The Flemish capital of Belgium, Antwerp is the diamond center of Europe and one of the most important shipping ports in the world.
Antwerp is also a terrific destination for museums, food, architecture, culture, and fashion, all condensed in a mostly walkable downtown center.
Trains to Antwerp from Brussels take 40 minutes and run hourly. The turn-of-the-century Antwerp Central station is a fantastic, architectural welcome to the city, a green iron and glass pavilion with a massive dome on the ceiling. The station is still considered a prime example of the brilliant train station architecture of the late 20th century.
There’s also a branch of the Visit Antwerp tourist office in the station, which dispenses information and maps of the city free of charge.
Things To Do In Antwerp
Master painter Peter Paul Rubens was a local resident, and his sumptuous palazzo and studio was purchased by the city in 1946 and transformed into a museum. The permanent collection displays important works by Rubens along with other artists of the same period who had a similar style of painting. Temporary exhibits, new acquisitions, and artworks on loan complement the permanent collection. A highlight of the museum is the garden, which has a baroque-style portico, a cobblestone walkway, and four sets of boxed hedges containing flower gardens.
Visit Antwerp arranges a three-hour Rubens walking tour to the most important sites of the city.
In the mid-1980s, a group of six graduates of the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts formed the Antwerp 6, a group that changed the face of fashion in Belgium with its avant-garde designs. Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee make up the group, and all have had local and international success with their brands, putting Antwerp on the map as a fashion capital along with Paris, New York, London, and Milan. Martin Margiela is another acclaimed Antwerp designer from the same period.
The ModeMuseum celebrates Antwerp’s fashion heritage, focusing on Belgian designers and the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts. The over 33,000-piece collection includes clothing, accessories, and textiles, plus artifacts including fashion show invitations, tools, and textile machinery. In addition to the clothing collection, the museum has an extensive library of 15,000 books on fashion and style.
A pleasant, 25-minute bus ride will take you to the Zurenborg neighborhood on the edge of Antwerp. Zurenborg is an art nouveau architecture wonderland, with dozens of mansions and apartment buildings lining the main street, Cogels Osylei, and the surrounding side streets. You will marvel not only at the art nouveau-style homes but also the Gothic Revival, Neo-Renaissance, Greek Revival, and neoclassical houses constructed in the area between 1894 and 1906.
Pro Tip: Stop by the whimsical Maurice coffee bar and enjoy a latte and a slice of their homemade cakes.
The Cathedral Of Our Lady Antwerp
Another significant collection of Ruben’s paintings, along with works from his painting peers, Otto van Veen, Jacob de Backer, and Marten de Vos, adorns the walls of the Cathedral of our Lady. Designed by father and son architects Jan and Pieter Appelmans in the gothic style, construction started on the cathedral in 1352, and although the first stage of the building was completed in 1521, it’s still considered in progress. The belfry is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site is Museum Plantin-Moretus, a former printing house and home. Christophe Plantin founded a prestigious printing house in the 16th century and published an extraordinary, eight-volume bible translated into Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Syriac -- a major printing feat for its time. After Morteus died, his son-in-law Jan Moretus continued the business. Although Moretus modernized the printing styles, he saved many of his father-in-law’s collections. Today, the museum displays two of the oldest printing presses in the world and has an unrivaled collection of typographical materials in addition to a comprehensive library and the complete archives of the Plantin business.
Grote Markt Square is the historic market square, once the center of Antwerp, completed in 1565 in the Italo-Flemish renaissance style. The Brabo Fountain in the center represents a mythic giant killer. One side of the square has handsome former guild halls, and, today, there are many restaurants and cafes. During the holidays, there’s a Christmas market and ice-skating rink.
Best Restaurants In Antwerp
Graanmarkt 13 is a concept restaurant, design, and fashion shop, plus apartment-for-rent, all in one complex. The five-story former townhouse has cool written all over it, as fashionable locals make it a much-desired destination. Chef Seppe Nobels helms the kitchen at the restaurant on the lower level and is committed to sustainability. He grows fresh herbs on a rooftop garden and also produces honey, which he creatively infuses his food with. A prix fixe, three-course menu is offered at lunch and dinner, and the vegetable-heavy menu includes dishes such as portobello mushrooms cooked with mustard seed and mustard greens, seabass from the North Sea in an herbed salt crust, and Flemish rice pudding with blood orange.
For a hearty breakfast or casual lunch, Kaffeenini is the hot spot. Bagels at Kaffeenini rule the menu, with creative varieties such as guacamole, goat cheese, and pastrami. The coffee menu also gets creative with espresso shots with ginger, hot fudge, and cookie crumble.
The Jane Restaurant is the perfect place to celebrate a special occasion -- a combination of theater and an upscale restaurant and bar. The chapel of a former military hospital in a gorgeous baroque building sets the stage with its towering ceilings and design by Piet Boon, who tapped artists and craftspeople to create a showplace. The multi-course tasting menu includes two desserts and runs just under 200 euros per person.
Belgian chocolate is known the world over for its high quality, and Antwerp proudly lives up to its reputation. An 18th-century palace once lived in by Napoleon is the setting for The Chocolate Line. Try some of their more unexpected fillings, such as wasabi, sake, and fiery Tabasco, and don’t forget to observe the extravagant gold rococo moldings, hand-painted murals, and marble statues.
A family-run chocolate shop since 1962, Burie upholds the highest standards of Belgian chocolate making. Their specialty is buttery, crunchy pralines. Doopsuikers are a traditional form of sugared almonds, usually served to friends and family who visit a mother and her newborn child, and Burie offers them in many flavors. Savor a cup of dense hot chocolate at their cafe.
Best Places To Stay In Antwerp
De Koning van Spanje is a cozy but luxurious bed and breakfast in the center of the old quarter of Antwerp. Georgette and Karl Timmermans are the genial couple who own and operate the bed and breakfast, and they invested their hearts, souls, and savings to renovate a 16th-century house, converting it into three suites and a breakfast room. Each spacious suite is individually decorated in tasteful, subdued decor, and the bathrooms have freestanding bathtubs with whirlpools and separate walk-in showers. Georgette attends to breakfast and serves fresh-baked pastries and eggs of your choice on dainty, antique plates and strong coffee in china teacups. Karl, a retired museum curator, is passionate about art and culture and will happily recommend and guide you to the best Antwerp has to offer. Almost every listing in this article is no more than a 20-minute walk from De Koning van Spanje.
You can always rely on Hilton Hotels for having the most central locations, and the Hilton Antwerp Old Town places you in the heart of the old quarter. The comfortably appointed rooms have amenities such as 42” TVs, work desks, soundproof windows, and air conditioning. There’s a business center, gym, and executive lounge.
U Sleep is a sleek, modern hotel in an off-the-beaten-track neighborhood overlooking a marina. Proposing affordable luxury for its guests, U Sleep has three categories of rooms: Cozy, Luxury, and Charming, plus similarly tiered offerings in its restaurant thanks to three different menus.
Best Shopping In Antwerp
Antwerp is a mecca for fashion, and one of its most celebrated designers, Dries van Noten, has a formidable flagship shop. The two-story boutique stocks the full range of the designer’s products including women’s and men’s clothing with his signature prints, accessories, and perfume.
A vast 8,000-square-foot shop, Renaissance encompasses the top Belgian and European designer fashions and accessories under one roof. Renaissance also has a trendy, Italian restaurant next door.
Stroll down Steenhouwersvest to shop for cutting-edge Belgian fashion brands including Ginger, Damoy, and Christian Wijnants.
Ganterie Boon, the last individual glove shop in Antwerp, proudly maintains the handmade glove tradition. The third-generation owners have also maintained the shop’s art deco interior by using the original glove boxes and countertops. Kidskin and deerskin gloves come in an array of colors and lengths, and skins of crocodile, snake, and ostrich are also offered.
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