The charming city of Antwerp along the River Scheldt dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. With over half a million residents, Antwerp is Belgium‘s second most populous city, and its port is one of the largest in the world.
Only 45 kilometres from Brussels, the capital of Belgium, Antwerp is perfectly positioned for a superb day trip. As a major industrial and economic centre of Belgium, it may not seem like there’s anything for tourists to do here. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, with the Antwerp City Card, you can easily and affordably explore the many fantastic attractions here.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not to visit, this article will help you make up your mind by showing you everything you can see and discover while in Antwerp. Keep reading for 22 things to do in Antwerp, Belgium that every tourist will enjoy.
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Stop by the Rubens House
A top highlight in Antwerp is Rubenshuis, aka the Rubens House. The home and studio once belonging to painter Peter Paul Rubens is currently used as a museum to showcase his masterpieces the Clara Serena and Annunciation. Collections by other famous artists are here as well, including Portrait of a Lady and her Daughter by Titian and Neptune and Amphitrite in the Storm by Jacob Jordaens.
The Flemish townhouse and its courtyard garden were redesigned in 1610 to resemble the Italian palazzo style, making it a very elegant and inspiring environment.
Appreciate Antwerp Central Station
It may seem unusual to visit a railway station unless you’ve got a train to catch, but the architecture of Antwerpen-Centraal makes it a must-see attraction. In fact, it’s been rated as one of the top five most beautiful train stations in the world.
Constructed during the turn of the 20th century using a mix of design styles, it has become an iconic example of railway architecture and one of the best places to visit in Antwerp. Admire the elegant Gothic exteriors and be blown away by the extravagant entrance hall.
Hear stories about the Red Star Line
The unique Red Star Line Museum in the Eilandje dock neighbourhood presents audiovisual testimonies and written documents about migration experiences. The Red Star Line was an ocean passenger line between 1871 and 1935 responsible for more than two million people travelling between Antwerp and North America. In addition to the collections of stories and art, you’ll also find an observation tower above the warehouses, designed in the shape of a ship’s smokestack.
Visit the Cathedral of our Lady Antwerp
Despite never being fully completed, the Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp is one of the few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium. The Gothic, Roman Catholic cathedral boasts a 123-metre-tall northern tower, the highest in the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), making it easy to spot in the historic old town district.
Hanging in the cathedral are Peter Paul Rubens’ Raising of the Cross and Descent from the Cross paintings, both of which were stolen by Napoleon and returned in the 19th century. Burial sites of various bishops, artists and politicians can also be found here, and the stunningly colourful stained glass window is definitely worth admiring.
Scour the street art
Antwerp is also Belgium’s street art city. The eclectic Baroque street art emerged when local graffiti artist Yvon Tordoir and three others created large murals in the centre of the city. Each piece is inspired by a technique or theme from the Baroque period.
To figure out the best routes to take and murals to see, follow the useful map at streetartantwerp.com. The website also has a rundown of street art walking tours you can go on, with a list of prices, duration and departure locations.
Check out the diamond district
Antwerp is known for its thriving and sustainable diamond industry, so much so that it has its own diamond district. Diamantkwartier (aka the Diamond Quarter) covers several square blocks, and it’s estimated that over 80% of the world’s rough diamonds pass through here.
Four trading exchanges and the Antwerp World Diamond Centre are located in the district, and you can shop around at the boutiques at Vestingstraat and Appelmansstraat. If you’re buying, select a qualified jeweller and ensure the retailer is graded by the GIA (Gemological Institute of America).
Wander around Grote Markt
There’s one spot you simply can’t avoid when visiting the city. The Grote Markt in Antwerp is the town square in the heart of the old city and the location of the famous Christmas Market. The square is surrounded by extravagant guildhalls from the 16th-century, fantastic restaurants and cafes, and Antwerp’s City Hall.
In the middle of the square is the Brabo Fountain. This statue depicts a young Roman soldier named Brabo slaying the Druon Antigoon, a mythical giant known in Flemish folklore.
Eat some Belgian waffles
When in Belgium, indulge in some authentic Belgian waffles. The number one place for this delicious dessert is Desire De Lille on Schrijnwerkersstraat. The waffles at this tea house are light, crispy, and some of the best you’ll ever taste!
Wafelhuis Van Hecke on Nationalestraat is a scrumptious spot too, with a wide range of fresh fruits available as add-ons.
Have a picnic at Stadspark
Antwerp’s city park is a 35-acre triangle of greenery between the streets of Van Eycklei, Rubenslei and Quinten Matsijslei. Notable features of the park include a large pond, a white-painted iron suspension bridge for pedestrians, and a World War I memorial. There are trails for joggers as well as secluded seating areas that are perfect spots for picnicking.
Packing a delicious picnic lunch and taking a stroll around Stadspark with your significant other are some of the most romantic things to do in Antwerp.
Learn about printing at the Plantin-Moretus Museum
A trip to the Plantin-Moretus Museum is one of the more unusual things to do in Antwerp. A museum about printing may not seem too appealing at first, but anyone with an interest in old literature or typography will find it absolutely fascinating.
Christophe Plantin and his right-hand man Jan Moretus were two of the most influential printers of the 16th century, and are the inspiration for the museum. View a collection of over 30,000 old books, see two of the oldest printing presses in the world, and make your own bookmark with a blind stamp.
The Antwerp Museum app brings the experience to life with audio reenactments, so download it for free before you go. A bonus attraction of the Plantin-Moretus Museum is the peaceful, ivy-lined courtyard garden, so remember to take a look before you leave.
Learn about the world at the Museum by the River
The Museum aan de Stroom highlights Antwerp’s strong connection to the rest of the world. The collections showcase maritime objects related to international trade, as well as Antwerp’s development as a port city and its influences on art and culture worldwide.
The 60-metre-high postmodern Art Deco exterior is made from red sandstone and curved glass panels, well and truly standing out along the Scheldt River in Eilandje. If you want to pay this museum a visit, it won’t be hard to find!
Shop along Meir
Wanting to treat yourself with a spot of shopping? Look no further than Meir, Antwerp’s most prestigious and bustling shopping avenue. Extravagant Rococo-style buildings line the street, housing just about every major European fashion label.
Stadsfeestzaal is the local shopping mall on Meir, with over 40 different shop fronts offering a range of goods. Originally built to be an exhibition and events hall, the mall has undergone renovation to return to its luxurious beginnings and reflect the golden era of the past. The curved marble staircase and mosaic flooring ensure your shopping trip will be as stylish and luxurious as possible.
See a former royal palace
While you’re on Meir, you’ll want to see one of the most beautiful places to visit in Antwerp: the Paleis op de Meir. The 18th-century palace took inspiration from northern Dutch, French, and Vietnamese architecture styles, and the grand front facade was constructed with natural German stone.
In addition to gazing at the monumental structure, you can explore the museum inside to learn about the history of the palace. If you get hungry, stop for a bite to eat at the building’s own Café Impérial.
Enjoy a night out
One of the best things to do in Antwerp at night is to explore the local bar scene. This city is perfect for indulging in a drink or two, and there are plenty of great spots that’ll make you feel right at home.
A superb night out can be found at De Muze. This jazz cafe on Melkmarkt 15 in the old town has live bands every evening from 10 o’clock. Open since 1964, De Muze has become one of the most beloved alternative spots in Antwerp and still retains its artistic, laid-back atmosphere.
Another renowned Antwerp establishment is Den Engel by Grote Markt. The authentic cafe bar kicks on until three in the morning, so you’ll be able to have a few Belgian beers with locals of all ages until you’re well and truly tired.
Dig into some fries
Before and after an evening of drinking, you’ll need to keep your stomach full. Luckily, Belgium has invented the perfect solution! There’s no better or easier street food in this situation than pommes frites. You’ll already know them as hot chips or fries, but this country takes them to another level.
Frites Atelier on Korte Gasthuisstraat 32 boats the best frites in all of Antwerp. Their range of sauces it what really stands out, including Indonesian peanut sauce, truffle mayo, and Chef Serio’s classic ketchup. Gourmet snacks are also on offer, like Flemish beef stew frites and a slow cooked beef croquette. Depending on the season you visit, there’ll always be something new on the menu.
For those late night cravings, Frituur n°1 on Hoogstraat 1 will be your go-to. They’re open until four in the morning, (12 a.m. on Sundays), so you can tuck into some tasty pommes frites before heading home.
Discover Antwerp’s modern side
So many of Antwerp’s attractions are centuries old, but there are newer things to see as well. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp showcases permanent collections from contemporary artists, both Belgian and international. The exhibitions are constantly changing every few months, so head there with an open mind.
The museum even has its own arthouse cinema called Cinema Zuid, with a fantastic programme running from Tuesdays to Sundays. Films from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s often play, but a few current movies sneak in too. If you don’t mind the Dutch subtitles, Cinema Zuid is a great venue to watch an interesting film you may never have heard of before (or maybe an old favourite).
Take a tour of De Ruien
The former sewers of De Ruien provide the setting for a unique adventure in Antwerp. Put on some rain boots and see what’s under the city for yourself. On a tour of the underground canals, you can walk underneath the vaulted ceilings and across bridges, all while gaining more knowledge about Antwerp’s rich history.
Attend an outdoor market
With a long tradition of open-air markets, Antwerp has a variety of daily flea markets and buzzing street fairs to have a gander at. The Sint-Jansvliet Sunday Market is your typical Flemish flea market scene, with lively vendors selling odds and ends.
Monthly markets like the Lambermontmartre art market and the Swan Market for fashion and accessories are always a fun day out, so check the local calendar to see what’s on.
Go for a walk around the botanical gardens
Plantentuin is a serene botanical oasis in the centre of the city. With winding paths surrounded by tall, luscious trees, you can experience one of the most peaceful walks of your life. Take note of the labelled flower beds and herb plants to learn more about the local flora in Belgium.
Admire the Cogels-Osylei
The row of townhouses known as the Cogels-Osylei cannot be adequately described. These extravagant, historic buildings are a mix-and-match of architectural styles, yet manage to fit perfectly together. Put this street on your route and marvel at the Art Nouveau, neo-Gothic and Tudor exteriors.
Visit the churches
Saint Charles Borromeo Church, also known as Sint-Carolus Borromeus, is an absolute masterpiece. Constructed in the 17th century at the Hendrik Conscience Square, the impressively detailed exterior was inspired by both the Church of the Gesù in Rome and the work of Peter Paul Rubens.
Saint Paul’s Church on Sint-Paulusstraat 22 is another grandiose religious site that’s definitely worth a visit. While the facade is more Brabantine Gothic, the tower and interiors are decorated in the classic Flemish Baroque style. There are over 200 statues and 50 paintings within the church and the surrounding grounds, so put aside some time to get a thorough look.
Saint George’s Church at Mechelseplein 24 is one last church you won’t want to miss. The monumental twin Gothic spires can be spotted from afar, inviting you in to come and gaze at the colourful and delicate stained glass windows. As a bonus, there are far fewer tourists here, meaning you can peacefully explore and take some uninterrupted photographs with ease.
Explore the city by bike
A fun way to see Antwerp in a short amount of time is on a bike. Sites like Viator allow you to book bike tours online for the lowest prices. The tours are typically three or four hours long and are led by a friendly and knowledgeable local guide. If you’re sick of planning and would prefer to follow the crowd for a little while, you can’t go wrong with a bicycle tour.
Recommend tours in Antwerp
- 3-Hour Private Highlights with Non-Classic Stories Tour in Antwerp
- 3-Hour Antwerp Bike Tour
- Private Beer Tasting Tour with a Local in Antwerp
- 1 Hour Antwerp Citytour Hop On Hop Off
- Walking Tour: Historic Antwerp
- Legends of Antwerp – Private Tour
- 3-Hour Private Tour with Highlights in Antwerp
- 2 Hour Segway City Tours Antwerp Belgium
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