Antwerp: Top tips for newbie expats

Moving around a lot at the time of my first son’s birth, I was relieved to found out we’d be moving to Antwerp. Having lived previously in Brussels, I was happy to be returning to Belgium, to a European city, to somewhere comfortingly familiar.

Antwerp, I soon found out is very different however. Sure it’s Belgian and sure the weather sucks but it’s very, very different. It’s cool, stylish, at times edgy, and if you blink at the right moment you might just confuse it for a Scandi capital.

antwerp architecture photo

If you’re an Expater planning a move to the city anytime soon, here are some tips to prepare you for the ride:

  1. Mosquitoes love the city as much as you will. Apparently it’s something to do with the river Schelde. In any case, during the summer months you might want to invest in a net and your own body weight equivalent in repellent. Here are some more tips on how to repel them.
  2. The airport and port are surprisingly well connected. The Eurostar from Brussels is handy for train rides but flying from the airport in Duerne is like taking a bus it’s so simple.  antwerp photo
  3. Jugs of water do not exist in Belgian restaurants or cafés. Try ordering one and you’ll be greeted with a roll of the eyes, an disdainful tut or an angry 30 minute lecture on Belgian culture. Save yourself the trouble and order a mineral water.
  4. Translating as a ‘wrong coffee’, ‘koffie verkeerd’ is the closest you’ll get to a latte. Unless you’re in the fashion district where the standard is a skinny almond milk matcha to go.milk coffee photo
  5. You will need to learn Dutch, or at least pretend. Staff at the town hall are instructed to stick to the local lingo (even though they are all fluent in English) and you’ll need to register for an ID as soon as possible. So expect awkward signing, gesturing, and comedy charades to get your papers. Or learn a few phrases to show you’re willing, smile pathetically and they may eventually switch to English.
  6. A green traffic light doesn’t mean go. Or rather it means go for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all at once. The basic rule is first come, first go. Unless you’re a car pulling into the street from the right, then you trump everyone. If in doubt, watch out, tread carefully or pedal fast.antwerp bicycle photoPhoto by Crystian Cruz
  7. If you’re not scared by Belgian traffic rules and you’re up for joining the locals on your bike, don’t do as they do, wear a helmet. The only protection I’ve seen is babies wedged in slings behind the handlebars or preschoolers balanced precariously on laps, both presumably to cushion their parents’ fall. *Shudders*
  8. Unless you’re claustrophobic, it’s quicker to cycle than drive from one bank of the river to the other. And the cycle tunnel is a pretty cool sight in its own right.antwerp photo
  9. Ordering a couple of bollekes is perfectly acceptable. A bolleke is a kind of rounded glass in which the local De Koninck beer is served.
  10. It’s custom to take chocolate or (a huge bouquet of) flowers to dinner at someone’s house. In all our time in Antwerp, only foreigners would bring wine.bouquet flowers photo
  11. If you’re using the bus, tram or metro remember to stamp your ticket en route. Complaining that it works differently in your country won’t save you from the (admittedly scarce) but oh so beefy ticket inspectors.
  12. If you’re disabled or a baby with a dirty nappy, the historic centre is not for you. Three flights of winding stairs to a tiny basement cloakroom? Nee, dank u. antwerp photo
  13. Dress up or dress hipster. Antwerp folk love their fashion and never miss the opportunity to coordinate. Children are not exempt. So what you’re weaning your toddler who’s going to play in the rain?
  14. Don’t accept 500 euro notes. Be aware that a 500 euro note may be purple, but it’s also black and most likely belongs in the shadier parts of the diamond quarter.
  15. If you’re lost in the south look for the pointy spikes (aka the new Palace of Justice building). It’s an easily spotted landmark for getting your bearings. To avoid getting lost on your way into the centre, follow the Schelde river. The labyrinth of historic streets will have you zigzagging until you’re practically local.

antwerp photoPhoto by rick ligthelm

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