12 unmissable things to see & do in Antwerp

Richard Mellor

Richard Mellor

Belgium's second city might be best known for fashion or diamonds, but Antwerp also offers a terrific art scene and some truly memorable architecture.

The ornate façade of Antwerp Central railway station
The ornate façade of Antwerp Central railway station © Ekaterina Belova - Adobe Stock Image

You'll also find villagey, restaurant-lined districts and an oh-so-strollable old town. Here are the essential places to visit during a short break.

Getting to Antwerp: reaching this fabulous city is easier than ever thanks to increased connectivity by train to the UK. Don't miss the current offers on flight-free city breaks to Belgium with First Choice.

Admire Renaissance finery

Antwerp's focal point is Grote Markt (Great Market). Around this pedestrianised plaza, either side of a fountain depicting the giant-slaying legend said to be behind Antwerp's name, magicians and performers enthral gaggles of tourists.

Antwerp's iconic guildhalls that line the Grote Markt
Antwerp's iconic guildhalls that line the Grote Markt © Orpheus26 - Adobe Stock Image

Far more enthralling, however, is the ornate Renaissance architecture all around. Opposite the flag-lined City Hall stand rows of gabled guildhalls crammed with windows. Although largely reconstructed, these recall the 1500s: a golden age when nearly half of the world's trade passed through the port here.

Cherish the cathedral

You can't miss the Cathedral of Our Lady, visible across in the city, this colossus is a gothic fantasia of spires, statuary and gold clocks, and that's just its 123-metre belfry.

Venture inside to find fabulous stained-glass windows, elaborate wood carvings and four paintings, two of them triptychs, by Pieter Paul Rubens.

Feeling peckish? Opposite is longstanding Frituur No.1, an open-almost-all-hours takeaway institution serving generous portions of classic Belgian frites for just a few euros.

Inspect some fine art

With the Rubenshuis, where the Flemish baroque master lived and worked, closed for maintenance work until 2027, Antwerp's premier address for aesthetes is undoubtedly the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, aka the KMSKA.

After 11 years of renovation, this reopened in 2022 with a new white-walled wing and a funkier approach. Divergent works are now presented by themes, not chronology or artistic discipline; you'll also find pub paintings deliberately slanted to invoke drunkenness, ample interaction for kids and haunting choral music informing classical altarpieces.

Gasp at diamonds

Speaking of museums, DIVA explains how Belgium's second city came to be a hotspot for the diamond trade. Also focussed on jewellery and silver, this most sparkling of subterranean galleries lies only a few steps from Grote Markt.

The Diamond Quarter itself is roughly a mile to the west, encompassing a few streets beside Antwerp Central station, but there's little to see: Jewish merchants conduct their business behind closed doors and, very understandably, gems are kept well hidden.

Ride a wooden escalator

Antwerp largely spreads west from the River Scheldt. Among its waterside attractions are Het Steen, a handsome medieval fortress with a great rooftop terrace, and the charming Sint-Annatunnel.

Fairytale-like Het Steen fortress
Fairytale-like Het Steen fortress © Nikolai Sorokin - Adobe Stock Image

Actually, it's not this pedestrian subway under the Scheldt that charms, but instead the clanking, retro wooden escalators used to ascend or descend from it.

Scrutinise ancient printers

Those escalators abut a small, buzzy square where energetic basketball games are framed by trees and convivial bar terraces. Just west hides something quite different, however: a space preserving Earth's two oldest surviving printing presses.

Inscribed onto UNESCO's World Heritage list, no less, Museum Plantin-Moretus also has Rubens works of its own, plus a lovely courtyard.

Get fashionable

Slightly west of here begins Antwerp's Fashion District, centred around Kammenstraat and Nationalestraat. Stores by luminaries such as Dries Van Noten and Christian Wijnants accompany edgier independent boutiques and some trendier chains.

The city has been a leading light in all things clothing ever since the Antwerp Six, a sextet of designers, including Van Noten, whose radical approach elicited global notice, emerged in the 1980s. Learn more at nearby MoMu, a small museum whose permanent exhibition also traces the origin of trenchcoats and hoodies.

Go shopping

Besides clobber, Antwerp additionally excels at antiques and vintage goods, especially along Kloosterstraat, a pleasant street which extends into the villagey Zuid (South) district of Sint-Andries. Head up towards Volkstraat to find artisan flowers, records and surf shops.

Rather something with more everyday local flavour? The Vogelenmarkt (Bird Market) sprawls along Theaterplein on Sundays, selling clothes, flowers, antiques and food.

Meanwhile, furniture and other household items are cheerfully auctioned at the Vrijdagmarkt, near Museum Plantin-Moretus, every Friday.

Gawp at Little Island

Sprawling away in Antwerp's north is its mammoth port, still hugely powerful today, but first comes Het Eilandje (Little Island). Boasting several good restaurants, this revived district is bookended by two eye-catching buildings.

Modern Museum aan de Stroom on Het Eilandje
Modern Museum aan de Stroom on Het Eilandje © Dmitry Rukhlenko - Adobe Stock Image

For her Port House, the late British designer Dame Zaha Hadid dynamically installed a diamond-like glass extension atop an old fire station. The trading-focused Museum aan de Stroom, or MAS, meanwhile, has a mottled exterior mixing red sandstone with glass below its scenic rooftop terrace.

If you arrive by train*, linger in Antwerp Central. Partly inspired by Rome's Pantheon, the station has a grandiose, cathedral-style interior and a vast glass dome above some platforms.

Explore Zurenborg

Architectural buffs are also directed to the southerly district of Zurenborg. Here, along a street named Cogels-Osylei and others around it, awaits a fabulous, flair-filled demonstration of art nouveau buildings.

Look out for illustrations of the four seasons lining buildings on a corner of Waterloostraat and, further along, another mural depicting the Battle of Waterloo.

Learn about beer & chocolate

Beer and Belgium go hand in hand; in Antwerp, the place to get stuck in is De Koninck, a longstanding brewery whose most famous tipple, the Bolleke amber ale, is ideally drunk from special glasses of the same name. Tastings are readily available.

Prefer pralines and ganaches? Right by Antwerp Central, Chocolate Nation reckons to be Earth's largest choccy museum. On tours here, participants can try 10 different flavours. It doesn't count when you're learning.

Stroll around

Perfunctory, perhaps, yet ambling around Antwerp's historic centre might be the most pleasurable activity of all. Narrow, cobbled lanes dart hither and thither, with clumps of café tables ready for people-watching, often quaintly soundtracked by chiming church bells.

Stroll Antwerp's pretty cobbled streets
Stroll Antwerp's pretty cobbled streets © Alpegor - Adobe Stock Image

Alternatively, next to DIVA is De Ruien, which takes guests down to a secret world. Antwerp used to function with vast networks of subterranean canal tunnels. Most subsequently became sewers, but some are preserved and can be muddily, memorably walked. Boots are provided but good fitness is required.

Climate in Antwerp

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Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
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The above shows the climate in Antwerp. Find out more about conditions across the country in our complete guide to the climate in Belgium.

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Richard Mellor

Richard Mellor

Richard Mellor is a freelance travel writer with a background in travel PR. He covers a wider range of topics and destinations, appearing regularly in Metro, The Guardian, The I and The Times. He's also authored a book, "Foodie Breaks", and writes a weekly column for Roxhill Media's newsletter.

Posted on Thursday 23rd November 2023 in: City Culture Europe

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