If at all possible, make your morning journey to Antwerp by train. Arriving in the city’s hailed Central Station is as good a first introduction as you can get. The stone turrets visible before you enter the iron-and-glass shed of the grand complex are just a prelude of the lavishness that follows. In creating the white marbled ticket hall, architect Louis Delacenserie took inspiration from both Antwerp’s Renaissance, Rome’s Pantheon and other international railway stations built around the same time, giving you an idea of the eclectic splendor of this beautiful building.
From the station it’s just a five-minute walk to Antwerp’s widest shopping boulevard. Follow the Meir to its end, where the Boerentoren (‘Farmer’s Tower’) rises up. This Art Deco giant was Europe’s very first skyscraper, and kicks off a whole series of stunning architecture in the old town core. Some tough decisions will have to be made given the 24-hour time crunch!
Around the block, the lace-like stone spire of the Cathedral of Our Lady is revealed. The tallest church in the Low Countries houses four early works by the most famous Antwerpenaar of all, Peter Paul Rubens. Its soaring white arches and vaults make it a magnificent example of the Brabant Gothic style. Other surviving incarnations of the medieval movement are close by in the red-bricked Butchers’ Hall, the statue-rich St. Paul’s Church and St. Andrew’s Church, with its remarkable, octagonal-shaped and domed bell tower. The lauded Plantin-Moretus Museum holds the world’s oldest printing presses, a library of precious manuscripts and the home of a family that dominated the early European publishing business.
Similarly, the Rubenshuis, a short walk back over the Meir, showcases Rubens’ family home-cum-atelier, the way the Flemish master with the myriad talents originally designed it. To further walk the Rubens path, the St. Charles Borromeo is the preeminent Rubens church, with a Baroque façade believed to have been drawn by the master himself. It sits on the Hendrik Conscienceplein, a quiet, charming square nestled between the winding cobbled alleys behind de Groenplaats Square.
Galleries, restaurants and independent bookstores line these streets, and a simple wander should bring you face-to-face with the Grote Markt (the main market) and its massive 16th-century City Hall. Perhaps most picturesque of all is the Vlaeykensgang, an ivy-clad medieval alley and a beloved spot for people to listen to the Cathedral of Our Lady’s carillon concerts in summer.
Rubenshuis, Wapper 9-11, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 201 15 55
A stone’s throw from the Rubenshuis, the Theaterplein boasts not only Antwerp’s imposing City Theater but a couple of delightful lunch options as well. Hip casual eateries include the retro Barnini (bagels, soups and darn good coffee) and bright green Lunchbox (salads, burgers and plenty of veggie dishes). On Saturdays, head to the Exotic Market that sets up underneath the square’s white trellis ceiling. The air is filled with the scents of baklava, handmade seafood croquettes and fresh Moroccan mint tea.
Barnini, Oudevaartplaats 10, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 485 82 69
Lunchbox, Nieuwstad 8, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 231 04 79
Next, hop on a bus to make your way over to Het Eilandje, a formerly abandoned dockside district that has become Antwerp’s go-to neighborhood. In the heart of Het Eilandje the reason for the region’s regeneration towers over it all: the MAS. The maritime museum stands in a large water basin that reflects its remarkable sandstone exterior. Even if you don’t have the time to visit the exhibits inside, architects Neutelings & Riedijk worked in a special ‘horizontal boulevard’ that’s accessible even without a ticket, and winds up for nine floors. It culminates in a rooftop that provides a splendid panorama of the city.
Reward yourself with a drink at one of the many waterside café terraces, or with a hot beverage at expert espresso bar Broer Bretel. The new Red Star Line Museum is an excellent alternative to the Maritime Museum. The permanent exhibit inside — housed in salvaged shipping sheds — tells the fascinating story of Ellis Island’s counterpart: the docking station where hundreds of thousands of European emigrants were approved (or not) to board the steamers of the Red Star Line, a shipping company running to and from the USA and Canada.
MAS, Hanzestedenplaats 1, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 338 44 00
Red Star Line, Montevideostraat 3, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 298 27 70
Broer Bretel, Nassaustraat 7, 2000 Antwerp, +32 484 15 82 96
Stately townhouses, wide avenues and general 19th-century elegance define Het Zuid, a neighborhood that has become a staple of early evening fun. Many hip restaurants — including Yam Thai, Bar Italia and seafood temples Fikskebar and Marlin — have settled on Marnixplein square, Leopold de Waelplaats square and the Waalse Kaai.
Yam Thai, Volkstraat 76, 2000 Antwerp, +32 471 82 42 75
Bar Italia, Graaf van Egmontstraat 56, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 216 17 48
Fikskebar, Marnixplaats 11, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 257 13 57
Marlin, Waalsekaai 32, 2000 Antwerp, +32 3 237 51 68
No matter the season, a perfect post-meal stroll can always be found at Zurenborg’s Cogels-Osylei. The scenic avenue might require a couple of blinks of the eye before you’re able to take in all the lush mansions in Art Nouveau, Tudor, and every ‘neo’ architectural style imaginable. At the end of the residential lane, the Draakplaats and Dageraadplaats are bursting with laid-back and bohemian bars — such as Zeezicht and Bar Salon — to wrap up the evening with a drink, a laugh, and possibly a spot of jazz.
Zeezicht, Dageraadplaats 7-8, 2018 Antwerp, +32 3 235 10 65
Bar Salon, Dageraadplaats 2, 2018 Antwerp, +32 479 58 40 78