Known as the cool kid on the block in Belgium, Antwerp combines all the charms of a historic port city with all the joys of a fashionable frontrunner. Its 20 must-visit attractions include grand artist residences, architectural masterpieces—both old and new—and a bunch of exciting museums.
This giant Lego® brick-like structure lies in the heart of an old harbor neighborhood that’s been revamped by its presence. Either admire urban vistas from the MAS’s nine-floored horizontal boulevard (open for free to the public until 10 pm—midnight in the summer months) or learn about Antwerp’s historic status as a major European port inside.
Those 12 million immigrants who landed on Ellis Island in the first half of the 20th century, looking to live the American dream? A great number of them set sail from Antwerp. At the Red Star Line Museum, housed in the old warehouses of the shipping company that sent steamer after steamer full of people westwards, the odyssey of these dreamers is laid out with an impressive eye for both detail and historical context.
Both the MAS and the Red Star Line have become large attractions in Het Eilandje, an abandoned port district until a decade ago. As the news and the excitement about the MAS project spread, coffee bars, artist ateliers and repurposed warehouses flowered to comfortably overtake Het Zuid as the hippest district in the city.
Even without a specific restaurant in mind, a stroll down Het Zuid’s terraces at dinner time has the mouth watering in seconds. Trendy restaurants and cafés dot the historic neighborhood’s wide boulevards and squares. The afternoon running up to the meal is well spent exploring the FoMu photo museum, the stately Museum of Contemporary Art, or a couple of its many art galleries.
When challenged to incorporate an old protected fire station into the city’s new international Port House, Zaha Hadid Architects decided to plop quite the juxtaposition on top. The monument now carries a glittering, glass-covered expansion simultaneously referencing Antwerp’s reputation for diamonds and its maritime culture. The piece of prestige architecture is begging to be admired in the sunlight.
Antiques and vintage are the Kloosterstraat’s forte. Visitors will find the oldest and oddest objects in the shops lining this street, from wooden rocking horses to winged designer lamps and seas of retro chairs.
Walking along Antwerp’s Cogels-Osylei, it can be hard to believe your eyes; with one villa more ostensibly opulent than the next, the entire long avenue is an exercise in neo-classical eclecticism. It’s a very worthy walk, and at its end is the Draakplaats, a lovely spot for a drink or bite.
Much-traveled as an ambassador and fond as he was of Italy, Peter Paul Rubens still chose to plant his personally designed house and atelier in Antwerp. The Rubenshuis, preserved as one of the most famous artist residencies in the world, is where the master’s own pieces, as well as those of other talented Flemish painters, can be admired alongside a peek into the home-life of Belgium’s ultimate uomo universale.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Plantin-Moretus family ruled over the early European printing world. Like Rubens, Christoffel Plantin set up his workshop and sumptuous living quarters in the same place. The 16th-century printing presses and a library containing precious original manuscripts still bear witness to the flowering of European literature.
Sultry days soon call for lazy afternoons at Park Spoor Noord, Antwerp’s resident hot-day solution. Here, children splash around in shallow water basins, chattering friends carry rosé from the pop-up summer bar to their beach chairs, and communal barbecues and the occasional food truck fill the summer air with foodie fragrances.
A massive 16th-century City Hall, a grand fountain depicting the city’s mythical origin story, and a flurry of step-gabled guild houses—these all combine to make Antwerp’s main square a beauty of monumental proportions.
The ultimate place to learn about Antwerp’s folkloric origins would be at the foot of the Brabo Fountain in front of City Hall. Looking up, courageous Roman soldier Silvius Brabo can be seen flinging away the severed hand of Antigoon, a malicious giant that terrorized the region. Legend has it that by throwing the giant’s hand in the river Scheldt, Brabo gave the city its eventual name—“handwerpen” (throwing a hand) would lead to “Antwerpen.”
Considered the world’s most beautiful railway station by many, Antwerp’s central train hub is mainly admired for its outspoken contradictions. The bringing together of Louis Delacenserie’s Neo-Renaissance aesthetic and engineer Clément Van Bogaert’s use of modern steel, iron, and glass is where its beauty resides.
The Middelheim’s sculpture park to the north of the city core is 30 hectares of world-class statues and conceptual art. The open-air museum doesn’t bother so much with high or lowbrow concerns—you’re just as likely to bump into elegant nudes by Rodin as inflatable turds by Paul McCarthy—but is increasingly acquiring more contemporary works.
Much like Ghent’s St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady doubles as a temple for art. Major works by Rubens are displayed inside, while its 123-meter-high (403.5 feet) north tower qualifies it as the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries. Pay special attention to its spire of stone lacework.
Crossing from the left to the right bank of the river Scheldt via the underpass (or St. Anna’s Tunnel) holds its own handsome rewards. The white-tiled pedestrian tunnel, built in the ’30s, still uses its authentic wooden escalators, a unique feature at the time. Once on the left bank, a splendid view of the historic core’s skyline is yours.
De Koninck brewery tour | Courtesy of De Koninck Brewery
They created Antwerp’s signature Bolleke beer (a malty pale ale with hints of caramel), and for that, locals will forever be grateful for De Koninck. It’s the oldest of the city’s breweries, and it recently added an impressive visitor center and tour that grants a glimpse into its brewing chambers.
The Vrijdagmarkt lies snuggled up against the previously mentioned Plantin-Moretus printing museum. On lovely days, the small but bustling square guarantees full terraces, and Fridays only see the hustle and bustle increase as brocante vendors strike down to auction off their wares during a market whose roots stretch all the way back to the 16th century.