If your ancestors came to the US from Europe in the early 20th Century, this is very possibly the place where they set sail for the new world. It’s an intriguing day trip from Brussels by train or bus. I visited on a spring break car trip from Amsterdam to the Normandy coast of France, spending one overnight in this lively port city.
Driving to Antwerp was easy enough. But once you reach the car-free center it can be challenging to find a street that both allows traffic and leads to your hotel. After driving in circles for a while we were happy to leave the car in the Hilton’s parking garage because everything we came to see was easily accessible on foot. Arriving by train will solve this problem, so let’s begin with the train station.
A Transportation Cathedral
Don’t be in a hurry to rush out of the train station. Take a look around at the eclectic but grand architecture with neoclassical and art nouveau touches. You’re standing in one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. And it almost didn’t survive, after World War II bombs hammered its glass dome.
The station was designed by Bruges City architect Louis Delacenserie and constructed from 1895 to 1905 during the reign of the “Builder” King, Leopold II. It has been recently refurbished, adding a lower level to accommodate high-speed Thalys trains. Even if you arrive by car or bus, this Belle Epoque monument to transportation is well worth a sightseeing visit.
Around the Grote Markt square are plenty of places to eat and drink Belgian beer, of which there’s an endless variety. Our son, who apparently is working on a PhD in beer as well as European Studies at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, explained that each brand of beer must be served in the proper branded and shaped glass. If the glass isn’t marked with the logo of the beer that you ordered, you have the right to send it back. In any case, it all goes great with authentic Italian pizza at Da Giovanni. It’s easy to see why this place has expanded across the street and down the block. We tried three different pizzas: ham, arugula and eggplant. All arrived with crispy crust and perfect toppings. Reasonable prices for a city center, plus a 20 percent discount if you show a student card. Not much English spoken, but the friendly servers will take care of you.
Walking through History
Enjoy the mixture of architectural styles as you walk along the waterfront. Some of the historic quays have been replaced by carparks, but there is a small monument evoking the immigrants who came here from all over Europe with hope of a better life in the New World.
Red Star Line Museum
Researching my family’s roots in Slovenia put the Red Star Line Museum at the top of my must-see list in Antwerp.
I had hoped this museum might provide some new insight or records, and I came armed with my ancestors’ specific travel date and the name of the ship. The photos, videos and models on display manage to give the feeling of what travel was like for these immigrants. The surviving buildings are testimony to the medical examination procedures the travelers endured. The mandatory pre-boarding ordeal for passengers in steerage after 1920 involved stripping and taking an hourlong shower while their clothes were disinfected.
The first-person accounts from passengers of various ethnicities are powerful. However, the only research resources here are computers linked to commercial sites like Ancestry.com and the searchable database from Ellis Island that I had been able to access in the USA. I was surprised the Red Star line didn’t have any passenger records of its own to share. Their website makes it easy to donate your own family’s story and pictures, here.
Still, it was a moving experience to think of my grandmother as a young mom, raised in a farm town in what is now Slovenia. My grandfather had already gone to Shamokin, Pennsylvania to find work as a coal miner and she made the journey with three children — all under the age of 8 — in tow. I climbed to the top of the museum’s observation tower and contemplated the emotions she might have felt as she took one last look at the shores of Europe, never to return.
At Home at the Hilton
The palatial-looking Hilton is in a brilliant location, right in the heart of the Old City. I used a combination of Euros and Hilton Honors points to upgrade to an Executive room. The bonus was having access to the splendid rooftop lounge with an amazing sunset view. The manager responded right away to some concerns about the drink service, and the morning breakfast in the lounge put us in a good mood for the next part of our journey to the Normandy beaches of France.
Terry’s Travel Tips
The city of Antwerp has a useful website in English to help you plan your visit.
Antwerp is in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium. You can usually find someone who understands English or French. Signage for tourist attractions is multilingual. Helpful signs on the street corners will point you toward the various sights.