With classic art and contemporary design, Antwerp is a cosmopolitan charmer with a medieval heart. Here are some of the best things to do in Antwerp to discover all sides to this Belgian gem.
In the 16th century, Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. Its port was at the centre of world trade. During this golden era, it experienced a boom in pepper and cinnamon from Portugal; another in silver from America; and a third in the lucrative textile market.
Today, Antwerp is going through a 4th boom – one of uncontested cool. Where decadent palaces filled with classic art sit alongside shiny structures housing edgy modern exhibitions. Where the medieval centre of winding cobbled streets work in balance with regeneration projects breathing new life into disused industrial estates.
Antwerp is a city with many sides.
But most of all, Antwerp is cool because locals love living here. The cosmopolitan vibe is felt at weekend markets and cosy brunch spots; in attractive streets and edgy neighbourhoods; and in its proud heritage and vintage façades.
From golden era wealth to a vibrant art scene; from a city proud of its heritage to relaxing urban hangouts – here are four sides to Antwerp to get under the skin of this Belgian gem.
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1 – VISIT THE MAYER VAN DEN BERGH MUSEUM
A man of means and all-round connoisseur, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh was a prominent art collector and the first to have a museum specially built to house his private collection. Today, the Museum Mayer van den Bergh is like stepping into a royal palace; a lavish space with intricate wood panelling and ornate ceilings.
But, it’s Mad Meg that demands the most attention and makes the gallery an unmissable thing to do in Antwerp. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s most famous work depicting a heroine leading an army of women to pillage hell overflows with Flemish folklore.
2 – WITNESS PROMINENT CONNECTIONS AT SNIJDERS & ROCKOXHUIS
In Antwerp’s golden era, being wealthy was not enough. Connections were important. Nicholaas Rockox was mayor of Antwerp and one of the most prominent citizens of his time. His friend, Frans Snijders was a painter, student of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and colleague of famous Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens.
As next-door neighbours, their houses have been combined into one thoroughly immersive gallery. With the help of an excellent audiovisual guide, explore Samson and Delilah – painted for Rockox by his friend Rubens. Pick out the characters in Joachim Beuckelaer’s The Flight to Egypt and spot the Moses with horns – a translation error from the 16th century. In addition to Snijders own work, the gallery is packed with the works of Flemish masters.
3 – VISIT THE MASTER’S HOUSE AT RUBENSHUIS
There’s one Flemish master whose reputation exceeds all others – Peter Paul Rubens. A visit to Rubenshuis – the 17th-century mansion where Peter Paul Ruben’s lived with his family for 25 years – provides a glimpse into the posh, creative heart of Antwerp in the 16th century. Most of his works were completed here, and strolling the space is a wonderful thing to do in Antwerp.
It’s clear that Ruben’s had a successful career and a prominent position in Antwerp social circles. Rubenshuis remains well connected today. The gallery purchased St Catherine by Tintoretto from David Bowie’s private collection following his death.
4 – MAS – MUSEUM ANN DE STROOM
Antwerp’s MAS or the Museum ann de Stroom (Museum by the river) radiates water. The rippling glass of the exterior reflects the river that surrounds it. The story continues inside the 10 enormous red brick containers stacked onto each other that make up the exhibition space. MAS is about Antwerp’s connection with the world, a connection told through its lifeblood, the port.
Discover the city and its maritime heritage along with various other exhibitions. Each floor offers a gradually improving view of the city through MAS’s iconic rippling glass. The final view on the rooftop is one of the best panoramas of the city and a great thing to do in Antwerp.
5 – M HKA – MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
In stark contrast to the showy exterior of MAS, the M HKA or the Museum of Modern Art is a blank warehouse from the outside. But inside is a place for curiosity, where a willingness to see things differently is rewarded with a stellar modern exhibition. A focus on art and society is told through image, film and various quirky installations.
The M HKA is a huge exhibition; a place to stroll around and soak up rather than work through chronologically. There are permanent and temporary exhibitions to and an excellent, but stark photo exhibition. The beautiful library and reading room which also function as the reception is Antwerp’s favourite living room.
6 – FOMU – PHOTO MUSEUM OF ANTWERP
The Photo Museum of Antwerp is a thoroughly engrossing and at times, confronting photographic exhibition. On our visit, “Rebel Lives” shared photographs and video footage from the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Notorious for its mass abductions of children, the series portrayed how victims of the army went from abductees to abductors.
But, for a complete change of pace, “Moon” took us on an odyssey through our fascination – political and emotional – with exploring our closest celestial neighbour. It was a fun exhibition with artefacts from the original moon landing.
7 – UNDERSTAND THE IMMIGRANT JOURNEY AT THE RED STAR LINE MUSEUM
Two million passengers sailed from Antwerp to the Americas on Red Star Line ships. Today, the Red Star Line Museum located at the old port, is an engaging look at the process immigrants went through in order to gain a better life. From the harsh medical inspections in Antwerp to the horrible conditions at sea, a free parcel of land came at a cost of weeks of harrowing conditions.
The museum walks through the transient nature of Antwerp during the 19th century. In a city where today 92% of the population are happy, 100 years ago they couldn’t wait to leave. It’s an excellent exhibition on the site of the old docks and a great thing to do in Antwerp.
8 – REVEL IN THE THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE AT PLANTIN-MORETUS MUSEUM
One arrival who didn’t want to leave was Christophe Plantin. Born into a poor family in France he moved to Antwerp in the middle of the 16th century. Here, he started a successful publishing business and went on to become one of the most influential figures of Antwerp society. As a deft diplomat, he achieved something relatively unheard of in his time – the printing of scientific books.
His former mansion is today the Plantin-Moretus Museum. It’s a sumptuous atmospheric look inside the world of Antwerp’s high society. Early scientific books are on display in all their dusty leather-bound glory alongside the original typesets that were used to print them. As a friend of the Ruben’s family, the museum includes books illustrated by Peter Paul.
9 – SEE RUBEN’S MOST FAMOUS WORKS AT THE CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY
While Rubens’s illustrations show his depth of skill as an artist and his connections to the elite, his real masterpieces are on display at the Cathedral of Our Lady. Construction commenced in 1352 and lasted 170 years. Like many of Belgium’s gothic churches, the cathedral has a long history of devastation and destruction. But despite current renovations, it stands today as a symbol of Antwerp’s golden era.
It’s also the perfect pace to showcase Rubens’s most famous works. The cathedral boasts 4 of his masterpieces including The Assumption of the Virgin which takes pride of place above the main alter. At various times of the year, temporary exhibitions are held in the cathedral showing other works. More information can be found at Visit Antwerp.
10 – STROLL THROUGH THE PHOTOGENIC SINT ANNATUNNEL
One place that doesn’t need regenerating is Sint Annatunnel – the functional piece of tunnelling connecting the two sides of the Scheldt River. The tunnel is a popular thoroughfare for locals making a regular commute across the river. But it’s the sumptuous wooden escalators built in the 1930’s that draw visitors to soak up a remarkably well-preserved piece of design.
The beautiful dark wooden escalators contrast with the tunnel lined with repetitive cream tiles. Sint Annatunnal is a triumph of form and function.
11 – SHOP INDEPENDENT ON KLOOSTERSTRAAT & WOOLSTRAAT
At the exit to Sint Annatunnel, the retro feel continues along Kloosterstraat. The beautiful street at the heart of Antwerp’s obsession with concept stores is lined with pop-ups, independent fashion, cafes and music stores. Pick from one of the many brunch joints and sip a coffee while flicking through vinyl.
On the other side of the old town, Woolstraat is the vintage answer to Kloosterstraat’s modern edge. Antique stores, art dealers and dusty old bookstores line this beautiful street just a stone’s throw from Grote Markt. Spend the afternoon popping in and out of stores full of character before trying a Belgian beer in one of the many brown bars in the area.
12 – ABSORB THE HIPSTER VIBE AT PAKT
While the centre of Antwerp is full of vintage charm and old-world atmosphere, the repurposed green quarter is an ideal way to see a different side of the city. Pakt is a meeting place created in a disused industrial estate. They use sustainable technologies to create an environmentally friendly cooperative of cafes and restaurants. Try a coffee at Caffenation which collects water onsite and roasts their own beans next door. Or a bite at Racine, the rooftop restaurant that uses products grown onsite.
Finish off some thoroughly enjoyable things to do in Antwerp by heading up to their rooftop garden and taking in the views of a city that thrived in the 16th century and is doing so again today.
WHERE TO STAY IN ANTWERP
With so many wonderful things to do in Antwerp it’s no surprise there’s a huge array of accommodation options. Our choice would always be to stay in the centre of town, however, Antwerp has an excellent transport system so it’s worth looking a little further afield as well.
In particular, there are some great options in the ‘t Groen Kwartier area including lots of urban renewarl projects, breathing new life into disused buildings. It’s only a 15 minute tram ride into the centre on Antwerp’s very efficient public transport system.
Here are some recommendations from us.
Located in the heart of the old town, Hotel Julien is a beautifully designed hotel in relaxed modern tones. It’s both comfortable and elegant with excellent service and an on-site spa for indulgent pampering.
With an excellent restaurant/bar, plus a shared lounge and garden, Yust Antwerp is an ideal choice to meet your fellow travellers. Cook up a storm in their communal kitchen or freshen the wardrobe in their retro laundry.
For modern boutique experience with a budget rate card, Hotel Les Nuits delivers with friendly service. The central location is excellent and it’s a great option for a comfortable room at very affordable prices.
HOW TO GET TO ANWERP
Antwerp is located 45 km north of Brussels. There are excellent rail connections from many destinations in Europe, making it a very easy place to get to.
By air – The main airport servicing Antwerp is Brussels International Airport which has daily flights from many European destinations. A very convenient train service will whisk you from the airport to Antwerp in around 30 minutes (€12). Check timetables at Belgian Train.
By train – International high-speed trains connect Brussels to many destinations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Check prices and timetables with Thalys. If you’re coming from London, Eurostar will get you to Brussels in 2 hours, where you can easily connect to Antwerp on the same ticket. From Brussels, it’s around 45 minutes by train to Antwerp.
By car – Given the excellent train network in Belgium and the very good public transport in Antwerp we wouldn’t recommend driving. However, if you’re visiting Antwerp as part of a road trip, you can check car rental prices here.
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