A modern cosmopolitan center whose rich artistic and cultural heritage seeps out of its every pore, Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch, i.e. Anvers in French) is the second most populous city in Belgium after Brussels. Located along the Scheldt River, the Antwerp of today is mostly famous as a major fashion capital and diamond trade Mecca. Every era brought something new to Antwerp, and the city developed and grew with the new without discarding the old. Its prime location on the Scheldt allowed it to grow in power and influence during the Middle Ages, eventually becoming a commercial center that could afford to build glorious cathedrals and support a vibrant art scene that produced Peter Paul Rubens, the most influential Belgian artist of his generation. Four centuries later, the spirit of Rubens’ Antwerp is still very much alive and well, in the city’s many museums and galleries, in the charming cobbled alleys, and even in the clubs and cafes, whose liveliness echoes the movement, color, and sensuality of the artist’s greatest works.
WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT ANTWERP?
The weather in Belgium gets a lot of flak, even though a lot of it is undeserved and propagated by the Belgians themselves, who (much like the British) treat complaining about the weather like a national pastime. In reality, Belgium predominately enjoys a temperate maritime climate, marked by cool summers and moderate winters. Generally speaking, the best time to visit Antwerp is anywhere between late spring and early fall, preferably May-September. Unlike some other European destinations, summer is not a bad time to visit. While there are plenty of tourists in the city, the locals themselves are also on holiday in July and August, making the crowds quite manageable. In case you want to be safe and get the best of both worlds (warm, comfortable weather and as few tourists as possible), then you should opt for September or October. Do keep in mind that the weather can change rather suddenly in Antwerp, so always keep an umbrella and an extra sweater handy, just in case.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT ANTWERP
The Antwerp province is one of Belgium’s Flemish provinces, which means that Dutch is the official language spoken in the city. The city’s name was allegedly derived from a Dutch phrase that literally translates as “to throw a hand”, alluding to a popular legend that a brave young warrior fought a mythical giant and defeated him by cutting off his hand and tossing it into the river where the city of Antwerp is now located. As per usual, there is another, more mundane theory, whereby the city’s name actually means simply “at the wharf” (aan het werf), which makes sense considering the fact that Antwerp is a port city. The city has numerous claims to fame, but here are some that may not be particularly well-known. The city hosted the first Summer Olympics after World War I, in 1920. It is also home to one of the oldest zoos in the world, founded in 1843. Lastly, the first printed newspaper in the world was published in Antwerp. The Plantin-Moretus Museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that celebrates the work of city’s earliest printers.
ONE DAY IN ANTWERP ITINERARY
Top things to do in Antwerp, Belgium
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Antwerp.
Start Your Day at the Antwerp Central Station
Whether you arrive in by train or not, the city’s main railway station should be at the very top of your list of places to visit in Antwerp. Widely celebrated as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium, the station is so beautiful that the locals call it Spoorwegkathedraal, meaning “Railway Cathedral”. The railway station was designed by famed architect Louis Delacenserie, who was inspired by the Roman Pantheon and the older railway station in Lucerne, Switzerland. The massive dome is a particularly impressive feature, much like the stone station building. The station underwent a major renovation project between 2000 and 2009, which increased the number of platforms and facilitated a high-speed rail line. The next attraction opens at 10, so there’s no need to rush things. You can get here around 8 or 9 and take your time exploring the railway station. You can even grab a quick bite or a cup of coffee in one of the nearby cafes before moving on.
Take a Short Walk to the Antwerp Zoo
As unusual as that may be, number two on our list of things to do in Antwerp is the Antwerp Zoo, one of the oldest and most popular zoos in Europe. You can get there in under two minutes from the railway station (it is literally next-door). Occupying a huge area, the zoo is home to 5,000 specimens belonging to close to a thousand different species. The zoo’s current focus is on conservation, leveraging some of its most popular attractions to draw attention to pressing environmental challenges. Most of the animals can walk freely throughout their safe designated spaces, and several enclosures feature animals of different species living together in harmony, as they would in their real ecosystems. The daily penguin and lion feeding shows are particularly popular among the zoo’s youngest visitors. A guided tour of the zoo usually takes around one hour. Of course, you are free to stay longer, although there are still other places to visit in Antwerp.
Visit the Old Home of Peter Paul Rubens
The Rubens House (Rubenshuis) is the former home of Peter Paul Rubens, one of Antwerp’s most famous sons. It is located approximately 1 km west of the zoo, mostly in a straight line along De Keyserlei street. Even on the outside, the house looks really special, with an ornate façade covered in gorgeous reliefs. A work of art in its own right, the house was designed by Rubens himself to resemble an Italian villa -and it shows. The house was restored in the mid-20th century and opened as a museum in 1946. Apart from artefacts from the painter’s life, the museum displays many of his most famous paintings, including Adam and Eve and a remarkable self-portrait.
Discover Old Antwerp at the Plantin-Moretus Museum
After the Rubens House, continue your one day in Antwerp with a visit to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Exit Rubenshuis and head west on Jodenstraat, then make your way to Lombardenvest and keep heading west until you reach the museum, located in a beautiful section of the city, surrounded by immaculately preserved colorful old houses. Located in an old publishing house/printing plant, the Plantin-Moretus Museum was established in 1876 to honor Antwerp’s contribution to typography and exhibit old printing equipment, ancient volumes in the 17th-century library, works by Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck, and several priceless artefacts. Don’t miss the chance to see an original Gutenberg Bible (one of only 49 still existing today), the first printed atlas in the world, and two of the oldest printing presses in the world.
Check out the Cathedral Before Lunch
Once you’ve had your fill of antique books, tapestries, and printing presses, head on over to Hoogstraat, a charming cobblestone street behind the museum. Just walk north past the numerous colorful shops and quaint cafes and restaurants until you reach the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal Antwerpen, i.e. the Cathedral of Our Lady. The cathedral’s impressive 123 meters-high spires have been towering over the city’s skyline ever since the 14th century, when the building was among the tallest structures in the known world. Unfortunately, being a Roman Catholic edifice, the cathedral has been plundered, devastated, and set on fire multiple times over the past couple of centuries. Since much of the original interior was lost, most of Gothic structural elements seen inside are the result of a later 19th-century recreation. If you spend an hour at each of the attractions and aforementioned places to visit in Antwerp, it should be around 2 PM by the time you’re done exploring the cathedral.
Take a Short Lunch Break
As soon as you leave the cathedral, try to find a nice nearby restaurant for lunch. Paters Vaetje is a great “brown bar” in Antwerp old town, sitting in the shadow of the cathedral’s tall spires. The loveable Art Nouveau style provides the setting for trying out some of Belgium’s world-famous beers such as Karmeliet, Trappist and abbey beers, with a ton of delicious food options including Belgian classics and fast-food mainstays such as pizza and spaghetti Bolognese. Remarkably, the bar succeeded in maintaining its authenticity in spite of its popularity. De Groote Witte Arend is a great alternative set in an old patrician house, with a unique, stylish interior and a gorgeous terrace where you can munch on typical Belgian food and down a couple of excellent Arend Blonds.
Visit Grote Markt (Grand Place)
Luckily, you won’t have to walk for very long after lunch to get to Grote Markt, a magnificent plaza in the center of the city and one of the most important places to visit in Antwerp if you want to experience the true spirit of the city. If you’ve ever seen a postcard of Antwerp, it is likely that the photo was taken at the Grote Markt, surrounded by centuries-old guild guildhouses. The plaza is also home to the 16th-century Town Hall, or Stadhuis van Antwerpen. The gorgeous Brabo fountain occupies the center of the square, depicting Silvius Brabo, the young warrior from the aforementioned legend, as he is about to throw the severed hand of the evil giant into the river. The square is particularly impressive in winter, when it hosts a Christmas market and all the surrounding buildings are illuminated by thousands of little lamps.
Spend an Hour or Two at the Museum aan de Stroom
Standing in stark contrast to Antwerp’s other, predominately age-old landmarks, the high-tech Museum aan de Stroom is as impressive on the inside as it is on the inside. To get there, just follow the narrow streets of Antwerp old town north for 10-15 minutes until you reach the waterfront. You will see a large cube-like building with a red sandstone façade. A picturesque sight, the museum houses a massive collection with all kinds of artefacts including sculptures, utensils, and artwork. The museum is unique in the sense that it doesn’t function like a typical museum we’re otherwise used to. Instead, Museum aan de Stroom explores the universal themes of power, life, death and the metropolis through stories and mini-expositions that are strategically distributed across the museum’s five floors. Seeing everything could easily take more than 2 hours. If you feel like you won’t have enough time, at least climb to the museum’s rooftop terrace for a chance to enjoy some of the best views in town.
Go for a Walk Along the Waterfront
From the museum’s top floor, you should get a good view of the Port of Antwerp, famous for being the second-largest European port. If you feel like it, you can go for a short walk north of the museum to get a closer look. The enormous docks can store almost 3.6 million cubic meters of bulk cargo, a capacity that is often used to the max. The surrounding area is also very popular for recreational activities. South of the Museum aan de Stroom along the eastern shore of the River Scheldt, past the US Army Monument, you will come across Steen Castle, an impressive medieval fortress locally known as Het Steen or “The Stone”. The castle was completed around 1200-1225, at a time when almost all houses in Antwerp were made of wood exclusively, which is where the castle gets its name from. Today, the castle houses the National Maritime Museum and a youth educational center. It is definitely worth a closer look when you are strolling along the riverbank.
Treat Yourself to a Nice Dinner
After Steen Castle, keep walking south for approx. 150 meters, and then turn left towards the cathedral. You can actually see the cathedral on the other end of the broad, pedestrian-only Suikerrui street. Take your time – feel free to check out the numerous shops, cafes, and restaurants on either side of the street. There are a couple of great eateries nearby in case you decide to sit down and treat yourself to a nice dinner. De Pottekijker is one of them, although you’ll have to return to the Grote Markt to find it. The charming 16-th century exterior hides real treasures inside, including amazing grill, meat and fish dishes that are well-known throughout Antwerp and beyond. In spite of its enviable reputation, De Pottekijker is still a very humble, calm, and cozy place that will make you feel accepted and welcome as you enjoy some of the best dishes in Antwerp.
If you want to have some more fun after dinner, kick it off with Dogma Cocktails, a snazzy club that mixes great drinks and serves them with a side of attitude that is just the right amount of provocative without being overbearing. While quite classy, Dogma Cocktails is still very welcoming, with a chill vibe, great music, and accommodating service.
WHERE TO STAY IN ANTWERP?
Radisson BLU Astrid Hotel, Antwerp
Located in the heart of the Diamond Area in Antwerp old town, Radisson BLU Astrid Hotel, Antwerp is one of the city’s top properties. The hotel’s convenient location directly across the Antwerp Central Station makes sightseeing a breeze, and the tastefully designed guestrooms provide a welcoming retreat that lives and breathes Antwerp through understated details such as the creative armchairs and the gorgeous old city maps that hang over the headboard. Some of the hotel’s many amenities include free high-speed Wi-Fi and an on-site Health Club with a large indoor pool. Additional highlights include the fresh and delicious breakfast and the friendly, helpful staff that goes above and beyond to make everyone feel welcome.
Hotel ‘T Sandt
A charming property where gorgeous, restored period furniture meets modern design solutions and 21st-century comforts, Hotel ‘T Sandt stands out with its premier central location and luxurious, yet temperate atmosphere. The spacious, homey rooms all have large windows that provide plenty of natural light and offer nice views of the city. You’ll fall in love with the quaint Italian courtyard and the large terrace with a clear line of sight to the cathedral. All of the most important things to see in Antwerp are within easy walking distance, including the Rubens House Museum and the Plantin-Moretus Museum. If you like the idea of staying in a classic 17th-century neo-roccoco mansion in the city center, look no further than Hotel ‘T Sandt.
Like an unpolished diamond, Hotel Matelote beguiles its guests with its rough-hewn 16th-century exterior, hiding luxurious individually designed guestrooms inside, each uniquely adapted to fit the room’s location, source of light, and other objectively immutable properties. The hotel’s location is excellent, mere steps away from the Antwerp Cathedral and the River Scheldt. In addition to the modern, quirky rooms, guests were thrilled with the hotel’s excellent breakfast, friendly staff, and the peace and quiet ensured by the hotel’s location in a small side street in the city center.
Antwerp City Hostel
Located in one of the impressive historic buildings overlooking Grote Markt, Antwerp City Hostel is one of the best youth hostels in Belgium. The property has everything you will need during your stay, whether you are looking to tour Antwerp in a day or spend a whole week discovering all of the places to visit in Antwerp. The cathedral is so close that you almost feel like you can touch it through the bedroom window. Some of the other highlights include the clean, fresh showers, the friendly, accommodating employees, and the elevator. A fresh, delicious breakfast is available every morning, with both buffet and continental options – all included in the original price, which is very affordable.
DAY TRIPS FROM ANTWERP
While Antwerp itself has plenty to offer, there aren’t too many spectacular day trips from Antwerp. Instead of adrenaline-fueled mountaineering expeditions and breathtaking helicopter tours, in Antwerp, it is all about the simple pleasures. An interesting example is the Legends of Antwerp – Private Tour, a trip back in time with a professional guide whose job is to show you all of Antwerp’s nooks and crannies hiding the exciting, funny, and creepy legends that will make your imagination run wild. Other options include the Antwerp Food/Beer Tour, which needs no introduction, and the private round-trip transfer to Bruges, which will let you explore the UNESCO–listed medieval marvel on your own. To learn more about each of these, check out this article.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING ANTWERP
In Antwerp, one of the best ways to explore the city is on two wheels. So, grab a bike and start pedaling! The city-wide VeloAntwerpen bike rental scheme is a great option, at a price of only €4 a day/€10 a week.
Be careful when trying Belgian beer – it is at least twice as strong as regular beer, especially the lagers that are mostly served elsewhere.
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If you have any other propositions for this One Day in Antwerp Itinerary, feel free to share them in the comments below!