Old Antwerp & The Fashion District
Grote Markt and Groenplaats are the twin hearts of old Antwerp. Several house museums have priceless art collections and authentic period interiors. All are impressive and have their individual charms, but if you have time or energy for only one, make it the Museum Plantin-Moretus. Heading south of Groenplaats, Nationalestraat runs into Sint-Andries, the fashionista hub.
Station Quarter & Diamant
Heading east from the old city area, Meir/Leystraat is Antwerp’s major pedestrian shopping street, gloriously overendowed with statue-topped classical and rococo-style buildings, leading around 1km towards the magnificent Antwerpen-Centraal train station. It's a highly multicultural area with a different atmosphere every few blocks. Sleazy peep shows rub shoulders with grand century-old buildings, a two-street Chinatown and the world’s main diamond exchanges. Stretching further east is edgy Borgerhout.
Around 800m north of Grote Markt, MAS museum is at the centre of a regenerated docklands area known as ’t Eilandje.
Het Zuid (’t Zuid)
As you head south, the Fashion District morphs into ’t Zuid, a dining, drinking and museum zone interspersed by some areas of relatively grand urban residences.
Residential Zurenborg's elegance stems from the fact that it was one of the few parts of Antwerp that were planned; virtually all of its rich concentration of belle époque, neoclassical and art nouveau house facades date from between 1894 and 1914.
Don't Miss: Art Nouveau Highlights
Delightfully, Zurenborg's wrought-iron balconies, bay windows, slate tiles, stained glass and mosaic work are often in service of a theme.
- De Vier Seizoenen Four matching Joseph Bascourt houses on each corner of an intersection bear mosaics depicting the four seasons, with narrow windows that put style above practicality.
- Sunflower House Perhaps the most striking of several side-by-side 'flower' houses, including 'Iris' at number 44, which is also an art nouveau delight.
- Les Mouettes Relatively modest by Zurenborg standards, but with a lovely central mosaic depicting seagulls and the Flemish coast.
- De Twaalf Duivelkens This 1900 gem isn't art nouveau but its 12-devil balcony is full of gentle humour.
While ’t Zuid’s streetscapes are far from cohesive, the area has some stunning stand-alone art nouveau masterpieces.
- ’t Bootje Behind KMSKA, the eccentric ’t Bootje has a corner balcony that resembles a boat’s prow.
- Help U Zelve This is arguably the city's most arresting art nouveau building. Built in 1901 by architects Van Asperen and Van Averbeke as the Socialist Party headquarters, it’s adorned with mosaics of rural workers – er, yes, naked workers – along with organic, sinuous wrought-ironwork and curved windows. It now houses a Rudolph Steiner school.
Pieter Paul Rubens
Even if his signature plump nudes, muscular saints and gigantic ultra-Catholic religious canvases aren’t your artistic cup of tea, it’s hard to visit Antwerp without stumbling on at least a couple of attractions related to the city’s superstar artist, Pieter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).
Rubens was born in Siegen, Germany, where his parents had temporarily fled to escape religious turmoil in Antwerp. They returned home a decade later, and by the age of 21 Rubens had become a master painter in Antwerp’s Guild of St-Lukas. In 1600 he became court painter to the Duke of Mantua and travelled extensively in Italy and Spain, soaking up the rich Renaissance fashions in art and architecture. When his mother died in 1608, Rubens returned to Antwerp, built a city-centre house-studio and worked on huge religious canvases and portraits of European royalty. He was joined by contemporaries such as Anthony Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens. The studio’s output was staggering.
In the 1620s Rubens also took on diplomatic missions, including a visit to London, where he was knighted by Charles I.
For his family tomb, Rubens painted Our Lady Surrounded by Saints, which included portraits of his father, his wives, and himself in the role of St George. It’s in a small chapel behind the high altar of the aristocratic, partly Gothic St-Jacobskerk.