If you’re wondering where the cool people in Belgium live, head to Antwerp. There’s nothing twee or chocolate box about this vibrant port city on the river Scheldt, it’s exciting and full of fun as well as being historic. It’s also a mecca for shoppers with a growing reputation as a fashion centre. Not to forget the diamonds, Antwerp is the centre of the diamond trade in Europe so, if you want to ‘put a ring on it’, bring your credit card and be ready to use it.
You can get to Antwerp easily with Eurostar on an Any Belgian Station ticket, just change onto a local train at Brussels Midi/Zuid and you’ll be in Antwerp in under an hour. On arrival, prepare to be amazed by stunning Antwerpen Centraal Station, in fact you may want to hang around and have coffee, just to get your fill of the amazing, ornate interiors and soaring architecture.
Grote Markt is at the heart of the old centre of Antwerp, with most of the main historic sites just a few minutes’ walk away.
The square is a stunning example of a typical Flemish town square, a cobblestone plaza lined with medieval step-roofed houses with the town hall on one side and a fountain in the middle.
The fountain in Grote Markt is worth a look as it illustrates a local legend showing Brabo, a Roman soldier, throwing the severed hand of a giant, called Antigoon, into the river.
You’ll notice the hand motif everywhere in Antwerp, even down to the local confectionary. This is because the legend is believed to explain the origin of the town’s name, derived from the Dutch ‘hand werpen’ (throw a hand).
Peter Paul Rubens, the 17th century Flemish Baroque painter lived and worked in Antwerp for many years.
As a fan of the Italian style, Rubens designed his own house as an Italian palazzo with an inner courtyard and ornate portico.
The villa is now the Rubenshuis Museum in the centre of Antwerp, near the Meir shopping district. Worth the visit even just for the building and garden, there’s also plenty of Rubens’ artwork to appreciate, along with those of his contemporary and collaborator Anthony van Dyck.
The villa has been used for many things since Rubens’ day, including an equestrian centre and even a prison. It was bought by the city in 1937, extensively restored and turned into the museum you can visit today.
The Museum aan de Stroom looks at the history of Antwerp, all housed in a very non-traditional modern building in the hip Eilandje docklands area. The MAS has a massive collection of exhibits across its ten floors, so there’s plenty to see.
There’s also a viewing platform on the roof with spectacular views of the city and the port. Though there’s a two-Michelin-star restaurant and a café in the museum, visitors are actively encouraged to picnic on the roof or in the glass ‘boulevard’ that winds its way up through the building. You can even borrow free picnic rugs from the reception.
Access to the roof and some of the other main areas is free but you’ll need to pay to see most of the exhibitions.
This district, to the east of the centre, is well worth a visit for the stunning Art Nouveau architecture, especially on Cogels-Osylei, dubbed the most beautiful street in Antwerp. Pick up a walking guide to the area from the tourist office or train station before you go so you don’t miss anything.
The majority of Belle Epoque buildings are concentrated in four or five streets around Berchem railway station, so you can wander around quite easily and soak up the atmosphere.
The area is just a short tram ride from the centre and is very popular for going out. You’ll find lots of good restaurants and trendy bars on and around Dageraadplaats, the main square, when you’re ready for a pit stop.
The Cathedral of our Lady is one of the largest cathedrals in Belgium and the Netherlands. It took 169 years to build and was finally finished in 1521. It has recently come out of a 20-year restoration project and is looking amazing.
Along with the dramatic interiors and soaring arches, the cathedral is also home to some major paintings by Rubens and other Flemish painters. The art work is displayed against deep red panels that draw the eye and add to the impact of the space.
Other things to look out for are the beautiful 17th century baroque wooden case that houses the Schyven organ, some very fine stained glass windows and a nature-inspired oak pulpit decorated with leaves and birds.
The locals here know a thing or two about style which, in a city that’s synonymous with fashion, translates to some seriously good shopping. There are so many fantastic shops and streets stuffed with every kind of shop and retail outlet, it's hard to know where to start first.
Here are five of the best streets and districts to get your retail fix, from vintage finds and edible souvenirs to pieces by local designers:
In the central Sint-Andries neighbourhood, Nationalestraat is the city’s most stylish street. It’s dotted with local and international names, as well as being home to MoMu, Antwerp’s world-class fashion museum.
Its upmarket shops range from beautifully-curated womenswear boutiques to Dries van Noten’s flagship store, while fashionistas rendezvous in its chic cafés. Take a turn on neighbouring Kammenstraat for an edgier feel, with its denim, skate and sneaker stores.
A few streets across from Nationalestraat, Kloosterstraat is lined with antiques and bric-a-brac shops, selling everything from chunky 70s ceramics to art deco chandeliers, via an enticing jumble of battered leather armchairs, old postcards and vintage vinyl.
It’s particularly appealing for a Sunday wander; on sunny afternoons, traders spill out on to the street, and there’s a fleamarket on nearby Sint-Jansvliet, from Easter to October.
For foodies, a trip to Antwerp isn’t complete without a visit to the pedestrian zone of Wilde Zee, made up of five car-free streets.
This is the place to find some excellent delis and chocolatiers, along with old-fashioned bakeries and elegant pâtissiers, squeezed between the clothes stores. You can also find miraculously light, crunchy waffles and lacquemants – an addictive, syrupy variant. Well, when in Belgium…
Known for its theatres and bohemian charm, the lively, liberal Quartier Latin is also sprinkled with shops. Chanel, Hermès and co cluster on Schuttershofstraat, smart antique shops on Leopoldstraat; elsewhere you’ll find vintage and interiors boutiques, and numerous bars and cafés – perfect for some post-retail recovery.
Fifteen minutes’ walk south of the centre, Het Zuid is known for its design scene, stylish bars and restaurants, and contemporary art scene – it’s home to both the Museum of Modern Art and photo-museum, FOMO. The shops are equally cutting-edge: head here for directional concept stores and Scandi-inspired homeware boutiques, along with designer Ann Demeulemeester’s flagship store.
You’ll find all the usual Belgian specialties in Antwerp, with waffles, chips, mussels, chocolate and beer readily available around the town. However, there are some things that are particular to Antwerp and part of the experience when you visit.
It might seem a bit odd eating hand-shaped biscuits and chocolates, but it’s hard to avoid in Antwerp and they are delicious. They also make a great gift to bring home and a good talking point. Think of all the jokes too – "take a handful", "give me a hand with this", "hand me one of those"... the possibilities are endless!
This liqueur was invented by a local doctor back in 1863 as a digestive aid, and is still going strong. It’s made from a blend of plants and herbs, giving it a unique, slightly bitter taste. Elixir is often used to flavour Antwerpse Handjes and can be used in recipes and cocktails, so you may want to pop a bottle in your suitcase to take home.
This Saturday food market on Theaterplein is where you’ll find locals doing their weekly shop or feeding their hangovers at one of the many food stalls. The market is open until 4pm so you can go for lunch or a late breakfast and feast on food from all over the world.
This, relatively new, beer is based on an old recipe for a pale beer that was very popular in Antwerp in the 1800s. It was launched in 2012 and has become massively popular again. It’s quite a mild beer with a very foamy head which, back in the day, led to it being known as poor man’s Champagne.
You’ll see these for sale all over the town. Basically an overflowing sandwich, smos means ‘spill out’. There are lots of different filling options: curry sausage, cheese, ham, eggs, salad, whatever, as long as there is loads of it.
Antwerp is not massive and most things to see are located in the centre so walking is probably your number one option. However, if you want to go further afield or the weather isn’t great, trams and buses are a cheap and easy alternative.
Buy your tickets in advance from vending machines or in newsagents and supermarkets as you pay extra if you buy from the driver. One-day, 3-day and 5-day passes are very reasonably priced and mean you can hop on a bus or tram whenever you like.
If you’re staying for a few days and plan on hitting the sites hard, get yourself an Antwerp city card which gives you free or discounted access to most museums and monuments as well as free use of public transport.
Open air ice skating outside the Town Hall on Grote Markt
Beer Passion weekend - festival with tastings, music and food on Groenplaats square
Antwerp Summer festival - three-months of theatre, music and dance
Jazz Middelheim - jazz festival in Den Brandt park
Rubens Market - themed market that takes place around Grote Markt with vendors dressed in 17th century costume
Bollekesfeest - festival of regional produce where you can taste and buy local food and drink with music and entertainment
Antwerp Pride weekend
Museumnacht - many of the city’s museums stay open late and stage events on one night in August
Cultuurmarkt van Vlaanderen - cultural street festival on the last Sunday of August on Grote Markt
Laundry day - one-day dance music festival with multiple artists playing over 15 stages
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