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Despite being Belgium’s second city, Antwerp is often overlooked in favor of Brussels or Bruges. However, the cultural capital of Flanders is brimming with culture and has a distinctly cosmopolitan feel. Antwerp is both a bustling industrial port and a rich historical center. It was once home to artists like van Dyck and Rubens and it has an interesting architectural heritage.
It’s one of the coolest cities in Belgium and one of the largest ports in Europe. Although its roots can be traced to Gallo-Roman times, it’s now quite modern with the diamond industry playing an important role in its economy.
As with most European cities, Antwerp is easily accessible via train and car either via the Antwerp Ring (R1) from Rotterdam via Dordrecht en Breda or via Bergen op Zoom via Eindhoven via the E34 or the E314. This is particularly attractive for travelers who are road tripping through the Old Continent and may then find it appealing to rent a car and include not only the capital cities in their itinerary. In most countries, the American driver’s license is accepted without much trouble and the main rental companies have offices at airports or they can be contacted from your hotel.
American tourists embracing the possibility of exploring Antwerp by car at their own pace can enjoy a safer drive if they purchase a car rental damage insurance policy. There are plenty of options available in the market offering different prices and range of coverage but one of the most attractive options is this one.
Charming, cosmopolitan, vibrant, and with an interesting historic past, Antwerp is a must-visit city in any itinerary through Belgium. Keep reading to discover why!
Marvel at Antwerp Centraal Station
Whether you have arrived at Antwerp by train or not, you must check out the Antwerp Centraal Station, which is constantly ranked as one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe and the world. It’s conveniently located in the city center and connects Antwerp with many other Belgian and European cities.
With its neo-Gothic facade, vast main hall, and splendidly proportioned dome, Antwerp's Centraal Station will leave you in awe. It’s not only beautiful but also practical thanks to its multi-level platforms that make it easier for passengers to find their trains.
It was designed by a Flemish architect. It is more than 1300 feet (400 meters) long with a grandiose façade completely covered in fancy patterned brickwork and gilded flourishes. Along with a massive central dome topped by an ornate cupola, it has eight smaller towers and an interior lavishly decorated in different shades and patterns of marble. The platforms are covered by a vast glass-and-iron vaulted ceiling while there’s an elevated section of track ornamented with more than 200 white stone mini-towers.
Antwerp’s main central station is absolutely a must visit and one of the city's most treasured landmarks. With its massive glass windows and ceilings to elegant staircases, you may easily feel that you are in a palace and not in a train station! Don’t forget your camera or mobile phone as you’ll definitely take tons of photos!
Relax in the Grote Markt
As in many other Belgian cities, the heart of the Old Town revolves around its Grote Markt (Great Market) of Grand Place with its town hall, guild houses, and the ornate Brabo Fountain. The Town Hall or Stadhuis dominates the western side of the square. The other buildings bordering the Grote Markt are former guild houses that originally served as headquarters of the city’s 16th- and 17th-century guilds. Amongst the most interesting guild houses on the north side are the Gildehuise der Kuipers, the Huis van de Schutters and the Huis van de Kruideniers.
Take your time to admire the beautiful buildings and the square itself. The Grote Markt is a great place to start your visit in Antwerp. It’s also a great place to do some window shopping or enjoy a drink, meal or local beer at any of the eateries nearby while you soak up the atmosphere.
The undoubted highlight of the square is the Brabo Fountain, which stands in the middle of the Grand Place. Created by the renowned Flemish sculptor Jef Lambeaux, this flamboyant Baroque statue represents the legend of Antwerp: the Roman soldier Silvio Brabo defeated the giant Druon Antigoon who is said to demand a toll from all travelers to pass the bridge over the Scheldt river. Whoever dared not to pay, the giant cut his hand off and threw it into the river. Brabo defeated the giant and threw his hand into the river. “Antwerpen” is a derivative of “hand werpen” meaning hand throwing.
Admire the City’s Iconic Cathedral
Another lovely building you’ll spot around this triangular square is the notable Our Lady’s Cathedral. Located on one side of the Grote Markt, the only finished spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady will immediately grab your attention. It’s one of the most loved buildings in Antwerp and it will definitely dazzle you with its intricate work in stone.
At more than 400 feet high (123 meters), the Cathedral of Our Lady is the tallest in the Benelux region and the belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Antwerp's cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Belgium and it took nearly 170 years to complete. It is home to three Rubens masterpieces. In fact, it’s an iconic highlight in Antwerp due to its impressive collection of major artworks.
Beyond its ornate exterior door, the inside of the church is pretty awesome, too! There are numerous vibrant stained-glass windows and detailed woodwork of the choir. Its most striking feature is the sculpture of Jan Fabre (see below) called The Man who bears the Cross, a mesmerizing and modern sculpture in bronze.
Visit Rubens’ House and Step into His World
Peter Paul Rubens is one of the most prolific and famous Flemish painters. Whether or not you are an “art person”, while in Antwerp you must visit his house. It offers a wonderful opportunity to step into Rubens' world.
Breath-taking doesn’t even start to describe it! The townhouse was renovated and extended to resemble an Italian palazzo, following Rubens’ own design. The house was not only the artist’s home but also his workshop. The rooms are charming and it’s possible to appreciate period furniture and artwork by Rubens and his students. There’s also a beautiful inner courtyard and Baroque gardens that invite you to take a leisurely stroll. You’ll definitely need to take your time as you move from room to room as there’s so much to take in!
Rubens bought the house in 1610 and lived there until he died thirty years later. He arranged it according to his own taste and requirements. The left-wing is devoted to his home and the right one to his studio. It was carefully restored between 1939 and 1946 to its present splendor following guides and drawings by Rubens himself. There are around a dozen canvases by Rubens, including his world-famous hatted self-portrait and a large-scale canvas of Eve glancing lustfully at Adam’s fig leaf.
There are audio tours available as well as a free downloadable app that guides you as you tour the house.
Enjoy the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)
Opened in 2011, the Museum aan de Stroom or MAS is devoted to telling the story of the city. It’s Antwerp’s municipal museum and is housed in a fine example of modern architecture. This 10-story building is made of variegated stone and wave-shaped glass panels and sits overlooking the harbor on the former site of the Hanseatic warehouse.
The museum exhibits displays on a variety of topics: the gastronomic history of the city, a look at Antwerp’s former role as the largest trade and shipping port in the world, explorations of mankind’s approach to death and spirituality throughout various cultures, one of Europe's largest collection of pre-Columbian American art, and more.
The different exhibitions use a barrage of media, from old master paintings and tribal artifacts to video installations. The museum's 500,000 items showcase Antwerp's development into one of the continent’s largest ports, a diamond capital, and a multiracial hub of culture and learning.
The MAS is not the typical museum where you walk from display case to display case. Instead, the different exhibitions are weaved in such a way that they are interconnected so that visitors can understand Antwerp and the world a bit better than before.
Before you leave the exhibits, don’t forget to climb to the building’s roof to admire the spectacular sweeping panoramic views of the city! The rooftop is open on top but enclosed with glass walls. It offers tourists a splendid panoramic view of the city and the port. On summer days, it stays open until midnight and gives you a sparkling nighttime view of the city.
In Renaissance times, Antwerp was one of the leading printing cities and nowadays the Plantin-Moretus Museum is home to an exceptional collection of archives, typographical materials, and two of the oldest surviving printing presses in the world. It’s the only museum in the world listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is definitely worth a visit.
As was the case with most workshops back then, the house was also used as a home for the Plantin-Moretus family. The extensive library, old furniture, and paintings were kept in place and the whole complex is really charming.
Book lovers will feel compelled to explore Room 7, which is devoted to the history of books and the processes involved in their production. It extends from the earliest forms of writing and development of the alphabet to Gutenberg and the invention of letterpress printing using movable types.
After that, check out Room 24. It is devoted to the art of printing in Europe and a 36-line Gutenberg Bible is on display. There are also priceless manuscripts and several archaeological findings on display. There’s even the world’s only copy of the original Garamond letter dies. It was these catalogs of letter dies used when the Garamond font was digitized, available for so many of us to use on our computers today.
Together with its courtyard garden, the Plantin-Moretus is one of the most beautiful and finest museums in Antwerp.
Learn About the Emigrant Journey to the New World
The Red Star Line Museum is one of the newest attractions in Antwerp and it is devoted to exploring the emigrant journey to the New World. Between 1883 and 1934, the Red Star company’s steamers transported emigrants from Belgium and surrounding European countries across the ocean to the United States or Canada to escape poverty, persecution, and oppression. The museum is devoted to exploring the journey and the process itself as well as the reasons why people chose to leave their homeland in hopes for a better life.
There are different exhibits: some show where passengers were selected for passage, those who were never given the chance to get on board the ship, and personal stories of those who could emigrate and those who could not make the journey.
More than two million passengers sailed from Antwerp on Red Star Line ships. This splendid museum is housed in the very building where those embarkations took place. It’s beautifully designed and extremely engaging, telling the story of individual journeys through recreations, photographs, and objects including some gorgeous period model ships.
From the watchtower that protrudes overhead, visitors can appreciate a beautiful view over the Scheldt, the city, and the nearby harbor district, Het Eilandje.
Explore the Diamond District
Antwerp has been a prominent player in the diamond trade for more than five centuries and it’s estimated that as much as 85% of the world’s rough diamonds used to pass through this district, thus making it the largest diamond district in the world.
Antwerp’s diamond district is located next to the splendid Centraal Station and strolling by the glittery shop windows is quite an experience. Window shopping is a must; buying is optional! With more than 1800 shops, you’ll find an establishment that could offer the world’s highest quality cut called “Antwerp Cut”.
To experience a guided tour of the diamond business, go to DiamondLand on De Keyserlei street. There you can watch cutters, setters, and goldsmiths as they cleave, cut, and polish precious stones. It’s worth mentioning that every diamond sold in the area is guaranteed ethical, conflict-free, and in compliance with UN resolutions.
The Diamantmuseum explores the different aspects of the diamond trade: extraction, processing, and even industrial issues. It’s possible to see diamond cutters at work and there’s also a display of cut and uncut genuine diamonds together with copies of the more famous stones.
Visit St. Paul’s Church
St. Paul’s Church is a Baroque church that used to be part of a Dominican abbey and houses more than 200 statues and 50 paintings by famous Flemish painters, including Rubens, Van Dyck, and Jordaens. You enter through an unusual courtyard with an alley lined up with stone saints and angels. Once inside, there are even more sculptures and a tall white ceiling.
Located in Veemarkt, St Paul’s Church dates from 1517 but it was not completed until 1639. Its clock tower dates from 1680.
Its striking interior hosts not only sculptures and paintings but also beautiful Baroque altars, sculpted church furniture, and a stunning organ built in the 17th century. It also has a series of 15 large-format paintings of the Rosary Mysteries unique in the world. The most eye-catching feature is the 18th-century Calvary with 60 life-sized figures next to the church on the corner of Veemarkt and Zwartzustersstraat.
Located near the Scheldt river, it’s made of white and black marble and it’s the highest altar in Belgium. It covers an area of almost 7.5 acres (3 hectares).
Visit Sint-Jacobskerk (St. James Church)
With its sumptuously ornate Baroque interior, St. James’ Church is one of the richest ecclesiastical buildings in Antwerp, blessed with an exceptional endowment of art treasures. It was the church that patrician families chose for worship and the regularly commissioned leading artists to design their private chapels, altars, and tombs.
The tomb of Rubens is the main reason why so many visitors flock to Sint-Jacobskerk. Located in a small chapel behind the altar, the tomb is adorned with Our Lady Surrounded by Saints, a painting that he executed specifically for his tomb.
In addition, this church is one of the starting points for pilgrims journeying to the burial place of St. James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Located within walking distance from Antwerp’s main shopping street Meir, it’s one of the largest churches in Antwerp. Apart from the Tomb of Rubens and the Rubens Chapel, St. James Church holds a valuable art and sculpture collection, 24 beautifully ornate chapels, and several majestic organs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played on the organs in the church in 1727.
Descend into the Photogenic St. Anna’s Tunnel
While it’s not unusual to find splendid bridges built over rivers, Antwerp decided to go the other way, so they built a tunnel 90 feet (30 meters) under the Scheldt River. It is more than 1876 feet (572 meters) long. St. Anna Tunnel can be accessed through a relatively nondescript entrance near the Plantin-Moretus Museum. You go down a set of wooden escalators.
Once down, you keep going through an uneventful pedestrian and bike passage until you see the light on the other end.
St Anna’s tunnel can feel quite oppressive for claustrophobics, but it’s definitely an interesting attraction. As you reach the left bank, you’ll be rewarded with a splendid view of the skyline of the historic Old Town.
These are just a few of the reasons why Antwerp is a must-visit city in any itinerary through Belgium. Be sure to check out more of what to see and do in Belgium on Wander.