Belgium’s second biggest city has plenty of goodies when it comes to big tourist attractions. There are so many, in fact, that they can overshadow some of the wonderful things that make Antwerpenaars adore their city. These 12 experiences will take you off Antwerp’s beaten track to unusual spots for giraffe gazing, underground parties in old pitch factories, and other places with couleur locale by the bucketload.
Go giraffe spotting outside the zoo
Instead of flowing straight from Antwerp’s beautiful railway station into its neighboring zoo along with tons of day trippers, head for the square at the crossing of the Ploegstraat, Ommeganckstraat, and Provinciestraat. Here the giraffes’ heads comically bob over a wall so often that the previously unnamed plaza was officially baptized “Giraffe Square” a couple of years ago.
Get your coffee at Caffènation
Do as the Antwerp hipsters do and get your black gold at Caffènation, the mother hen of Belgian barista places. The specialty coffee wave that swept the city over a decade ago is largely attributable to owner Rob’s almost 15-year-old original.
Caffènation, Mechelsesteenweg 16, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 689 70 13
Or while knitting at Maurice
As Belgium’s resident concept store champ, coffee-cum-knitting bars come with the territory for Antwerp. At Maurice Coffee Bar, named after owner Véronique Leysen’s bompa (grandpa), a team of expert grannies is present every Thursday to address any and all knitwear questions.
Maurice, Schoenmarkt 35, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 202 98 59
Take a dip in ecological swimming pond Boekenberg
Who’d have thought that paradise on earth for eco-warriors would be a green-hued pond in the Antwerp commune of Deurne? The ecological open-air pool inside the romantic Boekenberg Park makes for an extra idyllic swim, and it gets its green color from plants that naturally purify the water.
Get merry with locals at Café Beveren
One of many brown bars in the port city, Café Beveren on the docks takes the cake when it comes to nighttime merriment. Their colorful and rare Decap organ—a mechanical jukebox from Art Deco times that blasts classic schlager tunes—and an equally colorful bunch of locals guarantee a memorable evening on the town.
Café Beveren, Vlasmarkt 2, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 495 81 81 34
Get vinyl serious at Tune Up Records
Hidden on the second floor of an international magazine store, Tune Up Records takes its vinyl seriously, though whimsical exhibits—think a collection of cat-themed sleeves—and casual music gigs take the edge off.
Tune Up Records, Melkmarkt 17, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 226 84 11
Uncover history at the Felix Archive
For travelers wanting to take a deeper dive into Antwerp’s history than the usual tourist’s skim, the Felix Archive inside the 19th-century St. Felix warehouse is essentially where the city’s memory lies in slumber. Over 24 kilometers (15 miles) of shelving hold old pictures, maps, and memorabilia that paint a more detailed picture of its sociological and maritime past. Among the treasures is a large parchment map from 1505 that depicts Antwerp’s lifeline, the river Scheldt.
Felix Archive, Oude Leeuwenrui 29, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 338 94 11
Party at Pekfabriek
Unpredictable and crazily lit with neon lights, parties at Pekfabriek are all about location. Held at an old pitch factory in the Borgerhout commune, concerts and DJ sets here are as underground as they come. Nobody cares about what anyone’s wearing for once—a rarity in Antwerp—and you can show up in your absolute shabbiest as long as you remember to enjoy the music and laid-back atmosphere. Keeping an eye on the Plaza Real Facebook page is one way to puzzle together the programming, but for a full picture, you’ll have to rely on word of mouth.
Watch the sunset on ’t Vlot
As soon as the sun’s out, ’t Vlot (“the raft”), next to the ancient Het Steen fortress, fills up with young locals looking for a relaxed, fun time. The large wooden deck by the waterside has grown into a popular gathering place for friends to share a beer, play a game of cards or watch the sun set. Just make sure to bring sunscreen in the event that you wind up falling asleep to the melodies of the inevitable guitar players.
Find a quiet place at St. Paul’s Church’s Calvary and garden
Guidebooks often spend time on the splendid St. Paul’s Church, rightfully praising its Baroque interior and precious art collection—which includes Rubens and Van Dyck—but forgetting to mention some of its most intriguing features. Next to the monument is a tranquil Calvary display that boasts over 60 life-sized figures. Around the block and hidden from view by stone walls, a peaceful garden with Lourdes Grotto forms a sacred escape from hectic urban life.
Experience local nostalgia at De Roma
In 2003, the once glorious but abandoned ’20s movie theater De Roma started breathing life again thanks to many volunteers. The nostalgic Borgerhout institution has been going strong ever since, used for lectures, concerts, and, of course, screenings of top-tier Hollywood and art films.
De Roma, Turnhoutsebaan 286, Borgerhout, Belgium, +32 3 600 16 60
Hunt for knick-knacks at Markt van Morgen
Antwerp has a thriving market culture, and at the hipper end of the scale, there’s the cozy Markt van Morgen (“Market of Tomorrow”). Selected Sundays see vintage Valhalla Kloosterstraat partly taken over by local designer talent. On sale is everything from jewelry to clothing to furniture to graphic posters and whimsical tote bags. Peckish market-goers flock towards a Market of Tomorrow staple: the colorful foodie caravan serving up sandwiches, soups, cupcakes, and coffee.