Exploring the fabulous galleries and precious art of Antwerp, Belgium

Belgium’s little jewel: Antwerp may be the city of diamonds but it also has precious art, fabulous galleries – and the most outrageously over-the-top railway terminal in Europe

  • After travelling there by train Michael Hodges finds the city is ‘alive with activity’ 
  • He explores the newly renovated Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA)
  • More: Discovering the brasseries, bistros and legendary restaurants of Paris

Step off the train at Antwerp Central and your jaw will drop. You’ve come for a weekend to gorge on chocolate, sample the famously strong local beer and visit the miraculously preserved 1565 city hall, but the first thing you’ll see is the most outrageously over-the-top railway terminal in Europe.

This towering 1905 monument is a joyous rebuke to the everyday utility of Brussels South station where incoming Eurostar passengers change trains. Welcome, it says, this place is special.

Antwerpians are renowned across Belgium for thinking they do everything better than anyone else, and just now they’re going out of their way to prove it.

The city, just two hours from St Pancras International, is alive with activity – from the bustling Great Market Square to the €100 million revamp of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) that has just opened again after 11 years. 

Michael Hodges visits Antwerp, which lies just a two-hour train ride from London’s St Pancras International. Above is the city’s ‘bustling’ Great Market Square

One of Europe’s great cultural institutions, the 19th Century neo-classical building is home to an outstanding collection of local Old Masters such as Rubens and Van Dyck. But rather than build an extension, engineers dropped into the inner courtyards a new gallery – a series of giant white boxes connected by illuminated staircases.

The older galleries are now studded with light wells that provide dizzying drops into the brightness below. But, paintings-wise, they still supply the unmissable hits. Seek out Hans Memling’s astounding triptych, Christ Surrounded By Singing And Music-making Angels, then visit the famed Rubens room where your mouth will drop open again in front of his Adoration Of The Magi.

This giant masterpiece features two of the most famous camels in Western art looking on at a weighty infant Christ. As part of the KMSKA’s reimagining, the camels have been recreated as a sort of soft-fabric sofa in front of the painting – one of ten new installations meant to help children engage, it also allows weary adults to rest their legs (kmska.be/nl).

Jaw-dropping: Above is Antwerpen-Centraal, the ‘most outrageously over-the-top railway terminal in Europe’

The Rubens-inspired soft camels at the newly-renovated Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

There’s more audacious updating at the recently opened Botanic Sanctuary, which has turned a 12th Century monastery into a five-star luxury hotel offering stargazing and a huge health spa.

Fancy more Rubens? Wander around the city centre where several churches feature his work. One of them, the Cathedral Of Our Lady, has artisan chocolate shops nearby where you can pick up ‘handjes’ – small versions of the city’s slightly creepy symbol of a hand that was hacked from a legendary giant that once terrorised the area.

Inside Our Lady you’ll find Rubens’ Raising Of The Cross and his Assumption Of The Virgin Mary – goodness knows how many tens of millions they are worth, but there is no obvious security. By contrast, in the city’s Diamond Quarter, the shop windows and vaults full of precious stones are very heavily guarded by its own police station and with road barricades that restrict entry and can block quick getaways.

Diamond dealing was traditionally a Jewish trade, and at the fantastically friendly Hoffy’s on Lange Kievitstraat you can fill up on Yiddish classics such as lokshen kugel, gefilte fish and matzo balls.

As Rubens’ bulky figures make clear, Antwerpians like their food, and what they really go for is the gut-busting stuff you get at Bomma, a traditional Flemish restaurant where the plates of beef stew and cheese croquettes come in suitably Rubenesque portions.

Michael recommends walking off hefty portions of beef stew with a stroll to the MAS city museum, above 

Michael says the Palace of Justice (above) ‘might just be the best-looking building in Antwerp’

If you need to walk that off, head north to the docklands and the MAS city museum. Or turn south to Nieuw Zuid, an area full of new buildings by international architects that are overlooked by the fantastical Palace of Justice by the British designer Richard Rogers.

Don’t tell the locals, but that might just be the best-looking building in Antwerp.

  • Michael Hodges was a guest of visitflanders.com.

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