Antwerp is one of Europe’s relatively unknown gems which visitors immediately fall in love with. It has spectacular historic and modern architecture to look at, the river Scheldt to stroll beside, and museums which could take up your whole vacation. There’s something here for everyone from the fabulous Peter Paul Rubens House to the Red Star Line Museum where the days of the great trans-Atlantic liners come to life. Don’t miss the MoMu Fashion Museum as Antwerp has always been at the cutting edge of fashion design. There’s the extraordinary Museum Plantin-Moretus which is the only museum in the world to have UNESCO World Heritage status… and much more.
How to Get to Antwerp
If you’re traveling from London, take the Eurostar train from London St. Pancras to Brussels Midi. There are regular Eurostar trains throughout the day taking 2 hours and 1 minute. Book your Eurostar ticket here. Your Eurostar ticket gives you complimentary travel from Brussels to Antwerp, and from Antwerp to Brussels on a return ticket, and the connection is direct from Brussels Midi. The train journey between Brussels and Antwerp takes around 56 minutes.
If you’re traveling from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to Brussels Midi, the direct train takes 1 hour 20 minutes and there are regular trains throughout the day. You will have to buy a separate train ticket from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Brussels Midi.
Step Into the World of Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was not just one of the world’s greatest Old Master artists — he also became an international diplomat in the complex political world of 17th century Europe. His charm and good looks helped him work for the notoriously difficult Marie de Medici (widow of Henry IV of France), and later for Charles I of England (designing the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall for the King).
From the age of 10, Rubens lived in Antwerp in this gracious house which was turned into a museum in 1946 and recently refurbished. The house was designed as an Italian palazzo with a baroque portico, a semi-circular statue gallery and wood-paneled rooms which run from the kitchen to richly decorated living rooms. There’s a huge studio where the artist and his students produced works for the royal families and nobles of Europe who were his major patrons, and a delightful formal garden enjoyed by the painter and his family.
The house offers a wonderfully intimate look at many of Rubens’s works, but it is also full of what are described as "Distinguished Visitors", a series of paintings by contemporaries like Van Dyck on more or less permanent display from museums and galleries around the world.
If you’re a real fan, go after seeing the house to visit Rubens’ tomb in St. James’ church, the parish church for most of Antwerp’s citizens. More of his works are on display in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, the Cathedral of Our Lady.
Visit a 400-Year-Old Printing House
This large, imposing and very grand house is tucked down a side street in central Antwerp. Walk inside and you enter the house and workshops of the Plantin-Moretus publishing firm, the most important and largest printers in Europe at the time.
The house was built around a charming formal 17th-century garden with rooms on four sides. The first rooms you visit are domestic, a splendid series of dining and living rooms that showed off the wealth and power of the family. Some have oak paneled walls; others have walls lined with gilded leather or hung with portraits of the family and their friends.
But the house was more than just a home and the rest of the building was used for the printing firm. You can see rooms full of substantial wooden presses that are the oldest in the world, and can watch demonstrations of how the presses worked. The old bookshop takes you back to the days when wealthy customers came to buy, their silver and gold coins weighed to check their value before they were allowed to take their precious books home.
The Plantin-Moretus firm produced 55 works a year, employing 22 men who worked 14-hour days. They acted as the official printer for Antwerp, and the royal typographer to King Philip II of Spain. Their 8-volume Plantin Polyglot Bible with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Syriac text was the most sophisticated production at the time; others of their publications are shown here in facsimile.
The Plantin-Moretus Museum is a real treasure trove, the only museum in the world to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
Learn About the Emigrant Journey From Europe to the New World
The Red Star Line Museum tells the stories of some of the millions of poor emigrants who left Europe via Antwerp to seek a better life in America in the 1800s and 1900s. It tells their stories in the most compelling ways. You see the emigrants’ faces in old photographs; follow their journeys from all over Europe to Antwerp on maps, journeys often taking months of heart-rending effort, and in many cases, you can hear them on headphones that cut off the rest of the world around you and take you into their lives in an extraordinarily powerful way.
You feel real sympathy for little Ita Moëll who was suffering from trachoma when she was examined at Ellis Island for diseases, and was sent back to Europe. Cholera, typhoid and trachoma were the diseases that America feared the most and any outbreak in Europe brought stricter controls in both Antwerp and New York, plus a backlash against immigrants.
There were thousands of immigrants who were absorbed into American life taking the lowliest manual jobs. And there were immigrants who went on to enrich American life, like Israel (‘Izzy’) Berlin. Many were Jewish, fleeing prejudice and real danger particularly in the 1930s from countries like Russia, Germany and Eastern Europe.
The Red Star Line museum, housed in the historic offices of the company, continues telling new stories as visitors, particularly North Americans, visit to find out if their relatives left from here for a new life. Before you leave, climb the stairs to the roof for a view over the Scheldt river quays. Look down and you see plaques pointing out the distances. Kiev is 1826 kilometers away; Odessa is 1989, Warsaw 1137 and Berlin 632. Walk to the other side and you see the distances to the New World: Montreal is 5526 kilometers away; New York 5879 and Philadelphia 6016. It brings home the scale of the life-changing journeys that took the emigrants from everything that was familiar and safe to an uncertain future halfway across the world.
Tour the Unusual MAS (Museum aan de Strom)
You can’t miss MAS: this tall, red brick, asymetric building acts like a beacon on Eilandje, an island that is fast becoming Antwerp’s coolest neighbourhood. The exhibitions are arranged over the 10 floors, each one taking a different theme. One of the most surprising is the first where over 180,000 objects in the museum not on display are kept in storage. Labeled and numbered, they hang on walls or are placed in special cabinets, waiting their turns to be put before the public. It gives a very good idea of how complex organising a museum is. Other exhibitions take on life and death; pre-Columbian art; the story of power and prestige and how it is displayed and used; and Antwerp’s place as one of the major ports of the world.
Then, go up to the top floor for the best 360-degree view over Antwerp. You see domestic homes where householders have made inventive use of their rooves, church spires that punctuate the skyline, the curving river Scheldt and in the distance, the port of Antwerp with its endless industrial clutter of cranes, quays and power stations.
Tip: Go up to the Panorama platform when it’s dark during the summer months (April to October). This free attraction stays open until midnight and gives you a sparkling nighttime view of the city.
Experience Antwerp Fashion at the Mode (MoMu) Fashion Museum
For decades, the ‘Antwerp Six’ group of world influencers highlighted the pre-eminence of Antwerp’s fashion designers, so if you have any interest in the subject, make the Mode Fashion Museum one of your stops. It only holds temporary exhibitions, but these are stunning. The current exhibition — Margiela, the Hermes Years — lasts until August 28th, 2017, and will be followed by one more until Spring 2018 when the museum shuts for a huge refurbishment.
Only Dries Van Noten from the original Antwerp Six still has a stand-alone shop, housed in the fabulous corner site of Het Modepaleis a couple of minutes walk away. The other designers such as Martin Margiela and Ann Demeulemeester sell through their own houses and within other major stores.
Antwerp still produces a formidable crop of young designers, and every May and October, the current designers hold their special sales (including Van Noten, Margiela and Demeulemeester). Check with the tourist office for details of this. Every fashionista should be there!
Visit Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, the Cathedral of Our Lady
This impressive, vast Gothic cathedral was built between 1352 and 1521 on the site of a smaller church. Its soaring 123-metre high spire stands out like a beacon from anywhere in Antwerp, and was once the magnet for the pilgrims who flocked here in the thousands. Go inside for a look at the early Rubens’ paintings and Old Masters from other painters that are scattered throughout the cathedral, framed in glorious red against the bare white walls.
Marvel at the Great Grote Markt Square
The medieval square that is the heart of the city is every bit as flamboyant as any of the other great Flemish squares like Brussels and Bruges. The Grote Markt, once housing the merchants and the guilds that made the city rich, now hums to a tourist beat. It’s pedestrianised so sit in one of the cafes lining the square and take in the extraordinary Brabo fountain and the wonderful, over-the-top Renaissance style Town Hall which was completed in 1565.
The Antwerp Tourist Office is in the square.
Visit one of the world’s oldest zoos
When you arrive in Antwerp you immediately find two wonderful pieces of architecture. Coming by train, you’ll be overwhelmed by the splendid 1905 Centraal Station, one of the most striking in Europe. Walk out and to your left you see another architectural glory: Antwerp Zoo.
Founded in 1843, it’s one of the world’s oldest zoos with a world-wide reputation for its special breeding programme. It has lovely buildings like the Egyptian temple, built in 1856 and the antelope building built in 1861 in Oriental style. It’s recently been renovated and a reef environment area has been added to the aquarium, making this a must for anyone visiting with a family.
Drink the beer
Like all Belgian cities, beer and beer cellars are a major part of life here. Take the number 9 or 15 tram out to De Koninck, Antwerp’s historic brewery, for a tour of the brewery and the chance to sample some of their products. The brewery is housed in the original early 20th-century industrial building and the tour takes you through interactive exhibitions on brewing and over a walkway where you look down over the brewery hall until you end up in the cosy ‘pub’.
There’s a good shop selling beer and the famous bolleke (bowl) glasses. Also on the premises is a top cheese shop and a very good independent butchers shop.
Try the frites
Frites (fries) are a staple part of the Belgian diet; the Belgians are the greatest consumers of fries in Europe. And the frites they produce are very good indeed, particularly in Antwerp which claims to be the city to have invented the concept of the friterie. While there are lots of places to drop into for a quick frites fix, the one you must try is Frites Atelier at 32 Korte Gasthuisstraat. It’s always busy but you might get lucky and be able to grab a chair at the four or five small tables inside. Otherwise stand outside at a high table.
And the fries? They are quite delicious, but then they should be. The Frites Atelier is a small chain started by Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman. You can get plain frites, then choose your sauce which you get from large stone dispensers. Or go for a real treat and top the fries with Belgian stew, or boudin blanc.