Belgium's gateway to the world
Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Antwerp, Belgium.
Though you might consider it odd that my first dinner in Antwerp was at a Chinese restaurant, "you'd be wrong," said Will Hawkes at The Washington Post. Belgium's great port city has been defined by its links to the wider world since the 16th century, when it was Europe's richest address. Spain sacked Antwerp in 1576, precipitating a two-century decline for the city. But today Antwerp is the center of the world's diamond trade and again one of Europe's great mercantile hubs, with a port second in size only to Rotterdam's. Hoping to learn how Antwerp's seafaring tradition shaped its rich, unique culture, I decide to explore its sites on foot.
Walking alongside the sluggish Scheldt River on my first morning, I can see the Havenhuis, or Port House, long before I reach it. "But it's only close up that you appreciate the scale." The complex, designed by superstar architect Zaha Hadid, plants a massive ship-like, diamond-cut glass structure atop a 1920s municipal building. At the Red Star Line Museum, a humbler brick building nearby, I learn about the 2 million emigrants, among them Irving Berlin, who passed through its doors in the early 20th century. Lunchtime brings me to the new Mercado food hall, where I pair some charcuterie with De Koninck's pale ale, a popular, "delicately bitter" brew.
Inside Antwerp's towering Gothic cathedral, I'm absolutely floored by a Peter Paul Rubens triptych. That feeling of awe strikes again in Grand Market Square, "the heart of golden-age Antwerp." Strolling that central plaza, "I marvel at the muscular splendor of the 450-year-old City Hall," the gold-trimmed guildhouses that flank it, and the fountain depicting a mythical Roman soldier. Having saved the best for last, I head to the Chocolate Line, one of the best chocolate shops in town. I skip the bacon and onion-infused varieties, and stock up on the classics for friends back home. "Antwerp may be a modern and cosmopolitan city, but anyone coming back from Belgium without chocolate is likely to get a frosty reception."