Quirky yet beautiful, Antwerp is a fantastic and underrated city to visit in Belgium. This was the last Belgian city of our Benelux tour, and it almost didn’t even happen. I didn’t know much about the city itself, but after doing some research it seemed like a worthwhile and interesting place to visit. It ended up being one of my favorite destinations that trip!
- Where is it located? Antwerp is a city in the north of Belgium, right on the border of the Netherlands. It is only about an hour north of Brussels.
- What language do they speak? Dutch is the official language, although many people also speak French. However, my friends and I had absolutely 0 knowledge of either of these languages, and we got along just fine. If you want to learn a bit of these languages before visiting, check out my post on learning languages effectively.
- What currency do they use? The euro.
- Interesting Facts about Antwerp:
- The name “Antwerp” is derived from an old legend where a brave soldier cut off the hand of a mean, old giant who guarded a river and demanded payment for crossing. The name means “to throw a hand.” You can find a statue depicting this scene in the square just in front of the city hall.
- Up to 90% of the world’s rough diamonds are traded in Antwerp each year, and as such, the city is known as the World’s Capital of Diamonds.
- The first printed newspaper was published here 400 years ago.
Antwerp is well-connected by bus, train, and air. To compare your various options based on your location, I recommend using the website Rome2Rio. We were coming from Brussels, so the easiest method for us was the train. If you come by train as well, be sure to take a look around! The station itself is huge and just gorgeous to look at, has numerous floors, and there is even a zoo attached to it! In fact, Newsweek once rated it the world’s 4th greatest train station, and the British Magazine Mashable rated it the world’s most beautiful. It is definitely worth some time to explore!
Transportation from Antwerp Airport to City Center
There is a small airport located on the outskirts of the city, but it only operates with a few airlines. If you’re coming from abroad, it may be cheaper and more beneficial to fly into Brussels, spend a few days there, then take the train north to Antwerp.
- Cheapest: By Bus / Tram
- To get to the city center, you will need to catch a bus from the front of the airport and take it to the railway station. From there, you’ll need to hop on a tram, which comes every 10 minutes during normal operating hours. A one-way ticket costs 3 euros and can be used for an hour (including connections). For more information, visit the official tourist site of Antwerp.
- By Taxi
- A taxi will get you to the center of Antwerp in about 15 minutes for about 15 euros. This could be a good option for you if you’re traveling in a small group with a decent amount of luggage.
- By Car
- You can rent a car at this airport and it will only take you about 15 minutes to get to the city center.
We stayed at Antwerp Student Hostel, which was okay but I would not highly recommend it. The price was pretty high for what it was (although it was a holiday weekend, so that might have contributed to it) and the staff weren’t the nicest (in fact, they were a bit rude). About half of the beds are in what they call “capsules” – basically wooden boxes with one open side. If you’re claustrophobic, this is not the place for you!
There are also many hotel and Airbnb options. For advice on what type of accommodation to choose, read my article on How to NOT Spend Your Life Savings on Travel Accommodations.
Getting Around the City
Antwerp is a decent sized city, but if you’re able-bodied, you can pretty much walk everywhere (at least, that’s what we did). There are also many buses and trams. For more information on prices and where to buy tickets, go to the official Antwerp site.
Things to See
- Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp) – Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral, which took 169 years to make. You can see the tower peeking out from all over the city. It costs money to enter the main portion with the altar and paintings, but you can have a free glimpse by (quietly) entering the prayer area.
- St-Jacobskerk – A lovely church to visit which houses the tomb of Rubens.
- Grote Markt – The main square, also where city hall is.This is where you will find the famous statue where Antwerp gets its name. The man at the top is named Brabo, and he cut off the giant Antigoon’s hand (and head).
- Antwerp City Hall – Built in the mid-1500’s.
- Groenplaats – Lots of bars and restaurants, good place to people watch and have a beer while you rest your feet.
- Het Steen – Small but beautiful castle on the river. In front, there is a very strange statue of a peeping Tom. There is nothing to see inside, just a cafe.
- Sint-Paulusparochie (Saint Paul’s Church) – Lovely church, some Rubens inside!
- Carolus Borromeuskerk (Carolus Borromeus Church)
- Antwerp Central Station – Normally I wouldn’t add a train station to my list of things to see, but this is an exception. It has incredible architecture and tons to see, don’t miss it! It has been rated one of the world’s top 5 most beautiful train stations!
- Antwerp Zoo – If you enjoy seeing the animals, or are traveling with kids, check out their local zoo!
- De Koninck – When in Belgium, drink beer! Check out this historic brewery and try out some of Belgium’s finest.
- Shopping Stadsfeestzaal – Not your typical shopping mall, and worth a glance for the architecture and atmosphere! Or, of course, go on a shopping spree.
- Cogels Osylei – A lovely street to walk down, but a bit out of the way.
- Rubenshuis (Ruben’s House) – We didn’t make it to this, but if you are a fan of art (and, of course, Rubens), you should definitely take a look. The inside holds a lot of special treasures and also has a nice garden.
- Museum Plantin-Moretus – We didn’t visit, but it has fantastic reviews. It is a medieval building and has a lovely courtyard, an antique library and a bookshop.
- MAS – We didn’t see the museum portion, but be sure to get the ipod guide or use your phone with QR code capabilities because apparently nothing is in English. It is free to go all the way up to the top for the views.
- Red Star Line Museum – Exhibition about the 3 million immigrants who came to America using the historic shipping line located here.
- Snijders&Rockoxhuis – A 17th-century mansion turned into a museum with famous artwork. People rave about the self-guided tour.
Top Rated Restaurants & Cafes
- De Groote Witte Arend – Built inside a 17th century convent building. Great, local food and drinks! Try the stoemp, carbonnades, or rabbit.
- Falafel Tof – cheap, tasty eats if you’re looking for something fast.
- Le John – dinner only, very artistic inside. Great quality, local dishes.
- Frites Atelier – Gourmet french fry place, a little bit on the pricey side, but worth it! They have various delicious toppings to try.
- The Jane – If you want a truly unforgettable and special night out (and money isn’t an issue), check out this gorgeous restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef. Be sure to reserve your table way in advance!
- Civiltà del Bere – If you’re just craving some high-quality Italian food, look no further than this lovely little restaurant.
Coffee / Bars
- Den billekletser – Unique beer bar, with a ton of beers to choose from and great advice to find one that fits your tastes.
- Paters Vaetje – Great, casual bar with friendly service and reasonable prices. Fantastic location, right next to the cathedral!
- Buchbar – A lovely cafe and great place to have a coffee or peruse some of the many books on display.
An interactive map, with all of my above recommendations:
After dropping off our bags at the hostel, our first stop was St. Carolus Borromeuskerk, a quaint church in a quiet square. It was pretty on the outside, but (as I’ve mentioned in other guides) when you travel around Europe, all of the churches kind of begin to blur together. My friends and I even joked that we should start a blog just on all of the churches we had seen in this one trip alone.
A short walk from there is Grote Markt and Antwerp City Hall. It is a lovely square with a quite unique and eye-catching centerpiece. If you look very closely, the man at the top of the statue is holding (and about to throw) a severed hand. Ew. Legend has it that there was a giant who used to charge people to cross the river, and when they couldn’t pay, or refused to, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. One day, a dashing young knight came along and said “Screw you, giant!” (I’m sure more eloquently than that) and cut off the giant’s hand, throwing it into the water like all of the giants’ victims. For good measure, he cut off his head, too. Lovely story, isn’t it? The name of the city, Antwerpen, literally translates to ‘hand throw.’
A couple of blocks away, you will find the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp, or Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal. Its imposing tower and prominent clock can be seen from all over the city, and it is rather impressive. Inside, you have to pay a small fee in order to see the famous paintings it houses. To get a peek of the cathedral, just sneak off to the left of the ticket booth and go into the prayer area, but stay quiet! It took 169 years to build this masterpiece.
The above picture is the free view you get from the prayer area, and below is one of the halls of paintings you can see if you pay the entrance fee. I hear it is definitely worth a visit and holds many Rubens, but we didn’t have time to go.
At this point, we were starving so we decided to head to one of the restaurants on my list. About a 10 minute walk away from the cathedral and through Groenplaats square (shown below, with a nice statue of Rubens), and admittedly a little hard to find, we stopped at De Groote Witte Arend, a lovely restaurant inside of an old 17th century convent building. It was definitely charming, and the food was local and delicious.
The waiter recommended the local specialty Stoemp, basically mashed potatoes with eggs, lettuce, and bacon added. It was surprisingly delicious (I was a little wary about the eggs) and extremely filling! I would definitely recommend it. However, if you’re with friends, it might be a good idea to order a meat plate as well and share, so you can have both your carbs and a meaty protein.
After that filling lunch, we decided to head toward the river and see Het Steen Castle. We asked the waiter for directions, and he warned us “You know it is a small castle, right? Not really anything to see?” However, when we got there, we were glad we made the journey. Although small, it is still very picturesque and right on the river. There is even a nice cafe inside where you can have a rest and look out over the water.
We wandered along the waterfront for a bit (be sure to look back towards the city center, there are some nice views of the cathedral), then headed up north towards the MAS Museum. We stopped at St. Paul’s Church, or Sint-Paulusparochie, along the way. The church was unique because in the gardens they had statues and a diorama of sorts of various important scenes from the Bible. I had never seen anything quite like it. The inside was nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. When you walk in, at the far end there is another hallway with some interesting paintings that are worth a visit.
One thing that surprised (and confused) us was at the far end of the Cathedral, near the altar. In the picture above, you see white, black, and gray balls of differing sizes connected by strings. Weird, right? There was no informational poster or anything, but I have the feeling it was a temporary exhibit of some sort.
From there, we headed directly North. It was getting late and we wanted to be sure that we got there before dark (while the MAS exhibits close at 5 or 6, you can still go all the way to the top for the views). What we didn’t realize is that Antwerp has a mini Red Light District. We were so busy trying to read street signs and check our map that we didn’t realize where we were headed.
Next thing we knew, there were women in string bikinis posing for us in the windows and men perusing slowly, deliberately. In fact, thinking back now, just a couple minutes prior a guy passed by us and gave us a weird hand signal and laughed, then power walked towards the main street. We had no idea what to make of it, but perhaps that should have been a clue.
Since we were heading to Amsterdam the following day, we decided to let this be a ‘taste’ of what was to come. We walked a little bit faster, but slow enough where we could still see what was happening. It felt nerve-wracking to be the only girls walking this street, surrounded by half naked women and shifty-eyed men. I couldn’t believe how popular it was in the early afternoon! If you’re in the area during the day, it is worth a look if you’re in a decent sized group. However, I wouldn’t recommend anyone coming at night or even going by themselves during the day. It isn’t Amsterdam, there aren’t a lot of tourists around. It seemed like mostly a local thing, and a sketchy local thing at that.
From there, it was about a 10 minute walk to MAS, or Museum aan de Stroom. It is a very unique building, 10 stories high, with big, curved glass. If you arrive after the museum closes, you can still take the escalators all the way to the top.
I hear it is a very nice museum, so if you’re in the area and have time, it is probably worth the visit. The views from the top are also nice, but I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to see it if time was an issue.
By this time, our feet were killing us, it was freezing, and we were dying for a drink. We headed back towards the center and bar hopped a bit, and luckily were able to catch the beautiful sunset against the Cathedral.
It is a very lovely city, especially when wandering the streets at night. We went to a nightclub that night and I met a guy who was from there, and he asked me why the hell we came to Antwerp because there was “nothing there.” A lot of Belgians seemed to have that opinion, but don’t let it stop you from making a visit if you have time! We truly enjoyed our stay, and were spoiled with lots of good Belgian beers and fries. I was sad to say goodbye!
Have you visited before? What was your experience? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you! Happy travels! 🙂
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