Belgium's hidden gem

A new direct flight route to Antwerp offers a tempting city break, including centuries of Jewish heritage


Brussels may have the national attractions, while Bruges and Ghent revel in their picturesque medieval charm, but when it comes to Belgian cities, Antwerp has the style. From its place at the heart of the diamond trade to its fashion and design history, the country’s second largest city punches well above its weight.

And now it’s easier than ever to rediscover Antwerp with a new one-hour flight from London City Airport with Luxair, currently departing four times per week, then every weekday from March 29.

After taking off on the 6.40am launch flight, we sped through Antwerp’s compact airport in plenty of time for a late breakfast, ready to start exploring from our comfortable base at the NH Collection Antwerp Centre hotel.

Sitting on the edge of the diamond district, it’s well worth a look inside the spectacular Centraal Station opposite, at the gilded and decorative ticket hall as well as the station’s soaring arches.

To one side you’ll find Antwerp Zoo, one of the world’s oldest, but retracing your steps leads to the Diamond Square Mile, for centuries one of the most important diamond trading centres in the world.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the hands of the diamond dealers in the city, which is the location of four of the world’s 30 diamond stock exchanges, all centred around a one-mile block. And it’s here too, that you’ll find Antwerp’s Jewish community.

Dubbed the last shtetl in western Europe, the area is home to the Portuguese synagogue, or Beit Moshe, which is only a precious stone’s throw from some of the city’s key diamond trading sites. Dating back to 1913, it’s a relative newcomer in Antwerp’s Jewish history: the first Jews known in Flanders were invited to settle here in 1023.

Their numbers were swollen by those fleeing Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, and later by an influx from Eastern Europe, many drawn by the flourishing diamond trade. As the Second World War approached, the city had Belgium’s largest Jewish population with as many as 50,000 Jews, nearly two-thirds of whom perished in the Holocaust.

Numbers have climbed steadily since the end of the war, and around 20,000 Jews live in Antwerp today.

While much of the Jewish population of Antwerp has spread south to other districts including Berchem, Wilrijk and Edegem, the Charedi community remains in its historic location, home to a string of kosher restaurants such as Hoffy’s, Jewish schools and Ashkenazi synagogues, alongside countless jewellers and offices concealing gem traders.

For a closer look at some of the most spectacular bling, you need to head across the city towards the Scheldt river for the collection of diamonds, jewellery and silver at DIVA museum, which reopens in March after a year-long renovation project.

It’s here too that you’ll find Antwerp’s fashionable heart. Most famous for the Antwerp Six group of designers, whose avant-garde style helped transform the catwalks in the 80s, the area around Nationalestraat is the place to browse the latest cutting-edge designs — along with the Mode Museum (MoMu) and the Museum of Contemporary Art or MHKA.

Set inside a former grain silo, even the architecture of the MHKA building is designed to get you thinking as you wander from the dark labyrinth on the ground floor up to discover some of the contemporary greats.

If you’re looking for Old Masters rather than new, Antwerp is still unmissable. Once home to Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens, whose statue adorns the Groenplaats square, as well as to Van Dyck, there’s plenty to tempt art lovers.

Rubens’ own mansion, now the Rubens House, is closed for renovation ahead of a grand reopening planned for 2027, but while you wait for the chance to step into his former studio once more, you can still see his work elsewhere in the city.

Newly reopened following its own major 11-year renovation, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA) has 16 pieces by the great master in the Rubens Hall, among its collection of 13,000 artworks.

Or back in Antwerp’s historic centre, his paintings still hang at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the first museum named on Unesco’s World Heritage Site list, which housed one of Europe’s most important book-printing companies.

Its manager, Balthasar I Moretus, was a childhood friend of Rubens, who painted several portraits for the company, still on show today alongside the preserved printing presses.

Four of his masterpieces are also displayed at the Cathedral of Our Lady, which dates back to the start of the 14th century. It towers over the winding streets of the oldest part of town, home to gabled brick buildings and alleys leading to medieval courtyards and hidden bars.

Rubens would still recognise the 16th-century guildhouses and town hall in the Grote Markt. The square’s Brabo fountain is a later addition but he’d doubtless have known the legend it depicts, the story of how Antwerp got its name.

So the tale goes, Roman soldier Brabo refused to pay the toll to the giant controlling the river and after defeating him in a duel, mimicked the giant’s own favourite punishment of throwing his adversary’s hand into the waters. The Dutch for “hand” and “throw” — or hant werpen — is how we still know the city today.

There’s more Antwerp history tucked away in Het Steen, the medieval castle that now houses the tourist information centre and The Antwerp Story attraction. Its 11 rooms each share an aspect of the city’s past in a creative way as you travel virtually through the centuries — everything from a hologram to a 360-degree projection of the port, Europe’s second biggest.

Or head to Museum aan de Stroom, currently sharing more city legends as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations alongside permanent collections covering everything from the history and art of Antwerp to culture worldwide courtesy of the port city’s international links.

Whichever of the two museums you choose, finish on one of their rooftop terraces afterwards to drink in views out across the river and the towers dotting the horizon. Diamonds may be for ever, but with its unique history, Antwerp is just as enduring a gem.

Antwerp's Cultural Highlights: 2023

Rembrandt: Fotograaf avant la lettre, Museum De Reede

A new temporary exhibition brings together around 80 works from Rembrandt’s collection of drawings and engravings, snapshots of his world centuries before the invention of photography. From January 27 to May 22.

KMSKA Royal Museum of Fine Arts

Discover seven centuries of art from Flemish Primitives and Rubens to the Expressionists at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) for the first time in over a decade. The museum reopened last September after closing its doors for a major 11-year renovation project.

Man Ray and Fashion at Mode Museum (MoMu)

The new exhibition coming to the fashion museum combines photographs and artwork by Man Ray with fashion silhouettes from the interwar period — previously on display at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris. From Apri 22-August 13.

DIVA: Museum for Diamonds, Jewellery and Silver

First opened in 2018, when the former Diamond Museum merged with the collection of the Silver Museum, DIVA has been closed since March 2022. Designed to showcase the city’s “brilliant” past, it includes jewellery dating from the 16th century as well as a look at 500 years of Antwerp diamond history. Reopening this March.

Getting There

Flights from London City Airport to Antwerp cost from £139 with Luxair

Rooms at the NH Collection Antwerp Centre hotel cost from around £120 B&B.

Book Jewish walking tours with and, or for more information, go to

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