paintings there are tapestries, ceramics, books, porcelain, stained glass, silver, and religious statues. The museum's highlight is Pieter Bruegel the Elder's utterly insane Dulle Griet (or "Mad Meg"). The painting used to belong to the Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, but van den Bergh bought it for a song in 1897, and it was only a few days later that it was positively identified as a Bruegel. It depicts a hag-like woman, with a background of demons and other disturbing, fantastic creatures, all bathed by the fires of Hell. Even 450 years after it was painted art historians still can't agree on exactly what it represents, although my favourite explanation is that it shows an army of women invading Hell. There's another Bruegel painting (12 Proverbs) in the same room, as well as a couple by his sons. Entry to the museum is only 4 euros.
Antwerp's main art gallery, or to give it its full, catchy name the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Museum for Fine Arts) is on Leopold de Waelplaats. To get there head south down Nationalestraat and then Volkstraat, it's about a 10 minute walk from Groenplaats (or 3 to 4 hours if you chose to come back Chatleroi and Kinox...). This is a proper art gallery, none of that concrete and glass bollocks for Antwerp, it's a big, imposing building with lots of columns and statues of ladies in chariots on the roof. In the lobby are a series of paintings depicting the history of art in Antwerp. The gallery is divided into 2 floors; on the top floor is the ancient art (basically, anything up to the 19th century), you'll find the modern stuff on the ground floor. As by the time we got here we didn't have enough time to see everything we decided to concentrate on the top floor.
Not surprisingly a couple of rooms are devoted to some absolutely huge canvasses by Rubens. Personally I was more impressed by a couple of tiny, much more personal panels by Jan van Eyck, one of them a mostly unfinished drawing of St Barbara in front of a cathedral tower under construction, clearly modelled on that of Antwerp. You can also see paintings by the likes of Titian, van Dyck, Frans Hals, Cranach, Jan Bruegel and Pieter Bruegel the Younger. One room is behind a glass wall and it's in there that a series of panels by Hans Memling are being painstakingly restored, and it's fascinating to see exactly how they do this. Weirdest painting (that we saw; remember we didn't go in the modern section) has to be Jean Fouquet's Madonna and Child, surrounded by red and blue angels, Mary is alabaster white with a massive set of norks (by the way, any painting that had boobs in it also had a little pink ribbon plaque underneath it; obviously this was something to do with breast cancer, but it will also help the perverts reach the highlights more quickly...). All of the paintings had information panels in English as well as Flemish, but Kev (who judging by his reaction had never been in an art gallery before) highly recommends those headphone audioguides that they hand out. Dave found the benches inside very comfortable for a nap, while Rory enjoyed the gallery from the comfort of his hotel bedroom. Pair of philistines. Admission is 6 euros; we spent a couple of hours in there, we only saw the top floor and even then we had to rush around the last half of it before the museum closed, so this literally somewhere you could spend all day if you were so inclined. By the way the bottom (modern) floor features artists like James Ensor, Rodin, Modigliani and Rene Magritte.