In my quest for a new fashion adventure, I came across a must-see museum in Antwerp, a small city in Belgium known for fashion, diamonds and The Antwerp Six.
The Antwerp Six are a group of six avant-garde designers graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp including: Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee – who put Antwerp on the map within the fashion world.
Antwerp turned out to be the perfect stop on the itinerary after Amsterdam, so I bought a train ticket on Trainline, my absolute favorite train ticket site and planned a short 24-hour stay on my way through Belgium.
When taking international or long distance trains, such as the Thalys, it’s better to make your reservation as early as possible. Believe me, tickets are much cheaper purchased in advance.
However, be sure to read the fine print as some tickets do not allow for changes to dates and times or refunds for cancellations.
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Conveniently, this is where you start your journey through Antwerp if you are traveling by train like I did.
Antwerp Central Station is considered to be one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world. Opened in 1905, it has a breathtaking interior made of gold and marble.
ANTWERP’S CITY CENTER
As soon as you enter the center, you are greeted with a statue that celebrates the story of how the city got its name.
Legend has it that a mythical giant named Antigoon lived by the Scheldt River and demanded a toll be paid anytime someone wanted to cross the river.
If a person refused to pay, Antigoon would sever one of their hands and throw it in the river.
One day, a brave soldier named Brabo not only refused to pay, but fought Antigoon hoping to free the city of this giant. To the people’s delight, he cut off Antigoon’s hand and threw it in the river.
The name Antwerpen derives from the Dutch translation, “To throw a hand in the river”.
When I arrived at the city center, I was greeted with closed streets and large crowds. Turns out, there was a major city-wide marathon occurring that entire day which meant much of the city would be locked down or closed off to cars.
Perfect for walking tourists like me!
CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY
The largest and most beautiful site you can’t miss in the city center is the Cathedral of Our Lady. Standing at an astonishing 123m/404ft in height, this colossal building is breathtaking to see in person.
Originally planned to be the largest gothic church in all of Belgium, construction on the cathedral began in 1352. Due to its sheer size, it wasn’t completed until 1521, nearly 170 years later.
The cathedral has undergone many blows throughout history, including destruction to the interior of the church due to the Iconoclasm of 1566 and being the target of fire during the French Revolution in 1794, where it suffered serious damage.
However, no matter what it has undergone, the cathedral has been able to recover and stands tall today. So tall in fact, that you are able to see it from almost anywhere in the entire city.
Fun fact: the largest bell in the tower requires 16 bell ringers!
THE VIRGIN MARY STATUE CHALLENGE
While you’re walking around, you may notice beautiful Madonna & son statues on the corners of buildings that seem random, like they don’t really belong.
That’s because they don’t.
According to a local shop owner I
shamelessly interrogated asked, he explained that years ago, there was a property tax dispute between a building owner and the city.
The city claimed that a lower tax rate only applied to places of worship. So, the owner put a statue of Mary on the side of his building and claimed it a “place of worship”.
When the city still required a higher rate, he appealed to the church authorities who ruled in his favor.
Once word of this got out, statues went up all over the city.
I found it fascinating that these statues not only didn’t serve a religious purpose, but instead were there purely for money-saving purposes.
Apparently, it is a citywide game to see if visitors can find all of them.
I had a blast looking for them as I also wandered around the city. However, it took a few hours, so if you’re set on seeing specific things within your 24 hour timeframe, you may want to skip this challenge.
THE MOST INTERESTING HOSTEL EXPERIENCE
Pausing the tour of Antwerp for just a minute, I wanted to share my experience in an interesting hostel not far from the city center. Who knows? Maybe you’ll want to check it out, too.
On my search for inexpensive, yet interesting accommodations in Antwerp, I found this cool hostel that was advertising Japanese-style ‘capsule pods’ to sleep in.
Have you ever heard of them? I hadn’t!
Apparently, they not only provide privacy, but also keep the noise and light out in a 15+ person dorm room for a ridiculously low price.
In other words, the equivalent of a hostel JACKPOT.
Naturally, I had to give these pods a try.
It’s important to mention at this point that I had recently recovered from a broken ankle. My last physical therapy session was literally a day before this trip. I was two weeks into my trip at this point and the pain from walking with a backpack was starting to get to me.
I get to my room and to my utter disappointment find that they gave me a regular bunk bed on the bottom. Now usually, this is a cause for celebration. Spacious bottom bunks are like golden tickets to the chocolate factory. Rare and amazing.
Not this time. I wanted my Japanese pod!
So what did I do?
Marched downstairs, somehow convinced the front desk to change my bed and was given a top pod of my very own.
Guys, I was sleeping in a wooden box.
I had just fought the front desk to give me a coffin to sleep in instead of rejoicing at the anomaly of getting a spacious bottom bunk.
To make matters worse, the small ladder in front of the pods was absolute hell on my ankle.
Me and my big mouth.
Once I made it to the top and organized my stuff, I realized I couldn’t get back down. My ankle refused to by way of shooting pains and what felt like electric shocks into my leg and foot.
Additionally, there was nothing to hold on to on the way down, so there was a legit 5 seconds of backwards freefall where I was sure I was going to break my ankle all over again.
It dawned on my that I could opt to just stay in my wooden pod/coffin until checkout the next day.
Not even joking – this was a legit consideration, except I realized I would need to use the bathroom at some point.
It took about 25 minutes of looking down from my box and wasting time by taking selfies see below before I mustered the courage to endure the pain the way down brought.
Unfortunately, my anxiety was sky high at this point because in my mind, I looked like an asshole and people were definitely watching me ridiculously maneuver the way down.
This trauma would happen 2 more times – later that night and then checkout the next morning.
Aside from the torture of going in and out of my Japanese box – I will say, once you get used to the amount of space or lack thereof around you and stop feeling like Ryan Reynolds in Buried, it IS quite cozy.
I was able to shut the curtain, quiet my mind and have the best night’s sleep I had had since getting to Europe.
Want to check out the hostel? You can find info, availability and pictures here.
THE PORT OF ANTWERP
Located on the outskirts of the city along the Scheldt River, The Port of Antwerp is the second largest port in ALL of Europe.
I made my way over just before sunset, per the front desk’s recommendation, to see some spectacular views from the top of the MAS Museum located on the port.
Once you’re on the port itself, there are tons of small restaurants and bars right on the water – perfect for dinner after the sunset photo session.
MAS MUSEUM OBSERVATORY
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to walk through the MAS Museum while it was open.
However, the building itself is open till 11pm, giving visitors a chance to head up to the top and get amazing views of the city long after the museum has closed.
The MAS Museum is the largest in Antwerp and offers breathtaking views of the city 10 stories up.
Being up there for sunset was one of the highlights of my entire trip.
Just so you know, I have a thing for sunsets – particularly from very high places.
You’ll see as we get to know each other better.
As you continue your way through The Port of Antwerp along the Scheldt River, you will find yourself immersed in the prettiest little neighborhood on your way to Het Steen.
After passing through this village, you will eventually see the mighty Het Steen, literally translated “The Stone” – Antwerp’s first and oldest stone fortress, built in 650 AD.
The fortress made it possible to control the access to the Scheldt River when needed. It was also used as a prison between 1303 and 1827.
It is breathtaking to see in person.
This is another one of those ‘go early for good pictures’ sites … just saying.
As you make your way into the castle, you will see a statue of a giant on your left. At first, I assumed this was Antigoon from the city’s legend.
However, I later learned it was another giant with his own interesting story.
This giant’s name is Lange Wapper and he is a mythical creature in Flemish culture similar to our ‘boogie man’ who likes terrifying children and playing tricks on drunks.
I loved learning about all of these imaginative stories and legends the people of Antwerp have!
Other interesting things you’ll see along the way include a large Jesus statue on a crucifix, the world’s oldest half-hour glass and many different memorials from previous battles.
GET LOST WANDERING
The beauty of Antwerp is that it is small and accessible by foot no matter where you go. This allows for amazing adventures to take place simply by wandering around and losing Google Maps for a while.
There are tons of interesting stories to learn about from the locals, beautiful architecture at every turn and so many opportunities for the perfect pictures with nearly every step you take.
What’s not to love?
Have you ever been to Antwerp? What was your favorite part?
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