Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world, has a colourful history going back centuries and is home to many Baroque riches and priceless works of art. We’ve got to know Belgium’s second city pretty well over the years and so it was about time we put down our take on how to see the best of Antwerp in a day.
Antwerp boomed in the 13th and 14th centuries as the centre of the European cloth industry. However, it was during its era of Spanish rule in the 16th century that it blossomed as an arts centre. Amongst its other accolades it is Europe’s second largest port, it hosted the 1920 summer Olympics and of course it is the diamond capital of the world
In a city so rich in history it is unlikely you will find yourself in Antwerp wondering what there is to do. Despite its heritage its also a modern vibrant city that manages to almost seamlessly blend its past with its present. A lot time, effort and no doubt money is spent mantaining and restoring its historical buildings and you can see why it is worth the effort.
Plenty to Do
The difficulty in writing this article was deciding what to leave out rather than include. Which is why there are a bakers dozen sights below (13). It is a mix of old, new, forthcoming and occassionally all of these together. It is a relatively compact city centre so if you are willing and able you can walk between the attractions. So in no particular order here is our take on the Best of Antwerp in a day.
1. Cathedral of our Lady
Located in the medieval city centre, the building of the large, ornate cathedral took around 200 years. Construction started in 1352 and it was’t finished until 1521. It is the largest gothic cathedral in Belgium. The building holds many works of art including some by Antwerp’s most famous son Rubens. The street names in the area reflect the many specialist markets that once did business here centuries ago.
The Cathedral is a real landmark in the city and any time you get a view down a nearby side street looking in its general direction you’ll often see its spire. This is helpful as Antwerp is not the most straight forward of cities to navigate your way around. As you would expect the cathedral is a popular tourist hot spot so it can be fairly busy, both right outside and in the surrounding area.
2. Red Star Line Museum
The museum is based in what was the control station for the Red Star Line’s passengers. It is located close to the river by the Napoleon Dock and is only a few minutes walk from the MAS (see number 3). Between 1873 and 1934 this was the last stop on the European mainland for around 2 million passengers waiting to cross the Atlancic Ocean. They will have been travelling to mainly the USA or Canada, some for business or pleasure but most would have been poor migrants hoping for a better life. The museum provides a fascinating insight into the history of people emigrating from Europe using the Red Star Line. Check the website at https://www.redstarline.be/en
3. Museum aan de Stroomor (MAS)
The Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) translates as museum by the river. As the name suggests it sits close to the river Schelde by the renovated old harbour area. It is a relatively new building, having first opened its doors in May 2011. It is the largest museum in Antwerp and has a strong focus on the city and its connections to the world.
It is more than just a museum however. There is no charge for entry to the building itself, only to the permanent and temporary exhibitions. Take the opportunity to use the escalators and climb to the viewing deck on the roof. In our opinion this offers the best 360 degree panoramic views of the city we have seen in our years travelling to Antwerp. There is no restrictions on your time so you can take as long as you like picking out the landmarks around the city. The building also contains a Michelin starred restaurant which you might want to avoid unless you have recently won the lottery. Check www.mas.be for opening hours and further details.
4. Saint Paul’s Church
The first records of a building on this site date back to 1256. However, at the end of the 16th century the original church was destroyed. The present building which replaced it dates from the 17th century. As with most churches it remained closed during the French civil war.
It is an impressive building with a gothic facade and a baroque interior. Inside, the building has an impressive art collection which includes paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens. The church furniture, organ and alter are all made of marble. You’ll find the church in most lists of Antwerp’s top sights for good reason.
5. City Zoo
In the middle of the city, right next to the central station you’ll find Antwerp zoo. Literally if you come out the front station entrance and turn right and you are there. It is the oldest zoo in Belgium and one of the oldest in the world. So it is an easy pick for the best of Antwerp in a day. The entrance which dates from 1843 is particularly impressive. Its location must be quite unique tucked behind the station, however it is so well laid out that it is easy to forget you are in the middle of a busy city. For details and current entrance prices (28 euros at the time of writing) see https://www.zooantwerpen.be/en/
6. Ruben’s House
If you are intersted in art then this one is definately for you. This was Pieter Paul Rubens home and studio for the last 29 years of his life, from 1611 to 1640. You will find it on Wapper Square, just a few minutes walk from the Meir, Antwerp’s main shopping street. The City of Antwerp bought the house shortly before the outbreak of WW2 when it was in poor condition. Today, what you get to see is the result of careful restoration. The property contains his living quarters including period furniture and also a gallery which would have been used to display his own and other artist’s work. It is here that Rubens would have entertained friends and wealthy associates. This is always a certain pick for the best of Antwerp in a day lists.
7. Central Station
Antwerp’s central station is a large neo-classical building dating from 1905 and well worth a look around in its own right. Do not pass quickly through. Take your time and dont forget to look up. Its dome is so large it is an easy reference point if you are looking across the city from a height. But dont just take our word for it.
The station has picked up a number of accolades over the years. Widely regarded as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium, in 2009 the American magazine Newsweek judged Antwerpen-Centraal the world’s fourth greatest train station. Also, in 2014 the British-American magazine Mashable awarded Antwerpen-Centraal first place as the most beautiful railway station in the world. Just make sure you dont miss it!
8. Diamond District
80% of the world’s entire trade in rough diamonds pass through Antwerp, so it is no wonder it is known as the diamond capital of the world and no wonder its in our Best of Antwerp in a Day list. From central station take a walk down Pelikaanstraat and Vestingstraat which will give you a feel for the Jewish neighbourhood that is the cerntre of the diamond industry. Also, take time to visit the city’s new diamond museum, known as DIVA. You will find it at Suikerrui 17-19, 2000 Antwerp, close to the Grote Markt (see 9). Further info is available at www.divaantwerp.be/en.
9. Grote Markt
This is Antwerp’s main square with its central, Brabo, fountain, one of Antwerp’s most recognisable landmarks. The figure depicts a Roman soldier known as Silvius Brabo throwing the hand of an evil giant, Antigoon, into the river. In folklore this is where the origin of the name Antwerp came from (handwerpen means handthrow). Along one side of the square is the ornate town hall dating from 1564, which at the time of writing in July 2019 is being refurbished externally. The square is also partly surrounded by beautiful elaborate guildhouses and a number of cafes. Its Belgium architecture at its best.
No list would be complete without a mention of shopping. The Meir, Antwerp’s main shopping area is a broad street lined with a good variety of shops. These range from the large chain stores, you would expect from a major city, to small boutiques. The city plays a prominent role in Europe’s fashion industry so you are well catered for if looking for clothes.
If you have the time, make sure you explore the many side streets as they are crammed with cafes, curio shops and antique dealers. It becomes so easy to lose track of time and the distance you have wandered so do keep an eye on your watch.
11. Boerentoren Tower
The Boerentoren (farmers tower), built in 1932, was the first skyscraper on the European mainland. At the time it was a revolutionary project and topped 87.5 metres high with 25 floors. In 1976 the tower’s height was increased to just under 98 metres. There is a panoramic room at the top which unfortunately is not open to the public.
The tower became a symbol of economic and financial strength in Antwerp. Although there used to be shops, offices and apartments in the building it has been used since 1976 as office space for the KBC bank. For the tourist I am afraid it is just a walk past on your way to elsewhere, but it is worth a brief stop to acknowledge its historical importance.
12. View the Castle (Het Steen) by the River
So much of Antwerp’s history and wealth comes from its location on the banks of the river Shelde which was pivotal in its trade to growing and the city developing. From the Grote Markt you are only a short walk to the riverside. Take a walk along Wandelterras Zuid. From here you have clear views to both the North and the South along the river.
At the Northern end of the walkway you’ll find Het Steen (castle), a medieval fortress. It was built after the Viking incursions in the early Middle Ages and was the city’s first stone fortress. It is no surprise then that it is Antwerp’s oldest building. In its day it has been many things to many people. In more recent times these include a prison and laterly the city’s maritime museum, now in the MAS. It is currently (in 2019) covered in scaffolding and undergoing substantial renovation. When complete in 2020 it will serve as a cruise terminal, welcome centre and provide an interactive experience focussing on Antwerp and its history.
Antwerp is packed with places to eat and drink as you might expect in a country with around 800 different beers and where waffles, fries and chocolate are very much part of the culture. So its easy to include Refreshments for the best of Antwerp in a day list. If you want to eat relatively close to the Meir then you could try Grand Cafe Horta. Its situated at the end of the Wapper, a little past Rubens House. We ate here in July this year (2019) and prices were reasonable for a city centre location. (4 main courses, 2 desserts and a bottle of wine for around 150 euros). The menu was sufficiently varied. Service was prompt and portions were generous.
All cities in Belgium are well connected by public transport so it is easy to get to Antwerp. It can be done even on a day trip from Brussels, Brugge, Ghent or anywhere else in Belgium for that matter. The roads, including its motorway network, can be extrmely busy as the amount of cargo being transferred to the coast from all over Europe is considerable. Its rail network however, like most European countries is first class.
Looking for More?
Our ‘The Best of Antwerp in a Day’ article only scratches the surface of all that Antwerp has to offer. To read more on Antwerp check out our article on the Top Hidden Attractions in Antwerp in a Day. If you are looking for some further reading then below you’ll find more of our articles on city breaks. For related reading check out the Tag links as well at the bottom of the page.
More Reading on City Breaks
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