Antwerp is a bustling metropolis full of modern entertainments, but it’s the centuries-old history in the old city center that fuels the local tourist industry. We’ve compiled a list of the top 10 cultural attractions to look out for on the charming cobbled streets.
You’ll find Grote Markt, the old market square, right in the center of the old city district. Historic guildhalls line the edge of the square, flanking the impressive structure of Antwerp’s city hall. A statue of the mythical Roman soldier Silvius Brabo stands in the middle of it all, portrayed mid-throw as he tosses the severed hand of a slain giant. In the old legends, this is said to be how Antwerp got its name (hand werpen, or ‘hand throw’). The Grote Markt is a hub of architecture, history, and folklore, so be sure to stop by when you’re wandering through old city.
Watch out for: The seasonal Christmas market
Vlaeykensgang is a small alley near the Grote Markt, connecting several streets in an otherwise secluded community. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Vlaeykensgang was the home of Antwerp’s shoemakers and cobblers. Today, this quiet alleyway is a sweet refuge from the hubbub of the city center. The buildings lining this street are idyllic and calm, converted from their cobbling days into a row of quaint restaurants, cafes, and flats. The entrances to this street are small, sometimes no larger than a doorway, so keep your eyes peeled.
Watch out for: The cathedral’s carillon concerts, held every monday during summer
At one point in its history, Antwerp was characterized by its waterways, which were crucial to the town’s defense, transport, and local resources. Eventually these waterways devolved into sewers, and after that, new buildings and streets were built over them. In 2005, the underground ruins of these waterways were re-opened to the curious public. Your entrance fee into De Ruien gets you a torch, a pair of wellies, and a protective suit to help you navigate the tunnels safely. (The suit is yours to keep after the tour, which makes for a unique souvenir.) Travelers seeking a different perspective of the city will be well rewarded: from hidden vaults to the undersides of bridges, this tour offers a close-up look at Antwerp’s very foundations.
Watch out for: The underground chapel
Opening Hours: Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm
Ruihuis, Suikerrui 21, Antwerpen, Belgium, +32 3 232 01 03
The oldest building in Antwerp, Het Steen is a small castle built in the early middle ages following Viking invasions into Belgium. This structure has worn many hats in its long history, from fortress to maritime museum. The castle currently hosts exhibits and play areas with a focus on children, and the architecture itself is well worth a visit for the photo opportunities alone.
Watch out for: The statue of the giant Lange Wapper
Opening Hours: Wed-Sun 12pm-6pm
Het Steen, Steenplein 1, Antwerpen, Belgium, +32 3 202 83 80
This animal park was opened in 1843, making it one of the oldest zoos in the world. It’s also one of the most impressive in both size and species, with more than 4,000 animals inhabiting its 10 hectares of grounds. 19th-century influence shines through in the zoo’s wonderful buildings, from an Egyptian temple and the Greek-styled reptile house, all the way through to the thatch-roofed building the koalas call home.
Watch out for: The beautiful aviary
Opening Hours: 10am-5:30pm daily
ZOO Antwerpen, Koningin Astridplein 20-26, Antwerpen, Belgium, +32 3 224 89 10
Antwerp Central Station is one of the city’s main landmarks, and one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. Architecturally, it’s an eclectic mix of different styles, with a neo-Gothic front, a massive dome, and a modern multilevel platform system. Having a train station on a list of things to see and do might seem unusual, but even if you aren’t traveling by train, we recommend visiting just for the spectacle. If you are travelling by train, there are plenty of European cities to jaunt off to, as the station has links to Amsterdam, Paris, and Marseille.
Watch out for: The upper-level’s clock
Opening Hours: 5:45am-9:30pm daily
Antwerpen-Centraal, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 (0)70 79 79 79
Watch out for: Rubens’ Descent from the Cross
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1pm-4pm
Peter Paul Rubens was one of the most prominent Flemish painters of his time, and has remained a national favourite in the years since his death. Rubenshuis is a museum dedicated to his life and work, located in the artist’s former home and studio. The house is vast, with many rooms, a courtyard, and Rubens’ art room where he housed his personal collection. In another building at the back of the garden visitors will find the Rubenianum – a more focused centre dedicated to the study of Rubens’ works.
Opening Hours: 10am-5pm Tue-Sun
Watch out for: The self-portrait in the dining room
Rubenshuis, Wapper 9-11, Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 201 15 55
Opening Hours: 10am-5pm daily
Watch out for: The rare 36-line Bible
Watch out for: The main altar
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