Antwerp is one of those cities that is filled with pleasant surprises.
There was more to see and do here than we expected for a city of its size. And yet, due to its compactness and walkability, we managed to squeeze in a lot of sights in the two days we were here. Here is just a smattering of the best things to do in Antwerp!
The Cathedral of Our Lady
The highlight of most European cities is their cathedral, and Antwerp is no exception.
The Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal) is Belgium’s largest Gothic cathedral.
It dates to 1352, but it wasn’t actually completed until 1521.
Throughout its history, the church suffered through fires, destruction by Protestants, and looting from French revolutionaries. Needless to say, it’s also been through several cycles of restoration. And, as you can see, those efforts continue today.
Note that the towers aren’t the same height. They were intended to match, but after the 1533 fire gutted the nearly-brand new church, all efforts went into restoring what was already built. Plans to finish the south tower were postponed, and it never reached completion.
The church also boasts several impressive works by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. This is “the Descent from the Cross”, painted between 1611-1614:
If you look around the interior walls of the church, you’ll also find some wonderfully-preserved Medieval frescoes:
Be sure to also check out the crypt in the basement!
Address: Groenplaats 21 / Handschoenmarkt
Grab a Waffle on the Go
Of course, you can’t visit Belgium without having a waffle or three.
Typically waffle stands offer a choice of two waffle styles: Liege and Brussels. What’s the difference between the two?
The Liege style waffle is made with a thick batter and pearl sugar, which caramelizes when cooked. They’re richer and chewier than the Brussels waffle.
The Brussels style waffle is lighter and crispier, since they use yeast-leavened batter. They also have deeper pockets than the Liege style – perfect to hold fruit, caramel or chocolate sauce, and of course, whipped cream.
Just heed my warning: Don’t order powdered sugar on your waffle on a windy day. I had to learn this the hard way.
Antwerp’s Grote Markt started out as a square outside the medieval residential quarter. Duke Henry I of Brabant donated the land to the city way back in 1220! This is where merchants from across Europe met to trade and barter their wares. It’s still surrounded with elaborately-designed 16th Century guildhouses today. In the 16th Century, Antwerp was one of the busiest trading centers in Northern Europe.
City Hall is also located in the square, which dates to the mid-1500s. The building is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
There’s also a tourist information center in the Grote Markt square.
Address: 2000 Antwerpen
Steen Castle is the oldest building in Antwerp, dating to the 11th Century. Unfortunately, it was surrounded by construction barriers during our visit – as was much of Antwerp. So we could only see it from the outside, even though it was partially obscured by barriers and construction equipment.
Steen Castle, or Het Steen in Dutch, sits on the edge of the east bank of the Scheldt river, just a short walk from the cathedral. It housed the National Maritime Museum from 1952-2008. It’s currently being renovated and will re-open in 2021 as new cruise terminal, visitor’s center and “experience center.” I’m not sure what I think of these renovations, but time will tell how it will impact the look and feel of the current structure.
Address: Steenplein 1
Museum Aan de Stroom
The Museum Aan de Stroom (or MAS) is Antwerp’s city museum. This museum is 10 floors of fascinating exhibits, both permanent and temporary.
The MAS is the largest museum in Antwerp, and covers archaeological, military, naval, and textile exhibits, plus so much more. There’s even a floor filled with pre-Columbian art!
When we visited, one of the temporary exhibits they hosted was Cool Japan. It covered ancient Japanese art and culture, as well as contemporary themes like anime, Harajuku fashion, and interactive robots.
The permanent exhibits gave us great insight into Antwerp itself, as well as Belgian culture in general.
For example, have you ever seen a dance organ? These were a Belgian invention popular in the early 1900s. They consisted of self-playing instruments and flashing lights – perfect for a dance party. People rented them for festivals, birthdays, weddings – you name it. They fell out of favour sometime in the 1960s.
The 10th floor offers a 360-degree panorama of the city. For the most part, Antwerp doesn’t have many tall buildings or skyscrapers. But you can see a few coming up in the distance. Antwerp is growing!
This museum needs at least a few hours to really appreciate the variety of collections it houses. But one thing is certain – we were both really impressed by the exhibits, layouts and variety of themes presented.
Address: Hanzestedenplaats 1
Sculptures and Street Art
You’ve probably seen this sculpture in photos before. It captures the story of Nello and Patrasche, the main characters from an 1872 novel, “A Dog of Flanders.” Even though Belgian artist Batist Vermeulen’s sculpture was only completed in 2016, it’s already become a recognizable landmark for Antwerp.
You’ll find it right in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Handschoenmarkt square.
The Pieter Appelmans Monument is part of the Cathedral of Our Lady. Pieter Appelmans was one of the architects of the cathedral, alongside his father.
Close to the MAS, you’ll see these characters climbing the side of a building:
The Diamond District
If you don’t buy yourself a diamond – or at least peruse the jewelry stores – in Antwerp, did you even really visit?
Antwerp is the diamond capital of the world. Or, at least, it used to be. Approximately 84% of the world’s diamonds once passed through an area called the Diamond Quarter. The city’s role in the diamond industry took off in the 15th-16th Centuries, but started to wane in the 20th Century as cities like Tel Aviv and Mumbai took over the wholesale polished diamond trade.
So, will you find bargain-basement prices on diamonds in Antwerp? Well, no. To find a deal, you really need to know your diamonds – both in price and in quality. And honestly, Antwerp can’t compete with diamond centers located in less expensive cities around the world.
As with any jewelry stores, you also need to know what to look for, as the industry can be tainted with poorly cut diamonds, treated diamonds, non-certified gems, etc.
But whether you’re a diamond expert or not, it’s still fun to poke around the jewelry stores here. After all, it’s free to look, right?
The Diamond District is in the area outside of Central Station.
Do you have a sweet tooth? If you love chocolate, you’ve come to the right place!
Chocolate Nation is the world’s largest Belgian chocolate museum. And the best part? You get to sample chocolate throughout your self-guided tour!
Your tour begins literally at the beginning – where chocolate comes from and the complex production process. You walk through a series of rooms that are timed for crowd control – and it’s done very effectively.
In one room, projectors shine images down on dinnerware. It keeps everyone in your group busy while the group ahead of you tours exhibits in the next room. I’ve seen this effect done before, but it’s always entertaining.
This museum is great for photos and selfies. There are several photo-op spots along the way.
You’ll also get to watch a live demonstration of how to make pralines – and once the chocolatier finishes, you get to sample them!
Notice this incredible sculpture – it’s all made of chocolate!
But they saved the best part for last. At the end of your tour, someone hands you a little spoon as you enter the last room. This room contains 10 machines with 10 different kinds of warm, melted chocolate. You get to sample each one at your leisure – or go back multiple times to your favourites, as we did! Don’t worry, it’s all hygienic. You pump out the chocolate with a handle, you’re not dipping it into the machine!
A few favourites are the newly-discovered ruby chocolate, the Brazilian dark chocolate, and the gold chocolate, which tastes like melted caramel.
Chocolate Nation is conveniently located close to Central Station – as you leave Central Station, just walk straight ahead and you’ll see the big building across the street.
Address: Koningin Astridplein 7
Try a Hawaiian Poke Bowl
When you think of Antwerp, Hawaiian poke bowls are not the first cuisine that comes to mind. But believe it or not, this was one of the best meals we had in Antwerp.
In fact, poke restaurants seem to have quite a foothold on Antwerp. And for good reason – it’s fresh, flavourful, and healthy. Plus, you can customize your bowl the way you like it.
So what is a poke bowl anyway? It’s a rice bowl with diced fish, vegetables and flavourful sauce. But you can also order them with meat or strictly vegetarian.
Try the Aloha poké bowl & woké bowl restaurant near the shopping district. We were still raving about our meals here weeks later!
If you’re looking for a pub with a bit more of an… shall we say, unusual choice of decor, try Elfde Gebod (the Eleventh Commandment). This resto-pub looks sweet on the outside, but it’s chock full of religious statuary and art inside. It’s positively sacrilicious.
We grabbed the only available table, tucked away in the far corner.
This monk just kept staring at me while I drank. Just look at his judgemental scowl of displeasure.
I would love to know how the owners of this pub collected all these statues. But maybe it’s better not to ask.
I can honestly say it’s one of the more unusual pubs we’ve ever been to, and trust me, we’ve been to a lot of them over the years.
The food prices are on the pricier side, but they have a decent selection of Belgian beers on draught. They also have their own Elfde Gebod brand of beer, which I would highly recommend trying.
Elfde Gebod is just a short walk from the Cathedral of Our Lady. Reservations would be wise, as it gets quite busy.
Address: Torfbrug 10, 2000
If you arrived in Antwerp by train, then you’d have already seen Central Station. But you were probably in too much of a rush to truly appreciate the architecture. This building has won awards for it’s design and style. It’s easy to see why it’s often considered to be the most beautiful train station in the world.
Louis Delacenserie designed the building using an eclectic array of architectural styles. Construction finished in 1905.
The train hall sustained damage from V-2 rockets in World War II, but the building remained standing. However, the bombing compromised the structure, and the station closed in 1986 for safety reasons. The building was nearly slated for demolition, but restoration work saved the building from the wrecking ball.
The Antwerp Zoo is situated right next to the Central Station exit, as well.
Are there any other landmarks in Antwerp not on this list? Let me know in the comments below!
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