When it comes to places to visit in Antwerp, you’ll be spoiled for choice. If you’ve already visited Belgium, you may have been seduced by the wonders of the capital Brussels, or the UNESCO World Heritage Site beauty of Bruges. But if you’ve not visited Antwerp before, you’ve got delights aplenty in store here. Packed with Flemish charm, there are many awesome things to do in Antwerp. It’s a city that rewards lovers of design, whether that’s fashion, baroque architecture or the art of the Old Masters. Coupled with the vibrancy and innovation that’s all part of being one of the world’s biggest ports, you can see why Antwerp has so many things to offer.
Revised and updated August 2019
- 1 Is Antwerp Worth Visiting?
- 2 How To Get To Antwerp
- 3 The Best Places To Visit In Antwerp Start On Arrival
- 4 Arriving In Antwerp By Sea and River
- 5 Places To Visit In Antwerp: Grote Markt And Stadhuis
- 6 Places of Worship
- 7 Plantin-Moretus Museum UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 8 Places To Visit In Antwerp for Design, Style and Fashion Lovers
- 9 Unusual Place to Visit In Antwerp: The Underground Extravaganza De Ruien
- 10 Antwerp’s Fairytale Castle: Het Steen
- 11 Places To Visit In Antwerp for Cultural Pleasures
- 12 Eat, Drink And Be Merry: You’re In Antwerp
- 13 Places To Visit In Antwerp: Kerstmarkt
- 14 More Awesomeness Around Antwerp
Is Antwerp Worth Visiting?
I had to shake my head slightly in disbelief when a well known search engine came up with this question. The answer is yes absolutely, and absolutely yes many times over. Whether your tastes run to fashion, diamonds, chocolate, art, maritime history and shipping, architecture or food and Belgian beer, I think you’ll find many places to visit in Antwerp.
How To Get To Antwerp
Although Antwerp has a small airport of its own, you’re best arriving into Brussels Zavantem, from which Antwerp is a mere half hour on the train. It’s also possible to arrive directly by train from a number of European destinations, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Lille and Avignon. You can connect via the Eurostar from London. Despite being a large city of half a million people, the centre of Antwerp is wonderfully compact and walkable. A network of trams and buses will take you from the centre to the wider metropolitan area of Antwerp.
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The Best Places To Visit In Antwerp Start On Arrival
Take a look at the beautiful building above. Isn’t it just spectacular? Then consider the equally gorgeous edifice below.
This, you may be both surprised and delighted to hear, is Antwerp’s train station. It’s a wonder in its own right. Regarded as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium (which is quite something, considering that Brussels Central was designed by no less than UNESCO-favoured Victor Horta), both the station and its viaduct are noteworthy.
Arriving In Antwerp By Sea and River
The Port of Antwerp is a big deal as ports go. It ranks in the twenty busiest ports internationally, and is the second busiest in Europe after Rotterdam. More than 800 maritime destinations are served by the port. There’s a wealth of history associated with Antwerp. Many of the 12 million immigrants who arrived in Ellis Island in the first half of the twentieth century did so via the Port of Antwerp. You can find out more about its role in world history by visiting the Red Star Line Museum.
Exploring The Port Area
There are plenty of places to visit in Antwerp that extend beyond the glories of the central district. There’s a fine tour to be taken, stretching some 50km around the port. This can – after all, you’re in Belgium – be easily taken by bike on the Havensroute. You can see the Pilot House – Loodsgebouw – and the two oldest docks Bonapartedok and Willemsdok. There’s the charming seventeenth century windmill at Eenhorn and the polder village of Lillo. And if maritime things fascinate you as they do us, you’ll find the world’s largest lock at Berendrechtsluis.
Arriving In Antwerp By Ship
We’ve had the pleasure of arriving by ship up the River Scheldt, a river so deep and broad that it is navigable for 80km by large ships. In fact cruise liners of around 1200 passengers plus crew can easily make their way to central Antwerp. Sail into Antwerp on a passenger vessel, and you’ll berth right in the heart of the city, a mere five minutes walk from Grote Markt.
Places To Visit In Antwerp: Grote Markt And Stadhuis
Town Hall (Stadhuis)
As in many Belgian cities, Grote Markt is effectively the centrepiece of the city. If you’re used to the charms of Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Leuven, you won’t be surprised to find a magnificent Stadhuis (town hall) here, resplendent with flags and fine Flemish architecture. The Stadhuis was built between 1561-1565 by Cornelis Flans de Vriendt in a Renaissance style. It is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list. You’ll find it open to the public on just a couple of days a year; I was fascinated to learn that it has five murals illustrating weddings in different periods, including the marriages of the ancient Belgians and the Romans.
Brabo Statue and the Giant’s Hand
Grote Markt is also notable for the enormous fountain and statue here. Unusually, it has no bowl for its waters, nor stone barriers around it; you can walk right up to the fountain itself. The statue is of Silvius Brabo, a mythical Roman soldier said to have killed a giant. Legend states that the giant guarded the crossing of the River Scheldt, demanding money from people who wanted to cross. If they refused, he cut off their hand and threw it in the river. Brabo removed the hand of the giant himself and threw it in the river.
The name Antwerp refers to the hand throwing of the giant, from the Dutch hand wearpen (hand throwing). The hand is the symbol of the city, and you’ll find it used in chocolates and other treats.
The Guildhouses of Grote Markt
We’ve shown you around the Guildhouses of Grand Place Brussels and the Graslei in Ghent before. Antwerp is equally splendid. The guilds held tremendous power and wealth in medieval times, and here you can see evidence of that strength. Places to visit in Antwerp include the:
- Gildehouse der Kuipers (coopers, Belgium being a place that needs barrels)
- Huis Van Schutters (archers)
- Huis de Kruideniers (grocers)
You’ll also find the Folkmuseum, a fine insight into Antwerp life, nestled behind the Stadhuis.
Places of Worship
Antwerp is full of noteworthy places of worship.
Cathedral of Our Lady
This is a Roman-Catholic cathedral, with a first phase of construction that paused in 1521. Various periods of damage and attack over the years have been attended to by generations of Antwerp residents, with interior repairs last completed in 1983. The belfry is included in the UNESCO World Heritage listing for the Belfries of Belgium and France. Here you’ll find paintings by Otto van Veen, Jacob de Backer and Marten de Vos. These accompany a number of significant works from Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. The spire of the cathedral is the highest church tower in Benelux. Napoleon reckoned it looked like lace.
St James’ Church: Sint Jacobskerk
Built on the site of a hostel for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, this church is built in Brabantine Gothic style. It contains the grave of Rubens in the eastern chapel; he was also married here. The Stations of the Cross contain statues gifted by nobles.
St Paul’s Church
Located in the Veemarkt, this Roman Catholic church is near the Grote Markt. It is Gothic with a baroque tower and baroque interior.
Plantin-Moretus Museum UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you love the written word and learning, this is more than just a museum. It is housed in the sixteenth century home and printing workshop of Christophe Plantin and his son-in-law Jan Moretus at the Vrijdagmarkt. Plantin was a major figure in contemporary printing, and had interests in humanism.
The museum houses an important collection of typographical material, including the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world. There is also an extensive library which includes a Bible in five languages, a geographical book, a herbal, an anatomical book and paintings and drawings by Rubens. To visit this museum is to breathe deep of all the pleasures we take in the written word, conveyed to us as it once was.
Places To Visit In Antwerp for Design, Style and Fashion Lovers
Don’t be fooled by Antwerp’s historic treasures. It’s got many more contemporary charms for its visitor. The city is renowned for fashion design, with the Antwerp Six including Dries Van Noten working there. Cate Blanchett and Maggie Gyllenhaal are fans, along with Queen Mathilde of Belgium.
The city is also home to the Diamond Quarter – Diamantkwartier. Eight in ten of the world’s rough diamonds once passed through here with over $16 billion of polished diamonds working their way through the exchanges here each year. It’s the largest diamond district in the world, located next to Central Station.
Unusual Place to Visit In Antwerp: The Underground Extravaganza De Ruien
Deep below the beating heart of Antwerp lies an experience that lays bare all its secrets. Traveling through the city’s former canals and sewers, you’ll get a unique view of its history and its recent past. This is the city’s underbelly exposed to the visitor.
There are a variety of experiences available in De Ruien, including group tours, exploring some areas by boat, and even going it alone with a tablet to guide your walk. The experience is managed by a social employment project, so you know that your subterranean adventure is doing good too. The price of your ticket includes welly hire and a protective suit.
Antwerp’s Fairytale Castle: Het Steen
Het Steen, the stone castle, was built on the banks of the Scheldt in the early Middle Ages. It was used to control access to the river, and served as a prison for many centuries. Other roles include its years as an archaeological museum and a maritime museum.
The entrance bridge to the castle has a statue of another legendary Antwerp giant Lange Wapper – there seem to have been a lot of tall people in medieval Antwerp – terrorising humans. As you can see above, the castle looks particularly beautiful all lit up for the Kerstmarkt, which lines the river banks.
Places To Visit In Antwerp for Cultural Pleasures
Rubenshuis: Home of the Painter Peter Paul Rubens
Rubens has a big spot at the heart of Belgian art and culture, and it’s not surprising that his home and workplace in Antwerp has been turned into a museum. An extra delight of the museum here is a Baroque garden courtyard opening out from the house.
Rubens bought the house a year after his marriage, making a home to the left and a studio to the right. Home/work spaces are clearly nothing new. The building had a varied history after his death, including time spent as a prison after the French Revolution. The City of Antwerp took over the care of the building in 1937, beginning a painstaking restoration. Now you’ll find 10 rooms furnished in period style, a number of Rubens’ paintings, including a self portrait in the dining room and Adam and Eve In Paradise in the studio. More artists’ works are shown in the building, including those of Rubens’ pupils.
Museum aan de Stroom
This building of boxy delights holds all you’d ever want to know about Antwerp and its long history as a major international port. As the museum’s own website states “New stories are written here everyday. A port city never sleeps.” In a city that is full of Old Masters, splendid Baroque architecture and facinating legends, this is a timely reminder that Antwerp’s history is still being made today. Whether it’s design or trade, Antwerp has a vibrant and beating pulse.
Up at the top of MAS, there’s a brilliant opportunity to see the Scheldt river laid out before you. In fact, I’ve only had a view equally as spectacular from the top deck of a ship. There’s a giant mosaic by Luc Trymens on the square outside, and a boulevard to lead you through the galleries.
Eat, Drink And Be Merry: You’re In Antwerp
I can’t miss out gastronomic pleasures in this collection of places to visit in Antwerp. If you’ve yet to be introduced to Belgian beer, then a fine place to enjoy its many variations is in Elfte Gebod (the Eleventh Commandment), pictured above. Crammed with religious artefacts, and with a warm stove on a chilly day, even if it’s a coffee you want, I can think of no better place to enjoy it.
The delights of the Belgian waffle, frites and chocolate are also copious here. Antwerp is big on coffee culture too, with its coffee houses even offering world peace on the menu.
Places To Visit In Antwerp: Kerstmarkt
Visiting Antwerp during the Kerstmarkt is a particularly fine decision. The streets are packed with excited crowds enjoying all the stalls set out along the river bank. There’s a fun fair on the quay, a mistletoe sculpture said to bring good luck if you kiss beneath it, and an ice rink with small sledges for your smallest skaters.
When we visited during the Kerstmarkt, there was a band playing the Bear Necessities, which seemed to sum up the feel-good vibe of the city. A bag of frites clutched in our rapidly warming hands, and we were wandering for hours, entranced by the lights, and the spectacle and the general happiness around us.
More Awesomeness Around Antwerp
If you’ve enjoyed Antwerp, we’ve got lots more of Belgium for you, including this Best of Belgium collection, as chosen by travel writers. We’ve also taken you for one day in Bruges, to gorgeous Ghent, lovely Leuven, the Art Nouveau commune of Brussels Saint-Gilles and to the magnificence of Grand Place in Brussels.
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