At the heart of Western Europe you’ll find this capital of fashion and diamonds. A city that enjoyed its Golden Years in the 16th century, but did not stop reinventing itself since then. The spirit of inhabitants shaped due to being conquered by the Spanish, Austrians, French, Dutch and the harbour being under attack in both World Wars, this melting pot has a lot to offer for both short visits and longer strolls.
What you must try
After 1850, ever more bakeries set up a production line for cookies and biscuits within city grounds. The smell of sweets greeting the visitors from the moment the train arrived at Central Station gave the city the nickname “Koekenstad – City of Biscuits”. Dive into this tradition and taste the cookie shaped like a hand, the symbol of the city.
Local brewery De Konick has a lot on his sleeve, but most iconic for the city is their “Bolleke”, with 5.2% alcohol ideal to sip away the afternoon sun in one of the many bars or cafés.
What you must see
This walk is about 7 km long, but I encourage you to deviate from the instructions here and there to dive into the city. As you can see on the map below, the first part of the tour will bring you along the east-west axis into town and then from the north to the south of the city.
Start your walk at the Central Station (A on the map below), a monument in itself. Upon exiting by the main entrance (Astridplein), check out the entrance gate of one of the oldest Zoos in Europe to your right and the entrance gate to China town on the opposite side of the square.
While walking towards the city centre on De Keyzerlei, you’ll find the diamond district to your left and the Royal Opera House, build around 1905, to your right. Continue your walk into the Leysstraat and Meir, which has been an important axis in the city since ages. Current focus of this street is offering a shopping experience, so if you’re not into that, I suggest you deviate to the north of town and steer towards the ancient buildings of the Antwerp University campus at Prinsstraat or visit Theaterplein for a normal market (Saturdays) or exotic market (Sunday mornings).
If you’ve stayed on Meir, don’t hesitate to peek into shopping centre “Stadsfeestzaal” (B), build around a former dance hall, where a recent renovation made sure to reflect the original style from 1908. On the first square to your left, you’ll find the House of Rubens : one of the most famous inhabitants of the city, this painter’s house shows you a city villa with works of the painter and offers a glimpse of 16th century life.
Another remnant of the 16th century is the Bourse of Antwerp (C), considered the mother of modern stock exchanges. The building has reopened in 2019 and is definitely worth checking out.
A bit to the south, you’ll find small pedestrian streets, known as “Wilde Zee – Wilde Sea”, that are very nice for slow strolls and brunches. Or you can continue your walk towards the Cathedral.
Visit the 14th century Cathedral (D) for more paintings of Rubens or admire its 123 meters from the little square in front. While you’re walking backwards to get a good picture, don’t stumble upon the art work that uses the cobbled street stones as a cover for little Nello and his dog Patrasche from the book ‘A Dog of Flanders’ (Marie Louise de la Ramée/Ouida).
Find yourself in the Vlaaikensgang, a small alleyway bringing you back to 16th century and named after a flan and waffle house that used to be housed there. Or stand in front of the Town Hall with the famous statue / fountain of Brabo in the middle of the market square. Legend states that Brabo cut off the hand of giant Antigoon and threw it into the river, thus freeing the city of the reign of the giant and giving the city its name (Ant-werpen : to throw the hand).
Only a couple of meters separate you from the river Schelde, that has proven to be so valuable to this city of merchants. As you will see, at Steenplein (E), there is a bridge – just not one that takes you over the river… Try to get a place on one of the benches, enjoy the sunset over the river and come to rest. Downstream, to the right, you will see the bustling harbour, including its petrochemical industry.
If you decide to follow the tour north, you will find old docks that are now lined with cafés and restaurants. Prominent in the middle is a red brick and glass building, the MAS museum (F). You don’t need a ticket to get a panoramic view of the city on the rooftop terras.
Even more to the north, hidden between the city and the harbour is the Red Star Line Museum, that tells a tale of the 2 million immigrants who boarded steam ships to North America between the 1870s and mid 1930. One of the most famous passengers: Albert Einstein and his wife regularly boarded the ships of the Red Star Line, also when moving from Europe to the United States in October 1933. Fascinating side note: the museum building is the same building where, a century ago, people where checked and approved for the long journey towards their new homes.
If you decide to go south from the town hall, I encourage you to descend into the St. Anna-tunnel (G) linking both city sides that are separated by the river. Built in 1933, this tunnel for pedestrians and cyclists is about 32m under ground and 572m long. It still features the original wooden escalators, which were a novelty at the time.
Only 2 minutes from the tunnel, you will find the Vrijdagmarkt. It’s all in the name: every Friday morning, antiques are sold here. If you’re not visiting on a Friday, the streets around this square offer ample spots for easy morning brunches or afternoon drinks. If you’re into visiting another museum, that will teach you both about the history of the city, as well as map making and book printing, you’ve come to the right spot! The Plantin-Moretus Museum focuses on the work and life of one of the most well-respected 16th century printers and publishers families of Europe.
Continue the last leg of the walk towards the south of the city lining the Kloosterstraat (H), famous for its mix of antiques and hip-and-trendy shops. Follow the street until you arrive at the Leopold de Waelplaats (I), that features the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, that is currently under renovation.
At the far south of the city, I suggest to end the walk in awe of the new Palace of Justice (J), designed by architect Richard Rogers (amongst others known for designing Centre Pompidou in Paris). Due of the form of the floor plan, this building is locally known as the “Palace of Butterflies“.
What you must visit
The tour above already describes the most notable museums within or close to the ancient city centre, but Antwerp has a couple of other must-see-locations up its sleeve:
- De Konick, city brewery with virtual tour on culinary history
- Middelheim Museum is an open air museum
- The Port House, a combination of a protected building from 1922 and one of the last contributions to architecture made by Zaha Hadid
- If you want to marvel at Art Nouveau houses, do visit Cogels-Osylei and the surrounding streets
How to get around
Trams, some underground, and busses of De Lijn will get you from one end of the city to the other.
You can rent a bicycle per day or week at one of the many Velo bike stations in or around the city.