Do you know why Antwerp is timeless like its diamonds?

Sparkling like a diamond, forever…

Two hours by bus from Brussels will land you in Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port. Fascinating records of legacy. 12th-century centre for tapestry wool import-export. Napoleon’s favoured base for easy access to attack England. Commercial capital of the world with a humungous population of 100,000. And home to the world’s first stock market. Beat those!

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Flemish painter Bonaventura Peeters’ depiction of Antwerp harbour, courtesy Wikipedia

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The glorious past of the town lives on in the carefully preserved historic centre. So, indulge in a self-guided walking tour and taste the timeliness for yourself. Start at the old waterfront with the Het Steen (‘stone fortress’) that stands guard on the banks of the Schelde river. High walls, turrets, towers, and pennants showcase its identity as a classic medieval castle. Antwerp’s oldest building built in the early Middle Ages after the Viking incursions, now houses the museum of archeology and maritime history. Touch the giant statue of Lange Wapper, who according to local folklore, could grow to the size of an enormous giant, spying at children through bedroom windows and teasing people. Fables!

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Stroll through the pretty winding streets lined with Flemish gabled houses towards the beautiful Groenplaats (Green Square), bordered with baroque architecture, souvenir shops, restaurants, pubs, sidewalk cafés. Believe it or not, this used to be the city’s largest cemetery! Now it has a dramatically opposite character…it celebrates life. Pause by gorgeous statue of the national painter Peter-Paul Rubens. Reflect on the genius known for his voluptuous rosy-skinned nudes, epic landscapes, mythological fantasies, intimate depiction of romance, as well as spectacular altar pieces.

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On one side of the square, the incredible façade of St Carolus Borromeus Church, unfazed by the lack of space, rises to the heavens unrestricted. A gothic masterpiece of lace work in stone built between 1352 and 1521, with subtle elements of renaissance, rococo and baroque added on later. Don’t miss the delicate filigree work on the tall spire adorned by an intricate golden clock-face…ethereal and effortless beauty. Some of Rubens best work adorns the hallowed walls. Gawp all you can. 

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More stunning 16th-century architecture awaits at Grote Markt, the medieval square, barely five minutes away. The centrepiece is the Stadhuis (Town Hall), a regal Renaissance structure with a charming touch of Flemish Gothic. Symmetrical and elegantly proportioned, its 76-meters long facade is decorated with various coats of arms. Flags of almost every country flap colourfully in the breeze. The row of 45 doors on the ground floor that originally housed little shops are interrupted by a 19th-century frescoed portal. Had the rentals paid partly for the upkeep? In the middle of the square is a 1887 statue of Brabo, cousin of Julius Caesar, a city hero who is said to have chopped off and thrown away the hand of the greedy giant who tolled every tiny boat that sailed up the Scheldt. That’s also how Antwerp got its name…’Ant’ means ‘hand’; ‘werpen’ means ‘to throw away’. Not a pretty sight to imagine, but the name appeals.

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Edging this square too, are guild houses, topped with gold statues, richly decorated with gold paint, each facade different in height and rhythm…their many windows designed to let in the maximum amount of light. Move in and out of the streets, revelling in the atmosphere. At one merchant’s house, a wooden prow jutting out above the bustling street indicates the pride in the town’s shipping heritage. Statues of Marian, Antwerp’s patron saint, decorate the corners of buildings…over 100 Madonnas all across town dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Later, potter about the quaint stores stocking Antwerpse Handjes, yummy hand-shaped biscuits and chocolates. Then wander into Kornmarkt, a long curving street, packed with hungry tourists enjoying leisurely lunch at pavements spilling over with tables…glitzy restaurants and cozy bistros serving global cuisine. Argentinian steak houses, Turkish shawarma joints, Greek speciality taverns, Italian pizzerias, pick your poison. Between mouthfuls of the takeaway shawarma pita, glance up to notice a beautiful statue of Madonna and Child on the corner of a building. On a midnight blue painted backdrop, under a red canopied shelter speckled with gold hanging beads, she drips with grace…new, but no less charming.

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One last important stop…the Diamond District, where 84% of the world’s rough diamonds have been exchanging hands since the 18th century. The area is quite the antithesis of its name. A drab street of heavily surveilled, unglamorous offices, filled with jewellers and diamond dealers, making a livelihood from rare stones of brilliance and beauty. Leading jewellers from all over the world such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels buy their diamonds in Antwerp. Visitors need to hand over their passports and have the right index finger scanned before receiving a swipe card. The details are then checked on criminal record databases. No surprise…considering the $100 million diamond heist of 2003, when notorious team of criminals broke 10 layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor and a lock with 100 million possible combinations! Feels like you’re starring in a ‘heist-movie’.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

In 1,500 diamond offices here on Hoveniersstraat, 8000 people, representing 160 nationalities, including Hassidic Jews, Gujarati Indians, Russians, Lebanese and Chinese, handle diamonds worth £85 million every day! Interestingly, what was once an exclusively Jewish fiefdom, is an empire controlled by 400 Gujarati families. In fact, almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry is made up of Mehtas and Shahs. Imagine them with aromatic, steaming bowls of rajma and kadhi from behind their lunch rooms. The Indian connection goes a step further…over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds are cut and polished in Surat, Gujarat. After all, since ancient times, much before the South Africa diamond rush, all the world’s diamonds used to be sourced from India!

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Take a closer look at the industry with a tour of Diamond Land, the biggest diamond showroom with guarded displays of over 1500 dazzling pieces of jewellery. Ogle at the flawless facets of the hardest natural substance on earth, crystallised 3.3 billion years ago. The name ‘diamond’ (from Greek word ‘Adamas’ or ‘indestructible’) seems so right for the priceless stone glowing across time and space…beyond fashion and fad. A beauty that never fades, like that of Antwerp, and many of the medieval towns all across the charming continent of Europe. Timeless. Forever.

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Timelessness of Antwerp

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72 thoughts on “Do you know why Antwerp is timeless like its diamonds?

  1. You know, as many times as we have visited Belgium, we have still not made it to Antwerp. I can see from your post that it has some wonderful historic architecture and a charming historic centre. I particularly want to see the Het steen, which looks very striking. I’ve not come across Antwerpse Handjes before, but of course now I want to try! Diamonds though, definitely not this girl’s best friend, I find them a bit dull, so I will leave them for the diamond lovers!

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  2. Antwerp looks like a fairytale town! That’s so interesting that this is the spot to buy diamonds and that big retailers like Cartier buy their diamonds there! What’s even more incredible is the 2003 diamond heist you wrote about. Those are some very skilled criminals and it does sound like a plot to a movie.

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  3. Oh my gosh, DREAMING of Antwerp now! This post is serious travel inspo. We’ve only just started exploring all the gems Europe has to offer, but Brussels is on the list… and with this architecture and history, Antwerp is right up there with it. Great, crisp writeup and gorgeous photography!

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  4. I always passed of Antwerp as just another industrial city. I had no idea there was so much to offer. That’s a really beautiful church with the stained glass! I didn’t realize Rubens had artwork there (not sure why I didn’t). I’ll be sure to have this on my itinerary the next time I’m in Belgium.

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  5. Wow, I have heard of Antwerp before but it has never really been on my radar until reading this post. I would like to visit Belgium at some point but it was mainly for a few other cities and towns. Your pictures are really making me want to head over there, love the castle, would love to explore it 😀

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  6. I’m looking at a trip to Belgium soon and definitely need to include Antwerp on my itinerary. I had no idea about Antwerp being the world’s diamond capital or how many diamonds came from India.

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  7. I never knew about Antwerp’s connection to the diamond market. And the fact, those thieves broke 10 layers of security should certainly be a movie! I love Belgium’s mix of Dutch and French influences, but Antwerp really shows off the Dutch side! The architecture, the language, and even the mixing of so many cultures via the different foods present at Kornmarkt are so Dutch. I’d love to visit and do a walking tour to explore more of the city.

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  8. I’ve heard Antwerp several times, but for some reason never thought of it as a major tourist destination. You’ve shown me the error of my ways! That $100,000,000 heist is SO INTENSE! It looks crazier written out with all the zeros! Through 10 layers of security!

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  9. Het Steen would be a must visit for me! I’m obsessed with Medieval things, and visiting a really castle built in that era would definitely be a high point for me! Of course, St Carolus Borromeus Church would also be a must visit for not only its beautiful paintings but also it’s impressive architecture!

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  10. What a beautiful city! Yeah, I’ve heard that Antwerp is well known for its diamonds. People should go there to check out the architecture too. Those Flemish gabled houses are really beautiful, and the St Carolus Borromeus church is just amazing given how limited the space it was given. Would definitely visit!

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  11. So much history in Antwerp! I love how such a glorious past is so well preserved – a walking tour seems to offer an experience of walking back through time! I love the Flemish gabled houses – looks like it’s been torn straight from the pages of a fairytale, and wow, St Carolus Borromeus Church is a masterpiece!

    The architecture here seems to be quite unbelievable – I think I would be entertained by marveling at buildings and richly decorated facades for days!

    I had no idea that Antwerp had such a long history as a hub for the diamond trade – does sound like you would feel like you’re in a heist movie going through that type of security! A tour of Diamond land would be quite incredible.

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  12. You know, I never thought of Antwerp from historical or, for the lack of better word, visual point of view. The diamond capital – that’s what always came to mind. I imagined it as a very business-like, glass and steel, nondescript buildings. I am blown away by the pictures and your narrative. The city not only came to life, but it looks so festive. Het Steen – is that where Cinderella went to a party? The gothic magnificence of St Carolus Borromeus Church is beyond belief. I guess, it helps that picture was taken on a sunny day, so it was beautifully superimposed over flawless blue skies. Nevertheless, it is majestic. I am not even talking about the interior (did I mention that I love stained-glass windows?). Thank you very much for introducing me to the real Antwerp.

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  13. Antwerp is in my plans for early 2018. I’ve been wanting to go here and Brugge, for quite sometime now. The heritage of the cities is so awesome. The Church definitely looks incredible. I’ve seen Ruben’s works in London & Leuven and loved them. To visit his own city would be awesome.

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  14. Its crazy, I live about 1 hour flight away from Belgium and yet I have never been, despite cities like Antwerp and Bruges with little cobbled streets and architecture that I love. And of course the amazing beer. I think Belgium is perhaps overlooked by people in favour of Amsterdam and Copenhagen sometimes.

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  15. I have always associated Antwerp with diamonds. But the city has so much more to it. The old city fascinats with its imperial structures. The fortress looks intriguing.It looks as if a knight in shining armour would emerge any minute. It would be great to stroll around the city and get lost in time.

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  16. Antwerp looks like an incredibly beautiful city. I had no idea there were so many astonishing buildings. The Church of St Carolus Borromeus looks amazing. I can understand why it took so long to build. I’d be interested to learn about the food scene there.

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  17. Loved Antwerp. We stayed out of town at the location of the former World Expo and caught a train into the city which meant we could admire the beauty of the train station. Magnificent. Loved the Grote Markt too. We had some incredible frites here at a place that had been open for over 100 years selling hot chips! Can you believe that. A great city.

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  18. Aaaa i felt so jealous looking at these photos! I went to Antwerp on a really stormy day (like really really) and could not go to a single touristy place. The winds and rain made sure we only sit a cafe and hope for the storm to stop. Gorgeous photos though 🙂

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  19. What an absolutely stunning city! Antwerp has such a diversity in architecture, which is one of my favorite aspects of Europe, that stone fortress looks like a fairytale castle, and I love that it comes with the magic of a fable, my kids would love this! To stand in the diamond district or the preserved historic center would be such a wonderful experience, it makes you feel like you really are a part of something quote grand.

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  20. I had a friend studying in Antwerp. Never got to visit. I really hope to visit soon. It seems like such a charming city with great architecture and history. St Carolus Borromeus Church looks amazing. Can’t believe it took so long to build. Thank you for sharing this great information 😀

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  21. There is just something about the Flemish architecture that I love – those narrow houses and pointed gables! Along with the castle, it looks like a fairytale. I was in Belgium recently but didn’t make it to Antwerp (hopefully next time). I had no idea about the diamond district, that’s so fascinating!

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  22. Lovely post. It’s fantastic how you recapped some of the city’s history in your introduction. Antwerp’s diamond connection to India is well known but it was great reading about Diamond Land; might be worth a visit when we finally decide to check Belgium off our bucket list. 🙂

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  23. Timeless indeed! The buildings still exhibit its classical architecture. We love places like these where visiting there actually lets you experience the culture and tradition of a place. Too bad that in many places in the world, such timeless treasures are destroyed and replaced by modern glass-and-steel buildings.

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  24. Antwerp has been on my bucket list for so long. I love Belgium and I’m particularly interested in the Flemish architecture, food and culture. I love the stepped roof design that is so prevelant in these cities! The Church of St Carolus Borromeus is also very special – thanks for getting me inspired to visit, I hope 2018 will be the year to get to walk around this hidden gem!

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