Recently it was time again for our annual outing with the girls, which of course calls for original activities. I’d like to share my top 5 best things to do in our beautiful Antwerp.
A walk through the ruien - Antwerp's underground canals
Did you know that there is just as much to do under the ground as above it?
A small bit of history
In the Middle Ages, Antwerp was a thriving port city, criss-crossed by sewers, streams and ramparts. Part of this flow of water was natural, and part was man-made. The idea was to supply the inner city with water, but it turned into one big, stinking sewer. When they couldn’t handle the smell any more, they started to cover over the water and 'ruien'.
'Ruien' is a typical Dutch word for those canals in Antwerp. It sounds like 'royen'. When they wouldn't have covered them, Antwerp would look a lot like Amsterdam).
Fotocredits: Gianni Aerts
With a small group of six ladies, we made our way to the entrance at the Suikerrui. The enthusiastic, somewhat rude lady at the entrance informed us of the practicalities of our excursion and gave us all an iPad and a headset. We also got to choose a pair of wellies in our own size. Just inside the door we donned some beautiful blue overalls, and received a backpack to hold our handbags, shoes etc. Then we were ready for our underground adventure. Just like most women, we’re not mad about pests, so with some trepidation we descended the stairs in our sexy rubber wellies.
The first thing you notice is the terrible stench. You immediately understand why they decided to cover over the canals in the Middle Ages. Fortunately, it gets a bit better over time (or you get used to it).
A small boat brings you a few minutes down the canal. Then you get off and continue on foot.
As it had rained recently, the wellies were not a luxury. The guide implores you to follow in his footsteps. This is because within the sewer there are parts that are a lot deeper, and you can’t tell where they are because of the mud. You can imagine we obediently followed his instructions as we didn’t think a dive into the sewer would be much fun.
Fotocredits: Koen d'Hollander
You discover all sorts of street signs like “Grote Markt, “Conscienceplein” … We stop at every sign to listen to the accompanying story on the iPad. On the screen you can see Pieter Embrechts, a famous Belgian actor, standing in the spot where you are. He relates all sorts of interesting facts about the current spot, and also in general about how the ruien were developed.
And on top of that, your guide will also have lots of interesting tidbits of information. Did you know that beautiful moulds grow on top of rat poo? Well, now you do. They are true masterpieces.
The walk takes about an hour and a half.
Fotocredits: Gianni Aerts
If you’d rather stay above-ground, you can do the fashion walk. Antwerp is the Mecca of fashion and is internationally famous because of the legendary “Antwerp Six”: Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene and Marina Yee. They graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the ‘80s and went on to become internationally renowned fashion designers.
The tour will take you past famous shops, small ateliers, beautiful buildings and spots that were crucial for the fashion scene in Antwerp.
I did the tour a few years ago with a group of friends. We were particularly charmed by our enthusiastic guide on the walk. You could taste the passion and she could go on for hours. A true must-do for the fashion fans among us. The walk takes about 2 hours. You can book tickets here:
Cycling in Antwerp
For our girls-day-out, we booked a cycling tour with Cyclant. They offer private tours, or alternatively, you can join a group. You can choose a traditional city tour, but if you already know Antwerp a little, you can choose to tour the port or the beautiful Zurenborg quarter.
Unfortunately, it rained when we were there, so we had to cancel our tour. We will try again soon, as I love cycling around a city.
- Biking in Venice
- Biking in Loosdrecht (The Netherlands)
- Biking in Bangkok
- Biking in Valencia
- Biking in Jaipur, India
Did you know that you can use Velo, Antwerp’s city-bikes, very cheaply? There are “stations” on nearly every street corner where you can take or drop a bike. The first half hour is free, after that you pay per hour. A day pass is 4 euro. Super convenient for going the longer distances around the city. Look at www.velo-antwerpen.be for more info.
Schelde river cruise
There are all sorts of ways and plenty of tour operators for cruising the Schelde. You can take a large boat, but we chose a smaller salon boat.
It rained cats and dogs, so we could not sit out on the deck. Inside, the table was laid out beautifully. The captain and steward were at our command for four hours.
We had a delicious lunch on board. Tomato-mozzarella, melon with Parma ham and vitello tonnato were conjured up. After that a beautiful cheese dish and lovely cake. On request, you can even bring a chef onboard who will prepare your lunch/dinner in the galley.
A trip on a salon boat is a wonderful way to see Antwerp from a different angle. If you want to book a river cruise with Christophe, contact him 0032 470 644868.
Fan of boat tours? You can also do fun tours in Loosdrecht.
Shopping in Antwerp
Antwerp is the Mecca of fashion. Perfect for a day of shopping.
My favourites are:
Schuttershofstraat and Huidevettersstraat: All sorts of small boutiques. Visit Jimmy Choo for a pair wonderful shoes, and bags by Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel and Gucci all scream for your attention. Belgian labels like Delvaux and Natan also have a shop here. Take your credit card with you or perhaps better leave it at home in case you can’t help yourself!
You will find the famous designers from Antwerp near de Nationalestraat . Especially Dries van Noten’s building is a real gem. The nearby Kammenstraat is more hip and trendy.
The traffic-free zone Wilde Zee is super cosy. Cool shoe shops, trendy boutiques and welcoming terraces can be found on Korte Gasthuisstraat, Wiegstraat, Lombardenvest, Groendaalstraat and Schrijnwerkersstraat. The fish monger’s here is very expensive but everything is delicious. Go to Désiré de Lille for smoutebollen (a deep-fried Belgian dumpling) or waffles. The large chocolatiers also have an outlet here.
If only for the interior, you’ll have to visit Shopping Stadsfeestzaal. It is in the middle of the Meir (the shopping street where you can find all international chains). It was built as an event and exhibition hall at the start of the 20th century. It was damaged by fire in 2000, but it has been restored to its former glory. Domes with gold leaf, mosaics, wall reliefs and a beautiful stairwell. I personally think it’s a great spot for a drink.
Shopping can be hard so treat yourself with some Belgian street foods. Think about Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolates or our superb Belgian fries.
From the Stadsfeestzaal you walk straight into the Inno. You will find handbags, cosmetics, toys, gadgets and clothes in this department store.
If you’re looking for antiques, vintage or second hand, go to Kloosterstraat, Wolstraat and Lange Koepoortstraat.
Antwerp also has a lot to offer foodies. I would love to share my favourite restaurants with you soon.
Fan of Rubens? Visit the Rubens House.
What are your favourite activities or places to go in Antwerp?
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