Resting on Belgium’s River Scheldt, the pretty port city of Antwerp is packed full of great things to do, many of which you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
The city boasts a thriving restaurant scene, buzzing nightlife, hip boutiques and plenty of cultural landmarks and institutions, with the heart of the action in the medieval centre, where café-lined cobbled lanes, a waterside fortress and an imposing cathedral provide a striking setting against which the hum of daily life unfolds. Needless to say, visitors to Antwerp will find filling their time an easy task. To help inspire you, we’ve picked out some of the most unique things to see and do.
Marvel at a stunning 14th-century cathedral
The fruits of more than 150 years of labour, The Cathedral of Our Lady – aka Antwerp Cathedral – is one of the city’s most striking landmarks. The tallest Gothic building anywhere in the Low Counties, the 123-metre edifice is as impressive inside as out, boasting a world-class collection of major art works, as well as other notable features include Rubens’ ‘Elevation of the Cross’ and his ‘Descent from the Cross’. The masterpiece is open to the public to look around at their leisure and there are also regular free guided tours.
Groenplaats 21 / Mon-Fri 10am-5pm Sat 10am-3pm Sun 1pm-4pm
Admire one of Europe’s most beautiful railway stations
Train stations are not normally the first port of call for tourists – unless arriving into one, of course. But visitors are compelled to make an exception to this rule in Antwerp, which is home to a truly breath-taking Central Station. Constructed between 1895 and 1905, it is widely regarded as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium, featuring an eclectic architectural style that makes it almost impossible to define. The centrepiece attraction is the covered steel platform grand hall, and there’s also a striking elevated railway bed, six restored ornamental towers, and a magnificent steel and glass screen at the outer end of the platforms.
Koningin Astridplein 27
Delve into Antwerp’ subterranean past
Like in most cities, sewers, streams and ramparts have zig-zagged across Antwerp for centuries. But not in every city can you explore them quite like this. Visitors can head underground at The Ruien to discover the former network of waterways that served Antwerp down the years, traversing narrow canals, bridges and old vaulted ceilings along the way. Tours can be undertaken as part of a guided group walk (complete with intriguing anecdotes from your official guide), independently with an interactive tablet, or for a truly unique experience you can even navigate The Ruien by boat.
Suikerrui 21 / Tues-Fri 10am-5pm; Sat-Sun 10am-6pm Closed Mon
Explore a world class museum
Antwerp can count among its attractions several exceptional museums that celebrate and preserve the city’s rich cultural heritage. Among the very best is the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a printing museum centred on the work of the 16th-century printers Christophe Plantin and Jan Moretus, the first industrial printers in history. A UNESCO world heritage site, the museum was once the original home and studio of this hugely influential printing family and still contains what is said to be the oldest printing presses in the world. A fascinating visit for anyone with an interest in Antwerp’s golden age and the history of printing.
Vrijdagmarkt 22 / Tues-Sun 10am-5pm Closed Mon
Inviting you to step into the life and career of the great Flemish baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens, The Rubens House is one of the most famous artists’ homes in the world. Designed by the man himself in around 1610, the house is now a museum and has retained many of its original items and artefacts, as well as an impressive art collection. One of the main highlights of the site is Rubens’ studio, where the brilliant and versatile artist created many of his classic works.
Wapper 9-11 / Tues-Sun 10am-5pm Closed Mon
Take a wander around a historic diamond district
Since the 15th century, Antwerp has been known as one of the diamond capital of the world. At the heart of this contemporary standing as a hotbed for fine jewels is the city’s diamond district, which is sprinkled with shops selling dazzling trinkets of every size, shape and hue. The majority of these diamond stores are concentrated in a triangle of three streets to the west of Central Station, making for an enticing – albeit potentially expensive – afternoon’s jewel-hunting.
Head to a picturesque town square
The main square of Antwerp, Grote Markt is one of Europe’s most visually arresting town squares. Buzzing with tourists during the summer season, its focal point is the glorious 16th century City Hall which dominates the square and is surrounded by the equally striking Guild Houses. Another of the square’s standout attractions is the Brabo Fountain, while a sprinkling of cafes and restaurants provide the perfect setting for indulging in a spot of people-watching over a beer or coffee.
Discover Antwerp by night
Every city has a dark side and Antwerp is no different. This tour invites visitors to discover the less touristy side of the city by exploring it after dark. During this private two-hour guided evening walking tour you’ll traverse the city on foot, uncovering mystery, listening to spicy stories, learning about old legends, and getting a broad flavour of Antwerp’s dark underbelly as you go. Stops include the Market Square, the Stone Castel, the Red Light District, the rooftop of MAS Museum, the Old Port, and St Paul’s Church.
Check out an ancient castle
If you want to visit Het Steen, Antwerp’s oldest surviving building in its current guise, then you better be quick. The ancient landmark is due to undergo its latest renovation that will see it transformed into a welcome centre for cruise passengers and a tourist facility. It will mark the latest chapter in the story of this fascinating 13th-century site, which over the years has served as a fortress to repel Viking invaders, a prison, a warehouse, and at one point also held the collection of the National Shipping museum.
Steenplein 1 / Weds-Sun 12pm-6pm CLosed Mon-Tues
Join a city pub crawl
Belgium and beer go together like peanut butter and jelly and at the centre of the country’s beer brewing heritage is Antwerp. This 3-hour guided beer tour lets visitors immerse themselves in the city’s modern brewery scene, taking you to some of its most popular cafes and watering holes where you’ll get to sample a wide variety of delectable brews, ranging from pale lagers to amber ales, lambic beers, Flemish red ales, sour brown ales, strong ales and stouts.
Visit Belgium’s oldest zoo
One of the oldest and best-known zoos anywhere in Europe, Antwerp Zoo is a magical place for a family day out. Housing over 5,000 animals spanning almost 1,000 species, the zoo also has a strong philanthropic focus, with a dedicated programme for helping save endangered animals such as bonobos and okapi. In recent years the zoo has undergone major upgrades to its attractions, which now include a chance to walk among chimpanzees and gorillas in the Valley of the Great Apes, stroll to the Buffalo Savannah to witness Cape Buffalo and birds living in harmony, and a Skywalk offering the opportunity to spot red pandas along with panoramic views over the historical garden.
Koningin Astridplein 20-26 / Mon-Sun 9am-5.30pm
Dine in a quirky and historic restaurant
A unique culinary pub with a spectacular interior, the history of Elfde Gebod dates back to 1425 when turf bearers lived in the same building. Dotted with angel and saint statues, pulpits and several (arguably sacrilegious) visual jokes, today the restaurant, whose name translates as “11th Commandment” in Dutch, is one of the city’s most popular dining establishments thanks to its eye-catchingly quirky design features combined with delicious local Flemish dishes and an enormous variety of famous beers.
Torfbrug 10 / Mon-Sun 12pm-11pm