12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Antwerp
The cultural capital of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern area of Belgium, Antwerp is both a bustling industrial port city and an outstanding historic center for Belgian craftwork and artistry. The city was once home to such famous artists as Rubens, van Dyck, and Jordaens, while centuries of prosperity through trade and commerce have bequeathed an inheritance of architectural beauty, which includes the magnificent cathedral, the town hall, and many other outstanding historical buildings in the old town center. For art-lovers and culture-vultures Antwerp's excellent museums are a vital stop on any Belgian itinerary. In particular, the city's paintings - an incomparable collection of 15th- to 17th-century masterpieces from a time when the work of artists of the South Netherlands school attained extraordinary heights - is a highlight of any visit.
See also: Where to Stay in Antwerp
1 Grand Place (Grote Markt)
Antwerp's Grand Place (Grote Markt) with its town hall and numerous guild houses is the heart of the old town. In the middle stands the ornate Brabo Fountain erected in 1887 by Jef Lambeaux and depicting the Roman soldier Silvius Brabo tossing the severed hand of the giant Antigonus into the Scheldt. The Town Hall (or Stadhuis) dominates the plaza's western side and was built by Cornelis Floris de Vriendt between 1561 and 1565. Inside, the rooms are hung with 19th-century paintings by H. Leys illustrating the history of Antwerp. Apart from the Stadhuis, most of the buildings bordering the Grote Markt are former guild houses (gildehuizen), which originally served as headquarters of the city's 16th- and 17th-century guilds. Among the most interesting guild houses on the north side are the Gildehuis der Kuipers (Coopers' House No. 5), the Huis van de Schutters (Archer's House No. 7), and the Huis van de Kruideniers (Grocers' House No. 11). Immediately behind the town hall, in the Gildekamersstraat, a former guild house has been turned into a Folk Museum devoted to the many traditional arts and crafts found in the Antwerp area, while nearby is the Ethnography Museum, which highlights non-European cultures.
Address: Grand Place, Central Antwerp
2 St. Paul's Church (Sint-Pauluskerk)
In the central city, the Veemarkt (the plaza that once functioned as a former cattle market) is home to the late Gothic St. Paul's Church (Sint-Pauluskerk), begun in 1517 and not completed until 1639. The Baroque clock tower dates from 1680. A fire in 1968 badly damaged the church and only the spirited efforts of local people prevented the loss of valuable interior furnishings. The church is home to paintings by Rubens, Jordaens, and Van Dyck. These include the superb Baroque confessionals by Pieter Verbruggen the Elder and three paintings by Rubens: The Scourging of Christ (1617) in the left aisle and the Adoration of the Shepherds and Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament in the left transept.
Address: Sint Paulusstraat 20/22, Central Antwerp
3 Cathedral of Our Lady
The Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal), is Belgium's largest Gothic church. Work was started on the cathedral in 1352, continuing until 1521. Jacob van Thienen, Pieter Appelmans, Jan Tac, Everaert Spoorwater, Hermann and Dominic de Waghemakere, and Rombout Keldermans were among the architects and master-builders who contributed to its construction. The church has suffered serious damage on a number of occasions over the years, depriving it of many of its most precious works of art. First came a fire in 1533, then despoliation at the hands of dissident iconoclasts in 1566, Calvinists in 1581, and French Republican troops in 1794 and 1800. Sadly, only a few of the lost treasures have since been recovered. Restoration of the exterior was begun in the 19th century, and all the carved stonework on the outside of the building is therefore recent. Work on the interior began in 1965, starting with the nave where repairs were completed in 1983. The finest of the remaining works of art are displayed in the nave and aisles as well as in the cathedral treasury.
Address: Groenplaats 21 / Handschoenmarkt, Central Antwerp
4 Butcher's Hall (Vleeshuis)
The elegant rooms of the late Gothic Butcher's Hall (Vleeshuis) include the former council chamber of the butchers' guild. The impressive brick building, built in 1501-04, was deliberately sited close to the Scheldt, allowing the blood of slaughtered animals to run off into the river. The Vleeshuis is now a museum of applied art and archaeology with collections of prehistoric, Egyptian, Roman, and Merovingian artefacts; weapons and armour; ceramics; furniture; sculpture and woodwork; and coins. Among its most prized possessions are a 16th-century depiction of the conversion of Saul created from Antwerp tiles known as the Averbode Retable by Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The Vleeshuis is also home to an outstanding collection of musical instruments including the remarkable harpsichord from the workshop of Ruckers the instrument-makers.
Address: Vleeshouwerstraat 38-40, Central Antwerp
5 Plantin-Moretus Museum
In 1576, Christophe Plantin the printer who hailed originally from France, moved into a house he christened "De gulden Passer" - the Golden Compasses - south of the Grote Markt. The house, lived in by Plantin and his Moretus family heirs is now a supreme example of Flemish Renaissance architecture. Today, the building is the Plantin-Moretus Museum incorporating the history of printing as well as showcasing the atmosphere of an Old Flemish patrician house. The original furnishings, wide-ranging exhibits, and above all, the still tangible atmosphere arising from the proximity of home and workplace make this museum one of Antwerp's most fascinating tourist attractions. If you're short on time, make a beeline for Room 7, devoted to the history of books and the processes involved in their production, from the earliest forms of writing and development of the alphabet - exhibits include important archaeological finds and manuscripts - to Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of letterpress printing using movable type. And afterwards, don't miss Room 24, which is a celebration of the art of printing in Europe as a whole, the jewel in the crown being a 36-line Gutenberg Bible on display here.
Address: Vrijdagmarkt 22, Central Antwerp
6 Havenroute (Port Tour)
The Havenroute is an approximately 50-kilometer-long sightseeing tour of the port area, marked out by the Antwerp Tourist Office. The Port of Antwerp is second only to Rotterdam among the major seaports of Europe, fully justifying its claim to be one of the largest in the world. The harbor installations alone cover an area of more than 10,000 hectares, with a further 3,400 hectares of land in industrial use. Start the Havenroute tour of the docks area from the Loodsgebouw (Pilot House) on the embankment north of the Steen, from where the route heads northwards, passing almost immediately the two oldest docks, the Bonapartedok and Willemsdok, at the far end of which can be seen the massive Koninklijk Stapelhuis. The tour heads past the 17th-century Eenhoorn windmill to Lillo, one of the few polder villages to have survived engulfment by the port. At Lillo, there is a choice between driving on to inspect the huge Berendrechtsluis, the world's largest lock, or shortening the tour by turning round and following the Havenroute south again towards Antwerp, via the Frans Tijsmanstunnel beneath the Kanaaldok.
Address: Port house, 1 Entrepotkaai, Antwerp
7 St. James' Church (Sint-Jacobskerk)
With its sumptuously ornate Baroque interior, St. James' Church (Sint-Jacobskerk) is one of the richest ecclesiastical buildings in Antwerp, blessed with an exceptional endowment of art treasures. It was the church at which the city's patrician families worshipped, and they regularly commissioned leading artists to design their private chapels, altars, and tombs. The Rubens Chapel provides the chief focus of interest for visitors. Located behind the high altar, it contains the tomb of the artist (1640) and those of other members of his family.
Address: Lange Nieuwstraat 73, Antwerp
8 Antwerp Zoo
Right in the center of the city, Antwerp Zoo was founded in 1843. It is widely regarded as one of the finest zoos in Europe on account of its variety of species, its success in breeding, the care bestowed on the animals that are kept in the most natural environment possible, and, last but by no means least, its architecture. While the Art Déco facades of the entrance area are the first features to catch the eye, inside the zoo are several buildings of note, among them the giraffe and elephant house (1855) in the style of an Egyptian temple. More than 6,000 animals of 950 species live in the zoo, including rare breeds such as the white rhino, okapi, and mountain gorilla.
Address: Kon. Astridplein 26, Central Antwerp
9 Diamond Museum (Diamantmuseum)
The Diamantmuseum explores all the different aspects of the trade in diamonds, including sections on their extraction, processing, and industrial use. Diamond cutters can be seen at work. There is also a display of cut and uncut diamonds (genuine) together with copies of the more famous stones. Immediately south of the diamond museum lies the triangular Stadspark (City Park), on the site of one of Antwerp's old defence works. Stocked with a fine range of plants, the park is attractively laid out with an ornamental lake, footpaths, and several monuments.
Address: Kon. Astridplein 19-23
10 Rubens' House (Rubenshuis)
Peter Paul Rubens acquired No. 9 in 1610 -- a year after his marriage to Isabella Brant - living there until his death in 1640. He arranged the house to his own taste and requirements, making his home to the left of the entrance and turning the right wing into his studio. Following the French Revolution it was used as a prison, thereafter falling more and more into disrepair. Rubens' House (Rubenshuis) finally came into the possession of the City of Antwerp in 1937 and, between 1939 and 1946, was meticulously restored with the aid of old documents and drawings. The ten rooms are furnished in the style of the period and contain numerous original paintings. These include works by Rubens (self-portrait, ca. 1625/28, in the dining room) as well as by Snyders, Jan Bruegel, Veronese, Jordaens, and Otto Venius. The large studio contains several more works by Rubens (Adam and Eve in Paradise) and others by his pupils
Address: Wapper 9-11, Antwerp
11 Museum Mayer van den Bergh
In the course of only a short period during the 1890s, a connoisseur of the fine arts, Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, assembled a remarkable collection of more than 3,000 items. These are now displayed on four floors of a Neo-Gothic house at Lange Gasthuisstraat 19 known as the Museum Mayer van den Bergh. The collection includes some superlative works of art, among them paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, (Dulle Griet and the earliest of the artist's signed works The Twelve Proverbs, both in Room 26), Rubens, Jordaens, Bouts, van der Weyden, van Ostade, Lucas Cranach, and Quentin Massys. Also of great interest are the Flemish and French religious statues, the outstanding collection of ivories, and a unique 16th-century Flemish breviary, and in Room 14, a polychrome group Christ with St. John (1300) by Henry of Constance and a Netherlands diptych (ca. 1400). The second floor features a collection of porcelain, while 17th-century furniture and paintings occupy the third.
Address: Lange Gasthuisstraat 19, Antwerp
12 Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten)
The nucleus of the collection inside the Royal Museum of Fine Art (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) belonged originally to the Lucas Guild of Painters and Sculptors, founded in 1442. Following the winding up of the guild in 1773, the works of art accumulated over the years passed into the possession of the Academy of Fine Arts. In the mid-19th century, however, the collection was swollen by a substantial number of new acquisitions, particularly gifts, mainly of 15th- and 16th-century paintings, from Florent van Ertborn, a former burgomaster of Antwerp. The academy found itself with insufficient space to accommodate the enlarged collection and the decision was taken to build a new museum. The collection is housed on two floors. The ground floor is largely devoted to 19th- and 20th-century paintings and sculpture, some 1,500 items in all, providing, among other things, an excellent overview of the development of the plastic arts in Belgium since 1830. The exhibition of Old Masters on the first floor comprises more than 1,000 works, mostly from the Flemish and Dutch schools. Note that the museum is undergoing renovation until 2018. Check the website for details on exhibitions of the museum's collection at other locations in and around Antwerp.
Address: Plaatsnijdersstraat 2, Antwerp
Where to Stay in Antwerp for Sightseeing
If you're visiting Antwerp for the first time, the best area to stay is in the old town, near the Grote Markt or the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady. More affordable hotels tend to cluster around Antwerp Central Station in the Diamond District, about a 20-minute walk away from the old town. This area is especially convenient if you're arriving or departing by train. Below are some highly-rated hotels in these central locations:
- Luxury Hotels: On a quiet street, a few minutes' walk from the old town, the boutique SLH De Witte Lelie Antwerp occupies a 17th-century building but the flamboyant design within is bold and contemporary. Also in a lovely building, with an original 1864 facade, the pet-friendly Hilton Antwerp Old Town, on the historic town square, has elegant guest rooms with marble bathrooms and is right next to the cathedral. Not far from here, the hip Hotel Julien is a boutique property with high style and friendly service.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Sleek and contemporary, the Park Inn by Radisson Antwerpen sits steps away from Antwerp Central Station in the Diamond District. Also near Central Station, Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel, with an indoor pool, Jacuzzi, and fitness center, is a good option for families, who can walk to the adjacent zoo in less than three minutes. If you prefer boutique hotels, the contemporary Leopold Hotel Antwerp, overlooking the city park, is a five-minute walk from the Diamond District and Antwerp Central Station.
- Budget Hotels: At the top end of the budget hotels, the charming Hotel Diamonds And Pearls is only two minutes on foot from the cathedral. Right next to its namesake train station Ibis Budget Antwerpen City Central Station is good value with clean, modern rooms. In a fabulous location, meters from the cathedral, the family-run Postiljon offers clean, comfortable rooms in an evocative Flemish building, a short walk from the old town attractions.