Antwerp is one of Europe’s surprising cities. A large seaport which connects to the North Sea, Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium. As you wander the streets and get a feel for the pace of the city, there is a real sense that this would be a great city to live in. Great cafes, great restaurants, but a relaxed sense of confidence. Everyone seems very comfortable, living in large, central apartments, and working in jobs that don’t seem to be too stressful but pay well. In many ways, Antwerp defines how glamorous some Europeans live.
Built to last
As a trading port and commercial centre of Europe, Antwerp has a long history of being an international and cosmopolitan city. Wealthy merchants built stunning homes in the city – some of which still survive today. However Antwerp’s strategic position led to the city being badly damaged during World War II bombing raids – much of the city had to be rebuilt. One of the landmarks that has almost survived intact is the impressive central station – enormous facades, a huge dome, and a marble interior that is so glamorous you almost forget that you are in a train station. Zurenborg is a neighbourhood worth exploring – the houses are all designed in the belle époque style, a period that was a little window of peace and prosperity that was ended abruptly by World War I. Another cultural point of interest is that Antwerp was an important city in the career of the painter Reubens – you can visit the house where he lived.
Diamonds are forever
One of the main sources of Antwerp’s prosperity is Diamonds. Over the years, Antwerp has established itself as one of the world’s centres of the diamond trade. Initially, Antwerp was known as a centre for excellence in the cutting and polishing – the polishing tool known as the scaif was invented in Antwerp and Europe’s best diamond craftsmen were drawn to Antwerp where they could create the sparkling, multifaceted gems that were so sought after by the world’s nobility. Today, you can wander through Antwerp’s “Diamond Quarter” the small district which houses four diamond exchanges, and a number of banks that specialise in financing the diamond trade. It is estimated that over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through this district and that over USD$16 billion worth of polished diamonds are handled by Antwerp’s diamond exchanges. An interesting aspect of Antwerp’s diamond trade is that Yiddish has always been one of the main trading languages in the exchange – more than 80% of Antwerp’s Jewish population work in the city’s diamond trade.
Dance all night
I think I just hit a particularly good weekend when I was there recently, but we had some great nights out in Antwerp. The first was a pool party which was held on a purpose built pontoon in Antwerp’s docks – heated pools for swimming, a stylish crowd, great music, lots of booze. A pretty simple recipe but it’s a total winner. We had another big night in a bar called Bonapartes, just near the main city square – it started out with karaoke and went a bit crazy from there. We finished our weekend off with a warehouse party down in the docks area – it was a big space but there were lots of people and the music was cracking. We danced and drank until we couldn’t drink or dance anymore.
It is hard not to be impressed by Antwerp.