Known as Belgium’s “capital of cool”, “city of diamonds” and “city of fashion”, the attractions in Antwerp are endless.
The reason why there are so many things to do in Antwerp is down to the city’s wealthy past. Found only 15 km / 9 miles south of the Dutch border, it lies on the River Scheldt which links it to the North Sea which has historically made it a hugely important port.
Around 400 years ago, Antwerp was among the most prosperous cities in Europe. At that time, its strategic position meant that its status rose until it became the second-largest European city north of the Alps.
Read on for just a sample of things to do in Antwerp, from exploring its spectrum of architecture and museums to delving into its boutique shops. If you only have one day in Antwerp, you might have to close your eyes and pick a random selection from the list below!
- 20 things to do in Antwerp, Belgium
- 1. Gawp at Antwerp Central station
- 2. Pay a visit to Antwerp Zoo
- 3. Wander through Rubens House
- 4. Trace 400 years of printing at the Plantin-Moretus museum
- 5. Take a photo from the roof of the MAS Museum Aan de Stroom
- 6. Try the samples at Chocolate Nation
- 7. Follow the migration trail through the Red Star Line Museum
- 8. Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady
- 9. Grab a drink on the Grote Markt
- 10. Stand in front of the Brabo Fountain
- 11. Chill at Steen Castle
- 12. Take in some of Antwerp’s architecture hotspots
- 13. Go shopping
- 14. See the diamond-cutters at work in the Diamond District
- 15. Taste some of the local beer
- 16. Go bargain-hunting at one of Antwerp’s markets
- 17. Walk through St. Anna’s Tunnel
- 18. Middelheim's sculpture park
- 19. Tour the city by bike
- 20. Pop into St Paul’s Church
20 things to do in Antwerp, Belgium
1. Gawp at Antwerp Central station
For a true taste of grandeur, there’s no better place to spend time than Antwerp Central Station (also known as the Middenstatie). A great big structure of glass, steel, and marble, the central station is one of the city’s most treasured sites.
Belgium was the first European country to open a public railway back in 1835 and Antwerp was a major part of this early infrastructure. The original wooden terminus was replaced by this grand station over a ten year period between 1895 and 1905.
Antwerp’s train station incorporates several different architectural styles making it hard to describe. The facade is Neo-Renaissance in style but with elements of Art Nouveau here and there – designed by architect Louis Delacenserie. You can see why Antwerp Central Station is frequently mentioned among the world’s most beautiful stations.
To really get a feel for the building, however, you need to step inside (or even better, arrive by train!). First, you’ll reach the main entrance hall with its impressive staircase and ornate station clock.
Keep going, and a huge 43-meter high ceiling steel platform roof created by engineer Clement van Bogaert towers above you. It was built especially high to accommodate for all the steam train smoke. This roof itself tells a story – that of countless bombings in World War II, and if you look carefully you can still see a bend in the ceiling.
Thankfully Belgium wasn’t ready to give up on this spectacular building. After multiple restorations and expansions, today’s station has four levels (two of which are underground) and plays a vital role in the country’s modern-day rail network.
2. Pay a visit to Antwerp Zoo
When Antwerp Zoo was built back in 1843 it stood outside the main city walls. It shows just how much Antwerp has expanded around it since then as today, the 10 ha / 25-acre site is in the city center, standing right next to the central station in today’s old town.
This isn’t just any zoo. It’s one of the oldest zoos on Earth and the oldest in Belgium. It was officially listed as a monument in 1983. Architecturally it’s a visual treat, with its Art Deco entrance and themed enclosures. There is an Egyptian temple for the elephants and giraffes, a thatched cottage housing a koala couple, an aquaforum for the sea lions, a Moorish temple for the okapis, and a pink villa for the hippopotami.
It’s considered one of the best zoos in the world because of its breeding program and amazing variety of creatures – from king penguins to caimans, jaguars to marmosets, aardvarks to spectacled owls. It’s proud to house over 7000 animals of 950 different species. The care and space the animals are given are regarded as top quality too.
Antwerp Zoo also puts on some fantastic events. There’s a series of talks hosted by the zoo each day, and in the winter an annual festival called China Light takes place on the zoo grounds. This is an amazing spectacle of light sculptures that tells ancient folk tales from China and features traditional music and Chinese dances. Not to miss if you’re in Antwerp in the winter season!
3. Wander through Rubens House
If you get time, a visit to the house Rubens lived in for 30 years in the early 1600s is a great thing to do in Antwerp. He bought the building (now known as Rubenshuis) in 1610 and lived there until his death in 1640. During this time, he had the house and studio extensively renovated according to his own designs, and together with its courtyard it now resembles an Italian palazzo building.
This is where Rubens painted many of his masterpieces and today it houses a large number of his own paintings alongside works by several of his contemporaries and students such as Jordaens, Brueghel the Elder, Van Dyck and many more.
Since his death, the house has passed through numerous pairs of hands, even becoming a prison at one point after the French Revolution. Eventually, the City of Antwerp acquired the building in 1937 and managed to restore it to its former glory. Now you can wander through the ten refurbished rooms and imagine what life might have been like for one of the most influential Flemish artists.
4. Trace 400 years of printing at the Plantin-Moretus museum
Without doubt one of the top things to do in Antwerp, Belgium, is to head to one of the city’s wonderful museums. Not just a rainy day activity, in this city there’s a great variety of interesting museums for any weather.
The Plantin-Moretus museum has got to be high on the list if you have any interest in books and the history of the printing industry. Contents aside, it’s a stunning building that in the 16th century was the house and printing establishment of the influential book printer Christophe Plantin and then his successor and son-in-law Jan Moretus.
This is the only museum in the world to be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It tells the history of book-printing through a series of interactive and informative rooms. The museum has typographical tools, ancient printing presses, original manuscripts, even leather walls!
Being the book lover that I am, this is my favorite of all the museums in Antwerp.
5. Take a photo from the roof of the MAS Museum Aan de Stroom
Sticking out from the skyline is the striking red block shape of the MAS museum – the Museum Aan de Stroom. This is a favorite museum for many people who visit Antwerp for its modern architectural style alone. The museum tells the story of Antwerp’s historic place in the world and its role as one of Europe’s most important port cities.
A large escalator takes visitors up the length of this nine-story museum. Each floor of the MAS museum is dedicated to a different exhibition, which you can wander through at will. The second floor is home to the Visible Storage Area, where you can see the racks that hold over 180 thousand exhibits that haven’t been displayed yet.
The rooftop (which is free to the public even if you haven’t got time for the exhibits themselves) is an open-topped glass-clad plaza where you can get a 360-degree view of the city. There are even convenient little holes in the glass for taking photos.
6. Try the samples at Chocolate Nation
We all know that one of Belgium’s most celebrated exports is its chocolate. But when did chocolate become so important here? And why? What makes chocolate from Belgium so delicious? The Chocolate Nation museum, found just opposite the train station, is Antwerp’s acknowledgment of this tasty legacy.
Chocolate Nation takes you through the entire process of chocolate making, from bean to bar, in a number of exciting and fun ways. You’ll find within these walls 14 themed rooms that map out the journey of the cacao bean all the way from equatorial plantations through to Antwerp’s storage port (the largest storage site for cacao beans in the world).
Needless to say, you’ll come across your favorite famous brands here, alongside tiny little local artisans. You can see chocolatiers at work, and there are countless opportunities to try the chocolate too!
7. Follow the migration trail through the Red Star Line Museum
The Red Star Line Museum is totally unique, telling the compelling story of over 2.5 million migrants that left Europe for hopes for a better life in North America. This mass emigration took place between 1873 and 1934 on the ships of the Red Star Line company.
The museum itself is only fairly new but it has risen to be considered among the best in Antwerp. It manages to bring out personal stories in a really innovative and moving way, bringing this remarkable historical event to life through audio recordings, films, photographs, and more.
One of the best things about this museum is that the building that holds it is the very warehouse that was used by the company to channel many of these emigrants. The path you take as you walk through the museum is the same route that the migrants themselves would have followed as they had their luggage checks, medical examinations, and disinfection.
The museum touches on migration today and offers a database where you can check if you had any ancestors that signed up for the journey themselves. The old chimney has been converted into an observation tower for views of the port and a moment of reflection.
8. Visit the Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral of Our Lady is the tallest building in Antwerp, situated in the heart of the city’s old town. It’s also proud to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the low countries, with an enormous bell tower. This breath-taking belfry is 123 meters / 404 feet tall.
Construction on the cathedral began in 1352 and took a massive 169 years to complete. It wasn’t until 1521 that the building was finally finished and a number of influential architects took over the project during its construction.
It’s quite something to go and marvel at from the outside, but if you can, get a ticket to visit Antwerp Cathedral’s interior, too. This is where you’ll see some of the most beautiful Baroque decors, with seven aisles in total, alongside works by Antwerp’s beloved artist Peter Paul Rubens.
9. Grab a drink on the Grote Markt
What better way of drinking in the atmosphere of a city than by sitting back and watching the world go by? Antwerp’s main square, the Grote Markt is definitely the place to pull up a chair at one of the bustling bars and cafes and enjoy a delicious Belgian beer.
Although it’s in the old town which is one of the more touristy attractions of Antwerp, a visit to the Grote Markt is an essential bit of Antwerp sightseeing. The Grote Markt is flanked by grand buildings of the Flemish Renaissance, such as the city hall (Stadhuis) adorned with flags, dating back to the 1560s.
Other significant buildings on the Grote Markt are the old guild houses which were the 16th and 17th-century headquarters for the city’s guilds. A couple of these guild houses have been converted into museums, such as the folk museum and the ethnography museum.
As the name suggests, the Grote Markt is the site of many markets throughout the year including some of the amazing Antwerp Christmas Markets that sprawl across the city center throughout December and early January each year.
10. Stand in front of the Brabo Fountain
There are several theories for how the city of Antwerp got its name. By far the most popular and widespread is based on a great bit of Flemish folklore whose legacy is the iconic Brabo Fountain. According to legend, there used to be a cruel giant called Druon Antigoon that lived on the banks of the river where Antwerp now lies. This giant would charge an extortionate toll for mooring here or crossing the river, and for those who did not pay, he’d chop off one of their hands.
One day, a young Roman soldier called Silvius Brabo (after whom the Flemish Brabant region is named) came along and challenged the giant. Brabo managed to kill him, and in a final act, he chopped off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river. The name Antwerp loosely translates as “hand throwing”.
This famous event was immortalized in bronze in a piece called the Brabo Fountain by sculptor Jef Lambeaux in 1887. In front of the city hall on the Grote Markt, the legendary Brabo Fountain stands, depicting Silvius Brabo lobbing the hand of the giant into the river.
11. Chill at Steen Castle
When you visit Antwerp, make sure to check out its castle. It might not be the biggest castle you’ve ever seen, but Steen Castle (Het Steen) is the oldest building in Antwerp and deserves some respect.
The word “steen” translates from Dutch as “stone”, and it crops up here and there in names for castles in Belgium (such as “Gravensteen” in Ghent).
Het Steen used to be a much bigger fortress and was historically important in controlling the river Scheldt. Today’s castle dates back to the early 1200s, but there have been fortresses on this site as far back as 645. Like several castles in Belgium, it spent part of its existence as a prison.
Although there’s not an awful lot to do inside the castle unless you have kids, it’s a pretty special medieval site to go and look at when you visit Antwerp, and its position on the banks of the river is tranquil and picturesque.
Something to keep an eye out for is the bas-relief of Scandinavian God of fertility Semini that can be found at the castle entrance. This statue is much older than the castle itself, perhaps from the 2nd century. Women of Antwerp would have worshiped at it and asked for the blessing of children.
12. Take in some of Antwerp’s architecture hotspots
Because of Antwerp’s historic status as an important merchant port, it’s understandably home to some beautiful buildings that reflect its former grand position in the world. We’ve already dropped in on the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, the 17th-century Rubenshuis, the pioneering Antwerp Central Station, and the grand guild houses of the Grote Markt among others. There’s a heap of further design delights to make architecture fans drool.
A trip to see the old Butcher’s Hall (Vleeshuis) is worthwhile. Strangely church-like in structure, this building was purpose-built during Antwerp’s Golden Age. A red brick and white sandstone building constructed in the early 16th century for the central city meat market, it had room for 62 of the city’s butchers to trade and use as headquarters. The interlaced red and white brickwork is known locally as “bacon layers”.
Take a stroll down Cogels-Osylei in Zurenborg for a glimpse into the former lives of the Belgian bourgeoisie. This street is renowned for its crazily eclectic selection of Belle Epoque mansions built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Architects vied for attention with decadent houses in a complete spectrum of styles, from Art Nouveau to Tudor, Neo-Gothic, to Neo-Classical.
For a taste of the modern side of Antwerp, the Port House couldn’t be a better stop for your itinerary. This glass behemoth on the city’s skyline came about after a challenge for Zaha Hadid Architects to transform an old protected fire station. The structure towers over the old building and its mirror-like exterior bounces light around the port, a reference to Antwerp’s famed diamonds.
13. Go shopping
Antwerp is celebrated for its fashion scene, and in Belgium and further afield it is known as the “city of fashion”. In Antwerp, you’ll find the Fashion Academy, the Flanders Fashion Institute and MOMU, the Fashion Museum. Unsurprisingly, it’s also globally famous for shopping.
Shoppers flock from all over the country and beyond to visit Meir street, Antwerp’s main shopping street. This is probably a good destination if you’re short on time or want to dedicate just one day to shopping. This area between Antwerp Central Station and the Cathedral of Our Lady is home to all the international brands, not to mention some gorgeous architecture.
This is also where you’ll find De Stadsfeestzaal, a spectacular luxury shopping complex in the restored festival hall with a dramatic golden dome, mosaic floor, and impressive marble staircase.
If vintage gems are more your style, head to the Kloosterstraat for retro and antique furniture, clothing, trinkets, and things. For some more designer and boutique shopping, you should check out Schuttershofstraat, Kammenstraat, Lombardenvest, and the area around the central Groenplaats.
14. See the diamond-cutters at work in the Diamond District
Step out of Antwerp central station and you’re in the Diamond District (also known as the Diamond Quarter or Square Mile). Antwerp is known as the diamond capital of the world, and roughly 84% of the world’s rough diamonds travel through this district, giving it a turnover of over 54 billion dollars.
If you’re in the market for jewelry then there’s no better place than the shops and ateliers of Antwerp. There are over 1800 diamond shops in total, and you can even see diamond cutters at work. Although in general, bargaining is not done in Belgian shops, diamond shopping is a little different, and there is room for a little negotiating when it comes to shopping for these gemstones.
So how come Antwerp is so famous for its diamonds? The question leads us back to the 15th century. The city’s port location on the river Scheldt opened up travel routes from India and the East, and Antwerp rapidly became a pivotal trading point in the diamond industry. It was also where a new type of diamond polisher was created by a man called Lodewyk van Berken. Nobility and royalty began to turn to Antwerp’s master cutters for their diamonds.
15. Taste some of the local beer
Like the rest of Belgium, Antwerp is home to a large number of delicious beers, and it’d be a crime not to sample some during your trip to the city. Antwerp’s signature beer is a pale red malty ale called De Koninck, and the bulb-shaped glasses it comes served in.
The De Koninck brewery is located in the middle of town and is open to tours that give you a unique insight into the beer brewing processes (as well as the chance to sample it on-site!).
One of the top ways to sample the city’s iconic beers, however, is to find yourself a spot at one of Antwerp’s great range of city bars. Sit back, sip, and watch the people of Antwerp go by.
16. Go bargain-hunting at one of Antwerp’s markets
Whether you want to bag a bargain or experience the true atmosphere of Antwerp, heading to a city market is among the best things to do in Antwerp. The weekend is when the city comes to life with noisy stall vendors and bustling crowds.
Among the top markets in Antwerp is the Vrijdagmarkt, a market that has its roots in the 16th century, taking place every Friday outside the Plantin-Moretus Museum. This picturesque little square fills up with books, furniture, bikes, and trinkets and is one not to miss.
For other marketplace experiences, there’s a daily flower market on Groenplaats, antique markets at Sint-Jansvliet (Sunday), and Lijnwaadmarkt (Saturday), and an eco-friendly Bio Market at Falconplein (Sunday). If you’re visiting Antwerp during the festive season, don’t forget to check out the christmas markets too.
17. Walk through St. Anna’s Tunnel
St. Anna’s Tunnel (or Sint-Annatunnel) is a bit of a unique phenomenon. In brief, it’s a deep, long tunnel that was established in the 1930s, that runs from one side of the river to the other. Before the tunnel’s construction, people had to use a ferry service to get from one side of Antwerp to the other. Town planners did consider constructing a bridge as the city expanded, but it was decided that a bridge would limit the travel of Antwerp’s important ships up the river, so a tunnel was opted for instead.
The main feature isn’t really the tunnel itself, but the magnificent wooden escalators that take you down over 30 meters / 98 feet underground. These unusual wooden escalators would have been a novelty when they were built back in the 30s, and today they remain pretty special.
Like most places, the tunnel was damaged severely in World War II but after restoration work, the escalators and tunnel itself is still very much in use and is the recommended way to get from riverbank to riverbank when traveling about Antwerp.
18. Middelheim's sculpture park
If you’re craving some greenery and fresh air when you visit Antwerp, you’ll find it in shedloads at Middelheim’s Museum. An open-air 30 acres / 12-hectare sculpture park in Nachtegalen park in Antwerp attracts over 250 thousand people a year, making it one of the most popular things to do in Antwerp. Don’t worry – there’s definitely enough space for everyone! The best part – there’s no admission fee, although you can pay for a guided tour if you book your visit in advance.
With around 400 pieces of art peppered over the park, crisscrossed with tree-lined avenues and pretty walkways, the collection spans over one hundred years of art. The installations vary widely in content but are mostly modern and contemporary pieces by some of the most famous artists. You’ll find things created by Ai Wei Wei, Henry Moore, Erwin Wurm, Auguste Rodin, Juan Muñoz, and many more here.
As well as the outdoor space, there’s a cafe and a number of indoor galleries such as The Braem Pavilion built by Renaat Braem which houses temporary exhibitions. There are also some fairly recent additions – the Hortiflora, which is a beautiful botanical garden, and the cutting edge House, a transparent geometric building designed by architect Paul Robbrecht.
19. Tour the city by bike
Antwerp’s not a huge city when it comes to exploring, and one of the best ways to travel is definitely with two wheels. You can get from one neighborhood to another pretty quickly from Het Zuid to Het Eilandje, for example, it is less than 4 km / 2.5 miles.
There are 700 km / 435 miles of cycle lane in Antwerp and in general cyclists are treated well and certainly as equals to the motorized traffic. Bike tours are available too if you want to explore Antwerp in a different light.
There’s a city-wide bicycle rental scheme called VeloAntwerpen which is easy to use, with over 100 stations throughout the city. You just purchase a membership card online, through the app or in-person at the office, and then use a code to unlock a bike for 30 minutes travel at a time. There’s a brilliant app for this service where you can find available stations and see if they’re full up or not.
20. Pop into St Paul’s Church
St Paul’s Church might not be on many lists of things to do in Antwerp, but it should be. Found in the Veemarkt in the center of Antwerp, the church was completed in 1639 and is a stunning piece of architecture.
The exterior is Brabantine Gothic in style, with a Baroque clock tower built in 1680. Unfortunately, the church was badly damaged in a fire in 1968 but it has been well repaired and refurbished since then. Outside the church, you’ll find the Calvary, a collection of 63 statues and 9 reliefs dating back to the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Inside, the church holds multiple treasures. Poke your head inside to see over 50 paintings by Rubens, Jordaens, Van Dyck and more. It’s also home to a 17th-century organ. If you have time, this charming church is well worth trying to see when you visit Antwerp.
Although the list of top attractions in Antwerp could go on for a long time, hopefully, this list will give you a few ideas. Let’s finish on a fun fact – people who live in Antwerp are known as “Sinjoren”, which is linked to the Spanish “señor”.
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