Antwerp’s former harbor area Het Eilandje breathes water and exudes charm. Since wholeheartedly embracing its maritime history through projects such as the MAS and the Red Star Line Museum, a gust of rejuvenation has blown through the neighborhood. Coffee bars, artist ateliers, and stunning architectural projects have popped up left and right, making the area a must-visit when in Antwerp.
Visit the MAS, the museum that launched a thousand coffee bars
No matter what other gorgeous architectural constructions may strike down in this part of town – number six on this list is another fine example – the MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) will always remain the sandstone-colored giant that kickstarted Het Eilandje’s whirlwind transformation. Even before this museum, dedicated to the city’s rich port history, swung open its doors in 2011, its bold Lego-look and reflection on the dock waters surrounding it had caused all sorts of other projects to materialize. While its permanent exhibition is certainly worth a visit, it’s the horizontal boulevard, accessible for free and providing panoramic views of the city below through rippling glass, that has truly made it a public space to be cherished.
MAS, Hanzestedenplaats 1, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 338 44 00
Don’t overlook the Museum Dock
In all of your MAS excitement, don’t forget to make a stop at the “Museum Dock” right behind it, on the side of the Scheldt. The ships bobbing around in the adjacent Bonaparte Dock haven’t just been placed there for nautical aesthetics: they’re actually an open-air museum. These boats are maritime history in the flesh, from the red-and-white West-Hinder III lightship to a valuable collection of ancient barges.
Grab a coffee at Broer Bretel
When in need of a caffeine boost or a break from museum hopping, head over to the espresso bar Broer Bretel. One of the first to recognize the neighborhood’s potential six years ago, this beloved Eilandje institution boasts a 70s interior, complete with floral fauteuils. Owner Toon Craen serves a consistently qualitative cup of joe and is never afraid to try out something new, whether that be a new type of bean or a stint of “pay for the time you spend instead of the cups you drink” policy. Any coffee-guzzling local knows that obtaining a spot on Broer Bretel’s wooden-benched terrace on a sunny day equals dockside bliss.
Broer Bretel, Nassaustraat 7, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium, +32 484 15 82 96
Migrate back in time at the Red Star Line Museum
While New York’s Ellis Island presented immigrants wanting to start a new life in the promised land with their last hurdle, the sheds of Antwerp’s Red Star Line were one of their first. After being checked and approved, over two million Europeans would sail with the legendary shipping company to America and Canada in between the 1870s and 1930s. The historic sheds where the hopefuls gathered opened their doors as an impressive new museum in 2013. Thanks to old posters of the massive ocean steamers, personal stories of passengers, and a unique location, the journey that so many dreamers undertook becomes tangible again.
Red Star Line Museum, Montevideostraat 3, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 298 27 70
Satisfy your foodie needs at Felix Pakhuis
Het Eilandje is bursting with old converted warehouses, and king among many is Felix Pakhuis. Founders Tom Le Clef and Ivo De Beer have turned the imposing industrial space that used to store tobacco, grain, and the all-important Antwerp coffee into a foodie mecca. Multiple restaurants, food festivals, and a sunny terrace with a view of the MAS call Felix home.
Felix Pakhuis, Godefriduskaai 30, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 203 03 30
Tour the glittering Port House
Looking out from the MAS over the Willem Dock, another spectacular building catches the eye. Every morning, over 500 Port Authority employees filter into this 1920s fire station with a glittering ship on top. When Zaha Hadid was presented with the challenge of having to incorporate the old protected building into her design, the British-Iranian architect chose to add a striking glass expansion, nautical in its shape and like Antwerp diamonds, multifaceted in its façade. When the renowned Hadid unexpectedly passed away shortly after the completion of the Port House, the square it sits on was named in her honor. Guided tours are possible on Wednesdays and weekends after reservation.
Port House, Zaha Hadidplein 1, 2000 Antwerp, Belgium, +32 3 205 20 11
Barbecue with a view of the river Scheldt
Het Eilandje is one of the places where Antwerp’s aquatic pulse beats loud and proud. Spend an evening watching the sun set over the Scheldt, the city’s ultimate lifeline, while grilling up some burgers on the communal barbecue at the Kattendijksluis.
Feel tiny next to the neighborhood’s giant cranes
Pieces of maritime history are scattered all over the former docklands, including the world’s biggest collection of historic port cranes. Tall and sturdy, 12 of them hold watch over the city from the Scheldt banks. The dozen old giants have become a defining element of the skyline as they stand pointed towards the new port in another part of town.
Cruise around the neighborhood while gobbling up pancakes
Undoubtedly one of the best ways to feast your eyes on historic Antwerp is by ship. One providing a particularly unique experience is Jan Plezier’s Pancake Boat, which sets sail from the London Bridge in between the MAS and the Red Star Line. During the one-hour tour, the young and old can feast on an unlimited supply of freshly made pancakes while gazing at Het Eilandje and other parts of the city’s port. Pancake Boat season runs from March until October, every first and third Sunday of the month.
Reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org