ANTWERP, Belgium — Why go to Antwerp when you can just as easily visit Brussels or Brugge? You go exactly because it isn't Brussels or Brugge. Antwerp has the elegance of the European Union capital without its grandiosity and the picturesque charm of Belgium's tourist mecca without its preciousness. Demographically it is neatly located between the two.
Antwerp is a real city but an accessible one. It has city things: a port, a world-class museum, a cathedral, a major zoo and lots of shopping, including a neighborhood of Hasidic Jewish diamond merchants that will make you feel as if you are in Tel Aviv or the Renaissance.
But it also has an avenue of outdoor restaurants; cobblestone streets and plazas; a user-friendly pedestrian shopping mall sweeping gracefully around toward the center; preserved and restored medieval guild halls; clock towers and merchants' homes; and sidewalk cafes around the 14th-century Cathedral of Our Lady complete with skateboarders, the tattooed and pierced, sidewalk artists and Peruvian musicians.
And, of course, this Dutch-speaking city has those things that people come to Belgium for: the best beers in the world, a cuisine that rivals France's and a certain insouciance that all of northern Europe envies.
So welcome to Antwerp. Take a stroll along the Scheldt River and, if you wish, through the nearby night life and red-light district called "'t Schipperskwartier." Pause in the lovely, leafy Stadspark and watch old men playing chess. Look in at the grand atrium and regal staircase of the Central Station and stop at the house of the painter Peter Paul Rubens; it is guaranteed to transport you to 17th-century Flanders.
On a hot day, step into the cool shadows of the cathedral, and when you're good and worn out, find a seat under a Cinzano umbrella, order a spicy Belgian "white beer," a pot of mussels, crusty bread and the "frites," or french fries, for which Belgium is famous.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun