Antwerp was voted one of the top 10 cities to visit by Lonely Planet and was praised by travel writers in The Guardian and The New York Times. For travellers on a budget, here are 10 free things to do in this wonderful city if you’re short on cash.
In the neighbourhood called Het Eilandje (the little island in Dutch), the old dockside area of Antwerp, you will find the Museum aan de Stroom, MAS for short. This impressive building, constructed mainly out of sandstone and glass, is a museum dedicated to Antwerp’s long history as a major international port. Buying a ticket will get you into all the exhibits, but depending on what is on show, some floors have free access. Access to the escalators is always free, enabling you to travel up to a pedestrian boulevard surrounded by glass panels. Each floor will give you a new view of the city, culminating in a panoramic view of Antwerp on the rooftop of the MAS. Don’t forget to bring your camera!
As a city full of medieval buildings, Antwerp is filled with romantic places to take your date. The Conscienceplein, with the city’s heritage library and the Gothic Saint Carolus Borromeus Church, is a picturesque spot to enjoy some quality time with your significant other. If you go when the sun is out, there is a good chance there will be a street musician playing the guitar, flute or saxophone, to add to the romantic atmosphere. Another good option is the botanical garden, a lovely green oasis in the heart of town. It started out almost 200 years ago as a space to grow medicinal plants to be used at the nearby hospital but was opened to the public in 1926. The garden is open daily from 8 am to 5:30 pm in winter and closes at 8 pm in the summertime. If you’re lucky and the greenhouse is also open, you can check out some cool cacti and other tropical plants.
Aside from beer and chocolate, Belgium is also known for its many excellent cartoonists. Peyo (the Smurfs), Morris (Lucky Luke) and Hergé (Tintin) were all Belgian and Antwerp is the hometown of Willy Vandersteen of Suske en Wiske. As such, it is no wonder the walls of this port city have been spruced up with a total of 10 cartoon murals. Perhaps the most mesmerising of them all is the one by Brecht Evens on the De Oever. Evens painted this 210 square metre hommage to the city of Antwerp in 2012. The piece is aptly titled Colour Parade and features a pegasus, minotaur and the Hindu deity Shiva among a dazzling array of other cultural references.
Antwerp is home to some great architecture, but nowhere in this city will you find more architectural styles combined than on the Cogels-Osylei, a beautiful residential avenue in the south of the city, connecting the Zurenborg and Berchem neighbourhoods. Back in the 19th century, this is where the wealthy Belgian Cogels and Osy families built townhouses in every ornate style imaginable, from Art Nouveau to Neo-Renaissance and from Neoclassical to Gothic Revival. A stroll down this peaceful cobbled street will leave a mighty impression.
At the first rays of sunshine, the massive Park Spoor Noord on the north side of the city will be swarming with groups of friends and families. In 2008, the city council opted to convert this abandoned railway site into Antwerp’s largest park. On the north side of this enormous public outdoor area is a former warehouse, which now houses regular markets and events with pop-up bars and food stalls. In front is a terrace and a shallow water playground for kids and behind it are public barbecue areas. The rest of the park is made up of lawn areas, ideal for casual games of soccer or frisbee, or you can jog or bike on the footpaths.
There is no better way to discover a new city than on foot. It gets even better when you have someone with you who can tell you all about the history of the area, including all of the fun facts. In Antwerp, there are several companies offering free walking tours, Viva and Legends of Antwerp being the top-rated ones. They both require you to book in advance through their website and it usually takes around two hours to complete a walk. If you really enjoyed your free tour, feel free to tip your guide!
Antwerp has been around since the 4th century but it really bloomed in the Middle Ages, when the population expanded rapidly and many of the city’s current historical buildings were constructed. As you step into the Vlaeykensgang, you can imagine yourself transported back to that era. This medieval alley that links the Pelgrimstraat, Oude Koornmarkt and Hoogstraat used to be home to Antwerp’s poorest citizens, but nowadays it houses antique shops, art galleries and a restaurant. Because it is so close to the Cathedral of Our Lady, the benches in the Vlaeykensgang have become a beloved spot for listening to the cathedral’s frequent carillon concerts. The best way to enter the is through the gate at the Oude Koornmarkt 16.
Antwerp only holds half the population of Brussels, but in terms of creativity and a lively art scene, it certainly holds his own to the European capital. There is the FOMU photography museum, architectural wonder, MAS, the Rubenshuis and many more. Normally, each museum charges an entrance fee, except every last Wednesday of the month, when entrance to six of Antwerp’s main museums is free. Discover which ones here.
If you happen to visit Antwerp on another day of the month, not to worry, as there are plenty of art galleries where you can explore art free of charge. Our favourites include De Zwarte Panter, a former chapel with a little courtyard. Aside from consistently showing great artists, it is worth the visit just because of its beautiful location. Around since 1968, this is the oldest art gallery in Antwerp and the second oldest in the whole of Belgium. Gallery Sofie van de Velde also always has cool contemporary artists on show and if you visit their Nieuw Zuid branch, you can walk over to Plus One Gallery next door for art that is a bit more on the unconventional side. If you’re into contemporary art photography, you will definitely want to visit Stieglitz 19 and Keteleer (formerly At The Gallery) if you want to see works by upcoming artists that are not household names yet. While you’re there, Leonhard’s Gallery, a few doors down, also usually has good shows on.
Antwerp is on the river Scheldt, which makes for some excellent views while relaxing by the waterside when the weather is nice. Most people prefer to catch some rays and cool down with the river breeze at the old docks near the Steen Castle or on the man-made beach, Saint Anneke. But the best spot is on the other side of the Scheldt, at Noordkasteel. Swimming in the river is strictly forbidden because of a dangerous undertow and poor water quality, but at Noordkasteel, there is a small lake, which doesn’t have perilous currents. Officially swimming at Noordkasteel is not allowed, but no one will stop you if you do. Most likely, if the weather is half decent, there will already be a ton of people in the water.
Antwerp is home to many parks but the most amazing one without a doubt is the Middelheim Park, located in the south of the city. Not only is it beautifully landscaped, with ponds, romantic bridges and lots of benches to take in the greenery, but it also houses a free museum and the biggest collection of outdoor art in the region. The indoor museum hosts new exhibits every few months, mostly linked to a bigger exhibit outside. Outdoor artworks on display include sculptures by Antony Gormley, Ai Weiwei and Rodin. If you download the free app, you can choose a route and check out your favourite artists.