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Western Europe's Best-kept Secret

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A city in the north of Belgium with a population of just over half a million is a place that you may likely not have heard of, since it does not appear that prominently on the more mainstream tourist itineraries.

Cities by the sea usually have a lot of character that comes from a flux of trade and people. Antwerp, with its portside location and unique history, is one such city. For starters, eighty percent of the world's traded diamonds pass through here. The centuries old diamond trade is one of the many reasons why this city always seems to be in its golden age.

Also, over the course of about six decades before the Second World War, over two and a half million people passed through here on their way to a new life in America, carrying with them countless dreams. Antwerp was the main port of call for the Red Star Line, the shipping company that carried them across the Atlantic.

They were seeking their fortunes in the promised lands of North America, landing in Ellis Island in New York, in Boston and Philadelphia and in various ports in Canada. They came from all over Europe, escaping poverty, discrimination, famine and many hundreds of thousands of them making a fortuitous escape before the war began. Many of them were Jews escaping imminent persecution and death. Albert Einstein and Irving Berlin were the two most famous names that followed this same route through Antwerp.

The city of Antwerp is where they all gathered, often carrying all their worldly possessions and hopes with them, fearful whether they will pass the required medical examinations to be considered fit enough for the New World. Being diagnosed with Trachoma, an infectious eye disease, for example, meant a definite denial to board the ship. All of this after journeys that often lasted weeks or even months for many who came from far flung places in Eastern Europe. These journeys are now chronicled in the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp.

Today, Antwerp is a dynamic and prosperous city with a thriving fashion, design, food, and nightlife scene. It is one of the major hubs of the European fashion scene and is home to the 'Antwerp Six', a group of six avant-garde fashion designers that includes world famous names such as Dries van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester. Since great fashion goes hand in glove with unique design, Antwerp is also home to one of the largest concentrations of design-oriented concept stores, displaying everything from footwear to artisanal home wares.

With over seven higher education institutes, it is a city with a lot of young people. Add to that the concerted efforts of the city authorities to promote and incent entrepreneurial ventures, and you get a city pulsating with vigor and energy.

As if all of this weren't enough, Antwerp has earned some top accolades for its food scene as well. A restaurant here was recently voted the world's most beautiful restaurant. The Jane, a Michelin-starred gem, is housed in an ex-military hospital chapel transformed into a modern gothic space. You don't have to necessarily splurge to find great food here. And even that café around the corner will serve your coffee and cake in a way that is reminiscent of a time when afternoons were more luxurious. Most bars here serve a range of great beers - you are in Belgium after all!

Antwerp was also home to the baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens and his apprentice Anthony Van Dyck. For art history buffs, a visit to the house where Rubens spent twenty-five years painting - The Rubenshuis - is an absolute must.

Like a lot of cities in Europe, Antwerp is really well connected by train to major cities like Brussels and Amsterdam. In fact, the central station, with its art deco hall and towering dome, is regularly voted one of the world's most beautiful railway stations.

When we tell these Antwerp stories to our friends in the States and elsewhere who have never visited it, we often get bemused looks. And from those that have visited, there is a shared recognition of having discovered a city rich in its past and present. It's refreshing to know that even in this age of rapid global information sharing, there are still some well-kept secrets, which only adds that much wanted spark of serendipity and joy to travel.

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