Astounding architecture, charm of an old city, abundance of galleries and museums, the largest port in Belgium – the list of incredible things to do in Antwerp is as big as the city itself.
10 Incredible Things to Do in Antwerp
Located just two hours away from Amsterdam or one hour away from Brussels, Antwerp is one of the most famous art and fashion hubs in Europe. It is a place that immediately attracts with its late-to-rise lifestyle and impeccable historic and modern architecture.
Artistic heritage of Antwerp transcends beyond numerous art galleries and museums. Once home of world-famous artist Peter Paul Rubens, the city still celebrates authenticity and immeasurable talent of one of the greatest Flemish artists. Not surprisingly, finding Rubens’ masterpieces that adorn many churches belongs to the most popular things to do in Antwerp.
The next activity on the list is certainly diamond shopping. With almost half of cut diamonds passing through, Antwerp is the undisputed diamond capital of the world. However despite the best prices within the market, the diamonds might not be one of the most desirable things to do in Antwerp for everybody. Making your way through the city with delectable Belgian chocolate and waffles, though, is certainly worth the trip. Without further ado, there are 10 must-do things in Antwerp.
The Best Things to Do When in Antwerp:
1. Shop at Flea Market
Flea market wasn’t on my list of the thing to do in Antwerp. But it was the first local attraction I saw upon my arrival at Antwerp Plantinkaai. Art pieces, kitchenware, colorful china, hats and belts, vintage clothing in a small square surrounded by pastel-colored buildings drew me instantly.
Despite the early morning hours, the flea market was busy. Local merchants with warm drinks in their hands mingled with their “neighbors” while keeping an eye on potential buyers. The intrigued passerby slowly moved from one table to another, looking for perfect additions to their homes. I ached to do the same and possibly purchase a few things that would remind me of Antwerp.
The flea markets are common appearances in Belgium’s second largest city. The locals believe that all things, both big and small, can always find the second home in Antwerp. While some flea markets such as the Sint-Jansvliet Sunday Market or the Vrijdagmarkt (“Friday Market”) pop up on Antwerp’s squares weekly, others are rather a rare appearance. The BrocAntwerpen and the Markt van Morgen (“Market of Tomorrow”) please the locals and visitors of Antwerp with their vintage and secondhand treasures once a month.
2. Enjoy Astounding Architecture of Grote Markt
The Grote Markt with its awe-inspiring architecture falls into the category of the most popular things to do in Antwerp. The famous landmark is nestled in the heart of the Old City quarter. Home to the Stadhuis or Antwerp City Hall and numerous guild houses, the Grote Markt entices with its history and epic tales.
The central place of the square belongs to the ornate Brabo Fountain depicting Roman soldier Silvius Brabo. As a legend goes, the young man killed a mysterious giant who terrorized the area along the Scheldt River.
Apart from the cultural and historic significance, the Grote Markt attracts with many cafes lining the most famous square in Antwerp. Usually quiet in the early morning, as the residents of Antwerp tend to fill the streets late, the place becomes the central of activities later in the day. The Grote Markt reaches its peak popularity during the monthly flea markets. In winter, Christmas market and ice rink make a visit to the square one of the most irresistible things to do in Antwerp.
3. It Is All About Chocolate
Chocolate have been produced in Belgium since the 19th century, becoming an essential part of economy and culture. Interestingly enough, Antwerp paved the path for this successful industry in 1831 with the first chocolate factory in the country. Today as a place that trains top chocolatier at the Provincial Institute for the Catering Industry of Antwerp, the city continues to impress with variety and abundance of this all-time favorite treat.
Every street corner sweetens a visit to Antwerp with a shop selling chocolate in various shaped and flavors. The most famous shape though is a severed hand or Antwerpse handjes. Some visitors insist on buying only this form of chocolate, further contributing to its fame as one of the must-do things in Antwerp.
Sweet myth behind Antwepse handjes goes back to the terrifying giant and young hero Silvius Brabo. After the soldier defeated the tyrant, he chopped off this hand and threw it into the river. Some believe that this legend lies at the origin of the name Antwerp. It comes from the Dutch phrase hand werpen or “hand throwing”.
The second story is bitter. From 1885 to 1908, Belgium’s King Leopold II controlled the Congo Free State. Leopold recognized the value of such resources as rubber and ivory. Fired by his greed, he forced the local population into labor and required them to meed high quotas. Those who were not able to reach those unattainable numbers would lose their hands as a proof of enforcement. The cruel methods of the king got international attention, and Leopold lost his control over Congo in 1908.
Today, the chocolate severed hands of Antwerp symbolize not the tragic history, but a hope of building a better future.
4. Get Lost in Old City of Antwerp
European old towns are the best things to see in every historic city, and Antwerp is not an exception. Preserving its centuries-old traditions, the Old Town of Antwerp gathers the most famous landmarks of the city. From the Grote Markt to the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp and the St. Paul’s Church, it strikes with distinctive style, immortal legacy, and many artistic treasures.
Authentic cafes and restaurants make a smooth transition from the ageless cultural wonders of old Antwerp to modern cosmopolitan. Narrow streets and cute parks allow you to get lost without loosing trace of the splendid architecture of the city.
5. Visit Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp
Antwerp unites histories of all types of art, including printmaking, which dates back to the 16th century. Once a home and workshop of the printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus, the Plantin-Moretus Museum is the city’s most important historic treasure. The only museums in the world to be deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, the place is undoubtably one of the first things you do want to see in Antwerp.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum stands out as a greatest example of Flemish Renaissance architecture. It encompasses evidences of life and work of the finest printers of that time. Family rooms along with the oldest printing presses, a rich art collection, and portraits by Rubens transfer you back in time, allowing to get to know the famous dynasty of Antwerp.
Libraries of the Plantin-Moretus Museum that have near 30,000 copies represent true passion of Christophe Plantin. The old bookshop where the wealthy people were shelling out silver and gold for their books still keeps its operations alive. But the biggest reason to visit this remarkable museum in Antwerp is the 36-line Gutenberg Bible, the greatest monument in the history of printing.
6. Grab Belgian Waffles to Go
Belgium is proud of its waffles. Originally came into spotlight in 1958 Expo 58 in Brussels, these treats soon became a national phenomenon.
Mere four year later, the waffles conquered the American mainland. A Belgian named Walter Cleyman introduced Brussels sweets to the American population. Crispy waffles with deep pockets were eaten with whipped cream and strawberries. Many people, however, didn’t connect Brussels with Belgium. Thus, the waffles lost the name Brussels and became Belgian waffles instead.
In Belgium, though, the waffles are only Liege waffles. This traditional dessert is an essential part of every city’s, including Antwerp, dining experiences. Moreover, once in Antwerp, you ought to do two things: indulge in Belgian waffles from street stalls and see how they differ from those sold at specialized waffle shops. The Smallest Waffle Shop In The World is arguably the best specialty place to treat yourself to authentic Belgian waffles in Antwerp.
7. Spend an Afternoon at Antwerpen-Centraal Station
Antwerpen-Centraal is the main train station and one of the first things to do in Antwerp for those who arrive by train. The place astounds with its opulent style and grandeur. Some people regard it as the most stunning place in Antwerp. In 2014, the British-American magazine Mashable named Antwerp Central Station the most beautiful railway station in the world.
The structure was build between 1895 and 1905, welcoming newly-arrived guests of Antwerp in 1905. By the end of the 20th century though, the station’s deterioration become a serious issue. A massive construction project to revitalize Antwerp Central Station started in 1998 and lasted well into 2007. The result, however, was extraordinary.
After the renovation, Antwerp Central Station ceased to be a terminus. Today the underground tunnel between the station and the northern part of the city allows the trains to pass through on multiple levels. Two additional underground levels and more platforms enable more travelers use services of Antwerpen Centraal.
On an aesthetic level, it became known as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium, manifesting the multitude of ideas and inputs of different architects. This, however, resulted in difficulty to assign Antwerp Central Station to a particular architectural style. Nevertheless in 2011, the renovation project won a Europa Nostra Award for significant contributions in preserving cultural heritage.
8. Pop into Rubens House
The Rubens House or Rubenshuis is the former home and workshop of Rubens. Located in the heart of Antwerp, it unveils life, work, and many others things Sir Peter Paul Rubens tended to do as a Flemish artist and diplomat.
Rubens acquired the property in 1610 and spent the rest of his life here. As the greatest artist of his time, he arranges the house to his taste. The left side of the building became a home for Rubens and his family. In the right wing, the artist created his masterpieces.
The Rubens House in Antwerp became a museum in 1946. Old documents and drawings served as valuable sources to return the property its former look. Furniture in the style of Rubens’s period along with numerous original paintings moved back into the house, rewarding the visitors with intimate look at the artist’s life and work.
9. Take a Walk along the Scheldt River
While Antwerp enchants you more and more with every hour spent here, there are only a few things that you want to do at the end of the day. Walking along the Scheldt River away from the hustle and bustle of the city is certainly one of them. The area near Antwerp Plantinkaai is where I spent my last hour while waiting for a bus to Amsterdam. There was something refreshing to step back and look at the swarming crowds and towering peaks of Antwerp so close, yet mentally so far from the city center.
10. Rent a Bicycle
Similar to its neighbor, the Netherlands, Antwerp favors bicycles as an excellent mode of transport for short distances. The compact size of the city further encourages you to choose this two-wheeled conveyance over other public transports. A myriad of cycling routes in Antwerp, ample guided tours, ease of renting a bicycle – these things don’t just do you a favor, but make your Antwerp-by-bike experience inevitable.
Velo is the main used bikes sharing system. It works in three steps. First, get a day (4 Euros) or week pass (10 Euros) online. Annual passes are also available. Second, find a station and get a bike. You can download Vello app that promises to simplify your cycling experience in Antwerp. Third, enjoy the ride. First thirty minutes are free. Additional fees occur per every thirty minutes afterwards. To avoid the fees, return the bike at the nearest station and borrow another one five minutes later for another 30-minute free ride around Antwerp.