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Historic Antwerp

A city break in Antwerp never disappoints. The city’s historic centre brims with activity, both day and night.
 
Antverpians, as the people of Antwerp are called, are justifiably proud of their city. Belgium’s second city has beautiful shopping boulevards such as the Meir, but it is in the city’s small and beautifully restored narrow streets that you’ll find a variety of shops you won’t find elsewhere. CityZapper’s editors selected the best tips and advice on Antwerp for you, and the team created this online city guide to make your visit an unforgettable one. Rest assured that you’ll get to see the city’s best and most unique sights, spots and venues. But Antwerp has so much more to offer than shopping alone. The city is home to a large variety of museums, festivals, exhibitions and cultural events. A visit to the MAS museum, for instance, should definitely be on your list of things to do while in Antwerp. Or what about a visit to the MoMu, the province of Antwerp’s fashion museum with its impressive collection?
 
A stroll along the city’s quays feels like leafing through a magazine on contemporary architecture. No matter how much the various facades seem to differ from each other in style and colour, many of them pay tribute to the port city’s maritime industry and its heritage. The quays along the River Scheldt connect the city’s north bank with its south bank; they bridge an area called ‘Eilandje’ (small island in Flemish) and the south of Antwerp, which is undergoing an unprecedented revival. Along this three kilometre (1.9 mile) long path you’ll find a mix of apartments and offices in a variety of styles, as well as a selection of cafés and restaurants. A visit to this lesser-known part of Antwerp is certainly worth your time.
 
The aptly named ‘Eilandje’ was developed in 1550 as a new and modern harbour district complete with warehouses, businesses and breweries. Admire the warehouses’ striking architecture, embark on a leisurely stroll along the docks and enjoy the area’s silty air, its waterfront and its sunsets. While you’re there, indulge in the fare served up by the area’s bars and restaurants or visit its trendy clubs. In short: you’ll be spoilt for choice when visiting Antwerp. Whether you’re visiting the city on a one-day shopping trip or whether you’ve planned a weekend away to soak up the beauty of Belgium’s second city, Antwerp meets everyone’s demands!
 

History

At the end of the 10th century, Antwerp became a border county of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire. Its border was formed by the River Scheldt. The county of Flanders was situated directly south of the county of Antwerp. At this time in history, the city’s original wooden enclosure wall was rebuilt in stone, the remnants of which can still be seen today. Saint Michael’s Abbey was founded by Saint Norbert in the town’s southern residential area.

A new parish was founded in the northern residential area with the parish Church of Our Lady at its heart. This church was the first predecessor of Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady. During the 12th century, the city was part of the duchy of Brabant. The 14th century saw the city of Antwerp enter an era of significant economic prosperity which could be attributed to both the city’s sea port and its wool industry. Antwerp had become Europe’s most important trading city as well as Europe’s financial heart. The year 1356 saw the annexation of the county of Antwerp by the county of Flanders which served as a prelude to Antwerp’s Golden Age.
 
During the 16th century, Antwerp underwent rapid expansion and development and acquired the prestige befitting a true world city. Famous Antverpians from this period in time were painters such as Quinten Metsys and Pieter Breughel as well as book printer and publisher Pantijn. The city also produced humanists and scientists such as Lipsius, Mercator, Dodoens and Ortelius. The second half of the 16th century was characterised by chaos, caused by political and religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. The Iconoclasm of 1566, the Spanish Fury of 1576 and the Fall of Antwerp in 1585 are seen as historic lows in Antwerp’s rich past. Antwerp came under Spanish control after the city had fallen in 1585; Philip II of Spain became its new king. The Dutch blocked the city's access to the sea and cut it off from international trade which proved an economic disaster for Antwerp. People left the city in great numbers. Of the 100.000 people living there in 1570, only 40.000 remained in 1590.
 
Old masters such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and Teniers and sculptors such as Queillin and Verbrugghen as well as other artists made that Antwerp’s cultural prosperity continued during the first half of the 17th century. However, from 1650 onwards, decline set in and Antwerp became but a mere shadow of the powerful and rich city it once was. The Scheldt River remained cut off and the former world city became but a provincial town. From 1715 until 1795, Antwerp was under Austrian rule with emperor Joseph II at the helm. In 1795, the city changed hands once again when the French took control. Antwerp was under Napoleonic rule until 1815. During this time, the city’s port was modernised but from a cultural perspective, the city suffered extreme decay. A low point during this time was the plan to tear down the city’s cathedral. But Waterloo brought about Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 which saw Antwerp reunited with the Republic of the United Netherlands. This resulted in a temporary boom. The Belgian revolution of 1830, however, meant that the Scheldt River was once again blocked and cut off from international trade by the Dutch.
 
From 1863 onwards, Antwerp entered a period of steady economic growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, both the First and the Second World War hit the city, its people and its interests hard. However, despite these dark pages in the city’s history, Antwerp continued its path of economic growth during the 20th century. In terms of culture, the city had found the road to recovery as well. In 1993, Antwerp was designated ‘Cultural Capital of Europe’ for the period of one calendar year.