Top Things to Do in Antwerp, Belgium for First-Time Visitors
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Antwerp is Belgium’s bustling port city. It has an impressive history that can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
This is evident in the city’s many ancient churches, buildings, and public squares. It also has an exciting modern side, with trendy shopping streets, contemporary museums, and fun bars. It’s the best of both worlds.
If you’re planning a trip to Antwerp, this city offers so much variety when it comes to its attractions.
It caters brilliantly to every type of traveller. So without further ado, let’s get into all the top things to do in Antwerp, Belgium for a fabulous holiday.
Where is Antwerp and How to Get There
So, where is Antwerp located and how do you get here? Well, Antwerp is in the Flemish region of Belgium, in the northern area of the country. It lies along the River Scheldt and is a major European port city.
No matter where you’re visiting from, getting to Antwerp is easy, and you’ll have a few options for travel.
If you plan to fly, the Antwerp International Airport is just 6 kilometres from the city centre. Or, you could also fly into the Brussels Airport and take a train to Antwerp. The travel time between the cities is just 35 – 40 minutes.
In fact, given Antwerp’s close proximity to Brussels, many people like to plan a trip to Brussels as well.
The travel time between other nearby European cities is also quite fast. Paris to Antwerp is only about two hours by train, and Amsterdam is just over an hour by train. If you’re visiting London and want to continue onto Antwerp, the Eurostar will get you there in about two hours.
Taking the bus is another option. The most popular companies include Eurolines, Flixbus, and BlaBlaBus. You can usually score out on some really cheap bus tickets too.
The Top Things to Do in Antwerp, Belgium
Every city has its main attractions you don’t want to miss when visiting. As far as what to do and see in Antwerp, Belgium goes, these are the top places to check out.
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp
The Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp is a beautiful Roman cathedral in the heart of the city. It’s an iconic symbol of Antwerp and has a timeline going back centuries. Construction started in 1352 but wasn’t completed until 1521 – nearly 170 years later.
The outside features stunning Gothic architecture. The interior has a wonderful collection of paintings, sculptures, and carvings.
Including those by famed Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The church is open every day and the entrance fee is £7.25.
Central Station – Antwerpen Centraal
Antwerpen Centraal is the city’s main train station. It’s widely regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful railway station, making it well worth a stop.
It was originally built between 1895 and 1905, but it went through a restoration process from 2000 and 2009.
The main hall is full of historic charm. With high ceilings, intricate structural designs, and over-the-top design, it’s very eye-catching. Picture a Hollywood film set used to shoot a romantic train-station farewell – that’s Antwerpen Centraal.
If you’re arriving into the city by train, this will be the first attraction you’ll see. If you’re arriving through other means, the train station is in the heart of the city, making it very easy to get to.
Antwerp’s Great Market Square (Grote Markt) is in the heart of the city’s old town. This extravagant square is boarded by beautiful 16th-century guildhalls.
These buildings originally served as headquarters for the 16th- and 17th-century guilds of Antwerp. It was where artisans or merchants managed the practice of their trades.
On the western side of Grote Markt is the Town Hall. Erected from 1561 to 1565, this grand Renaissance building combines Flemish and Italian influences.
These beautiful landmarks that surround the square make it a lovely place to hang out and do some Antwerp sightseeing.
The Diamond District
Antwerp is the centre of the world diamond trade, and a very high majority of the world’s mined diamonds pass through the city. The Diamond District, also known as the Diamond Quarter, is the epicentre of this trade.
It’s home to many diamond stores where skilled diamond cutters specialise in creating jewellery.
The selection on offer is huge, you’ll literally find anything and everything. Even if you’re not looking to buy jewellery, it’s always free to look.
Most businesses are closed on Saturdays. This is because more than 80 percent of the Jewish population in Antwerp works in the diamond trade. Saturday is the Sabbath, which is a day of rest.
The Chocolate Line
Chocolate shops are everywhere in Belgium, but The Chocolate Line in Antwerp is a truly special place. It offers an insane variety of chocolates for all tastes, and everything is made by professional chocolatiers.
They even produce chocolate in many unique and uncommon flavours, like bacon, onion, chilli, and wasabi flavour. This store is a great place to stock up on chocolate or purchase some gifts to take home with you.
Even if you only have one day in Antwerp, make sure to swing by The Chocolate Line. It will fulfil all of your Belgian chocolate desires.
Antwerp City Park
Antwerp City Park is a lovely place to unwind and enjoy nature. This outdoor getaway is close to the city’s main attractions, making it a quick stopover between city sightseeing.
A beautiful lake sits in the middle where resident ducks and other bird species like to congregate. There are paths for walking, jogging, and cycling, and plenty of shaded grassy space to just sit and relax, or have a picnic.
If you’re looking for Antwerp attractions for kids, they’ll have plenty of space to run around. Plus, there’s also play equipment and a skate park.
Groenplaats (Green Square) is one of Antwerps beautiful public squares. It sits in the centre of the city and is full of local charm. It’s a lovely area to take a stroll or enjoy a rest.
There are various benches as well as local cafes, bars, and eateries. One of the main highlights is a large statue of Peter Paul Rubens, which was erected in 1843. During the holidays, a Christmas market is also set up very close by.
Steen Castle, or Het Steen, which translates to ‘The Stone’, is a medieval fortress in the old city centre. It’s nestled along the River Scheldt. Built around 1200-1225, it’s the oldest building in Antwerp.
Throughout the years, it’s been used for a variety of purposes, including a prison, residence, sawmill, fish depot, and most recently, a cafe.
In 1862, it opened as the Museum of Antiquities. From 1952 to 2008, it served as the National Maritime Museum. Currently, the castle is under reconstruction. It is planned to open in 2020 as a visitors centre and a cruise terminal.
Scheldt River and Antwerp Harbour
Antwerp is the second-largest seaport in Europe, and among the top ten worldwide. During your visit, make sure to take a stroll along the Scheldt River and watch the ships go by. The harbour is within easy walking distance from the city centre.
Boat tours are also offered. They show you a different perspective of the city.
Meir Shopping Street
Meir Shopping Street is the most popular shopping street in Antwerp, and in all of Belgium for that matter. It’s lined with lots of luxury retailers as well as more affordable stores, like H&M and Primark.
Even if you’re travelling on a budget, it’s still worth strolling through to admire the impressive window displays and beautiful Rococo architecture.
Stadsfeestzaal is a luxurious shopping gallery on Meir Street. It has a glamorous Art Deco design and is filled with domestic and international brands, as well as dining options.
Read my in-depth guide on the best time to visit Antwerp.
The Plantentuin, also called the Botanic Gardens of Antwerp, is a lovely oasis in the busy city. The gardens were created in 1825 and currently houses about 2000 plant species. It’s a peaceful place to take a break when you’re out exploring Antwerp city.
There are plenty of benches to sit and relax, and a large grassy shaded space to have a picnic.
Not everyone is outside though, there is also a greenhouse with lots of different cacti species. Most plants have nameplates next to them, so you can easily brush up on your plant knowledge when you visit.
The Plantentuin is open for long hours every day, and entrance is free!
Unusual Things to Do in Antwerp
Seeing the highlights of the city is great, but exploring its unique points of interest can be just as fun. Here are some attractions that allow you to discover a different side of Antwerp tourism.
In the middle of Grote Markt sits the peculiar Brabo Monument. Erected in 1887, the statue depicts Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, tossing a severed giant’s hand into the nearby Scheldt river or so the story goes. It’s definitely one of the most unique things to see in Antwerp, Belgium.
The statue also explains how Antwerp got its name. ‘Antwerpen’ is a derivative of ‘handwerpen’ meaning hand throwing.
The Tunnel Sainte-Anne is a wooden escalator that sits below the Scheldt River. It connects the older portions of Antwerp with the new parts. Originally, a bridge was set to be built over the river.
However, as that might have gotten in the way of ships passing, it was decided to build a tunnel instead.
They were made in the 1930s and still in use to this day. Considering the rarity of wooden escalators, they’re quite the novelty. They feature elegant woodwork that has stood the true test of time.
Nello & Patrasche Statue
This unique statue is of a young boy, Nello and his dog, Patrasche. As the story goes, Nello and his friends travel to Antwerp to see the Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp and the beautiful Rubens paintings housed inside.
Following a series of setbacks, Nello and his dog die from deprivation inside the cathedral.
The large statue shows Nello sleeping on the ground with Patrasche curdled up by his side. The pavement subtly bends to create a cobblestone blanket for the two.
The story is nonfiction, but touching nonetheless. It represents unconditional love and the bond between people and animals.
The New Port House
The Port of Antwerp is a beautiful government building with incredible architecture. There are two sections. The bottom portion was once a fire station in Antwerp. The new upper portion was constructed between 2012 and 2016.
This large modern building is in the shape of a massive Antwerp diamond and features many triangular glass pieces.
You can book a guided tour of the building, or just stand outside and snap a few pictures. It’s really quite astonishing to look at and easily one of the most unique things to see in Antwerp.
The Best Museums to Check Out While Visiting Antwerp
Antwerp, Belgium is a great city for museum lovers, as there’s something for everyone. From super-modern institutions to chocolate-themed and art inspired, here are the best museums to check out when you visit the city..
The Rubens House
Rubens House is the former home and studio of Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. He purchased the house in 1610 and renovated it to look like an Italian palazzo. Today, it’s open for guests as a museum.
It features the work of Rubens and his contemporaries, including sculptures and paintings from Classical and Flemish painters.
Not only are you able to see his work, but you can also stand in the exact places where he created his masterpieces. It gives great insight into the artist’s everyday life.
The gardens and courtyard in the back of the house are equally stunning. Audio tours of the house are available, and there’s also a free downloadable app that guides you as you tour the house.
Chocolate Nation is the largest museum dedicated to Belgian Chocolate. It explores chocolate in Belgian tradition and culture, as well as other countries. You’ll learn all of the steps of creating this delectable treat with fun multimedia presentations and interactive exhibits.
Of course, samples are also included. Don’t forget to swing by the gift shop and purchase some chocolate-related souvenirs, including books about chocolate, starter packs to make chocolates, and chocolate beer.
Visitors can even take a chocolate workshop and make their very own take-home goodies. This is definitely one of the sweetest places to visit in Antwerp.
Museum aan de Stroom and the Het Eilandje District
The Museum aan de Stroom in the Het Eilandje district is the largest museum in Antwerp. It opened in 2011 and is very modern. Each floor contains a different exhibition.
The exhibits explore the history, art and culture of Antwerp in relation to Europe, Africa, America, Asia and Oceania.
Make sure you visit the free rooftop of the museum too. It supplies a superb view of the city and the nearby river Scheldt.
When you’re finished touring the building, spend a bit of time wandering around the Het Eilandje district. This is Antwerp’s former harbour district turned hip hangout. It’s filled with trendy cafes and eateries.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum is a printing museum that features the work of 16th-century printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus. Like the Ruben House, Plantin set up his workshop in his living quarters.
You’re not just visiting a museum, you’re visiting a 16th-century home, designed in Flemish Renaissance architecture.
Tour the building to discover the history of printing and the atmosphere of an old Flemish residence. The original furnishings still remain, with the addition of wide-ranging exhibits.
See old presses, old prints, and books. This is one of the most fascinating and historic Antwerp, Belgium points of interest.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp
If you’re an art enthusiast, The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp should be high on your list of places to visit. Founded in 1810, it houses an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings from the 14th to 20th centuries.
Many Flemish masterpieces are on display, including paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.
Photo Museum of Antwerp
The Photo Museum of Antwerp, also known as FOMU, is a must-see for photo fans. It houses one of Europe’s most significant photo collections, as well as photo equipment and documents.
There’s something everyone will appreciate. The exhibits showcase all things related to photography, including artistic, scientific, fashion, advertising, and press photos. Temporary displays regularly rotate, so there’s always something new to see.
The Vleeshuis is a former guildhall turned into a musical instrument museum. It displays a fascinating and large collection that showcases the musical history of Antwerp going back 800 years.
You’ll also be able to see how some of the instruments were made and be delighted by beautiful sounds.
The former guildhall building in itself is equally interesting. It was constructed between 1501 and 1504 and is a piece of Antwerp history.
The Best Tours for When You Visit Antwerp
When you’re travelling to a new destination, a tour is a perfect way to discover a city with ease. Let someone else take care of the planning, and simply enjoy your experience. Here are the best Antwerp travel tours to check out during your trip.
Tour of Antwerp by Bike
Discovering Antwerp by bike is one of the most exciting ways to sightsee. This Belgian city is very cycle friendly, with kilometres of well-marked bike paths. Take a bike tour and follow a local around to the main attractions.
Have fun in a group setting as you see the city from a different perspective. If you’re an active traveller trying to decide what to do in Antwerp, this outing is perfect for you.
Antwerp Food Tour in the Old Town
A food tour of Antwerp is a great way to indulge in the classic cuisine of Belgium. Sample the country’s most popular food items, like waffles, chocolate, fries with homemade sauces, and much more.
You’ll follow a local guide around to six different sites in the city’s old town, including a historic bakery and a world-renowned chocolate shop. This tour is perfect for foodies.
Antwerp Walking Tour
A walking tour or Antwerp is the perfect way to explore the city and learn about the local culture.
Follow your friendly local guide in search of the main highlights. Get advice on the best restaurants and bars in the city. Find out the most convenient ways to travel around. Learn about the hidden gems of Antwerp, and so much more.
Of course, you can ask your guide as many questions as you’d like. By the time the tour is over, you’ll feel more like a local yourself. A walking tour provides a great introduction to the city and is perfect for all travellers visiting the city.
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