When I lived in Belgium as a young kid, Antwerp was the nearest big city to us. We were in a small town so Antwerp felt enormous in comparison. As it turns out Antwerpen is actually that large, being Belgium’s 2nd largest metropolitan area after the capital, Brussels. But that’s probably the only useful thing I remember from all my previous visits to the city. My memories of there had either become blended with other cities, likely in the Netherlands, or featured trivial moments like a human statue out in front of the cathedral.
On my trip this year to Belgium, visiting Antwerp felt like a given. If I was visiting the best that Flanders had to offer, surely I had to explore this great northern city. Like most of my Belgium trip, I was only visiting for the day so I had come moderately well-prepared for once. Still, by the time I arrived and got my bearings it soon became apparent that there is more than plenty to do in this thriving city. In order to give you somewhere to start when planning a visit, here are my picks for 15 things to do in Antwerp.
1. Stand in the Grote Markt
I always think that the best part to start any visit to a European city is with its main square and Antwerp is no exception. The Grote Markt of Antwerp is a great place to start your visit, both because of its central location but the wondrous sights you find already on display. It’s surrounded by plenty of attractive renaissance buildings, but also the distinguished City Hall. The building dates from 1565 and is another of Antwerp’s landmarks on the UNESCO heritage list.
In the middle of the square is the evocative Brabo Fountain, that depicts the story around the city’s founding. The tale goes that a giant tormented the city and would throw the hands of sailors into the river if they did not pay his toll. This was until the giant was defeated by the hero Silvus Brabo, who cast the giant’s hand into the river in turn. It is from this story that the city is said to owe its name, with hand werpen in Dutch meaning “to throw a hand”. There you go!
2. Attend the Cathedral of Our Lady
A dominant fixture on Antwerp’s cityscape and skyline, the Cathedral of Our Lady is one of the city’s main landmarks. Originally a church, it was built between 1352 and 1521 and after almost being destroyed a decade later, was converted into the city cathedral. It has managed to survive plenty of crises and troubles, although it stands resplendent today thanks to substantial renovation works undertaken by the city in the ’60s.
Beyond its ornate exterior door, there is plenty to admire inside the church. From the numerous vibrant stained glass windows, to the detailed woodwork of the choir, the cathedral is quite the sight. That it hosts an art exhibit of 16th-17th Century Flemish masters is just another feather in its cap. Here you’ll find wonderful works of art by Quentin Massys and famed local, Peter Paul Rubens.
One of the more striking elements of the Antwerp Cathedral though is the below sculpture by Jan Fabre. Named The Man who bears the Cross, the mesmerizing and modern bronze sculpture encourages patrons to contemplate keeping their faith in balance. Entry to the church costs 6€ per person, with more information available at the cathedral website.
3. Stop a Moment in the Handschoenmarkt
After visiting the Cathedral, it’s worth taking a moment to look around the small Handschoenmarkt square that sits before it. Yet another beautiful European square complete with more great narrow buildings. Off to one side is an old well with a beautifully detailed wrought metal top. Across the square is a clever statue about a boy Nello and his dog Patrasche, taken from the novel A Dog of Flanders. Here the cobblestones run over the statues like a blanket. The novel is quite big in Japan and the company Toyota actually donated the statue to the city.
4. Descend into St Anna’s Tunnel
While most large modern cities build big grand bridges over their rivers, Antwerp went the other way. Instead, to cross the Scheldt River to Antwerp’s Linkeroever, you must take the 500 metre long St Anna’s Tunnel. 30 metres below the surface, this tunnel provides pedestrians and even cyclists access under the river.
What really charmed me though, were the distinguished and historic wooden escalators that transport you down into the tunnel. Installed in 1933, the escalators work well enough and together with the surrounding decor, give your descent into the tunnel an air of elegance. Even if you don’t plan to cross the river, I’d suggest going down to see these old-fashioned escalators.
5. Walk over to Het Steen
Sitting by the shores of the Scheldt River, you’ll find the medieval Het Steen fortress. Antwerp’s oldest building, the spot has been fortified since the 7th Century but this castle dates from the early 13th Century. With its name meaning “the Stone”, the fortress was used to control the river, but also as a prison from 1549 to 1823. The keep hosts the National Maritime Museum, but you can freely walk around its open courtyards.
6. Find the Vlaeykensgang Alley
One of the more picturesque spots in Antwerp, you need to find the hidden Vlaeykensgang alley that runs between buildings in the centre of the city. Running between the Oude Koornmarkt and Pelgrimstraat, the alley provides visitors with a reprieve from the big city. Once a medieval alley home to shoemakers and one of many, it is sadly one of the few historic alleys to survive to the modern-day.
7. Explore the Rubenshuis Museum
Certainly a museum not to miss in Antwerp is the home of famed artist Peter Paul Rubens, now the Rubenshuis Museum. While you can find his artwork in other parts of the city, here you can actually visit his family home and learn of his life. One of the most successful and wealthy artists of his time, the house not only features plenty of Ruben’s work but also pieces collected from his contemporary peers. The house also includes multiple works from the artist’s studio as he had numerous assistants and pupils. For art enthusiasts, this museum is a must! Entry to the museum costs 8€ for non-concession adults.
8. Learn in the Plantin-Moretus Museum
Another of Antwerp’s world-class museums is the extensive Plantin-Moretus Museum. With a strong focus on the history of the printing presses and the printed book, the Plantin-Moretus Museum is actually the only UNESCO world heritage listed museum. Housed in a 16th Century mansion that was once the house of Christophe Plantin, you can find some of the world’s oldest printing presses inside. Many of the museum’s rooms are line with bookshelves of antique letters and books, many collected by Plantin himself. Entry to the museum costs 8€ for non-concession adults.
9. Admire Antwerp’s Architecture
Throughout the city of Antwerp, you’ll find assorted architectural styles and plenty of buildings worth seeking out. One such building is the Bourla Theatre, an unusual neoclassical theatre in the depths of the city. While I didn’t venture inside, photos I’ve seen do make it look quite lavish. There are also multiple palaces scattered throughout the city centre, one in particular worth checking out is the Palais Op De Mar, just around the corner from the Rubenshuis.
One other building that properly gets overlooked is the Boerentoren, an Art Deco high-rise. Built in the 1920-30s, it’s the second tallest building behind the Cathedral of Our Lady. Quite a restrained style but still effective I think.
10. See the Saint Carolus Borromeus Church
Just a few blocks from Antwerp’s Cathedral is an equally miraculous building, the Saint Carolus Borromeus Church. Built in 1626, the church was renowned for its abundance of Rubens’ pieces that were sadly lost in a fire. After the fire in 1718 it was restored and the results are pretty astounding. Looking down the nave there’s a great contrast between the bright white columns and ceiling against the copious amounts dark along the walls and pulpit. The woodwork throughout really is something and worth slipping in.
11. Wonder at the MAS – Museum aan de Stroom
The big new architectural addition to Antwerp, the box-shaped Museum aan de Stroom is definitely eye-catching. There are so many little quirks and details to the building, from the skull mosaic courtyard, to the 3,185 little hands adorned to the side of the building. However, sitting on the edge of the city’s docks, this growing icon is not just an architectural curiosity but also a truly fascinating museum.
The museum hosts over 470,000 pieces that share not only Antwerp’s story but many other unusual and unlikely ones. Some of the moving permanent exhibits focused on “Display of Power”, the “World Port” and “Art of Pre-Columbian America”. With exhibits on floors 2-9, you could easily spend the better part of a day solely exploring the MAS.
Beyond the exhibits, a visit to the MAS is incomplete without heading to the building’s roof for spectacular sweeping 360° views out over the city. Best of all, entry to the rooftop is completely free to the public. Overall, it’s definitely worth planning your visit to the MAS and it would be wise to use their website to help plan your visit.
12. Sneak into the Felix Passage
Another of Antwerp’s secret passage ways, the FelixArchief passage leads from the Willemdok by the MAS through some renovated warehouses. The building is now an event venue but the passageway through the building is open to the public and shows a stylish take on the city’s important shipping history.
13. Marvel at Antwerp Central Railway Station
Even if you’re not arriving to Antwerp by train, you really need to visit the city’s Central Railway Station. Following in the grand tradition of wondrous train stations, the Antwerp Central Station looks statuesque from outside and stunningly beautiful inside. From its ostentatious glass windows and ceilings to elegant staircases, you feel like you’ve arrived at a palace, not a train station. If you do arrive by train, have your camera ready aside as you leave your train.
14. Venture to the Zurenborg District
A little removed from the rest of the above sites in Antwerp, the Zurenborg District is worth the trip for its stunning Art Nouveau houses. Situated just by the Antwerpen-Berchem train station, this neighbourhood hides a distinctive architectural style relative to the rest of the city. Nowhere else in the city will you find house after house designed such grand and elaborate style. If you’re looking for where to start, head for the Cogels-Osylei street and you can wander from there. This was one of many great tips given to me by the city’s Visitor Centre on the Grote Markt.
15. …And Many, Many More
Fair to say, there’s too much to do in Antwerp to try to fit in a day. While the above is a great start, there’s so much more to see and do. For instance, there’s the city’s renowned MOMU Fashion Museum right in the heart of the city. Further afield, there are areas like the Diamond district, Begijnhof and Jewish Quarter that speak to different aspects of the city’s history and culture. One architectural landmark I also missed was the city’s redesigned Palace of Justice, which was sadly a little too far out of the centre. Not to mention I missed out on all the city’s shopping, cafes, restaurants and even the De Koninck Brewery. Gah, next time!
- I genuinely think you need several days to make the most of your visit, get to the city’s outer neighbourhoods and visit the city’s many museums without being rushed.
- If you plan to visit multiple museums, consider purchasing the 24/48/72hr Antwerp City Card. With it you get access to all the museums listed above, many more, plus free public transport.
- While you can walk through the city centre with ease, Antwerp is connected by a quality public transport network of buses and trams that can make getting about even easier.
- Antwerp is serviced by a small airport, but only really has flights to London and Spain. You’re far better off looking at flights to Brussels Zaventem Airport and then taking the train direct to Antwerp Central Station.
Have you had the opportunity to travel to awesome Antwerp? If you haven’t, where would you be most excited to visit? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
*Disclosure: I received a free Antwerp City Card from the Visit Antwerpen Tourism Office. As always, opinions are my own.
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