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Antwerp History

The name Antwerp has an interesting, albeit fanciful, story behind it. The legend goes that a cruel giant called Drone Antigoon once controlled the River Scheldt, which runs through the city, and demanded exorbitant tolls from ships navigating the waters. Shipmasters foolish enough to refuse payment were punished by having their hand lopped off. Happily, the brave Roman soldier Silvius Brabo brought an end to the giant’s reign of terror by chopping Antigoon’s hand off and throwing it into the river. A statue situated in the Grote Markt still commemorates the origin story with great pride. Antwerp loosely translates to ‘hand throwing’.

As far-fetched as the founding of Antwerp sounds, the city has a long and interesting history in the real world, not least by the 14th century, when it became one of Europe’s most important trading centres. No sooner had it done so though, the city began to decline as it lost privileges to Bruges. It took half a century to re-establish itself. But this second golden era didn’t last either, as Catholic Spain arrived in the 16th century to put the Protestant north in its place.

Antwerp fell in 1585, with the Spanish leaving the city to burn. From the ashes emerged a wave of artistic talent pioneered by painters such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens. But while the city thrived culturally, its economic recovery was slow.

That was all helped by Antwerp’s involvement in the diamond trade. In the 16th century, when nearly half of the world’s trade was said to pass through the city’s port, Antwerp’s diamond cutters were among the most revered in Europe.

In 1795, the city was taken by Napoleon, who thought its strategic position would help him defeat the British. It didn’t. A brief reunification with the Netherlands in 1815 ended with the Belgian Revolution of 1830. In retaliation, the Dutch closed the River Scheldt, pushing Antwerp into another period of economic decline.

30 years later, the river was permanently reopened, paving the way for the city’s third golden era. Although the city suffered grievously during both World Wars, its upward trajectory continues today with modern Antwerp being one of the biggest and richest cities in Belgium. Its legacy of art and fashion makes Antwerp a unique tourist destination and cultural hub. 

Did you know?
• The first printed newspaper in the world was published in Antwerp in 1605.
• The former home and studio of Antwerp’s most famous artist, Peter Paul Rubens, is now a museum.
• The gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, started in 1352, boasts a 400 foot spire, making it one of Belgium’s tallest ecclesiastical buildings.

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Featured Hotels


Hotel Rubens

Tucked away in a quiet side street behind the Grote Markt, this stylish 4-star hotel is the perfect base to explore the Old Town. A friendly concierge welcomes weary travellers with a refreshing port or sherry, while the hotel’s chic rooms are comfortable, quiet and well-appointed. You won’t go hungry either; their buffet breakfast will set you up for a day full of sightseeing.

Hotel Rubenshof

Next to the Fine Arts Museum, this cheap Antwerp hotel sits in the trendy Zuid district. The building occupies a former cardinal's residence that dates back to 1860, with ornate public areas and 22 tastefully decorated bedrooms.

Hotel Matelote

Matelote is a unique boutique hotel merging 21st century convenience with 16th century architecture. Nestled in the Haarstraat, the building is just a short walk from main attractions like the Grand Palace and its town hall, the River Scheldt and the Antwerp Cathedral. The Fashion Museum and Rubens House also sit nearby, making sight-seeing a breeze. Because it’s a historical site, there is no elevator in the hotel, meaning it does not offer full accessibility.


Firean Hotel

Built in 1929, the Firean Hotel is reputed to be one of the most charming hotels in Belgium. This hotel is an Art-deco mansion that the actual owners restored in 1986. They take pride in offering outstanding quality and service with thoughtful gestures. One of the proprietors welcomes guests upon arrival, acquainting visitors with the space.


Tra Noi

Located in the heart of the fashion district, this superb little guesthouse is owned by Danielle, a friendly lady who has two apartments and a guest bedroom that she rents out at very reasonable rates. Danielle used to work in the fashion industry, so the decor is stylish and slightly eccentric (there’s an antique rowing boat hanging from the ceiling of one apartment), but the city centre location is almost unbeatable.

Hotel Postiljon

Nestled in the shadow cast by the neighbouring cathedral, this long-established Antwerp hotel offers simple, clean and elegant rooms. It may be small with no frills, but considering its prime location opposite the city’s biggest landmark, Hotel Postiljon offers fantastic value for money.