As per our tradition, my wife and I visited a new botanical garden to celebrate our anniversary. This year it was Den Botaniek in Antwerp, which we made into a weekend trip.

I have to say, Antwerp is the most pleasant city in the region, at least as far as a tourist is concerned. And it’s an added bonus that it’s not crawling with tourists interested primarily in drugs and prostitutes.

First off, crossing the Catholic-Protestant line between Holland and Flanders is much more noticeable than I thought it would be. There are Virgin Mary statues tucked into every cranny of the old city, and in general a certain level of decoration you just don’t see among the more austere, practical Protestants of Holland. There’s something of a relaxed vibe that feels more akin to Southern European than Northern.

This is all the more remarkable as it’s been generations since most people have been actively religious in either country. It should also come as a bit of a warning about just how deep cultural identities go. There’s a bit of an unchallenged mythology that we’re all the same since we’re all go to identical hipster coffee houses and have the same tastless Ikea furniture, but people from different backgrounds revert to very different means.

The food is top notch. I even broke down and had some wonderful Trappist beers.

An odd thing that I enjoyed was the St. Anna tunnel (Dutch Wikipedia), which is a 500 meter pedestrian tunnel under the river that looks just like it did when it was built in the 1930s, wooden escalators and all.

The Museum Plantin-Moretus was my overall highlight, though. For a typography nerd, it was neat to see the birthplace of many of the fonts that still inspire what we use today. But beyond that, this relatively small building is where much of the knowledge that would define the European Enlightenment was disseminated.

I could go on, but you get the picture. If you’re looking for a weekend trip to the Low Countries, consider Antwerp instead of Amsterdam.