The second city of Belgium and home to the biggest port in the country, Antwerp is an obvious choice for travellers in the country. The city seems to ooze power and cool and this may be due to its historic status as home of moguls and diamond dealers. Antwerp is known as the diamond capital of the world and the diamond industry plays an important role in the economy of the city and has done throughout its history.
During the 16th Century the city was one of the most important places, and one of the most important ports in all of Europe. The city suffered greatly in the Second World War but still retains many of its medieval charm and landmarks. Today, the city has a reputation for art and fashion.
Antwerp has everything a traveller should wish for in a European city; world class museums and art, beautiful architecture and great food and drink. Here is our list of 15 Best Things to do in Antwerp:
1. Admire Antwerp Central Station
Looking at a train station may not be one of the best things to do in many cities but in Antwerp, it is an absolute must. The Gothic architecture of the building’s impressive exterior will take your breath away and the main hall is equally splendid.
The station is one of the city’s most treasured landmarks and has been rated as one of the world’s top five most beautiful train stations.
The station is much more than just a pretty face however and has been fully adapted to operate in the 21st Century with its multilevel platforms.
2. Learn about printing at the Museum Plantin-Moretus
This former printing press was once one of the finest in the world. The site has been home to museum since 1876 and is now a UNSECO World Heritage Site.
It may be unusual for a museum to be inducted into World Heritage Site status but once you visit this fascinating place you will see why.
The building itself dates back to medieval times and, along with the courtyard, is alone worthy of a visit. Combine this with a museum exploring the world’s oldest printing press, a 17th Century library and a collection of valuable artwork and you will soon see why the Museum Plantin-Moretus is so highly regarded.
3. Pop into Rubens House
Rubenshuis is the former home of the painter Pieter Paul Rubens. The home was built by Rubens himself as both a place to live and also as a studio for him to work in.
The building was in a bad way prior to restorative work that began in 1937 but with some careful work, the building has now returned to its former glory.
As well as furniture from the period that the painter lived here, the house also shows off many pieces of his artwork.
4. Visit the Red Star Line Museum
The Red Star Line Museum exhibits the stories of many migrants who left Belgium, mainly for America, via the Red Star Line ships. Most of the passengers embarked from the very building in which the museum is housed.
The exhibits are very engaging and use actual photographs and other personal items to vividly tell the story of the crossing from Belgium to the States.
The observation tower, which was formerly the buildings chimney, has great views of the surrounding area.
5. Explore the historic Antwerp Zoo
Antwerp Zoo was founded in 1843 and makes a great day out when you are tired of looking at museums and architecture.
The zoo may be one of the oldest in the world but the facilities are modern and world class with state of the art enclosures and breeding programmes.
Popular attractions at the zoo include a loved up koala couple who live together in a thatched cottage as well as a new reef environment in the zoo’s aquarium.
6. Eat “French” Fries
I don’t want to spark an international conflict with this point but Belgians will argue that they actually invented so-called French Fries.
Regardless of who invented them, Antwerp is a great place to experience the Belgian take on fries.
Forget fast-food, in Belgium they slow the pace and serve fries in frites cafes which specialize in serving the tastiest fries around.
7. Shop in style
Shopping centres don’t come much more stylish than the Stadsfeestzaal Shopping Centre in the centre of Antwerp.
The building was once almost destroyed but due to its status as a listed building it was promptly restored to exactly how it should be. The architecture, marble staircase and mosaic floor will keep even the most reluctant shoppers entertained and if not, there is always the champagne bar to enjoy.
8. Worship the Cathedral of Our Lady
The tallest cathedral in the Low Countries is one that can be appreciated both from outside and inside.
It took 169 years to build before being completed in the year 1521. The spire is visible from many areas of the city and rarely fails to take one’s breath away.
The interior is a striking blend of Baroque decor and Ruben’s artwork. An entry fee to the cathedral applies and guided tours are available.
9. Drink Beer
The Belgians are rightfully proud of their beer and it would be rude to visit Antwerp and not sample a few cold beers.
Visiting the Antwerp Brewery is a good place to learn about Belgian beer as well as sampling a glass of De Koninck beer at the very site it was made.
If this fails to quench your thirst, why not visit Paters Vaetje, located by the cathedral, which serves over 100 beers. You are certain to find at least one that you like.
10. Explore Het Steen
Het Steen is the name of a small but pretty castle just on the side of the river in Antwerp. The castle dates back to the early 13th Century and makes for some great photographs.
Also worth photographing is the odd statue outside the castle of Lange Wapper, a large peeping tom character who is exposing his codpiece to passers by.
There is nothing to be seen inside the castle itself but the nearby maritime museum, with its collection of historic barges, is worth a look while in the area.
11. Visit the unique MAS Museum
If you have had your fill of historic sights within Antwerp (and there are a lot worth seeing) then you should visit the modern MAS museum.
MAS is a museum that does explore the history of Antwerp and its role as an important port city but also features temporary cutting edge exhibits that are regularly changing. Temporary exhibits on display at the time of writing include one exploring different forms of body art.
Whilst visiting the museum it is well worth taking the elevators to the open top roof for breathtaking views of the city. There is no charge for this.
12. Tour the city by bike
Like many great European cities, Antwerp is great to explore on two wheels. Hiring a bike yourself and planning a route is a possibility but the safer option is to take a bike tour with a guide.
Most tours last for a few hours and will take in all of the cities major sights including the cathedral, MAS and central station.
Even if you have already walked around all of the main sights, seeing them again on two wheels is a great experience.
13. Visit the home of Rockoxhuis
Nicolaas Rockox was something of a celebrity in 17th Century Antwerp. He was a lawyer and politician and his house remains beautiful to this day.
The house, complimented by a lovely courtyard and garden, features commissions from Rockoxhuis’ private collection that have not been sold to bigger galleries. Works by Rubens and Van Dyck are still housed here.
The Golden Cabinet art exhibition is also housed here and is both fascinating and varied.
14. Relax in the town square
Antwerp’s Grote Markt or town square dates back to the 16th Century and is a beautiful example of architecture from this period.
The town hall is the centerpiece and is built in Renaissance and Gothic styles. The statue at the centre of the square is of Brabo, a legendary giant slayer, and dates back to 1887.
The nearby street of Hofstraat is where the old stock exchange was located until the 16th Century.
15. Shop for Diamonds
Antwerp is known for its so-called diamond district which is located west of the Central Train Station. Around 85% of the world’s uncut diamonds find their way here and result in the employment of more than 30,000 people.
The diamond museum here is the largest of its kind in the world and will tell you everything you need to know about diamonds and the industry here.
The diamond industry is largely run by orthodox Jews although more and more wealthy Americans and Indians are becoming influential.